Is science “cool” (again)?

Is science “cool” (again)?

Something is in the water… correct me if I’m wrong, but is science cool again, or would it be more correct for me to say “more” cool?

From what I can tell, even the most unlikely of people (in my circles) seem to have a new found interested in science, namely physics and astronomy. Admission to physics and astronomy are reportedly up in the modern world, and even Youtube and popular media is swooning over science-topics at the moment.

If so, these commercials certainly were not the cause:

So what is it?

 

After been invited on a second date earlier this year with a then lovely-astrophysicist-friend, I got home and spent the night doing what any modern lady would do in a similar situation… I “googled” the heck out of astrophysics. I’m sure I would have skewed Google statistics for popular searchers after my efforts alone.
The plan was to find anything to help me get through the “how was your day” part of the evening. Hopefully I could actually ask questions and contribute more than some nods and clueless comments like “hmm sounds interesting” to the one-sided monologue that was our conversation.
Date number two came, after having spent all the free time I could muster watching every BBC series on astronomy I could find, I was ready.  “How was your day” I said with an excited grin, thinking I was prepared to at least ask some intelligent questions. “Good. I’m writing a paper on Ly-alpha…redshift surveys … galactic outflows… infrared… words words words.  I had a few realisations in that moment. 1. Scientists use a lot of buzzwords. 2. Physics seems much easier when Brian Cox is flying all over the world (for no apparent reason) telling interesting stories on the documentaries. 3. I feel like Penny from the show “the Big bang Theory”. 4. It’s very hard to know if someone is being serious when they use terms like “supermassive black hole” and “extragalactic astrophysics” in a sentence.

That is why/how I started learning more about science this year, I hate to admit that it was because of a guy, but at least it wasn’t because I was trying to impress – I simply was trying not to embarrass myself and to actually understand him. And it wasn’t completely in vain. Although from my perspective I still embarrassed myself on the date, I really enjoyed learning some of the basics of physics and astrophysics. And he didn’t seem to mind my astrophysics-illiteracy, he was even happy to explain (and we had a lot of fun together, even going on to date number 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 …. ).

 

For anyone who isn’t pushed into learning about science for fear of being lost in scientific conversation (as was my case), what’s the new appeal for them?

Popular media would lead you to believe that the show “the Big Bang Theory” brought science into people’s minds. While others have coined the term “Cox Effect” as an explanation of physics’ new popularity, caused by Brian Cox through the plethora of documentaries he’s presented. But I wonder what other factors could be at play. Could fashion have a minor part to play, with “hipster” and “geek chic” (otherwise science-like) styles being in vogue? It would make sense that the (Large) Hadron Collider, and this year’s Higgs Boson discovery, have made more than a few people think about physics as a profession or at least made it something exciting and news worthy. Could it be the plethora of science-fiction movies (Prometheus certainly didn’t sell it for me), or the media’s recent coverage of astronomy and physics topics? The impressiveness of recent computer generated galaxies? Could the Mars Rover be encouraging some interest?  Maybe even the very evangelical Neil deGrasse Tyson has stirred attention from the public (I seriously love this guy)?

Either way, it seems to be there. People are getting interested. I’m not the only, for the most part, “grown-up”, seeking to educate myself on science related topics. There’s a science movement, and the best thing is, the barriers to learning virtually everything, have been coming down in recent years as content is moving online.

 

If science is the new “cool”, then this guy Neil deGrasse Tyson makes me understand why, above all.

He manages to mix poetry with astrophysics and illicit the excitement of any listener through the passion and articulate nature with which he speaks.

 

8 Comments

  1. This is a beautiful post. I wonder what happened in the end with that astrophysicist you were dating… 🙂

    I remember reading somewhere that physics degree admissions had increased in about 20% over the last years in the US, and that this is maybe related to the success of The Big Bang Theory.

    Maybe the next step on this topic could be about what is the importance of learning about science, in general. Besides the obvious ‘general knowledge’ argument, is there any need for being educated in science? And if so, which area, and to what extent?

    Reply
  2. Hola Álvaro!
    Thanks! I’m glad you liked it!!
    I’ve read the same statistics, and was surprised. I’d love to see how they measured the influence of “the Big Bang Theory” specifically however. I can’t decide if that debate seems a little too simple for my liking, how about you? Could such a show (which deals with physics and astronomy mostly peripherally), really have such an influence, or was it simply about bringing science as a career, into the minds of people making these important “what to study” choices?
    Were you gobsmacked at first about that? I have to say I was, because lets be honest, the show doesn’t exactly glorify science, or scientists for that matter… But maybe that’s the brilliance of it. Maybe it conformed exactly to the stereotype we have of geeky scientist – it addressed every fear, every quirk (and more), and yet we love them, and love their lives even more. As a certain astronomer once told me “geeks really know how to have fun”.

    Further, maybe the connotations of what it means to be geeky have changed. We’ve talked for at least a decade now about the shift towards knowledge being power, maybe this is a clear sign of how it is infiltrating into the decisions of young people. Thinking like a “geek”, dressing like a “geek”, being thought of as a “geek” – is a good thing. It’s the new cool, it’s a complement. And one clear affirmation of this is the shift in popular fashion, towards the “geek-look”.
    Maybe knowledge is the new currency, and the next generation want to be rich.

    In regards to why is science-literacy important and to what extent. That’s such a good questions!! If knowledge is the new currency, then just like any currency, how much we have is always variable, right? But if we are learning anything from recent advancements, is that the convergence of disciplines is of more importance for new developments. Not to mention that on the person-level, a knowledge of science is relevant to us making informed decisions everyday. Be it from choosing to blindly agree with the results stated for products in infomercials, to understanding what’s in our make-up, or on the label of the food we’re eating. Understanding the world around us and the universe beyond us. But yet my opinion is that in this day and age someone can be highly successful and not have the faintest idea about astrophysics, for example. But life is advancing. The rules of the game changes – and as with computers, it can change fast, right?

    Reply
  3. A good article, though I don’t agree we use buzzwords – I’d say jargon is fairer. I always strive to avoid jargon when talking to someone outside of the field, unless they specifically ask (“talk nerdy to me….”). It’s why, when I explain doppler shiftting in a bar, I pretend to be a police car speeding past, or why I burn my fingers on candles when I explain the Planck distribution.

    As to if science is “cool”: the beauty of science is that you don’t need a PhD to see the beauty. With (now easier) access to traditionally tough concepts, almost everyone can get a taste; it is easier to inspire our young, future scientists (if you can shout loud enough through the electronic fog that surrounds them all).

    Reply
  4. Hey Dávid! Thanks for commenting! 🙂

    You’re so right, “jargon” is the proper term here…. business people are the ones who use buzzwords! ;).

    Never heard of “electronic fog” before… brilliant, might have to borrow it.

    Is that the beauty of science, that once you get “a taste” it’s hard to stop there? Science seems to encourage the questions “why” and “how”, and gives people that push to experiment, to explore, to prod – it’s for the curious-minded. An article about two 20-year-old science students that sent a camera in a weather ballon up 30km above New Zealand to capture some images, tickled my fancy for that reason (http://www.stuff.co.nz/science/6816830/Kiwis-send-balloon-to-edge-of-space). Maybe just a seed of inspiration is all future scientists need to get interested. It sells itself – to the right people.

    It will be interesting to see how the “popularity” of science develops over the coming years! Also, how gender topics evolve as more women progress through science professions and take on management roles in science organizations.

    Reply
  5. I think I drew inspiration from Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon with “fog”, so I claim no (or little) credit. I suspect in these days of “apps” & “androids”, it’s more smog than fog 😉

    As for the “taste”, I now believe that scientific “tapas” is very much on the menu. You can have bitesize exposure to quite disparate areas of science and gain a good appreciation of them in quite a short time. If you particularly like a particular flavour, then yes, you can send stuff into space, drop transects up in the altiplano, or design a lollipop that cures hiccups.

    This in fact carries through even to undergraduate study, where sciences are traditionally “single-discipline”. I was involved in setting up the Natural Sciences degree at my alma mater, and I’m aware the same course is very well regarded at my postgraduate university. These degrees allows students to take a mixture of science courses from Biology, Chemistry, Physics & Mathematics departments.

    I also happen to be in the same field as your then-date, but when I think back to how I got here, it certainly wasn’t via inspiring teachers, flashy TV documentaries, or the need to be a geek. I also can’t attribute it to Star Trek (which I still believed was real up until 18 months ago). Certainly the escapism of Arthur C Clarke et al. pushed me in the right direction, but at some stage I just became curious about what the “real story” was. This was pre-Internet. Pre-Encarta. Pre-Cox.

    One thing is for certain. Although kids may never have had it better for exposure to science, I worry that flashy graphics and celebrity scientists may be replacing imagination and curiosity. And science certainly needs more of the latter two.

    Reply
  6. What an interesting thought that all this stimulus may dilute the personal “magic” of science exploration. That’s what I love so much about those really passionate about science – they have this way of illuminating the fun of science. To ignite the curiosity of the listener. To make us imagine a world beyond the obvious.

    As I recently heard in a interview of (again, sorry, reaaallly love this guy), Neil deGrasse Tyson, maybe childhood is really when our taste for science has the most potential to grow, and the responsibility of our generation will simply be to allow that to happen, to take its natural course:
    “Kids are born scientists… They’ll ask you why the grass is green and the sky is blue, and they’ll experiment with breakable things in your house. I think the best thing a parent can do, when raising a child, is simply get out of their way.”

    Life before Encarta? “Inconceivable!

    Reply
  7. Haha – “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means”

    Reply

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