I’m lucky to be a grad student at a university that has started a Center for Communicating Science. When this center was announced, I was excited that I might have the opportunity to take classes that would help me explain the science that I’m passionate about to any audience who will listen. (And if you’ve ever met me at a party after I’ve had a few beers you know I’ll talk about it even to those who are slightly less willing.) With the backing of Alan Alda the center came out strong with this year’s Flame Challange. They have developed novel courses to get scientists to work with theater people in order to have stronger presentation skills. And this made me optimistic. But I’ve felt that in one area, the Center for Communicating Science has fallen short.
Last year, the center started the Science on Tap lecture series. In the vein of the very successful Nerd Nite, this event was aimed to bring scientists talking about their work in a fun, casual setting where people can grab a beer and learn something new. In the spring semester, there were two events, one focusing on the physics of sports and the other on evolution and crocodiles. Sounds like a good start. But I noticed that the excitement and buzz surrounding the Science on Tap series quickly fizzled. And I think this is due to a number of reasons.
In theory, Science on Tap should be a welcome invitation for scientists and casual science-lovers to come together to grab a beer and hear about some awesome science being done. It should be an event open to the public where the organizers welcome and strive for a diverse audience. But check out this picture from the first event:
Thanks to science “rock stars” like Brian Cox and Neil deGrasse Tyson (who is more than a rock star, he is sheer scientific perfection) and the proliferation of futuristic/sci-fi themed physics TV shows (I’m looking at you Michio Kaku), physics has been getting pretty popular lately. I even just read an article about how model Kate Moss impressed Cox with her curiousity about the science. But when it comes to popular physics, it seems like we are talking about only two or three subdivisions of the field: astrophysics, variations of quantum physics, and string theory. I mean, if all you knew about physics was based on popular impressions, you would probably think all physicists studied one of those three disciplines.
But guess what? We don’t!
Physics is such a diverse scientific field, People study lots of topics ranging from the highly speculative (I’d put string theory into this category) to the very application based (materials, solid state, medical physics, etc…) and it bothers me that people tend to think of physics as encompassing only three types of study.
Recently, Rookie Magazine ran an interview with America’s scientific sweetheart, the imcomprable Neil deGrasse Tyson. Although the scientist’s name is most likely a familiar one, the magazine’s may not be. That’s because it’s not the name of a science blog or publication, but of an online magazine aimed at teenage girls. Usually the magazine covers pop-culture, fashion, or crafts. That may seem like a strange place for an interview with Dr. Tyson, but the novelty of it is both exciting and inspiring to me.
Ok…first of all, how awesome is it that teenage girls are writing about their own interests in science (mostly outer space for now) and encouraging others. I’ve thought a lot about how teachers and scientists can encourage young students to develop an interest in science, but in reality, teenagers take a lot of clues from their peers and from other teenagers that they inspire to be like. So seeing teenage writers for a popular website show their excitement about outer space provides a great “jumping off” point for girls to investigate aspects of astronomy or astrophysics on their own. And this could lead them to not only develop and interest in (or even a passion about if we’re lucky) not only this branch of science, but they might make connections with other types of science and continue to learn and investigate.
I’ve been doing some thinking about where I fit in to the wide range of scientists and science communicators out there, and I noticed something. Notable (by this I mean notable outside their fields) “Soft” science communicators often seem to women and “hard” science communicators often seem to be men. This seems especially true when it comes to mass media. It seems like women are relegated to animals and cultures and men get math, chemicals, and engineering. I have two words for this: NOT COOL.