March 8, 2013
Neil Shubin has the wide, happy eyes of a Muppet and the casual, ingratiating prattle of a car salesman. His thick, graying hair lends gravitas. He has written a new book, and on a bitter afternoon in Hyde Park he is explaining to me how he writes.
The windowpanes above his desk whomp with each blast of wind. Because Shubin is not saying anything special, this sound is the only thing keeping me alert. “I am having a conversation,” he said, " ... trying to engage you without seeing you ... which is interesting because ... "
No, it's not.
It's writerly piffle. But, on the other hand, Neil Shubin is not expected to be “having a conversation” or “trying to engage you” or set you at ease. He is not really expected to be relatable.
He is an evolutionary paleontologist, a member of the National Academy of Sciences, an esteemed professor of organismal biology and anatomy at the University of Chicago and the celebrated discoverer of Tiktaalik (pronounced tic-TAH-lick), the 375 million-year-old crocodile-looking fossil he unveiled in 2006, considered the missing link in the evolution of certain fish from swimming to walking creatures.
He should intimidate.
And yet, on a wall outside his office in the Department of Organismal Biology and Anatomy is evidence that Shubin is in fact interesting and that he is also a member of a much rarer species — the contemporary scientist with a cultural presence.
On that wall is a framed poster of the 1980 comedy “Airplane!” It's signed by co-director Jerry Zucker, who wrote: “I think it's great you have a whole lab devoted to orgasmal biology.” Shubin and Zucker met a couple of years ago at the filmmaker's California home, where Shubin was a guest of Seth MacFarlane, who was hosting a meeting there between scientists and entertainment professionals.
Shubin was a must-have, a natural invite. His discovery of Tiktaalik had led to an acclaimed best-seller, “Your Inner Fish,” which led to Shubin becoming a regular guest on “The Colbert Report.” Next spring, “Your Inner Fish” will be a PBS series, hosted by Shubin (it's shooting in Chicago). And when I saw him speak in February at the Harold Washington Library, even more remarkable than his lecture, which began with the Big Bang and explained how the origin of the universe is contained within our DNA, was his audience: 100 or so people. Mostly young.
And it was a Monday.
Turns out Shubin, venerable fossil hunter, is also a born entertainer, funny, warm. A hand at your back, leading you to a subject you didn't think you cared about. When someone asked about digging for fossils, he said he looks close to the surface, and that as a young professor lacking in research funding, he would tag along behind state highway excavation crews, which would (wink, wink) provide him with all the digging he needed. Indeed, when I met him at his office, the first thing he said, playfully, was that his corner of U. of C.'s Culver Hall once held cadavers, and sometimes you can still smell the embalming fluid.
He had the grossed-out grin of a 12-year-old and stood beside the “Airplane!” poster. I nodded to it and said it looked so random here. He told me there's a lot of randomness in science when you start talking to the outside world.
Climate change, robotics, the effect of technology on our bodies (and minds), DNA and privacy — if ever there was a moment we needed the Neil Shubins of the world to help us better understand science around us, the time is now. Which may be why for the past couple of weeks I haven't been able to keep my hands off the wonderfully eclectic “The Where, The Why, and The How,” a science-art book from Jenny Volvovski, Julia Rothman and Matt Lamothe, partners in Chicago-based design firm ALSO. They had the fantastic idea of pairing clear, brief essays from savvy scientists (“Can evolution outpace climate change?” “What causes depression?”) with illustrations from graphic designers and cartoonists.
That need to feel grounded may also be why, when I heard about the meteor that recently hit Russia, my first thought was:
Neil deGrasse Tyson.
He's been advocating for killer-asteroid awareness, seriously and thoughtfully, for years.
He is the New York-based yin to Shubin's yang, an astrophysicist and arguably the most pop-culturally literate egghead of his day, director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History and such a frequent guest on “The Daily Show” that he's appeared on the show in a bathrobe. Like Shubin, he claims the Apollo space program and science-centric TV as his twin influences, he's been invited to MacFarlane's showbiz-and-science mixers, and next spring he's hosting a major pop event, an update of Carl Sagan's landmark “Cosmos,” executive produced by MacFarlane, who's shepherding the series to Fox.
Another thing they share: bad book titles. Shubin's latest is “The Universe Within,” and the title of Tyson's is surprisingly calcified “Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier,” which sounds like everything he's not. When I mentioned this to Tyson during a phone interview, being a savvy scientist with genuine pop credibility, he sounded wounded and chagrined: “I know! I wanted something cooler and imaginative. I wanted ‘Failure to Launch,' but I was told not to use the word ‘failure' in a book title. Plus, there is a bad movie with that title.”
That he could effortlessly reference a bad Matthew McConaughey vehicle helped.
As does, frankly, his appearance. I grew up with the turtlenecks of Sagan, the mutton chops of Isaac Asimov, the funky electronic speech of Stephen Hawking. Tyson, on the other hand, looks like a slightly chubbier Billy Dee Williams. Not to mention his writing and manner are about as far from the “As you know, Bob …” tradition of bad pop-science education as you can get, said Gary Wolfe, a humanities professor at Roosevelt University who recently edited the Library of America's excellent two-volume set of classic 1950s science-fiction novels.
“You know the ‘As you know, Bob' thing,” Wolfe explained, “that moment when a scientist in a novel or movie makes an info dump, just unloads a bunch of facts and unexplained ideas with an ‘As you know, Bob…'”
What also separates Shubin and Tyson from that earlier generation of savvy, high-profile scientists is this: They don't see their role as winning converts or even necessarily inspiring a new generation of scientists.
They just want to convey.
Shubin, who is 52 and grew up outside Philadelphia, the son of mystery writer Seymour Shubin and a fan of the very '70s PBS series “The Ascent of Man,” says: “I don't see my audience as a particular age or even science-minded, just well-read and curious, even intimidated by science.”
Tyson, who is 54 and was born in the Bronx the same year NASA was founded, is more blunt. In his new book, he says he “has given up on adults. They've formed their ways: They're the products of whatever happened in their lives; I can't do anything for them. But I can have influence on people who are still in school. … So I'm working on the next generation.”
He told me in our phone interview: “My brain is wired in a pop culture fashion, I suppose, just from being a citizen of the world, so I find it my responsibility to meet people on their own terms, to consider the demographics who we should reach, and do the opposite of just lecturing at them.” Which means, partly, he loves Twitter: He has 1 million followers, and during the Super Bowl, when the lights went out, his tweets about how many watts of energy a dancing Beyonce could generate (500) were retweeted 15,000 times.
It's important to note that Shubin and Tyson are not alone here: Those parties hosted by MacFarlane were organized by the Los Angeles-based Science & Entertainment Exchange, a wing of the National Academy of Sciences, created with the ultimate purpose, said director Rick Loverd, “of getting kids interested in science by fostering a few more Tony Starks (of ‘Iron Man' fame) in the culture, stuff that generates sparks in a new bunch of kids, the way Apollo program and Sagan did for the two Neils (Shubin and Tyson).”
Closer to home there's the amazing Illinois Science Council — amazing, if for nothing else, because it was created by Monica Metzler, a former lawyer and policy wonk who hasn't studied science since high school and “just thinks this stuff is superinteresting when the right person finds a clever way to explain it.” The group, whose motto is “Science for the Curious,” sponsors cultural science events around chocolate and beer.
“I have this rant I deliver to scientists who think I want to dumb down our understanding of science,” Metzler said. “I kind of yell: ‘You might have a Ph.D., but when you go to a mechanic, sorry, but your mechanic, he's dumbing down what's wrong with your car so you can understand it, so maybe get over yourself, OK?'”
Good for her.
Luckily, she doesn't stand to lose a dime from funding cuts brought on by sequestration. She can't lose anything because the nonprofit gets no federal, state or city funding. Tyson, on the other hand, he's a big proponent of NASA, which could lose more than $700 million. Shubin? Research funding at University of Chicago could lose $17 million. Remember, these are people who can explain the mysteries of the universe to you.
“Other fields, disciplines, they should know better by now that they have to reach a wider culture, even pop culture, to stay in business,” Tyson said. “I hear from them, they call — geologists, neuroscientists — for tips.” Other than envy, he said he rarely hears anything negative from fellow scientists.
But Shubin, when I asked if he gets any push-back, sighed: “Because you are assuming nothing, you do occasionally get criticized for fostering, in my case, ‘Paleontology for Dummies.' I assume people have the curiosity, not the background.”
That's just lucidity, I said.
He nodded. “Yes, but every field has its culture. That culture crystallizes at its jargon. Remove the jargon, you remove the safety net,” he said. “Scientists may find they have to distance themselves from their own knowledge, though really it's just about putting yourself in someone else's shoes. That's how you find your audience.”
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