The Incubator

Hatching conversations about science

On the Importance of Fun

By Dan Gareau, @LASER_Beam

having fun einstein

This guy knew how to have fun.

Science is a creative process and scientists are creative people who like to have fun… but scientists are not known for being flashy. A paper in Cell or Nature is typically where scientists stop and where the threshold of “success” has been set. However, there is another direction that is rarely taken: distilling and polishing scientific content for non-scientists.

When scientists do more to explain how science relates to nearly every aspect of our lives, the results are far-reaching. Take the popular blog, “It’s Okay to Be Smart,” and the graduate student behind it, Joe Hanson. In just over a year, Joe managed to provide enough valuable content to land him on Time magazine’s 2012 list of must-see Tumblrs, and eventually helped him get his own YouTube show on science. His effort is helping to raise public awareness of science, and to show that science is, in fact, cool. But, Joe is only one scientist out of many that actually speaks to a broad audience.

Why don’t more scientists do this? The problem is that science is hard, and communicating science to a general audience takes a ton of effort – an effort that is often outside the bounds of the primary job description. Plus, packaging the message for general audiences is a skill that is very difficult to master. The good news is that science is inherently awesome, and it seems that the market for fun and interesting scientific tidbits is growing.

While Science Outreach has been a focus of many institutions, including The
Rockefeller University
, the definition of outreach is inconsistent and often confined to young students. However, with the ever-increasing power of the internet, we are seeing a geek revolution on the horizon and it is important to prepare for this nerd-friendly uprising by doing more than just talking to students. The outreach revolution needs leaders: pioneers who toss conventional approaches out the window and do something a little wild. Our ever-evolving technological landscape is changing how we do everything, and scientists would be wise to learn from pioneers past, like Edison and Picasso and Feynman. To help foster these new ideas and pioneering approaches, scientists need to give themselves some freedom to have fun, and team up with non-scientists to harness the results.

And scientists really are fun. Take the RU 2012 Halloween party, which was thrown by scientists, for scientists. It was the kind of social event that provided an opportunity for people let loose a bit and dance, but with a scientific twist: a science-themed costume contest. The winners were a set of viruses with their companion, a white blood cell.

Scientists Going Viral!

Scientists Going Viral!

I could easily see these characters in an educational video for kids (AKA future voters) that would foster a “pro-science” mentality. Mixing deep scientific content with a virally catchy groove could hook parents too, impacting their future votes in favor of science and science education.

Why aren’t these things readily available? Scientist’s aren’t flashy, and there aren’t many wanna-be stars in our midst. One path to success may involve a collaboration between science-friendly forces in Hollywood such as the sci-fi legend George Lucas and Hollywood-friendly forces in science such as Neil deGrasse Tyson.

Another great vessel for fun and exciting scientific content is music, but music about science has largely fallen short of delivering high quality content with pop sensibility. One exception is the 2009 release of Here Comes Science by They Might Be Giants, which featured the theme song from The Big Bang Theory. The content of the theme song is good and the quality of the music is excellent, but these high-quality works are few and far between. It remains challenging to distill scientific content without “dumbing it down.” Perhaps this can be resolved by opening up a dialogue between scientists and the artists.

To do just that, I recently recently launched the Sound Science project, which combines sound-based scientific content with pop sensibility. I am not a musician, but there are musicians out there that love science. Two such musicians are Martin
Zarzar
and Dave Eggar. What started out as just a fun project has since spawned 14 songs and 5 music videos… so far.

Depicting fun and wonder in science is essential to hooking the next generation. At Sound Science project, we’re trying to polish a scientific work for public display to inform voters and future-voters about science. We hope to create a scientifically educated base for the United States as we face our science- and technology-focused future.

In the end, it is important to remember: nothing is more attractive than fun. Scientists have a lot more fun than what the public sees. For all the scientists out there, I challenge you to polish up a gem of your own and toss it out into the public spotlight. You might be surprised at who likes it. For everyone else: pick a nerdy fun topic and get your geek on!

You can start with our videos here and here!

These views are the work of individual authors, do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of The Rockefeller University, and are not approved or endorsed by The Rockefeller University.

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1 Comment

  1. We clearly need more non-scientists who like science and get excited about science and have access to science. A pessimist might say we have too many PhD’s for too few spots– so we don’t really need more scientists. In this case, the Lady Gaga parody is a fine message. An optimist might say we DO need more PhDs and we also need WAY more “spots.”

    The fact is that science is harder now-a-days with all the funding trouble and we DO fail a lot… but failure is a necessary part of progress.

    “I think failure, as long as it’s followed by success, is a really good thing. It builds a certain resilience. And you have to be persistent if you’re going to work on difficult problems.”
    http://www.the-scientist.com/?articles.view/articleNo/32274/title/Sweet-Smell-of-Success/flagPost/65002/

    Pointing out the flaws of something is one way to make it better, but expanding the excellent qualities is another. We need to get people excited about science, then we need to keep them interested by making science readily accessible, and then we need to make sure that we’re actually doing a good job within ‘science’ itself.

    Scientists are getting more honest and out in the open (twitter is great for this). I like seeing their moods and their problems and their struggles– it makes famous scientists feel like real people. For young scientists, it makes success seem more attainable. It makes scientist’s lives more relatable.

    I’m interested in the extramural sentiment, because that’s what’s going to drive funding. Particularly, how does the pessimistic approach versus the optimistic approach strike you? How is it received? I’d like to see some feedback from science journalists, educators and students about {A} the aforementioned Lady Gaga parody:

    http://youtu.be/Fl4L4M8m4d0

    versus {B} the latest Sound Science production Dark Matter:

    http://youtu.be/jq0dQx7RWv8

    here’s how I compare them:
    {A} 3,925,276 views
    {B} 127 views

    {A} 7 actors
    {B} 3 actors

    {A} Lots of scientist-connectable comic gems
    {B} A few poetic double entendres

    {A} description of the sucky side of science
    {B} description of wonder and excitement

    So how does it make you (the non-professional scientist) feel? This is important feedback (especially any critical feedback) for my bi-directional translational research. That is: 1) translate science content for pop culture and 2) translate pop sensibilities into the science realm. The goal is to ENCOURAGE both factions. Negative sentiments are generally easier to popularize but the question is: can the pure diesel that drives science (wonder) be polished in this multifaceted way for interdisciplinary luster?

    So questions I’d like answered by the readership are:

    1) how do {A} and {B} make you FEEL about science?

    2) what aspects of {B} should be omitted to improve the likelihood that YOUR FRIENDS would chuckle, be intrigued and “share?”

    3) What is the first thing that pops into your mind when you hear the word “Science?”

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