Up in the Air

Science outreach is important (and fun)

January 19, 2014 

At the winter meeting of the American Astronomical Society this month, there was a talk given by Neil deGrasse Tyson, the rising star and popularizer of science (heir apparent to the role held by the late Carl Sagan).

Neil spoke on his experiences in the Twitterverse, bringing science to the public. He joked about the heat he took when he tweeted about errors in the movie “Gravity.” His PowerPoint was full of amusing slides of scientific cartoons, tattoos and Tweets as he gave a lively presentation about his forays into public outreach.

I first met Neil in 1990, at a small topical conference held at Union College, an elite, private college in New York. I happened to sit down next to him and we hit it off, sharing insights and jokes. At lunch we headed out into the student union, where a number of vendors in kiosks were selling everything from serapes to sunglasses. The Union College physics club was also there with a setup to test sunglasses for ultraviolet transmission, a new topic of interest back then. Inspiration hit me and Neil.

We borrowed a number of sunglasses from the vendor and tested them at the club booth. The results were ranked and written up on a single overhead transparency, which we presented as a last, impromptu paper at the end of the meeting. After all, it was a conference on measuring star brightnesses in our galaxy – and our experiment was about looking at (or blocking) some of the light from one special star, the sun. Having fun with science was the point of our paper, a theme that Neil and I have continued to this day.

Outreach like Neil Tyson’s does not come without risk. Like Sagan, he faces possible accusations of not staying active in scientific research. Sagan faced this from (envious?) colleagues who watched him chat with “Tonight Show” host Johnny Carson (himself an amateur astronomer).

Indeed, at this month’s meeting I heard some colleagues questioning Neil’s current level of research. Having spent some time doing outreach (as in this column), I have even felt some ripples of this myself. It’s hard to run the Hayden Planet, as Neil does, or even our own Dark Sky Observatory, and keep research publications flowing at the rates of our colleagues who do not do such things.

But that won’t stop us: Bringing our science to the public – writing and Tweeting about our universe and how it works – is important. Our fellow taxpayers paid for it, and they deserve it.

And why should we scientists keep all of the fun to ourselves?

Daniel B. Caton is a physics and astronomy professor and director of observatories at Appalachian State University. Email: catondb@appstate.edu. More on this month's column: www.upintheair.info.

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