Forsaking the Ivory Tower

Patrick Moore -- the brooding presence with the gruff voice and monocled eye -- has died. The famous British popularizer of astronomy passed away at the age of 89 this week. He had the distinction of being the author of more than 70 books and the host of the world's longest-running television series featuring a single host: The Sky at Night.

Moore was a popularizer; not a traditional research astronomer with a PhD, tenure, grad students and -- most important -- a stack of academic reprints. Moore chose broadcasting over narrowcasting, and tried to educate the everyman. His work was for the public, not the specialist.

That may sound like a worthy, indeed an admirable, life. But to many scientists, it isn't. All too often they feel that talking at a level that the general populace can grasp is somehow a lesser activity. Taking science beyond the lecture hall borders on the unseemly -- as if NBA stars were to routinely engage in pick-up games with the neighborhood kids.

Popularization, and even more so its less frequently used synonym, vulgarization, have a distinctly low-brow tenor.

This is a relatively new development, however. Towards the end of the 19th century, when science was growing like kudzu and inventors including Nikolai Tesla, Thomas Edison and George Eastman were warping its discoveries into everyday products, there was good reason to connect the public to science. Science was something that any educated person could understand -- and in many cases, turn to use. Lectures and popular magazines were ubiquitous. Top-notch academics went on the road to speak of the latest developments. British scientist John Tyndall traveled to New York to give some physics lectures, and when these were written up by a local newspaper, fifty thousand copies were sold.

Explaining the discoveries of science to the general public was considered worthwhile and exemplary.

But a half-century later, attitudes were distinctly different. Science had become both arcane and specialized. Consider the theories of General Relativity and quantum mechanics, developed near the time of the First World War. Both are subtle and intensely mathematical. Scientists assumed that garage tinkerers wouldn't understand them, and couldn't convert the new ideas into practical devices. They largely abandoned popularization and their work turned cryptic.

At the same time, government funding of research (often channeled through universities) cut the umbilical cord between the practitioners and the public. Many scientists didn't care much whether Mr. and Mrs. Front Porch had the slightest clue about their day jobs.

For the last hundred years, science has become a boutique activity, performed by high priests assumed to possess superior intellects and inferior social skills. But we can no longer afford to seclude science in an ivory tower. As Shawn Lawrence Otto repeatedly demonstrates in his book Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America, our day-to-day existence is now deeply marinated in science. Even more, our species' future hinges on making the right choices in matters that are shaped by science. What do we do about climate change? About genetic engineering? Future water and energy needs?

We need the next generation of scientists, yes. But a more problematic requirement is ensuring a citizenry that understands enough about research to make the best decisions. And that underscores the critical importance of that seemingly bourgeois occupation, science popularization.

Conveying the excitement, the sheer joy of learning something of everlasting truth and, often, unbounded utility, is not merely a nice thing to do. It's an essential thing to do.

When I was ten years old -- an age at which many people develop the interests that will remain with them for a lifetime -- I was given a book by Patrick Moore about the planets. That was a single, small seed that planted a lifelong flowering in me, yes... but Moore spawned forests around the world.

He was a man of protean accomplishment and noble purpose. We need more like him.