Scientists in the Spotlight

Did you catch the news from NASA last week? We have an amazingly complicated, nuclear-powered rover on Mars that is fully functional in every way and ready to do super-sensitive chemical experiments in one of the most exciting places to look for the ingredients of life. In any other circumstance this would be wonderful news. Unfortunately, lead project scientist John Grotzinger allowed himself to be quoted several weeks ago saying that the data coming down from Curiosity would be "one for the history books." So while the announcement at the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco should offer an exciting opportunity for planetary scientists to present the latest news from Mars, and for the rest of us to hear about what the latest discoveries are, last week was spent walking back that initial excitement. How did this happen?

The truth is that scientists get no training at all in communicating with the public or even our students. At Cornell University, home of Carl Sagan (the most famous science popularizer of the 20th century), I was told that if I planned to go into education, I would be wasting my astronomy Ph.D. When I attended professional meetings, other graduated students would approach me and ask if Sagan did any "real" science. The message was made very clear to us future researchers that science popularization was not something to spend your time doing.

And that's a shame, because you and I have paid for every spacecraft flown to another planet and every telescope placed in orbit. If the public, be they children, parents or senators, doesn't understand what science or spacecraft are good for, then eventually they will demand that our tax dollars stop supporting it. I am thankful every day that I live in a country where I was able to help design sundials that now sit on the three most recent rovers to investigate Mars. How can I not be excited about that? However, from a career standpoint, if I weren't employed by a small liberal arts college that cares about teaching, there'd be no benefit to your typical scientist doing something like that, much less sharing knowledge of it with the public. In fact, like my experiences in graduate school showed, usually other scientists look at you askance if you spend too much time doing such things. But at the same time we really do want people to understand and appreciate what we're discovering.

In the past, science popularization was the realm of one or two lone individuals with skills they picked up who knows where. Carl Sagan was spellbinding. Steven Hawking is still mesmerizing. Neil DeGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City, has done more for the coolness factor of astronomy than anyone else in the last decade, in part through his frequent appearances on The Daily Show and The Colbert Report.

Today, thanks to the rise of social media, there are more young scientists and scientifically trained writers helping to popularize their discoveries and clarify and elaborate on the discoveries of their friends and colleagues. Emily Lakdawalla writes for The Planetary Society (a nonprofit space advocacy organization founded by Carl Sagan) and does an outstanding job of promoting planetary science, which is where she received her training at Brown University. Phil Plait, who writes the Bad Astronomy blog, started out as an astronomer at California State University Sonoma fighting against Moon hoax conspirators and bad astronomy in movies.

Unfortunately, for every Lakdawalla or Hawking who is doing a spectacular job of conveying the excitement of scientific discovery, there are a hundred scientists who are probably scared to death to go in front of a camera or reporter and say what they are doing. One planetary scientist I know used to watch televangelists for inspiration on delivery and emotion when talking to the public, and for him it really worked; his students applaud at the end of each lecture. However, the sad truth is that communication with the public and press takes just as much work as learning to be a good researcher, because if you are going to talk about the complexity of organic molecules on Mars, you'd better know how to do so with a minimum of scientific jargon while still managing to convey the truth of what you've found and moving people with a sense of wonder and awe. After all, discovering something that no one else has ever known before is exciting. And excited is what Grotzinger was when he spoke to NPR; he was a scientist excited to have a nuclear-powered, laser-wielding dune buggy on Mars. Who wouldn't be excited about that?