Over Twitter, somebody pointed to this article on astronomy outreach (free PDF from that link), which argues that everybody else should stop trying to be Brian Cox:
I’ve known Brian for years and worked with him before his celebrity status went supernova. I would love to say “I told you so” to all the TV commissioning editors who rejected my suggestions to use him as a presenter. I suspect Brian fnds it as ironic as I do that TV companies now regularly put out adverts looking for “the next Brian Cox”.
As much as I love Brian’s work, I don’t think we need any more like him at the moment. Instead, we need more really good science teachers, and here’s why: I don’t want to see science become something that people “believe” is important and cool and sexy without understanding why.
It goes on to make a decent point in a somewhat odd way, but honestly, my first reaction to the argument that we don’t need any more Brian Coxes is “That’s easy for you to say, Astro Boy.”
I’m probably being a little unfair– after all, the piece is running in a magazine on Communicating Astronomy to the Public– but it’s a little grating to hear that we already have plenty of media presence just because there’s somebody on tv hyping astronomy and particle physics. If you want to argue that we have plenty of outreach going on in astronomy and particle physics, that’s fine, but to say that astronomy and physics outreach is sufficient for science as a whole (or even just physics, which I’ve heard people say) is just insulting.
Astronomy and particle physics aren’t the whole of the physical sciences. Astronomers and particle physicists are significantly outnumbered by people doing other types of physics– condensed matter, atomic and molecular, materials science. Those topics don’t get anywhere near as much attention as things you can illustrate with a picture from the Hubble telescope.
“Yeah, but astronomy and particle physics touch on really big questions, that inspire people,” you say. “Oh, bite me,” I reply.
Sure, astronomy and particle physics deal with big questions and provide inspiring images, which is great if your goal is to attract students who want to be astronomers and particle physicists. Of course, the majority of them won’t be astronomers and particle physicists, but will end up in some other area of science. And, really, it’s kind of galling to hear the suggestion that those of us in other fields should be content with students who were drawn in hoping to do something else, and are settling for our fields.
So why shouldn’t we try to get some other science in front of the public? Yeah, a lot of what professional physicists do isn’t as spectacular as what you get from the Hubble or the LHC (though I would argue that low-energy quantum mechanics is every bit as weird and cool as anything those billion-dollar instruments produce), but then again, condensed matter physics will very likely lead directly to technologies that improve people’s lives, which finding the Higgs boson will not. That’s something you ought to be able to sell, though it may take more work.
Outreach in astronomy and particle physics is relatively easy– the spectacular pictures pretty much sell themselves. But we shouldn’t be content to only do what’s easy. And we shouldn’t be satisfied to have gotten one person doing one kind of science on tv. It’s great that Brian Cox is becoming a superstar for science, but that should be the first of many steps, not the end of the process.