Scientist, Hero
    By Hank Campbell | February 19th 2010 03:06 PM | 4 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
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    It's often the case that attending a conference like AAAS means you have to choose between competing programs, like the good stuff, the fun stuff and the stuff you will make fun of.  This morning I had one of each at the same time but since I didn't get to the one I would likely have made fun of, I will leave that out.

    Instead I had to make a tough call between Eugenie Scott and "How Can Scientists Support Policy Makers?" and "The Science of Superheroes" - Genie won, at least in the beginning.

    Of course, we're big fans of NCSE and short talks like this really get to the meat and potatoes of why their work matters.  When it comes right down to it, you only have one vote so being a scientist in a vacuum will not result in great policy because good science is necessary in getting good policy done but not always sufficient.  Even being in a bloc of scientists will not result in great policy because scientists do not form large blocs the way teachers or other union members will; many scientists would just rather avoid politics.

    Genie made her bones as a professor in Kentucky objecting when a group of creationists tried to get creationism interjected into the school curriculum - but the ongoing fight has been rather unfairly portrayed in modern times as a science versus religion one and that is not the case nor was it then.   Some of the strongest allies in her fight, and since, have been mainstream clergy because they recognize that if a sectarian view, and that is essentially what creationism is and not alternative science, is taught in schools Monday through Friday clergy may well be having to undo it Saturday and Sunday.  Basically, outside the fringes of militant atheists in science and militant fundamentalists in religion, there is a lot of moderate ground and Genie Scott and NCSE covers it.  Science is science - if God's will determines how these things go and he chose evolution as the mechanism for how we came to be who we are today, the vast majority of religious people have no issue with it.  It's when questions are framed by atheists on a mission that it looks like there is less science acceptance  than there is. 

    One anecdote I had not heard before about Genie's first foray into the culture wars; on a School Board of 5 there were two against teaching creationism and two for it - the swing vote was someone who said he was going on a retreat the weekend before the final vote to pray on the issue, which would send most scientists into a panic (likewise in the more recent Dover case, how many scientists were happy about the result despite the judge "being a Republican" - as if that somehow meant he couldn't impartially judge the issue as well as if he had been a Democrat) but he returned with a vote against it.  His reasoning for his vote turned out to have nothing to do with awesome science or because it would make teachers violate their standards or because religious people would be upset.

    His reasoning for his vote was that changing the curriculum would be too expensive, something no one had anticipated, which makes a crucial third point for scientists - you have to understand the structure, motivations and relationships of the people you are trying to convince.

    Because there were competing programs I next went to "The Science of Superheroes" symposium.   Some scientists have a disconnect with pop culture portrayals of science because they do not recognize that you can't just throw science into a narrative structure, but when it is done right it augments a story quite well and filmmakers recognize that.  Jodie Foster in "Contact" is an example I always use of a well-done portrayal of science and scientists and virtually the entire panel had that in their top 5 as well.

    Jim Kakalios from the University of Minnesota does a whole class on physics using comic books because, as he tells it, if he explains a concept poorly to a peer, he will get called out, but if he explains a concept poorly to a layperson, they will simply feel they are too stupid to understand it.   But no one is afraid to call out a Spider-Man comic book if it makes no sense.

    He used an example of a 1960s "The Flash" comic where the hero stops a speeding bullet, the editor in the book explains in the text, much the same way an outfielder catches a baseball, by moving at a fast enough speed that they begin to match.

    That Flash editor is entirely correct.   I was proud to tell everyone who would listen last night that on my trip here I poured a Coke while going 400 miles an hour.    They thought that was impossible until I noted that inside the cabin of a plane traveling that speed, where both the Coke and I were moving at the same velocity, it was quite easy.

    Some of the talks were on scientists in movies - villain, nerds or heroes - and there was general agreement that stereotypes happen because most people do not know a research scientist in their personal lives.   Maybe 1 in 300.  Villains and nerds are staples, though hero is something newer as Hollywood has discovered, and shown some respect toward, the value of science in society.

    Genie Scott is a hero to a lot of people, but she may never be on a TV show, and physics professor Jim Kakalios too.   To see Jim explain diffusion using "The Watchmen", a movie he consulted on, check out the video below:


    if God's will determines how these things go and he chose evolution as the mechanism for how we came to be who we are today, the vast majority of religious people have no issue with it.
    I usually avoid letting my spiritual side appear on scientificblogging, but: Amen to your words.

    I was thinking of 'Contact' earlier.  Maybe I'll just get some hot coffee, dig out the DVD, put my feet up and steal some more ideas about how best to project science to an audience.

    Thanks for yet another enjoyable post, Hank.
    Boy! I wished I had learned wave propagation, interference patterns and diffraction the way Prof. Kakalios teaches it. It sure would have made my physics classes a lot more interesting. LOL

    "Contact" is also on my top five favorites list as well.

    Thanks for a great post, Hank.
    Hey have you read "A Unified theory of Superman's Powers" by Ben Tippett? It's available online, and it's a kick in the pants.

    I haven't but if it's got Superman I am already inclined to give it a try.  Some things can't be scientifically rationalized, like Peter Parker having the 'proportional strength of a spider' but flying I am all for, even if I know the way they do it in "Heroes" would tear their faces off (but not Superman because of that yellow sun business).

    And faster than light travel?  I think everyone in science gives that one a pass.