I, Scientist Evangelist.

So I guess I should start with a confession. I'm not a scientist, I studied English literature at University and teaching the English language to Korean children is the way in which I feed myself from day to day. Since I lack a white coat, couldn't begin to interpret the mathematics of M-Theory and have never worn reading glasses in my life the public at large would perhaps assume I have no understanding of science whatsoever and am therefore not worth listening to. This is exactly the combustible mix of technology and ignorance that Carl Sagan alluded to before his death. CERN induced black hole paranoia, climate change denial, bizarre nuclear weapons policies, bamboozling allocation of public funds and of course the ability of creationism's lupine offspring intelligent design to hide itself snugly in the most absurd of sheep skins can all be attributed at least partially to the lack of scientific understanding held by the “general public”. This unquestioning belief that if one does not have the letters Sc somewhere after their name then the very idea of empirical thinking had better be left to someone more qualified.

For me the pertinent question is: How can a non-scientist like me go about improving the public understanding of science when I myself admit to being as qualified to lecture on Physics as I am to fly a plane? I believe the answer is in coming out of the closet as a non-scientist who is passionate about science. No one expects to see nothing but young, drunk, Juilliard undergrads stumbling out of the music venues and nightclubs of the world. You do not need a grade eight piano certificate to purchase an Ipod any more than I need to hold my university transcripts to read a book. What is there then to stop a history student or a telemarketing sales consultant from putting his friends hands on a cold beer at the end of a hard shift and explaining the second law of thermodynamics? Perhaps the not unfounded fear that the friend may raise an eyebrow or even walk away. This is possible but not beyond remedy. I believe a public aversion to science, and the belief that if it is 'difficult' it can't be fun exists merely through social conditioning. I don't think there is a gene that splits the human race down the line of Jersey Shore or Johannes Kepler.

See photographic evidence

I doubt I have to say the diagram is not to scale and if we could all overlook the questionable appearance of the comet’s tail I can say I presented this to a room of Korean elementary school students who are learning English as a second or third language. Some of them had never heard of the concept of orbit but by the end of the class I'm quite confident they all had a decent understanding. Not only that, but they were visibly excited by these new ideas. Who wouldn't be? This whiteboard diagram is where we live. Why wouldn't a person be curious about their place in the universe?

A future vision of a society that embraces science and is as literate in scientific ideas as it is in The Beatles discography is no doubt a long way off. However I believe we must all of us make some heavy sacrifices (not limited to appearing to be a 'geek' in front of sexually attractive members of the human race) and become evangelists of the joy of science. This isn't an endorsement of so called 'aggressive' atheism. I neither condemn nor condone what you might call the “Dawkins movement” but do believe it has more to say about religion than it does science. Instead the next time a friend admires the night sky, remind them that they are staring back through time. A piece of information which of course will be of no practical use in their day to day life but as Bertrand Russell tells us. “There is much pleasure to be gained from useless knowledge.” So go grab someone you love, buy them a drink and tell them how you know they've been drinking Isaac Newton's pee.


  1. I think you had me until the last sentence... starting off with "Isaac Newton's pee" is like starting people off on the Mighty Boosh with the Old Greg episode : got to ease some people in so they don't recoil in horror.

  2. Hmm.. do you think non-scientists are more effective at sparking interests in the sciences? Certainly there is a problem where trained scientists either can't communicate, don't have time to communicate, or don't want to communicate with the public. Outreach is quite challenging.

  3. Hello Matt, welcome to the blog!

    I am not a scientist (any more), but I agree entirely. Although, in my opinion, the big problem in public understanding of science is transitioning from the Lies to Children stage of scientific explanations to a level of understanding sufficient to participate in scientific debate. Everybody should have a sense of scale of the solar system, everybody should know why the periodic table is periodic, and everybody should know a single cell contains the entire necessary code for life. If you don't know these facts, you are hopeless ignorant, and I feel nothing but pity for you. Seriously.

    But the next level, understanding why we don't have a space program anymore, how to design a chemical synthesis, or what a certain SNP mutation means for a person's risk of developing cancer, is far harder, and far more important.

    Facts and better classes are a step, but I think what we need are better para-scientific toys. I loved blocks as a kid, and if Lego Mindstorms had come out even 3 years earlier, I might be a roboticist today. We need similar interactive toys for chemistry, biology, neuroscience, and various aspects of computing, electrical engineering, and robotics.

    I guess, really what I'm trying to say is we need to make Babby's First Cyclotron.

  4. Slightly off topic but... why is the periodic table periodic? I assume it has something to do with the fact that there are only so many ways to arrange a standing wave of a point charge attracted to another point charge, but even this might still be in the realm of lies-to-children.

    There must be a way to make good policy without everyone having an in-depth knowledge of every relevant scientific field. I would think it's more important to understand how to form beliefs given input from a panel of "experts", some of which are lying to you. As far as I know this is an open problem.

  5. So, I was thinking, we should help Matthew's enthusiasm for science reach a broader audience. Any ideas about how to do this? Doing stuff online is weird -- you can't really control who reads your stuff. I think places like Spacecollective probably have a lot of dedicated non-scientist readership who are interested in science, but I've found their interest to less critical and more spiritual. Reddit www.reddit.com/r/science and www.reddit.com/r/askscience are actually pretty reasonable forums for community-driven interaction between scientists and non-scientists, but don't reach out beyond the reddit community. I'm out of ideas here -- besides sharing links on Facebook. There has to be some level between the near-anonymous blogger and the syndicated television series where we can make a difference. What is it?