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How to celebrate science: Ask questions, get creative, spread the love

Ever wanted to ask a NASA astronomer a question? Michelle Thaller is Big Think's resident space pro, and she is taking questions right now!

Michelle Thaller: So much of science culture, to me, seems like a holdover from the last century. There is still this formalism that’s involved, and to some degree scientific formalism is really needed because the whole point of being a scientist is if you write a scientific paper another scientist should be able to read your paper and set up their instrument just like yours and do exactly the same experiment, and if everything goes right they would get the same result, you know: “Point your telescope at this part of the sky, observe for this long and you’re going to see the same thing that I did.” At least you hope so.

And this formalism now is something that we constantly stumble over because I think scientists have made the mistake that the formalism IS science. It is a tool, it is a part of science, and it’s a useful tool. But science itself is an inquiry, and it’s curiosity. It is not a method. There is no such real thing as a scientific method; people go about being a scientist in many different ways with many different strategies. So there really seems to be this sort of—it almost is a rejection, as a scientist, of being very emotionally connected to your work, of being able to convey that to an audience, and I think that the word that I come up with is the idea of celebrating what we do, celebrating science, the amazing accomplishments, the amazing system we have in place that can invent new technologies, that can make new discoveries.

Celebrating something as simple as that there is a field of study called astrophysics where we’re doing everything from learning what set off the Big Bang to exploring the moons of Jupiter. These are wonderful things to be celebrated. And yet, as scientists, we think that it’s somehow kind of blowing our own horn, it’s very unseemly to do this.

And I often run into scientists that really resist science communicators like me trying to help them visualize their science. I think about exoplanets, planets around other stars. At this moment in time, we know of about 4,000 planets going around other stars in the sky. And we have some data on them. The data is usually just what the mass of the planet is, how big the planet is, whether the planet is solid or gaseous. But so often I run across scientists that just want to present the graphs of their data and they get very upset when we bring in artists—very well-informed artists, by the way—that work with the scientists and say well, you know, with that size of a planet and that distance from the star maybe it would have an atmosphere, maybe it would have clouds. Maybe it even has water on the surface. And we always say, we don’t know these things, but this is based on scientific fact.

A lot of scientists really, really rebel when you try to actually make it something visual and something emotional. It doesn’t seem to really be science if you let that happen.

To me, science is going to die unless science becomes something that everyone can be involved in. It can’t just be the purview of a few privileged people that separate themselves off from the rest of culture. You know, the same thing with art: Art is something that isn’t just done by professional artists. Anyone can draw and paint and dance and become involved in the arts and value the arts because of that. And everyone can ask questions. And everyone can wonder why a sunset is red or wonder what the planet Jupiter is made of. It’s not something that should be cordoned off and made into something separate from the rest of human life. And I actually think the survival of science depends on that. 

So as scientists it’s up to us to celebrate what we do, to celebrate the things we’re discovering, to celebrate ourselves, to actually say that this is something worth doing. To me, science has added so much beauty and richness to my life and so much emotion. And we start by telling people that, you know, “Come along and see what we’re learning and see how it changes your life.” And I mean that. Your life will be changed when you learn the things that we know—for the better.

And then all of a sudden it’s not something just done in an ivory tower by a few people. It’s anybody who can ask a question, any child that says, “Why?” That whole entirety of science, that whole spectrum has to be something that professional scientists curate and really encourage to grow.

Ever wondered why a sunset is red, or what the planet Jupiter is made of? Questions are the launchpad of every scientific journey, and now you have the chance to ask yours to a real NASA astronomer. Michelle Thaller, assistant director of science communication at NASA, will be answering questions from Big Thinkers, like you! To submit your question, click here. In this video, Thaller explains why questions are so beautiful, and why making science accessible to everyone enriches our world. It's public curiosity that allows science to flourish. "To me, science is going to die unless science becomes something that everyone can be involved in. It can’t just be the purview of a few privileged people that separate themselves off from the rest of culture. You know, the same thing with art: art is something that isn’t just done by professional artists. Anyone can draw and paint and dance and become involved in the arts and value the arts because of that. And everyone can ask questions," Thaller says. If there's something you've always wanted to know, submit your question here.

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