7 Pioneers of Science Communication

By: Laurie-Anne Vazquez 11/01/2015 7:00PM
Category: People

Science is a tricky thing to explain to the general public. The concepts get bogged down in technical details and theory, and the takeaways are difficult to summarize in bite-sized nuggets -- meaning, it’s hard to make non-scientists care about science because it’s almost un-tweetable. Thankfully, there are science communicators out there who are making it work. The most famous was Carl Sagan, an enormously influential science advocate. In honor of his birthday on November 9, we present 7 of today’s most effective science communicators, all of whom carry on his spirit. 

 

Cara Santa Maria

Founding science correspondent for The Huffington Post? Check. Hosting her own web series Talk Nerdy to Me while also co-hosting TechKnow on Al Jazeera America? Double-check. A masters degree in biology with a concentration in neuroscience, which she used to teach lab courses and perform neuronal cell culture duties and electrophysiology research at the University of North Texas? Check and mate. Cara Louise Santa Maria is both a scientist and a science advocate, and as a journalist, producer, television host, and podcaster, she’s doing everything she can to get more people to talk -- and care -- about science. With 20,000+ YouTube subscribers alone, she’s effective, partly because she actually talks to scientists and can translate academic language into plain English, but also because she projects an image of effortless cool. From her funky glasses and lip ring, to co-hosting a live brain surgery on Nat Geo, Santa Maria makes science sexy. 

Check out her clarification of GMOs here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XvwSc6YfoK0

 

Bill Nye

Credit: Popular Science

William Sandford Nye will never escape the nickname “Bill Nye the Science Guy” - and he doesn’t want to. A mechanical engineer turned stand-up comedian turned PBS host, Nye taught generations of children about scientific concepts, from the workings of the human body to the planetary orbits on the show that solidified that nickname. Combining accurate, kid-friendly scientific facts with creative staging, simple experiments, comedy sketches, and the most awesome science lab ever, Nye was the cool science teacher we all wished we’d had. Even though his show has been off the air for 17 years, Nye’s passion for science hasn’t waned one bit. Between developing an hydraulic pressure resonance suppressor for Boeing’s 747 planes, sundial technology used on the Mars rover, explaining asteroid collisions for the web series “ASAP Science,” acting as the technical advisor for the show Battlebots, and applying to be an astronaut every few years, Nye keeps himself busy sharing scientific facts in as many ways as he can -- up to and including appearances on fellow advocate Neil Degrasse Tyson’s podcast. He’s even been on Dancing with the Stars, cha-chaing to -- what else? -- “Weird Science.” 

Watch him explain how moonlight is really sunlight reflected off moon rocks below. Fair warning: the theme will be stuck in your head for days:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-EtqGeFXx54

Lauren Worley

Credit: Stephen Gosling

It’s a hard job to keep the public informed of everything NASA does, but Lauren Worley does it both admirably and hilariously. Growing up on a farm, Worley saw science in action around her all the time and knew she wanted to make it happen. She thought it might have been as a doctor, but discovered that the sight of blood made her woozy, so she pursued her other dream: becoming the real-life version of C.J. Cregg from the TV show The West Wing. After a career working in government relations and public policy, she ended up as an entrepreneur before landing at NASA where she fell in love with its openness and limitless ability to inspire. She’s dedicated the last 4 years of her life to extending that openness to space fans and journalists everywhere, using social media and a warm “class clown” persona to connect with the people who most want to hear her message. She even mentors aspiring women in STEM fields and encourages them to live their dreams while pointing them toward resources. She really is a real-life C.J. Cregg.

 

Chris Hadfield

Credit: Col. Chris Hadfield, YouTube

Retired astronaut Col. Chris Hadfield became a superstar when he went into space, and even though he’s back on Earth, he’s no less popular. As the first Canadian to walk in space and the first Canadian commander of the ISS, Hadfield spent his entire life preparing to go into space. Although Canada didn’t have a space program at the time, Hadfield worked his way up through the Royal Canadian Air Force to become an experimental test pilot before entering an exchange program with the USAF, which helped him get accepted into Canada’s Space program in 1992. He went on his first space mission in 1995, but didn’t become popular on social media until he began chronicling daily life on the ISS in 2013. Video of him singing “Space Oddity” inside the ISS went viral and made him a superstar. Warm, self-effacing, and terrified of spiders, Hadfield does everything he can to share his experiences of space - both wonderful and terrifying - with as many people as possible, knowing full well that he may inspire others in the same way that he was inspired by the moon landing. 

Here’s him describing how he went blind in space (but got better):

https://www.ted.com/talks/chris_hadfield_what_i_learned_from_going_blind_in_space?language=en

 

Alan Alda

Credit: Sundance.org

Normally, when an Academy Award-nominated actor teaches at a university, it’s little more than an honorary position. Not so for Alan Alda. While making his name as Captain Hawkeye Pierce in the TV series M.A.S.H., Alda is also a director, screenwriter, and visiting professor at Stony Brook University. But first and foremost, he’s a scientific thinker: "When I was 11 years old, I asked a teacher what's going on in a flame," he said in a recent interview with The Huffington Post. "It's fascinating. You can put your finger through it but it's hot, it gives off light. What's happening in the flame? And the teacher said, 'It's oxidation.' That was it. I didn't know what that meant." He was so annoyed by that answer that he founded The Flame Challenge, a competition for burgeoning and practicing scientists to explain complicated scientific phenomena to 11-year-old judges. That curiosity spurred Alda to spend the latter half of his life using his skills and profile as a public figure to bridge the communication gap between scientists and the general public. The Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University not only adopts that task as its own mission statement, it’s named for Alda and has him on its board of directors. For all of his work inspiring scientific advocacy, Alda was named an Honorary Fellow by the Society for Technical Communication in 2014 and is also on the advisory board of the Future of Life Institute and the World Science Festival.

 

Elizabeth Kolbert

Credit: Henry Holt

Clear-eyed science writing about topics like climate change are hard to come by, but Elizabeth Kolbert is a safe port in the storm. Best known for her 2006 book Field Notes from a Catastrophe, which sheds light on the scientific causes and effects of climate change, Kolbert is a staff writer for The New Yorker and a professor of environmental studies at Williams College. Her writing is level and clear-headed, which makes perfect sense given that she studied literature at Yale and got her start at The New York Times. Lately she’s taken to Twitter (@ElizKolbert) to clarify the science behind climate change, and is more than happy to go on NPR or The Daily Show to get the message across. She’s even won a Pulitzer Prize for her most recent climate change-inspired science book The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. If you’re looking for a calm, scientifically-grounded voice in the increasingly vociferous climate change debate, Kolbert is it.

 

Neil Degrasse Tyson

Credit: Blastr

The most recognizable scientist of our day, Neil Degrasse Tyson is perhaps the most outspoken science advocator on the planet. A native New Yorker, Tyson was inspired by astronomy during a visit to the Hayden Planetarium at age 9, and obsessively studied astronomy from then on, even lecturing at age 15. He is now its director (and has been for almost 20 years), as well as an internationally respected cosmologist and astrophysicist. Inspired by his hero Carl Sagan (whom he met in 1975), Tyson pursued not only scientific knowledge -- with degrees from Harvard, Princeton, and Columbia, to name a few -- but also scientific communication. He wrote the “Universe” column for Natural History magazine and many popular science books, including Death by Black Hole and Merlin’s Tour of the Universe. Lately, he’s better known for hosting NOVA ScienceNOW on PBS, a re-vamp of Sagan’s Cosmos series titled Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey on FOX, and the show Star Talk on National Geographic, inspired by his podcast of the same name. He is also responsible for coining the term “Manhattanhenge” and infamously causing the IAU to reclassify Pluto as not a planet. No one else on this list comes close to his academic pedigree, but his willingness to share all of that scientific knowledge with the general public -- often by pointing out the science behind pop cultural trends like zombies and sex addiction -- makes him one of the most effective science advocates in recent memory. He would certainly make Sagan proud. 

Here he is explaining the science of video games:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jNTH2JqrdfA

 

Honorable Mentions:

 

Jennifer Ouellette 

Credit: Jenniferouellette-writes.com

As the writer behind Cocktail Party Physics, she’s a woman after our own heart. Describing it as “physics with a twist,” Ouellette covered all sorts of physics-related topics like black hole entropy and frozen lightning in quirky ways, and has a penchant for explaining Newtonian mechanics with jujitsu (because she’s a black belt). While she’s just wrapped her tenure on the blog, we’re super excited that she now writes for Gizmodo

 

Eric Topol 

Credit: Internet Medicine

A cardiologist with 72,900+ Twitter followers (@EricTopol) is something special -- especially when they’re using the platform to pull back the curtain on medical science. Using the medium’s 140-character format to explain medicine and health-related science with infographics and bite-sized knowledge nuggets, Topol is doing everything in his power to show the public that medicine isn’t scary.

 

Symmetry Magazine 

Credit: SLAC Stanford

A Fermilab/SLAC publication that makes particle physics understandable and fun. They just did a feature on why we should, scientifically speaking, be riding around on hoverboards right now. We kind of love them (and are thrilled that the feeling is mutual).

Love science? Get involved at the ground floor of discovery and help make physics happen. Click here to explore science in the making. 

Did we miss your favorite science communicator? Let us know in the comments below!

 

Posted on: 11/01/15 7:00PM
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Laurie-Anne Vazquez
Blog Contributor
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#MakePhysicsHappen @fiatphysica

“Fiat Physica shall hand the steering wheel of scientific innovation to the public, allowing them to contribute to science, communication, and discovery directly.”

Szabolcs Marka

Chair of the Education and Public Outreach Committee, LIGO and Associate Professor of Physics, Columbia University
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