A tribute to science communicators

This month’s blog is a tribute to authors and presenters of a specific genre who have influenced me over the years, including one whose book I am yet to read. The genre is ‘science communication’. Science writers and communicators typically have a unique blend of scientific background and story-telling prowess. I have great respect for science communication and consume it avidly.

My wife and I recently watched a documentary about Rachel Carson, a marine biologist-turned-science writer whose book Silent Spring and other writings were a catalyst for the global environmental movement. While I’m yet to read Carson’s book, now that I know about it I can say that I’ve have definitely felt her influence through my life.

Watching the documentary got me thinking about other science writers who have helped make a connection between scientific ideas and real-world experience, and inspired me at various times of my life. Like David Attenborough who has devoted almost all of his 92 years so far to environmental education and entertainment; the late Stephen Jay Gould who so cleverly explained evolutionary theory in spell-binding ways; Carl Sagan who brought the universe into people’s living rooms in full colour; and Stephen Hawking explaining space and time through the story of science itself.

To finish this tribute, here’s a snippet from a July 1991 NBC Today Show interview with Stephen Jay Gould on his book of collected essays Bully for Brontosaurus:

BRYANT GUMBEL, anchor: “You know, essays on science are generally about as popular as getting a root canal. But Stephen Jay Gould has gained rare stature as a popular writer of such things. A paleontologist by training, Gould teaches science survey courses to standing-room-only crowds at Harvard. And he’s a regular contributor to Natural History magazine. The best of his essays are now available in a book titled ‘Bully for Brontosaurus’. Professor Gould, how are you?”
GOULD: “Good morning.”
GUMBEL: “Why–why–why’s the word science, for openers, just make must–most of us cringe and–and turn away, let alone an essay about science?”
GOULD: “It shouldn’t, ’cause it’s the most fascinating subject in the world. It teaches us about the structure of the physical world and ourselves and why we’re here. I think it’s gotten a bum rap in part because of the jargon that scientists use, in part because it’s perceived as difficult, but that’s only because it’s sometimes badly taught. In fact, there’s a lot of fascination for science….”
GUMBEL: “You operate in–in an unusual fashion. I’m going to ask you to explain it. I mean, you start with kind of, can I say a fact or a factoid?”
GOULD: “Yes.”
GUMBEL: “And–and move from there into a more general thought?”
GOULD: “I hate to engage very big subjects directly, ’cause it can get so tendentious. How do you write about the meaning of life? It’s much better to deal with any of the millions of fascinating and odd little facts of nature, and then move from that to discuss more general issues.”
GUMBEL: “You refer to that as–as–and I hope I’m–I’m quoting you correctly–as–as `The vulgarization of–of science.’ Why shouldn’t I be insulted at that?”

GOULD: “Oh, because it’s a different sense of the word. Vulgar simply comes from the Latin meaning common, but not in the negative sense. In Europe, for example, vulgarization is a positive word meaning the attempt to convey knowledge to intelligent people, in general, outside of disciplinary boundaries. So it’s a positive word, and I use it in that sense.”
GUMBEL: “OK, so it’s an attempt to–to make what is…”
GOULD: “Attempt to make science accessible to everybody.”