Science capturing the public’s imagination

“Everyone should have a deep understanding of science.” It seems like a lofty ideal. While it’s one thing for the general public to respect scientists for their work, it’s another to ask them to understand it on a deep level. As scientists and science writers share knowledge with others, we get a glimpse into their minds. Communicators like Neil deGrasse Tyson popularize astrophysics in such a way that the audience feels at ease with scientific jargon or conversations of the universe. In his new book Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, he promises this level of conversation for a non-scientific audience. Everyone develops a kind of understanding similar to theirs, and it’s more of a shared appreciation than a test of intelligence.

With his history of the universe, Tyson is off through space and time. In about 14 billion years, the expanding universe that began from the size of water droplet grew to today’s observable universe of 46 billion lightyears. Precision and detail are found sprinkled throughout Tyson’s story as he explains how the four fundamental forces of physics and phase changes of matter came about and interacted with one another. The reader feels comfortable with galaxies, planets, and dark energy with Tyson’s style of sharing how much time has passed and how much longer the reader will need to hold on. It feels as though the individual events unfold with respect to a greater purpose or narrative. Though the book is a set of essays, they’re presented like a conversation over tea with Tyson himself. Everything from Tyson’s background as a black astrophysicist to his religious (or lack thereof) convictions come about in this narrative.

Popular science is popular in some ways through awe. Stories that capture the public’s imagination – especially Tyson’s astrophysics tales – provide a public engagement that has not only instilled empathy in individuals but shaped policy on a larger scale. In astrophysics, the images from major telescopes like the Hubble and James Webb wouldn’t have been possible without the popular opinion swaying in their favor. Online science projects like Zooniverse and Foldit rely on crowd-sourced efforts of individuals to, respectively, volunteer projects and find protein structures. Everyone – scientists and non-scientists alike – becomes part of the same unified project this way. Greater purposes, narratives, and everyone’s place in the universe make sense on a different level through these projects. Like gladiators in a coliseum – the stories of science are shown to the spectators. As scientists and writers share the stories, everyone is intrigued in wonder. It’s exciting and thrilling to look at scientific phenomena in different ways – each one challenging everyone’s assumptions and ideas. Tyson’s book – and the rest of science communication – educate the public through these dimensions, and, while scientists keep speeding ahead through the universe, the rest of society can stand comfortably behind them knowing they’ll still catch up. 

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