It often seems, at least to me, that our culture is slowly sliding backward when it comes to science education. As a humanities person, my observations may not count for much, but I do find myself getting nostalgic for popular science communicators like Carl Sagan and Richard Feynman; people who could appear in America’s living room and enthrall even the most hardened and recalcitrant of minds. Sagan’s influence peaked at the dawn of the culture wars, and it doesn’t seem like anyone could fill his shoes.
But several influential science communicators have made significant strides in bringing science to a popular audience in the past few decades. Among them is the very affable astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson, who takes Sagan’s mantle in the Cosmos reboot on Fox next year. There are media figures like NPR’s Ira Flatow, Bill Nye the Science Guy, sci-fi author Neal Stephenson, and Emmy-award-winning Tracy Day, co-founder of the World Science Festival. Physicist and popular science writer Brian Greene has done excellent work for NOVA, and scientific heavyweights Lawrence Krauss and Richard Dawkins reach millions with popular books and media appearances.
Now imagine all these people on the same stage together, trading stories, jamming, riffing like great jazz musicians, like some Justice League of 21st century science lovers. Well, you don’t have to, because this happened, not on primetime television (alas), but at Arizona State University under the aegis of their “Origins Project,” whose mission is to foster interdisciplinary research, build scientific partnerships, and “raise the profile of origins-related issues and broaden scientific literacy.” Origins Project director Lawrence Krauss MC’ed the March 30th event, and the panel filled a 3,000-seat auditorium for a two-hour session that focuses on “the storytelling of science” (part one at top, part two above).
The event harnesses the slick, entertaining format of TED Talks to demonstrate how cutting-edge research can reach a wide audience eager for a fuller understanding of the physical universe. The first video up top opens with a quote from Michael Shermer: “Humans are pattern-seeking story-telling animals, and we are quite adept at telling stories about patterns, whether they exist or not.” The stories that the members of this exciting panel discussion tell are connected to physical reality through scientific evidence that—without artful and compelling narrative—can seem bewilderingly complex.