Saturday, October 10, 2009

Communicating Science

This is a big problem in science.  There appears to be a big disconnect between the general public and science and scientists these days.  Books are being written on the subject (and many a blog) and many people are concerned that the reason you still have half of this country believing in creationism rather than accetping evolution as the origin of man (and the rest of the species with which we cohabitate on this planet), or why people don't believe that global warming is real, etc. etc.   Another example of this is NASA's latest project, where they crashed a rocket into the moon to look for ice/water under the surface.  The idea was great, and elegant in its simplicity, slam a rocket into the lunar surface, and see if it turns up some ice in all of the dust and dirt it blows up into space.  (Kind of like when you throw a rock into a pond and water splashes up, the same thing happens if you throw a rock into a pile of sand, and, when you slam a rocket into the moon).  The associated press ran an article about the experiment which, when viewed live yesterday, was, well, unimpressive to the naked eye.  The article is actually pretty good, and I myself was expecting a little more when I watched the video footage (given what I had seen in NASA's computer simulations, and its prediction of a 6-mile high plume of dust and dirt).  If you read the article, they quote heavily from Michio Kaku who is an excellent communicator of science, but there's also a comment from Alan Stern: The mission was executed for "a scientific purpose, not to put on a fireworks display for the public," said space consultant Alan Stern, a former NASA associate administrator for science.  This is a problem, I understand that rarely is science done to be a spectacle for the public, but when it is touted to the degree this mission was, and the public is obviously and readily excited to see a science experiment in progress, you shouldn't be so quick to dismiss them when they are disappointed.  You should, like Kaku did, explain why those expectations weren't met, but why there is still lots of reasons to be excited about the experiement and about what we might find out.  I mean, in this day and age of instant gratification, science is becoming less and less popular because it takes time.  Most people have no idea that it will probably be another month before we get all of the data from this mission analyzed (i.e. before we can have an answer to whether or not water is on the moon).  And even if the experiment worked perfectly, we may still not have a complete answer.  This is the nature of science.  It takes time, and it is an intensive process.  When you have the public's interest, you should maximize the opportunity and take advantage of the "teachable moment".  The public understands that NASA didn't crash a rocket into the moon simply for their viewing pleasure, but they were interested none the less.  Capitalize on that interest, explain why you are crashing a rocket into the moon, and why it's so important, and maybe, the next time a senator has to vote on how much funding NASA is going to get, he or she can vote for a funding increase, and rest assured that the taxpayers' money is going to good use.
And by the way, finding water on the moon, in the words of Michio Kaku would be more valuable than finding gold.  From the water, we could get hydrogen for rocket fuel, oxygen to breath, and of course, water to drink and grow food, making the idea of putting a livable colony on the moon a more feasible possibility (and a LOT LESS expensive).  It would also help with our basic understanding of the composition of large bodies in our solar system and universe and give us an idea of how rare (or how commonplace) water is in the universe.  Important stuff.

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