How often do you, outside the requirements of an assignment, ponder things like the workings of a distant star, the innards of your phone camera, or the number and layout of petals on a flower? Maybe a little bit, maybe never. Too often, people regard science as sitting outside the general culture: A specialized, difficult topic carried out by somewhat strange people with arcane talents. It’s somehow not for them.
But really science is part of the wonderful tapestry of human culture, intertwined with things like art, music, theater, film and even religion. These elements of our culture help us understand and celebrate our place in the universe, navigate it and be in dialogue with it and each other. Everyone should be able to engage freely in whichever parts of the general culture they choose, from going to a show or humming a tune to talking about a new movie over dinner.
Science, though, gets portrayed as opposite to art, intuition and mystery, as though knowing in detail how that flower works somehow undermines its beauty. As a practicing physicist, I disagree. Science can enhance our appreciation of the world around us. It should be part of our general culture, accessible to all. Those “special talents” required in order to engage with and even contribute to science are present in all of us.
So how do we bring about a change? I think using the tools of the general culture to integrate science with everything else in our lives can be a big part of the solution.
Science in popular entertainment
For example, in addition to being a professor, I work as a science advisor for various forms of entertainment, from blockbuster movies like the recent “Thor: Ragnarok,” or last spring’s 10-hour TV dramatization of the life and work of Albert Einstein (“Genius,” on National Geographic), to the bestselling novel “Dark Matter,” by Blake Crouch. People spend a lot of time consuming entertainment simply because they love stories like these, so it makes sense to put some science in there.
Science can actually help make storytelling more entertaining, engaging and fun – as I explain to entertainment professionals every chance I get. From their perspective, they get potentially bigger audiences. But good stories, enhanced by science, also spark valuable conversations about the subject that continue beyond the movie theater.
The National Academy of Sciences set up the Science & Entertainment Exchange to help connect people from the entertainment industry to scientists. The idea is that such experts can provide Hollywood with engaging details and help with more accurate portrayals of scientists that can enhance the narratives they tell. Many of the popular Marvel movies – including “Thor” (2011), “Ant-Man” (2015) and the upcoming “Avengers: Infinity War” – have had their content strengthened in this way.
Encouragingly, a recent Pew Research Center survey in the U.S. showed that entertainment with science or related content is watched by people across “all demographic, educational and political groups,” and that overall they report positive impressions of the science ideas and scenarios contained in them.
Science in nonfiction books
This kind of work is not to every scientist’s taste. Some may instead prefer engagement projects that allow them more control of the scientific content than can be had when working on such large projects in the entertainment industry. Often, they instead work on nonfiction science books for the general reader. Here, I think we also need a change.
The typical expert-voiced monologues that scientists write are a wonderful component of the engagement effort, but the form is limited. Such books are largely read by people already predisposed to pick up a science book, or who are open to the authoritative academic’s voice telling them how to think. There are plenty of people who can engage with science but who find those kinds of books a sometimes unwelcome reminder of the classroom.
Following from my belief that science is for everyone, I suggest that publishers need to work with scientists to expand the kinds of books on offer, assured that there is an audience for them. This is currently difficult because publishing companies are risk averse: Something truly original in form likely will have trouble getting past the book proposal stage.