6 Inspiring Science Communicators and How They Have Changed the Way We Look at Science
Let us take a brief moment and think about the role of education in our lives, shall we? Surely, many of us may not directly employ our educational qualifications in our day-to-day lives. However, undoubtedly, it does play a significant role in expanding our thinking abilities, enabling us to make sounder decisions. UNESCO takes exceptional efforts to etch this fact in our minds by organising the International Literacy Day each year on the 8th of September. It reminds the world that literacy is a matter of human rights and being literate can be empowering for society as a whole.
In this article, I want to bring attention specifically to scientific literacy. The past decade has brought to us several science-related issues including the recent COVID 19 pandemic and the associated vaccination, artificial intelligence, gene editing technologies, personalised medicine and climate change, to name a few. These are highly complex subjects and research in these areas is progressing in leaps and bounds. How do we as a society keep pace with these rapid advancements? How do we understand the research and make related life decisions if we are not primarily educated in these subjects? Moreover, how do we avoid misinformation?
This is where science communicators come in!
Science communicators act as an excellent bridge between the scientific community and the public. The ultimate goal of science communication is to deliver scientific information in an accurate, yet simple manner, making science more palatable to society. Here in this article, we list 6 science communicators who have personally inspired us at FROMTBOT. The list has not been made using any kind of scientific methodology. It is merely our opinion which is based on their remarkable contributions to the way we look at science.
Neil deGrasse Tyson
“The Universe is under no obligation to make sense to you.”
Neil deGrasse Tyson is an American astronomer and the director of the Hayden Planetarium, New York. His early research mainly involved the study of the structure and evolution of galaxies. However, what he is popularly known for is the removal of the planet Pluto from the list of planets in the solar system. A controversial decision as it was, the International Astronomical Union backed Tyson, labelling Pluto a dwarf planet. Tyson has also been part of multiple advisories in America which delivered recommendations regarding the future of space exploration and ways of enabling ambitious space missions within a limited budget.
One of his most impressive contributions to science, however, is his relentless endeavour to communicate the beauty of the cosmos with ease and simplicity. We explicitly see this in the series - Cosmos: A space-time Odyssey and Cosmos: Possible Worlds where he appears as the host conveying the mesmerising vastness of the universe. It is not a surprise that the show received tremendous international acclaim, winning 4 Emmy awards among many others.
Another fitting example would be his geeky podcast - Startalk, where he fashionably calls himself - ‘Your personal astrophysicist’! The show involves a casual and oftentimes comical chat about different concepts in physics relevant to our everyday lives.
Besides this, he has also authored over a dozen books, one of the bestselling among them being - Astrophysics for People in a Hurry. The book is directed towards people with bustling lives who wish to have a quick glance at the nature of space and time.
Considering his charming persona, he was also voted the ‘Sexiest Astrophysicist Alive’ by People Magazine in 2000. Now, who wouldn’t want a sexy ‘personal astrophysicist’ in their lives?!
“Biology is the study of complicated things that have the appearance of having been designed with a purpose.”
Perhaps one of the most controversial science communicators alive today is Richard Dawkins. A zoologist and evolutionary biologist, he is famous for conducting engaging, yet unapologetic public debates and lectures on natural selection, evolution, belief in a creator and religion.
Out of the many books he has authored, one of the most critically acclaimed is - The Selfish Gene, published in 1976. The book can open up a different dimension of thinking, explaining how a gene is technically immortal and ‘selfishly’ drives its own propagation. He underlines how organisms (including you and me) are mere agents that carry these genes.
Another of his masterpieces is the book - Climbing Mount Improbable. This book elegantly illustrates the beauty of evolution by pointing out the unique adaptations of organisms like figs, spiders and flightless animals.
A strong critique of creationism (a belief that organisms arise due to the action of divine creation), he established the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science in 2006 which seeks to promote reasoning and rational thinking.
Atheist or not, this science communicator might challenge us to an intellectual exercise, making us question things we thought we had answers to!
“If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.”
Another remarkable astronomer on this list is Carl Sagan. Although this gem of a scientist is no longer with us anymore, during his time he made significant contributions to several NASA projects. This included the Viking mission to Mars, and the missions involving the Pioneer and Voyager space probes that were sent to explore the universe beyond the solar system.
His noteworthy contribution to science communication is the impactful TV series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage. The Cosmos series hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson was in fact a continuation of Carl Sagan’s work. Dwelling on the origin of life and questioning what our place in this magnificent universe is, the show is said to have reached more than 700 million viewers across the globe.
Inspired by an image of the earth taken by Voyager 1 from the distant limits of the solar system, wherein the earth appears like a pale blue dot suspended in sunlight, he published a truly humbling book - Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space. Here he talks about how ‘our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark’. His famous lines from the book which talk about how every human being that has ever existed in the history of our species has ultimately lived on a tiny mote of dust illuminated by a sunbeam can take the reader on somewhat of a spiritual journey.
What we essentially learn from this science communicator is that science not only cultivates reasoning, it can also bring about a character-building experience.
“People must feel that the natural world is important and valuable and beautiful and wonderful and an amazement and a pleasure.”
Host, writer and producer of countless nature-based documentaries and series is the naturalist David Attenborough. From the fierce antarctic killer whales querying for their prey in the deep oceans to the loving bond between a mother Shoebill and its little chick in the swamps of Africa, he offers us, through his documentaries, an exhilarating experience of our diverse nature.
One of his early successes was the series - Zoo Quest, shot in 1954. It introduced people to some rare species of the time including pythons and the birds of paradise.
Amongst the smash hits, however, was the nature documentary - Life on Earth. The series was acclaimed for covering wildlife with some cutting edge filming technologies. An unforgettable landmark of the show was his encounter with a female gorilla! A baffled Attenborough, while filming the gorilla, explains how their social structures and experience of life is uncannily similar to that of humans. The show is estimated to have reached over 500 million viewers!
Undeniably, one of the most outstanding qualities of Attenborough is the eloquent narration he brings to his shows. We also see this in the more recent shows like - Planet Earth II, Blue Planet II and Our Planet, to name a few.
The majesty of nature brought to us by Attenborough, will probably be a lifelong reminder of the importance of its preservation.
Marcus du Sautoy
“Mathematics is a place where you can do things which you can’t do in the real world.”
An educator and a populariser of mathematics is Marcus du Sautoy, a Professor of Mathematics and the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University. His main research interest lies in understanding the world of symmetry.
A popular figure who has made his appearance on all kinds of media platforms, he is widely known for the presentation of mathematics in a range of TV programmes aired on the BBC. A compelling example among many is the series - The Story of Maths. Here he talks about how mathematics is the language of the universe and forms a fundamental part of human lives. He explores different civilizations like the Egyptian, Greek and Mesopotamian civilizations to unravel the contribution they have made to mathematics.
He has also authored several books, a thought-provoking example being The Creativity Code - Art and Innovation in the Age of AI. The book talks about how machine learning and artificial intelligence might influence the future of human creativity. Considering that machines can now create painting, music and literature using algorithms fed into them, Sautoy challenges us to truly introspect the nature of creativity.
Perhaps a deeper understanding of the nature of mathematics can give us a completely new perspective on life.
“The most remarkable discovery in all of astronomy is that the stars are made of atoms of the same kind as those on the earth.”
Last but not least on this list is the Nobel Laureate, Richard Feynman. His work largely revolved around quantum electrodynamics and the nature of elementary particles.
Feynman is renowned for his impressive teaching skills. We know that from some of the books and articles published by his students from Caltech and Cornell University where he taught regularly. Two famous examples being The Feynman Lectures on Physics and The Theory of Fundamental Processes. From the more complex laws of physics like gravity and quantum mechanics to the more basic concepts like that of temperature, magnets and elasticity, Feynman is known to have been a charismatic educator, explaining concepts with childlike enthusiasm.
The playful, yet impactful ways of this science communicator are sure to have inspired many to dwell into the mysteries of the world of physics.
These science communicators are indeed just a handful among the hundreds who work relentlessly to bring the beauty of science into public eyes. We can only hope that this is just the beginning of a whole new generation of scientific education.
Let us know in the discussion section below who is your favourite science communicator.