I was interviewed the other day by a journalist who asked me the following questions: Why is science outreach important? What does it matter whether people know anything about what is going on at the forefront of esoteric areas like cosmology? My response was colored by a recent experience giving a lecture to inaugurate the International Year of Astronomy at UNESCO headquarters in Paris.
I was lecturing on “The Impact of Modern Cosmology on Culture.” And the point that really hit home as I prepared my lecture is the fact that the existence of the Big Bang really deeply permeates the modern Zeitgeist. The discovery in 1929 that the Universe was expanding, combined with Le Maitre’s realization that Einstein’s General Relativity required a Big Bang (a fact that Einstein ridiculed until he realized it was correct), meant the Universe has a beginning.
The fact that this remark may seem trivial reflects how deeply it has become a part of our cultural makeup. Until Hubble, the conventional scientific wisdom was that the universe was essentially static and eternal. Nowadays, however, no one doubts a universal instant of creation, whether or not they call it a Big Bang. It is so much a part of daily life that a popular television show can adapt the name and still be popular.
Now, does it matter that the television show The Big Bang Theory has nothing to do with the Big Bang? Not to me it doesn’t. Any more than The Thomas Crown Affair used art as a mere backdrop for an action adventure. Science needs to be more heavily integrated into our culture, for reasons I will comment on in a minute, and if one way to begin the process is for it to be a poorly stereotyped backdrop in a television comedy, that is okay. I could certainly hope for better, and maybe one day I will witness it. But for the moment, somewhere out there some kid will wonder what it is those two nerds are really talking about, and maybe that will lead him or her to pick up a book…
Indeed that is the real reason for outreach. Science has produced some of the most remarkable intellectual leaps that humans have made, and we need to celebrate these as we do art, literature, music, and theater. It is simply tragic that we do not share the scientific enlightenment as broadly as we share our other cultural developments. Not because any of these may have practical spinoffs, but because by celebrating these we celebrate what is truly best about being human.
So, I write books in part to return the favor that was done to me. When I was a kid, I got turned on to science by reading popular books by Einstein, Gamow, and others. And if I can now turn a kid onto science, whether or not they pursue science as an activity, I find that immensely gratifying. Because if science gets more ingrained in our collective cultural consciousness then I think the some cultural spinoffs of science—things like a truly global appreciation of ideas independent of myopic cultural jealousies—may actually have a chance to make the world a better place in which to live, think, play, and create.