The World Needs Sagan-Man [Update]

Click to see the whole sketch (©xkcd)

Click to see the whole sketch (©xkcd)

I love today’s XKCD comic. It depicts Sagan-Man, a superhero who possesses Carl Sagan’s ability to communicate science to the world. In this case Sagan-Man uses his inspirational tone to stop a thief in the act.

Unfortunately, I was too young to experience Carl Sagan when he was in his prime years presenting Cosmos, and it is only comparatively recently that I have been watching recordings of this legendary series. I have since brought the book too.

Sagan captures the child-like wonder of the Universe that is so often missing in the world today, and while there are many outstanding scientists and presenters who fill this roll of outreach, nobody does it quite like he did.

Update: With thanks to @acsnotsettled for the suggestion, perhaps the next Carl Sagan should team up with Buzz Aldrin. That way they can really smack down the crazy conspiracy theorists (i.e. if Sagan can’t convince then the Universe is way cool without UFOs and Bigfoot, Aldrin will beat it into ‘em).

NASA, Ur Doin’ It Wrong

Although I’ve been neck-deep in Ares I-X launch news today, I’ve had some time to see what else has been going on in the Universe. I really hope I’ll find the time to get to this stack of blog post ideas over the weekend, one of them is a particular peach.

But before I turn in for the night, an interesting little debate has been sparked over at Keith Cowing’s NASA Watch. Keith, the ever watchful eye over all things NASA, somehow stumbled across the NASA 360 blog and pointed out that the agency might be trying too hard to be “hip.”

I think that one of the hardest things NASA has to do is to communicate their incredible science to the general public — no one said outreach was easy. Every day I am challenged with this issue on Discovery News. On the one hand I want to talk about the quantum effects of Hawking Radiation at the event horizon of a black hole, but on the other, I have to realize that most of my audience didn’t take Advanced Quantum Mechanics at school.

Realizing how to approach an audience with science is a bit like approaching a crème brûlée with a blowtorch; you have to do it slowly, with enough distance between the caramelizing sugar (audience) and the flame (science). You get too close and the mix gets burned (confused), get too far away and the mix is undercooked (bored).

This by no means is equivalent to “dumbing down,” it’s simply a method to find analogies and examples that can connect the mind-bending science with a tangible reality (like comparing the curvature of space-time with the curvature of a rubber sheet when a heavy ball is placed on top of it). If you start over-simplifying the science, you end up sounding like a tool and your audience thinks you’re lame/boring/condescending.

If analogies and examples aren’t forthcoming, try humour. One example of this is “5 Frightening (But True) Space Stories,” a guest blog post for Space Disco Robert Lamb posted today. Robert is an expert at blending science and humour. So much so, this blog post teaches some spaceflight history without you even realizing it.

So, back to NASA Watch and the comments about the NASA 360 blog post written by presenter Jonny Alonso:

I am certainly all for trying to connect to a broader audience but this NASA 360 post by Johnny Alonso (the MTVish on-air host) is just silly with its attempt at teen Twitter and SMS lingo i.e. “hai guyz” and “that would totally suck. lol”, “it was hawt :)” and “These cats Mike and Barry”. –Keith Cowing, NASA Watch

Running the risk of sounding a little long in the tooth, Keith is obviously a little riled about the standard of writing on this particular post. At first, I was mildly amused, but the more I looked at it, the more I realized NASA’s outreach style might be flawed. Using text-speak to convey his work presenting for NASA makes Alonso sound limited (which I’m sure he’s not, although I haven’t seen him in action, so I might be wrong), but worst of all it knocks the credibility of NASA outreach.

This might be one form of communication, but there must be some kind of editorial control? Are there standards? Granted, I think the content produced by NASA online is second to none, which is probably why NASA 360 is standing out like a sore thumb. Also, this blog post is the personal angle written by an enthusiastic young guy in a conversational, loose tone who probably has a lot of fans.

Perhaps I’m just old fashioned in agreeing with Keith, but “outreach” doesn’t mean NASA should be publishing blogs like this to try to appeal to a younger/trendy audience. As sad as it may be, if the younger generation isn’t interested in NASA, I doubt a presenter saying “hai” all the time is going to change that.

What do you think? Am I being picky? Is this just a symptom of what we can expect from blogs in the future?

The White House Astronomy Night: Change, Delivered

In agreement with Phil Plait, this video made me smile too. A lot.

President Obama (now a Nobel Peace Prize recipient) hosted an astronomical party on the White House lawn on October 7th for an audience of 150 middle school students from the Washington area and some guests of honour (including Charlie Bolden, NASA Administrator and Buzz Aldrin, Apollo legend). It looked like a really exciting event for all the school kids involved.

This was my favourite bit:

So, there are a lot of mysteries left, and there are a lot of problems for you students to solve, and I want to be a president who makes sure you have the teachers and the tools that you need to solve them. That’s why we’re working to reinvigorate math and science in your schools and attract new and qualified science teachers in your classrooms, some with lifetimes of experience [...] That’s how we’ll move American students to the top of the pack in math and in science over the next decade to guarantee that America will lead the world in discovery in this new century.” –President Barack Obama, Oct. 3rd.

Was there ever an astronomy party on the White House lawn during the previous administration?

Sneak Attack Science

©Hunter Boots

Go to a music festival. Get drunk. Dance like a crazy person. Fall over. Get muddy. Eat rubbish. Pass out. Wake up in a tent with a naked stranger. More drinking, dancing and merriment. Go home. Then try to work out how the hell you understand superstring theory and the mating rituals of the Arctic Turn…

If a new and interesting trend takes off, the above scenario could be a possibility.

I’ve seen my fair share of festivals, and I love them (although my experiences are usually a lot tamer than the opening paragraph). There’s a wonderful atmosphere and you get to meet a huge number of eclectic, interesting people. Despite the weather, you still have an awesome time, do stuff you wouldn’t usually do and generally have a wholesome experience (but avoid the temporary loos, never a good time, especially on day three).

But now there could be an additional twist to the festival scene. A group of science students could be descending on the party to teach science. You what?

Guerilla Science brings unconventional forms of science entertainment to music festivals. An independent organisation founded by Oxford chemistry graduate Richard Bowdler in 2007, it puts on science-themed talks, live experiments, installations, art, films and performances at music festivals across the UK.

In their own words: “We want you to taste a brain made of cake, spy the moons of Jupiter, dance to fractals, hunt for the Higgs, and ponder how utterly astounding it is that you are reading these words at all.” The Guardian

It’s funny, I remember back to my days as a university student, and a biology friend of mine was convinced that the human brain absorbed more information if you were drunk in lectures. I never tried this tactic, but I knew people who did and had trouble staying awake. So, from this side-effect alone, I’d say the theory was flawed. However, if her theory was correct, this whole Guerilla Science thing could be an incredibly potent way to teach science… to a drunken crowd.

I personally think this is an awesome idea. It’s a grass-roots effort to communicate science in a relaxed and fun scene, quite a nice attraction for those who want to chill out during the day, listening to an enigmatic scientist getting enthusiastic about science and nature.

As I was saying in a previous post, there is a growing public-science gap; perhaps we can bypass the media by having more projects like this at live events, communicating advanced science concepts into a general crowd. Let’s put it this way, it can’t hurt.

Source: Guardian

Brian Malow Presents Galileo and Astronomy (TIME.com Video)

brian_iya2009

Of course, 2009 is the International Year of Astronomy, and half-way through this important year, we’ve seen some amazing feats of science. We’ve been fixing telescopes in orbit, assembling space stations, peering deep into the cosmos with a vast suite of telescopes, we’ve acquired new and improved techniques to analyse data and we’re on course for even bigger discoveries in the run-up to 2010.

So this evening, I receive word from science comedian Brian Malow that he hosted a TIME.com video all about Galileo and the history of astronomy.

It’s superb!

If you wanted a one-stop overview of the spirit behind IYA2009, this is it. It’s witty, informative and above all, it’s entertaining — all the things this special year for science should be about.

Take it away Brian!

Follow Brian on Twitter: @sciencecomedian

Astroengine Featured on CNET

cnet

In an article written by Don Reisinger for CNET News, Astroengine.com was selected as one of the “18 cool sites and apps that teach you about space.”

This is awesome as one of my main effort on Astroengine is to not only promote space news, opinion, skepticism and logical thinking, I also hope the site serves as an educational medium, so readers can understand the science that hides beneath the headlines. “Outreach” is a lot more than a group of scientists trying to work out how best to promote their work to the world; it’s a way of communicating advanced scientific theories to an audience who don’t necessarily have a specialized knowledge of the subject matter. Even though I have an education in a small aspect of astrophysics, it is often hard to understand the next big discovery in cosmology (don’t get me started on quantum dynamics, that stuff is insane!), so the more explaining the better in my books.

Also, to add to the coolness, by virtue of alphabetical luck, Astroengine.com takes the #2 slot in the top 18 space websites. And to top the whole thing off, Don Reisinger’s article hit the front page of Digg.com this morning. Needless to say, Astroengine was busier than Grand Central Station on a Friday evening this afternoon (thank goodness I have a brand new server to deal with demand)!

Thank you Don, I really appreciate the mention and the really cool review!

For more, check out “18 cool sites and apps that teach you about space” on CNET.com »