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The best tactic for science education? Leverage the power of pop culture.
Can understanding science make pop culture better, and can understanding pop culture make science more interesting? Absolutely.
Neil deGrasse Tyson was born and raised in New York City where he was educated in the public schools clear through his graduation from the Bronx High School of Science. Tyson went on to earn his BA in Physics from Harvard and his PhD in Astrophysics from Columbia. He is the first occupant of the Frederick P. Rose Directorship of the Hayden Planetarium. His professional research interests are broad, but include star formation, exploding stars, dwarf galaxies, and the structure of our Milky Way. Tyson obtains his data from the Hubble Space Telescope, as well as from telescopes in California, New Mexico, Arizona, and in the Andes Mountains of Chile.Tyson is the recipient of nine honorary doctorates and the NASA Distinguished Public Service Medal. His contributions to the public appreciation of the cosmos have been recognized by the International Astronomical Union in their official naming of asteroid "13123 Tyson".
Tyson's new book is Letters From an Astrophysicist (2019).
Neil DeGrasse Tyson: I guess I'm lucky that my chosen profession is astrophysics because unlike so many other fields of study, especially academic fields of study, in my field we have an essentially completely transparent lexicon so I don't have to translate anything, hardly anything. If I show you a photograph of the sun and you see spots on the sun you say, "What do you call those?" And I say, "We call them sunspots." I show you a picture of Jupiter, "There's that red spot in the southern hemisphere of Jupiter what do you call that?" "We call that Jupiter's red spot." "There is this place for you to fall in and you don't come out and light doesn't escape what do you guys call that?" "Black hole." So I don't see myself translating anything. I don't have to. I celebrate discovery using all the language that is fundamental to my field and what it means is to the person listening they don't have to slog through, navigate through vocabulary to gain access to the interesting idea that's sitting on the other side of it.
So let's take biology, for example. They discovered deoxyribonucleic acid. Now, if you don't know biology these are just syllables coming out of your mouth. Well, what is it? Well, it encodes to the identity of life and it's in the shape of a double helix. So fortunately - double helix - that's a word and there's nothing else really that's a double helix so that's kind of a translated term for deoxyribonucleic acid, but notice you spend all this time just getting through the word before you get to an understanding or a conversation about what it does and how it does it and why. So I'm lucky that my field does not have this lexicon challenge for the educator. But what I also do is I have come to recognize the obvious that everyone exists with a certain pop-culture scaffold that they carry with them. That's the definition of pop culture. So it's not everyone but it's most people. There's a common base of knowledge that we can all reference. We all know what football is in America. We know what we mean when we say football. What is baseball? Who is Beyoncé? Who is Donald Trump? Who is Hillary Clinton? What is the capital building? There are things we just know as part of pop culture. And I say hum, if you already know that then if I clad that…
Once I've recognize that you are walking around with a pop-culture scaffold I can then clad that scaffold, if I think about how to do it, I can clad that scaffold with real and genuine science and you will care about it because I'm attaching it to something that I know in advance you already do care about or already do know about. Just as a quick example I was channel surfing, came across a football game that had just ended in a tie; they went into overtime. I had 15 minutes to kill before my movie came on. I said I'll sit there and watch this overtime period. And I'm watching it and there's the requisite exchange of possession before you go into sudden death overtime.
So they get it to within 50 yards of the goalpost and so they decide to kick a field goal for the win. So I'm watching this, it's exciting. The ball gets hiked; the kick; the ball tumbles and it heads towards the left upright, careens off the left post and in for the win. And I said wait a minute we have a round ball and a cylindrical thing so fractions of an inch matter which way this will bounce off of a post. So I said let me check this out. So I checked the orientation of the stadium, the latitude of the city and I did a calculation and then I tweeted and I said, "The winning field goal by the Cincinnati Bengals in overtime was likely enabled by a third of an inch drift to the right enabled by earth's rotation." And people said "Oh my god you're blowing my mind!" The local news got it and everybody got it, but see what just happened there? So let's just see what happened there, I did not have to explain to you in advance what football is, what a 50-yard field goal is, what the goal post is, I didn't have to explain any of that. You came to the table with that knowledge and then I attached a relevant phenomenon in physics to it and now these are forever connected within you. Of course you want to know that the rotation of the earth helped that field goal kick because a kick going due north or due south will be deflected to the right in the northern hemisphere and that's exactly what happened to that kick. And I used that as an excuse to send out a second tweet saying, "By the way, we call this the Coriolis force," and that's what creates the circulation of all storms, hurricanes, tornadoes, what do they call them in the Pacific, cyclones."
And so I got to slip in a little bit of physics, earth physics, almost for free without sitting you down and starting a lesson plan on the subject. That simply works. Now, what I need is I need a utility belt that I carry with me and say oh that's football I should know enough about football to even go there. I need to know enough about Game of Thrones to comment on what's going on in a scientific way that you might find interesting. I need to know enough about these Olympic sports as they are being conducted so if I comment on it you will care because you care about the half pipe or you care about the slalom skiing or you care about the sprinters, I'm going to attach you to it. So... call it tactical, I don't know, but I have found that people like it and they come back for more and I'm delighted to supply the body of science that I know in the package that you will receive without thinking like you're being lectured to, without thinking of learning something new today as a chore. And I'm delighted to be in a position to do that. By the way, it takes extra time out of my day to stay connected with the pop-culture frontier.
We don't generally get rewarded for knowing the hottest TV shows in the physics lab. The physics lab is like what you watched TV and you should've been in the lab? Why do you know about Beyoncé when you should have been writing a paper? So there's tension there between how one would invest their time and energy. But I guess we can think of it as just making science relevant and I think any good teacher already knows this.
Oh, and one last thing, if I can't find a way to connect the science to your pop culture scaffold I might just skip over it because why sort of weigh down the conversation? Because I'm not here to deliver a curriculum, I'm here to just talk about really cool science. Now, there are... there is science that is so cool that I don't have to attach it to your pop culture scaffold, it's not necessary because it's just so cool. So I will always sort of curate the content in ways that either deliver something that's so cool I don't have to try to fit it into your pop culture scaffold and other parts of science that I think are important and I will find a way to fit it into what you care about. And that leaves dangling some parts of astrophysics that you might not ever hear come out of my mouth.
I'm not worried about that because if you get interested enough in the field you'll dig up that information on your own and you would have crossed the threshold of curiosity where you become a self-learner. Then we're done and I go onto the next person and you rise up and if you don't otherwise become a scientist you'll walk forth, you'll go forth with science literacy that could manifest in other ways, whether you're an attorney, an artist, a poet, a novelist, plenty of ways for science literacy to manifest in this world whether or not you're a scientist.
Pop culture is a great way to frame new information. And a teacher like Neil can make a huge difference. Why spend hours explaining something in great detail when you can simply use what they already know? Pop culture is a great scaffold to build and hang information off of argues Neil deGrasse Tyson. For example: you need to understand basic laws of gravity in order to play Angry Birds, so why spend hours explaining Newton's Law when you can just fling a red bird at a pig? In this video, Neil uses a great anecdote about watching a football game and realizing that physics and science play a huge part in it whether the audience knows it or not. To prove his point, he does the math about the physics of the stadium, combined with certain factors like the angle of the rotation of the earth... to prove just how lucky a particular game-winning field goal was. On the other hand, Neil also explains that science-folk sometimes have a hard time understanding the relevance of pop culture. The two need each other, he argues, to make both fields more accessible to the other side. So, could Beyoncé factor into a discussion about string theory? Perhaps one day. But only if Neil does the talking.
Tyson's new book is Astrophysics for People in a Hurry.
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Credit: Virgin Galactic
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