Taking science to the masses

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Neil Shubin

University of Chicago's Dr. Neil Shubin, a palentologist and author of "The Universe Within." (Keri Wiginton/Chicago Tribune / March 7, 2013)

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.”

Twitter @borrelli

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