When Talking About Science, We Need More Tony Stark and Less Big Bang Theory

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Editor’s note: Communicating about science can be perceived as a life-or-death issue in some cases, or as hype and stereotype in others. In this conversation, scientists Sean Carroll and Dave Goldberg — dedicated to bringing “physics to the people” — share their thoughts on why they do (and how to talk about) what they do: Should physicists seem more like Tony Stark? Should they buzzkill people’s hopes for time travel, warp drives, and other speculative (but very appealing) scenarios? Carroll and Goldberg also discuss the popular and controversial topics of string theory, supersymmetry, the multiverse, and the Higgs boson — and whether we need to justify basic science with technology breakthroughs like the World Wide Web.


Dave Goldberg: We’re both in the business of turning groundbreaking discoveries in physics into something digestible for the public.

But why — besides showing off? Are we trying to atone for the stereotypes that come from The Big Bang Theory, or the simple hope that people see physicists as more Tony Stark and less Bruce Banner? Put another way, what does the public really need to know about what’s going on in the frontiers of science, and what should we tell them?

Sean Carroll: Scientists certainly have selfish reasons to reach out to the broader public — for their personal interests, and even more for the good of the field.

But in areas of “pure” research like my own (cosmology and particle physics), there’s a more important concern: The whole point of doing that kind of science is to learn cool new things about the world, which is pointless if we then don’t tell anybody what we’ve learned.

One can argue whether speculative, unproven science should be discussed publicly. I think so, as even the public should understand that science is an ongoing process, not a set of simple answers.

Written By: Dave Goldberg and Sean Carroll
continue to source article at wired.com

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  1. see physicists as more Tony Stark and less Bruce Banner?

    Tony Stark is a fictional character who puts on a flying suit and alter ego Ironman.
    Bruce Banner is a fictional character who becomes angry and turns into the Hulk.

    • In reply to #1 by Roedy:

      see physicists as more Tony Stark and less Bruce Banner?

      Tony Stark is a fictional character who puts on a flying suit and alter ego Ironman.
      Bruce Banner is a fictional character who becomes angry and turns into the Hulk.

      Yeah, typical Hollywood trope. We can’t do all those things that we show you, so we’ll just pretend that we can, and we’ll save the world with fiction, in our head. Get real, people!

  2. No matter how jolly interesting cosmology and string theory are, they are still an esoteric and far-away fields. Never hurts dreaming, hell I love these shows, but I’m also an advocate of getting more feet firmly on the ground.

    There are a lot of areas of research that would improve day-to-day lives, and could use some good PR. Combating global warming, preserving what’s left of our natural resources, the fusion reactors, thorium reactors, fuel cell technologies, better renewable energy, stem cell research, cancer research, genetic engineering, safer transports, disaster prevention, moving away from fossil fuel, waste management… All starting with science education and awareness.

    Kind of a nerd Utopia, I know but hey, you improve the standards of living via science and technology instead of running scared of it, and the rest will take care of itself.

  3. I studied 6 years of mathematics an UBC. It always bothered me that all we did was look at other people’s proofs to theorem’s.

    I thought, this surely is not what professional mathematicians do. They must guess what theorems are true, then see if they can prove or disprove them. We never do anything like that.

    I suppose now they would have algebraic computers to solve equations.

    I wonder if anyone has ever written a book, a log about discovering a new theorem and proving it.

    • In reply to #5 by Matthew Lehman:

      Surely there is a way to tell the tales of real scientists, practicing real science, without resorting to comic books for inspiration?

      Sure, there are plenty of ways to tell these tales, and people use them. But why does it have to be either-or? What’s wrong with using comics? Why dismiss such references as “resorting to” something. Honestly, that smacks of elitism. The perception of such snobbery is one big reason that scientists encounter resistance in communicating with the non-scientific public.

      You may not be a fan, but a lot of people are, and if a few comic references provide a bridge to that crowd, then what’s the problem?

  4. The science for kids is the science they can participate in.

    1. finding fossils
    2. astronomy
    3. aquarium/terrarium
    4. poking about in a swamp
    5. attracting birds
    6. microscope
    7. breadboarding electronic projects
    8. safe chemistry
    9. dry ice pucks
    10. playing with water on slopes, building works a bit like a rice paddy
  5. This is exactly why there needs to exist a buffer between scientists and the public. I am a lover of science. Though it is not my major field of study, I supplement my academic career with excursions into the sciences to feed my interest. I would even go so far as to say that I pride myself on my scientific literacy as opposed to those in the liberal arts who lack this fundamental element of education. But how incredibly offended I was to read the title of this article. Really? You want the world to see your face and worship you as a billionaire playboy hero? No, not people who actually care about science, you want the awesome label of Scientist: Hero. How fucking conceited do you have to be to use a comic book reference to flame on comic book fans? Shame on you, for your elitist behavior flying under a false flag of modesty.

    Did you really ask this? “does the public really need to know about what’s going on in the frontiers of science, and what should we tell them?” Yes, you did. That exceptionally ignorant utterance should climb its way back up into the dark crevices of your ass. Why not just take the stance of Newton, who abhorred the dissemination of science to the masses? How about we just keep the science for the select few and only this aristocratic body can discuss this or that breakthrough?

    “One can argue whether speculative, unproven science should be discussed publicly.” That one can join the party in your respective bowels. Are you seriously suggesting that the suppression of ideas is arguable? Why don’t we just start the burning of the books right now? How do we draw the line between speculation and science in that respect? Maybe just censor all fiction as well? How despicably Orwellian of you.

    “I don’t even think “ordinary people should know about the Higgs” — but they should hear about it, and be able to learn more if they’re interested.” I was under the impression that maybe I had jumped the gun because I was instantly offended, but then these beautiful gems just continue to drop. Besides the fact that the semantic function of this sentence is paradoxical (people shouldn’t know about the Higgs, but they should hear about it), you have repeated your fondness of an uninformed public. If this is your position, then why do you write books for common consumption?

    I agree to the fullest that science is worth doing because its worth doing and that we don’t require heights of advancement in technology to justify its worth. But, that doesn’t give you the right to shit all over everyone because they happen to be interested in science-fiction as well as science.

    I also find it quite an error on the part of the author not to note the inherent criticism that is urged from a comparison of Iron Man and Big Bang Theory. I find it almost impossible to find any piece of fiction that doesn’t vilify science and scientists, every Iron Man story has done so, especially the recent cinematic adventures in which every villain is a scientist gone mad using science to kill and destroy. Whereas Big Bang Theory is a sitcom that has made the attempt (successfully) to portray scientists as they are: actual working people, not evil geniuses mocked in lab coats. If you are attempting to place blame on the show for portraying scientists as nerdy, then we can’t hold a rational conversation because your ignorance is astonishing. Science and its lovers have been stuck with that title long before modern science was present. It is a badge I wear with honor. If you don’t like comic books or Star Trek or video games, that is fine – your loss. But, don’t blame the banner on those of us who do.

    I have learned that the greatness of a person is grounded by their traits. Geniuses are often eccentric morons, in other words. Much like the man who enabled the use of DNA testing, who whole-heartedly believes that HIV and AIDS are unconnected. What I mean is, we all have our shortcomings and yours is apparently speaking to the public about the public. I guess in the end you are more like Tony Stark: an arrogant snob who shouldn’t belittle his genius to talk to the layperson. Thank you for screaming to the world that your greatest wish is to be the Robert Downey Jr. of science.

  6. There’s an underlying assumption here that seems a bit dated; that people hate and despise nerds. Certainly some people do, often in the same way and for the same kind of psychological reasons people hate and despise(*) gays, but since the dotcom bubble they don’t seem to be viewed in the same way.

    Thankfully, most of the article is not about this idea.

    (*) or use the social weapon of incitement

  7. In reply to #9 by ThereIsGrandeur:

    This is exactly why there needs to exist a buffer between scientists and the public. I am a lover of science. Though it is not my major field of study, I supplement my academic career with excursions into the sciences to feed my interest. I would even go so far as to say that I pride myself on my sc…

    Just wanted to reply to say your post was most enjoyable. A very humorous piece. Even if I personally found “Big Bang Theory” mind-melting teen (even that insults teens) garbage. Hideous stereotypes with incongruous accompaniment by “Laughter.MP3″.
    “Back to the Future”, From which the articles’ picture was captured, is also a steaming pile, as far as anyone versed in film study, or anyone with eyes and ears would be aware. As for all the ‘Tony Stark’ references, perhaps people who need to be “fans” of someone, to be interested in their subject, need to check out Elon Musk. He’s the billionaire entrepreneur and founder of Tesla Motors, and SpaceX. After all it was he, who Downey-Junior interviewed for ‘authenticity’. Parts of the cinema franchise were also filmed in Musk’s laboratory.

  8. …what does the public really need to know about what’s going on in the frontiers of science, and what should we tell them?

    They need to know everything and you should tell them everything. It’s not a one way instead of the other way approach; it must be an all ways approach. Have your Tony, have your boring and have your whatever. You need it all to reach everyone.

    The geniuses out there in the ignorance jungle (the ones who have yet to figure out they are geniuses) who are going to blow your thinking out of the water and make you look like halfwits, they need to see everything so they can quit their coffee shop job and apply themselves.

    • In reply to #12 by aquilacane:

      The geniuses out there in the ignorance jungle (the ones who have yet to figure out they are geniuses) who are going to blow your thinking out of the water and make you look like halfwits, they need to see everything so they can quit their coffee shop job and apply themselves.

      I feel a movie script coming on. :-)

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