Dinosaurs Are Too Easy

Earlier this week, there was some interesting discussion of science communication in the UK branch of the science blogosphere. I found it via Alun Salt's "Moving beyond the 'One-dinosaur-fits-all' model of science communication" which is too good a phrase not to quote, and he spun off two posts from Alice Bell, at the Guardian blog and her own blog, and the proximate cause of all this is a dopey remark by a UK government official that has come in for some justifiable mockery.

Bell and Salt both focus on the narrowness of the "dinosaurs and space" approach-- a reasonably representative quote from Salt is:

Bell points to I'm a Scientist; Get me out of here! Here scientists of various types are quizzed by children. The questions there cover what's on their mind. It's not that there are no dinosaurs or astronomical questions, it's that the questions are far wider in interest than Willetts allows for. It's possible that children are simply more interested in a wider range of sciences than some of the people charged with the task of enthusing them. It's also likely that you have to engage multiple audiences. There is a Space and Dino audience. There are also human biology audiences and ecological audiences. Telling children in these audiences that science is cool because it has dinosaurs is a subtle way of saying: "If you're interested in cute furry animals then science isn't really for you. We don't think kittens, human cells or stuff like that are that interesting."

That's a good point, but there's another angle on this that is more relevant to my preoccupations, which is that you really don't have to work to get kids interested in dinosaurs and space. Dinosaurs are easy. They're gigantic extinct reptiles like something out of a horror movie-- that sells itself.

Saying "I'm going to devote our science outreach efforts to talking about dinosaurs and space" is sort of like saying "I'm going to devote our school lunch program to chocolate bars and ice cream." It's too easy-- you don't have to spend lots of money to get kids interested in dinosaurs, any more than you need to spend lots of money getting them to eat ice cream. If you're going to make a concerted effort to get kids interested in some aspect of science, it should be something they're not already interested in, in the same way that school nutrition programs make a concerted effort to get kids to eat something that isn't sugary crap.

This is related to something I said a while back in a discussion of physics outreach programs. Somebody took offense at a dismissive remark about the LHC, saying "people really like the LHC!" Which is fine, as far as it goes, but physics is much more than the LHC.

If we want to spend a bunch of money doing physics outreach programs about particle physics and cosmology, I can pretty much guarantee that it will be a success. If you can slap a picture of a gigantic accelerator or a Hubble telescope picture on it, people eat that stuff up.

But then, if we're just going to spend money promoting the LHC and the Hubble, we might as well save the money and do nothing at all. Particle physics and cosmology don't need outreach efforts. They're on tv all the damn time-- the various science-related channels on cable are part of my nightly channel-surfing routine, and it's a rare night when one of them isn't running a program showing lots of pictures of giant particle accelerators or distant galaxies. Any outreach efforts along those lines by individual universities or physics organizations is just a tiny film of extra icing on top of a gigantic televisual cake.

If you're going to commit resources to a new outreach activity, it ought to be directed toward something that's harder to sell. Because, well, if you don't make the effort, nobody's going to buy it. Dinosaurs and space and the LHC will take care of themselves, but condensed matter physics or thermodynamics or optics isn't going to catch the public imagination without some real effort, effort that's not going to come from tv networks with seven-figure production budgets. Not unless somebody puts in the work to find a way to make those fields attractive on a smaller scale first.

Of course, this situation is subject to a vicious cycle of disincentives. It's hard to make condensed matter physics cool, and faculty with lots of demands on their time don't want to put in the effort. Which means that nobody does popularizations of the subject, and then there's no interest in it, so it becomes harder to get anybody to listen, or put in the effort, and so on.

That's why I advocate strongly for more efforts in this direction, and why I spend time blogging about low-energy physics, and mostly let the latest particle physics gossip slide. Particle physics doesn't need my help, but low-energy physics does. And if I were given the chance to direct national science education and outreach initiatives, that's why I wouldn't spend time and money on dinosaurs and space.

Dinosaurs can take care of themselves. Space can take care of itself. Spend the money on things people won't get interested in without your help.

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No effort is made to teach children, teenagers, or anybody else outside the maths department, that mathematics is a science and that it has made enormous progress in the last decades. In fact the mathematics most college kids ever hear about stops around 1850 (unless it stops at Euclid, that is).

Condensed matter is full of cool things. Superconductors! Nanotubes! DVD's! We can cure cancer! You do have it easy, there.

Why can't we just use dinos and Hubble as the launching points for lots of other outreach?

Start out with some flashy Hubble pics, then go into detail about how cool silicon detectors are. Or use dinos as a launching pad for discussing nuclear physics and radiometric dating. This whole science enterprise is interrelated right?

I say go ahead and make big banners advertising ice-cream with school lunches, but there's no reason 90% of the meal can't be something else.

The problem with the "give 'em dinosaurs" approach is that, for most kids, dinosaurs and galaxies will have little to do with their adult lives. Few of them will be out digging up bones, and most of them won't be able to see third magnitude stars where they live. Science will not seem terribly relevant.
Better, I think, is to focus on the science behind the things that are part of their lives, in youth and adulthood. Not only are they carrying around little electronic gadgets (whose workings they might be interested in), but physics and math lie waiting to be discovered behind pretty much everything else. My first science book was called "Here's Why: Science In Sports" and explained the physics behind curveballs, bouncing basketballs, spiraling footballs, and dimples in golf balls. It worked on me. The ability to look at everyday occurences and wonder "why does it do that?" and the attitude of curiosity that I still maintain started there. Dinosaurs and galaxies, while very cool, seemed remote.

The problem with science outreach isn't the subjects chosen it is the method.

Science is detective work. Looking for clues, coming up with a theory, then coming up with a cool test that can test the theory.

But sciences isn't taught that way.

Look at this example:


It is giving the kids a nice diagram of what the inside of the earth is, and then encouraging them to memorise the names of the layers.

How is that exciting? How is that interesting?

They are missing the best bit - we don't really know what perfectly what the inside of the earth is because we haven't seen it.

But what if you had to figure it out? How could you figure out if it was liquid or solid?

The methods we used in the past have been amazing detective work. Listening to earthquakes from the other side of the world and figuring out how they echo.

So we could follow the impressive detective work - coming up with theories to explain the facts, and then discard them as new information comes to light. Figuring out new theories, etc.

But what do we do? Just give them the answers to memorize with a pretty picture.

That isn't teaching science any more than giving people a list of convicted criminals to memorize is teaching detective work.


A year or so ago I had to take Boy1 (B1) and BoyOtherOne (BOO) to the 15min presentations natural resource/environmental studies grad students have to give on their progress.

Now B1, 10yo at the time, is totally into this kind of science so my biggest concern was that he was going to interrupt and ask a presenter to cite her source (particularly as we were late and had to sit in the front row). BOO, then 8, has much less interest in this kind of science so I wasn't sure how wiggly he'd be.

As the presenters went on (and on and on) what was obvious to me was that it wasn't the subject that was important it was the skill of the presenter. An analysis of lake bottom prehistoric fish scales using some esoteric methodology totally grabbed the boys' attention while one on whitefish population cycles left them poking at each other. The difference? The first presenter spoke clearly was organized and enthusiastic while the second mumbled and didn't appear to have put much effort into his presentation.

My point is that kids naturally respond to a wide range of topics as long as they are well presented. Kids don't have the experience to know about so many things (heck, grown ups don't either). I think it's our job to give them a solid grounding in the scientific method and expose them to as many different fields as we can. Dinos and stars are an obvious starting place, but it's patronizing to assume that that's the only thing kids are interested in.

So keep up the cheerleading for low energy physics.

The Race for Absolute Zero was some mighty engaging popular condensed matter TV. At least an existence proof that it's possible. Can we have more like that, please?