Friday, April 11, 2008

Popularization of science

The popularization of science has been "good, bad, and ugly" at times...sometimes exploiting the stereotypical scientist [usually in cartoon representations such as Prof. Frink of The Simpsons, Professor Hubert Farnsworth (who is 160 years old, has seen Uranus many times, and invented the "Smelloscope", the "Death Clock", and the "What-If Machine") of Futurama, glamorizing a specific science [Carl Sagan, Brian Green, David Attenborrow, or Neil deGrasse Tyson], offering sound educational science [Mr. Wizard (Don Herbert), Bill Nye (Bill Nye the Science Guy), or Beakman's World].

Can there be a genuine bridge built between science and the populace that can explain in a good way the methodology and results of science? I am not sure why people aren't interested in science a little more--lack of interest, of childhood/adolescent exposure through the educational system, of ignorance. But whatever the reason, it appears that people have to have a "hook" in presentation to gain their interest. And, unfortunately, it is under the umbrella of the mysterious or paranormal. The "hook" has to be the promise of the unknown answered, new and startling evidence, unreleased government secret evidence, spectacular film techniques [film, video, animation, computer graphics], bold audio, and a host of recognizable fame [the likes of a Frank Baxter, Philip Morrrison, Don Herbert, Bill Nye, Stephen Hawking, Brian Greene, or Carl Sagan]. Production techniques can put one in awe, fast talking commentators can cloud issues, script writers can omit relevant material and create bias. The bottom line for most of these productions is to profit--make a buck through sponsorship. Good science programing is difficult to find where presentation of material is not biased and relevance is placed on logic and the scientific method. Despite the drawbacks mentioned above, at least some science is being presented to the public, but it will ultimately be the responsibility of the populace to sort through the presentation of material and decide for themselves. But, there is plenty of yakety-yak about the illusion of a rock face on Mars and ancient civilizations. For the most part the science programs are entertainment and not science. There are exceptions to the rule in programing and many of these tend to be tedious and obviously don't draw the crowds that a Sagan or Hawking would acquire. The answer is better educational background, some knowledge of logic and the scientific method, and a critical eye to discern good science from bad science.

Fred Hoyle was one of those pre-Carl Sagan individuals that attempted to bridge the gap between science and the general population, proposed an explanation for the origin of elements heavier than hydrogen ["nucleosynthesis"], and offered the cosmological hypothesis of the "steady state" universe as contrasted to the "big bang" hypothesis. His relationship with orthodox cosmology was a mixed bag with the "nucleosynthesis" and "steady state" concepts--one accepted and one untenable in light of identification of the "back ground radiation" thus supporting the expanding/"big bang" idea. It is unfortunate that Fred Hoyle in later life should be labeled a crank scientist whose company included Immanuel Velikovsky. Extrapolation of the "nucleosynthesis" idea to include bacteria ridding stellar dust particles and thus allowing dispersion of life throughout the universe ["panspermia"], devastating diseases dispersed in the same manner, evolution was to intricate to happen naturally and thus the result of some alien consciousness--all threw him into the crackpot category. Exaggerated eccentricities are not uncommon among high profile scientists: Carl Sagan's SETI or Stephen Hawking's promotion of genetic engineering to thwart errant global minded robots. I think his contributions far outweigh the "crackpot" label and should be considered mere eccentricities--the wheat can be extracted from the chaff.

What about periodicals [Scientific American, Discover, National Geographic, etc.], books both fiction and non-fiction, or even the pulp of science fiction [ Analog Science Fiction & Fact Magazine ]. Do they provide a good bridge as an entity themselves and the contributing authors [on a regular basis or periodically]? The contributors may be low key but they can provide the means of explaining the realm of science to the layman. However, I doubt that they will be successful in eliminating all the periodicals. Now as for the science books in bookstores, it is once again a matter of economics and the complicated world of publishers. It would not be practical for a book store owner to stock a multitude books on "quantum mechanics", but books by Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking, George Gamow, Bill Nye, Rachel Carson, or Jane Goodall would have a better chance. As a tip, those science books that would never see a resting place at a retail bookstore would find a niche at a run down second hand bookstore or thrift store. Lots of college texts and personal libraries find a temporary home there.

A simple honorarium to a pioneer, George Pal in the film industry that married fascination with astronomy and a good story. For us older ones it was a fantastic thrill to watch science blossom in the 1950's and 1960's to such, as viewed now, naive films as Destination Moon, War of the Worlds, The Time Machine, and When Worlds Collide. Besides making a few bucks for Paramount they did inspire a generation of science nerds and nerdettes.

Ok, ok...don't laugh but the issue of discussing science with the younger generation via the Harry Potter books and films is quite real and worthy. Such complicated things as energy breaking atomic bonds, aerodynamics of broomsticks, visualizing the invisible, magnetism, etc. To quote the conclusion of one of the cited articles: But, as science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke once noted, "Any smoothly functioning technology gives the appearance of magic."

The other evening I was thinking about people who have attempted to popularize various venues of science and it came to me that a rather unique individual that was featured some time ago on one of those Sunday morning magazine type programs: John Dobson . Scratching your head and wondering who John Dobson is? John Dobson is a man of the streets that brought astronomy to the populace. Dobson was not without controversy for he attempted to debunk the existence of the photon [via Einstein's own Theory of Relativity] and became an advocate of the "steady state" universe. But the greatest claim to fame was through an organization called "The San Francisco Sidewalk Astronomers"--a co-production founded in 1968. Dobson and friends brought astronomy to the people and he even provided plans for making a homemade telescope. A remarkable individual who loves science and desires to share the same.

Now recently deceased, D. Allan Bromley was one of those individuals that attempted to bridge the gap between physics and the populace. He was a popular and well liked physics and engineering professor at Yale University, president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, author of many papers and books, won the National Medal of Science in 1998, chairman of Yale's Physics Department [1970-1977] and dean of Yale's Faculty of Engineering [1994 to 2000], and science and technology advisor to President George H.W. Bush. At Yale's he was referred to as "father of modern heavy ion science" and did much to develop and promote Yale's physics department.

This is a few years old but nevertheless is worth mentioning for the "Kalinga Prize for the Popularization of Science Award" was given to Brazilian immigrant, German born Ernst Wolfgang Hamburger. Hamburger is the director of the Estação Ciência [a center of the University of Sao Paulo, Brazil] that is dedicated to the popularization of science and technology. The Kalinga Prize is sponsored by UNESCO and amounts to about $2,000 and the Albert Einstein Silver Medal.

"Mr Hamburger has contributed to the development of the Estação Ciência, through the organisation of many exhibitions and the mobilisation of sponsors for innovative activities such as the Projeto Clicar, created in 1996 with the support of the national petroleum company, Petrobras. Estação Ciência receives 25,000 visitors a month, mostly children and adolescents. Projeto Clicar was established to provide a special space with computer equipment to young people who wish to explore independently the various facets of human knowledge. In 1999, close to 600 children from troubled social or family backgrounds took part in the project. Educators and students assist the children in their exploration."--UNESCO press release.

Yet another small scale attempt to bridge science [in this case mathematics] with non-experts can be attributed to this year's winner [Elias Stein] of the "Bergman Prize" sponsored by The American Mathematical Society in honor of Stefan Bergman [late Stanford mathematician]. "People are impressed by what are called his expository abilities," Breen said. "Math is no different from other sciences in that people specialize . . . A person [must] explain his specialty to other people who aren't specialists. He is very good at that."

And then there was James Burke who provided two excellent British series called Connections and The Day the Universe Changed during the late 1970's. Apparently he is still around and involved in a huge project aimed at the interaction between youngsters and science and how many people and events are connected. The web site example runs like this.


How was Napoleon important to the development of the modern computer?


Napoleon troops in Egypt buy shawls and start a fashion craze.

In Europe the shawls get made on automated, perforated-paper control looms.

This gives an American engineer Herman Hollerith the idea to automate calculation using punch cards.

Which get used to control ENIAC, the first electronic computer.

There are fond memories of my high school physics class. With compliments of the audio-visual department [they were Geeks too] there rested in repose and ready to spring into action was a 2,000 foot reel of a 16mm print of the next installment of two physics professors--Hume and Ivy. This was the classic "Frames of Reference". I guess such instruments of teaching have evaporated:

The history of another activity fostered by the CCP, the Film Repository, has been more uneven. AAPT had long been interested in instructional films, and during the 1950s its Visual Aids Committee, headed by Mark Zemansky, brought out in cooperation with McGraw-Hill Book Company a series of short films on topics in elementary physics. The more ambitious series of longer films, some equally appropriate for high school or college, was produced by the Physical Science Study Committee. An increasing number of excellent films were produced and marketed by others. But with a few notable exceptions, such as "Frames of Reference" (Hume and Ivy), the use of films in formal instruction has all but disappeared.

Science via art:

Arthur Ganson:

"Thoughtful Mechanisms: The Lyrical Engineering of Arthur Ganson"

"Arthur Ganson/MACHINES"

Opera...most don't like and have false visions of stout women wearing iron bras, helmets with horns, or singing things that are incomprehensible. That isn't a true representation of operas. Operas can be contemporary such as The Great Gatsby or Billy Budd as well as a newly commissioned opera by the San Francisco Opera...Doctor Atomic. The theme is Robert Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project and to be presented October 1st. John Adams composed the score. Peter Sellars is the director and librettist.

"Doctor Atomic"

"Doctor Atomic to Premier in San Francisco"

"The Opera That Chooses the Nuclear Option"

Well, he isn't Arthur Godfrey [ukulele impresario from early television] but he enchants and commands the attention of his students, Walter Smith [Haverford College physics professor] strums the ukulele and sings of physics.

Not all are happy with some who claim to bridge the gap for I read the following article from Scientific American [June 2002] by Michael Shermer entitled "The Shamans Of Scientism".

On October 28th, 2003 PBS/NOVA began a series regarding the universe, string theory, and the "theory of everything"--The Elegant Universe. I must say that NOVA tries very hard to bridge the gap between science and the general public. They utilized every bell and whistle in the store room. Wonderful graphics, support audio, and the usual guest interviews. The cool thing, despite the Newton’s apple myth, was the introduction of a new guru of science--Brian Greene who just happened to write the book The Elegant Universe. Nevertheless, it was a pleasant presentation attempting to explain "string theory". And now that Carl Sagan is gone and Stephen Hawking inaccessible, Brian Greene does a fine presentation. If any of you saw the broadcast, please provide your opinion.

Since the death of Carl Sagan, a vacuum was left when it came to popularizing science, but there are new individuals on the horizon. There is Brian Greene and now Neil deGrasse Tyson [Astrophysicist and Director of the Hayden Planetarium, New York City] who recently hosted NOVA's four part Origins. Like Greene, Tyson is quite qualified academically and has a fine smooth persona of presentation. His on camera presentations are flawless and professional and avoid the pedantic. The "voice overs" are clear and carry the pipes of a professional radio personality/announcer. Neither Greene nor Tyson, as of yet, has achieved the status of "charm" that Sagan had, but they nevertheless do a fine job in popularizing science.

As Neil Tyson said about Origins:

Origins Is the attempt to bring to the public, really for the very first time, a synthesis of all the branches of science that have relevance to answering the question, 'What is the origin of our place in the cosmos?'

From an historical perspective David J. Rhees has written an interesting account of the juxtaposition of science and the populace during the early part of the 20th Century and specifically the rise of a journal called "Science Service".

From the introduction:

The founding of Science Service in 1920 marks a watershed in the history of the popularization of science. It represents the first successful attempt of the American scientific community to create a permanent independent institution for spreading a knowledge of and sympathy for science among the general public. It also marks the end of a decline and the beginning of a revival in the popularization of science, a revival which Science Service played a significant role in furthering.


And finally, Paola Catapano was the producer and host of the twelve hour webcast celebrating the World Year of Physics 2005. She works at CERN and is deeply involved in methods of getting science to the public.

Her thoughts:

We have arranged a global civilization in which most crucial elements profoundly depend on science and technology. We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces. Science popularization is "the" tool to bridge the growing gap between society at large and the world of science. An institution such as CERN, the largest world laboratory for particle physics, has a key role to play in trying to bridge this gap. In the case of CERN, the promotion of the institutional image coincides with the popularization of fundamental physics and the role of science as a progress "engine" for knowledge. It is therefore a social duty for the scientists to communicate science. However, it is only recently that scientists have developed an awareness that the future of fundamental physics also and increasingly depends on the society’s commitment and the interests of non-physicist citizens. Communicating science to a non knowledgeable public means translating ideas and concepts that are often extremely complex and distant from common sense into a comprehensible language and creating interest in the public without betraying the scientific truth. A very difficult if not almost impossible task !

To illustrate the science-society gap and the difficulties of science communication, some results from two surveys conducted in 1997 on visitors to two similar particle physics exhibitions, "Quark und Higgs" in Vienna and "Quark 2000" in Rome are presented. These case studies illustrate the distance between the scientific community and the public and are an example of how scientists involved in the job of communication do not understand the need to "translate" their jargon and the need to study their audience’s requirements before producing texts, exhibitions, video-clips etc.. The public interpretation of basic science and the public’s failure to understand it correctly are highlighted in these surveys.

Any science communication action, like any marketing initiative, cannot ignore the perceptions, the needs and the previous knowledge of its target public. As obvious as it may appear, this essential starting point has too often been neglected in the popularization of basic science, and in the world of particle physics in particular. The conclusions of the study are an attempt at highlighting the importance of introducing a professional approach in setting a public-oriented science communication strategy.


Science popularization is ”the” tool to bridge the gap between society at large and the world of science.

Compared to formal science communication - science taught in schools - informal science communication, made by the TV, the press, ”science centres” and visits to scientific laboratories, has an important advantage: it makes the public meet science in a direct, informal way and at its own terms. The public is given an opportunity to develop a personal relationship with science, according to the needs, interests and abilities of the individual.

But selling science is a tough job. The object of the sale is not a consumer good, but rather ideas and concepts that are sometimes so complex and distant from common sense that translating them into a comprehensible language and creating interest in the public without betraying the scientific truth is almost impossible. From my experience in the Communication and Public Education Group at CERN, the European Laboratory for Particle Physics in Geneva, I learned that any science communication action, like any marketing initiative, cannot ignore the perceptions, the needs and the previous knowledge of its target public. As obvious as it may appear, this essential starting point has been completely neglected in the popularization of basic science, and in the world of particle physics in particular.

The present research work analyses the public perception of science through two surveys conducted in 1997 on the visitors to two similar particle physics exhibitions, "Quark und Higgs" in Vienna and "Quark 2000" in Rome. The failure to convey the message of basic science at both exhibitions is highlighted. Based on the surveys’ results and on the analysis of more succesful science products science on TV and in the European press, proposals to ”package” science more attractively in order to increase its "sales" are made.

By underlining the importance of adopting a marketing approach in science communication, the present research work hopes to be a modest contribution to an effective public oriented science communication strategy.

Here is a secondary there an alternate reason in some cases to inform the general public about the realms of science? Sure the main objective may well be to broaden the knowledge base of the public’s contact with certain sciences, and, yes, to inform the public in regards to potential hazards globally and individually, but, is it not also possible that the aim may be to enhance certain avenues of science either in terms of revenue or organized groups of people. Say for example, the PBS/NOVA program on “string theory” might be an attempt to gain public backing for certain programs of further investigation. NOVA employed the best of current technology with spectacular computer graphics, special guest appearances of famous and key people involved in the specific realm., and a fine presentation by Brian Greene. Could this be a way of enhancing public awareness and solicit funding for further research? This is not a negative indictment at all but merely an alternate perspective and a good one nonetheless for it does spur public involvement. Granted the cost of doing physics of this nature is not cheap, but it does heighten the awareness of specialized research projects. After all, we are interested, if not amused in some cases, of the “ultimate” answer to how the universe is constructed and are terribly fascinated by fantastic ideas of parallel universes, worm holes, etc. and this may just provide a means for the alumni or lay person to sponsor such projects through contributions or grants to a favorite university doing similar research. What I am saying is that there may not be a single agenda in bridging the gap between science and the public for knowledge [abstract or “down to Earth”], entertainment, sociological, psychological, and promotion of a particular point of view are all relevant.

Further reading:

"A Conversation with Brian Greene"



"Benefits of informal education"

"Benjamin Franklin, Civic Scientist"

"Bio: Brian Greene"

"Celebrating Einstein with dance"

"Communicating scientific research"

"Dangers of dramatizing science"

"Earth and Sky"

"Fred Hoyle"


"How Scientists View Their Public Communication"

"Jack Horkheimer"

"Let's dance"

"NOVA Science Now"

"Penny Magazine Online"

"Physics for taxi-drivers"

"Physicists on the Money"

"Physics-Related Stamps"

"Popularised science communication modes in Italian popular science magazines (1788-2002)"

"Rap the key to explain relativity/Forward thinking he may have been - but even Einstein would be surprised at the latest use of his theory of relativity"

"Science and The Simpsons"

"Science, delusion, and the appetite for wonder"

"Science Friday"

"Science treads the boards"

"Scientific Photography"

"Sir Fred Hoyle"


"The Naked Scientists Online -- Internet Science Radio Online"

"The Physics Chanteuse"

"What's Wrong with This Picture?: Educating via analyses of science in movies and TV"

"Who's helping to bring science to the people?"

Here are the NOVA transcripts for the Elegant Universe:

Einstein's Dream

String's The Thing

Welcome to the 11th Dimension

Here are the NOVA transcripts for Origins:

Earth is Born

How Life Began

Where are the Aliens?

Back to the Beginning


The Science of Harry Potter: How Magic Really Works by, Roger Highfield

ISBN: 0670031534

A review


Neil deGrasse Tyson's home page with biography and selected papers


An Audio/video Interview With Brian Greene

Two Neil deGrasse Tyson "Cybercity" audio interviews with Jack Landman

Also see:

Asimov of the 1920s--Edwin Slosson

Berkeley Groks

"Classics Illustrated"...a cult phenomenon?

Harry Potter and science

Honorarium to George Pal

Lawrence Bragg...people's scientist

Mr. Wizard...missed mentor

Mr. Whipple--comet man

NASA's Solar System Ambassadors Program

Neil deGrasse representative

Penny Magazine

Pied Piper of Astronomy

Students and science

Victorian popular astronomer: Sir Robert Stawell Ball

Yale physicist D. Allan Bromley--for the people

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