Science Communication, Balloons, and Carl Sagan


Ed: This is an essay I wrote for my friends at the World Science Festival, riffing on the central themes of this years' event. If you prefer, you can also read this piece on the World Science Festival site. And, if you're in New York between the first and fifth of June, you could do much worse than popping into the Festival and getting a load of panel discussions like The Dark Side of the Universe, or Science & Story: The Art of Communicating Science Across All Media.

Science communication is difficult.

It can be crippled by the complexity of its own subject matter. It can be steeped in jargon, too dense for its readership, or, conversely, too simplistic to satisfy its critics in the scientific community. It can lack warmth, or be too paranoid about its empirical rigor to engage in the metaphoric flights -- the quick shifts from microcosm to macrocosm -- that cue readers to an emotional engagement in any subject. The problem may lie in an inescapable tautology: to fully understand a scientific, taxonomic, objective conception of the natural world is to be so steeped in scientific idiom that poetics become impossible.

And yet, there are those who are capable of communicating the invisible phenomena of science to the public. These people are essentially bilingual. The Sagans, the deGrasse Tysons, the E.O Wilsons; Angier, Attenborough, Carson and Greene; the radio producers, writers, filmmakers, documentarians, and public speakers; these are our human bridges, our storytellers, fluent in both big and small. It's a specific skill, to be a gifted science communicator -- that rare person who can straddle two divergent worlds without slipping into the void between the so-called "Two Cultures," someone with hard facts in their mind and literary gems in their rhetoric. They must accomplish the humanization of abstract ideas without pandering, make science poetry without kitsch. Even at their best, they can be silly -- think of Carl Sagan, in his burgundy turtleneck, proclaiming, "in order to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe." It may seem absurd to draw such a huge subject down to Earth in such a literal way, but what Sagan taps into is the necessity of these seemingly silly flourishes.

See, science is big. It's driven by the desire to understand everything!

The immensity of such a project necessitates that science be undertaken not by one group of men and women in one time, but all men and women for all time. The final goal always eludes us: to understand this, we must first understand this, but to understand that, we must understand this, ad infinitum. Scientific knowledge is won by climbing the shoulders of giants; but these giants are a never-ending stack of babushka dolls. In fact, the very notion of there being a final point in science has become so abstract as to be almost irrelevant; the more we know, the more we know that we do not know, and the end of the game is nowhere to be seen. And, perhaps, there is no end game.


To a scientist, this endless narrative satisfies. The balance of properties and theories that define the natural world, the physical Universe, or the underpinnings of mathematical reality are elegant and stirring; knowledge, and the search for more of it, is a raison d'être. For those of us not wired the same way, the greater narrative of science can be overwhelming, if not inscrutable. We need stories with beginnings, middles, and ends. We need things to relate to, objects to hold onto, characters to laugh and cry with. We need to synthesize abstract ideas through allegories, metaphors, and images.

Popular science communication is defined by such literary gestures. For years, students of astronomy struggled with the concept of an expanding universe without a center (a notion which violently bucks against reason). Cosmologists, however, came up with an image -- a metaphor -- which lightens the load: imagine that the universe is an expanding balloon, and the stars and objects in space are dots drawn on the surface of this balloon. From any one star's vantage point, all the other objects in space are moving away from it, but without any perceivable pattern. The more distant points would appear to be moving faster. Apart from being a devastatingly simple image that conveys more information that entire astronomy textbooks, it's also an elegant metaphor. It accomplishes the same things as the most successful of literary metaphors: a world of feeling and information, the very chaos of physical reality, in one image. It translates profound abstraction (the universe) into something we can imagine holding in our hands (a balloon).


Good science communication molds complex ideas into human-scale stories. It turns a discussion of the cosmos' impossible scale into inflating balloons. Or into Sagan, sitting at his dinner table like a medieval king in corduroy, a steaming apple pie at the ready.

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My name is LI Daguang. I am a professor of science communication at the Graduate University of Chinese Academy of Sciences. I am the translator of " the Demon Haunted World"by Carl Sagan. I would like to keep in touch with you to talk about science communication and others.

By LI Daguang (not verified) on 28 May 2011 #permalink