The Guardian has an article today about science and how science is now cool. It’s causing a bit of discussion over on twitter (nothing new there then). But lets look at the article:
“How science became cool
The incredible ambition of the Large Hadron Collider has fired our imagination; physicists have become cult TV stars; dramatic new pictures from space grace a million computer screensavers. Is this a golden age of science?”
It has a number of scientists and science writers discussing the position of science in society, including Prof. Brian Cox of Wonders of the Solar System fame. The first thing that occurs to me is that there is a helluva lot of physics being discussed in the article, from the Large Hadron Collider to Astronomy. The second thing that occurs to me is that you don’t have to get too far down the page before comments about the level of intellectual input required to watch science TV shows (and the nature of the ‘pointyheads’ presenting them) are mentioned:
“For the more advanced, BBC4 has been taking things beyond GCSE level. Jim Al-Khalili, a physicist, confusingly (these pointyheads are very adaptable), did his fascinating Chemistry: A Volatile History.”
Perhaps we can forgive the pointyheads statement as Sam goes on to mention the idea that science is buried in many exceptionally popular TV shows – CSI and Heston Blumenthal’s molecular gastronomy offerings. Am I really the only person who cringes through Bang Goes the Theory? It’s a bit like Blue Peter for wannabe nerds. As one commenter points out, Iain Stewart really should be mentioned in the article – How The Earth Made Us was a great television show (and one that justified its trip around the world…).
By this point the article has me convinced that there is more science on TV than in previous times, that there are more scientific experiments getting more coverage by the press than in recent times but it does not convince me that science is cool. I am convinced that we’re getting better at talking about science but there is a world of difference between discussion and doing. More to the point, many of these media science outings focus on what has been accomplished, and what we do know. The real challenge of science communication is to get the message across that we must do more, that there are really big questions that we don’t know the answer to. The LHC coverage is partly about this, but sometimes feels more like publicly justifying the vast sums of money spent on it. We need publicity for the science of the future, the science that the viewer or their children or grandchildren will help fashion. Experiments past offer inspiration, experiments future are where the real challenge is at.
If these TV shows and experiments get more people interested in science at any level then some good has been done. But the way to measure the success of science communication is to measure the number of young people who view it as a viable career choice, something that is worthwhile making a living doing. The way to measure the success of science is very different.