A New Day Is Dawning
In part I of this series I revealed my all-time favourite figures from Scientific history and why I admire them so much. In part II, I've decided to talk about the art of Science communication itself and what I consider the finest examples of the craft. Both my jobs are essentially: "explain Science to people who don't know the Science," so obviously this is something I care about a great deal.
I started compiling the list last week, but as I went along I began to notice something rather surprising...all the stuff I've chosen was created in the last few years. Initially, this made me feel like an uncultured swine, but then I realised something pretty exciting. I've seen Sagan's Cosmos and Bronowski's The Ascent of Man. I've read Darwin's On The Origin of Species and Levi's The Periodic Table and while I don't want to dismiss these towering works, I'm going to say something a little bold...I think Science communication is better today than it ever has been.
It's possible to respect the classics of an art-form, while simultanesouly recognising that contemporary material can outshine it. What's wrong with saying you prefer Stephen King as a storyteller to Charles Dickens? Why can't we admit that Shakespeare wrote garbage (The Taming of the Shrew) as well as genius (A Midsummer Night's Dream)? And why can't we dare admit that maybe, just maybe, Next Generation is better than The Original Series?
Absolutely we should honour the trailblazers which came first, but that doesn't mean we can't improve on them. In fact, isn't that what's supposed to happen with time? Shouldn't we learn from the flaws of the past and do better today? Well, when it comes to Science communication I think we're doing just that.
There has never been a better time to be a Science geek because people are getting more educated about how things work and as literacy improves, so does the quality of explanation. Consider how in the 1950 movie Destination Moon, the main characters walk around the lunar surface without helmets because the general public simply weren't aware there was no air in space. Or how in Superman, Kal-El reverses time by spinning the Earth in the opposite direction because people weren't aware that...it wouldn't work. You couldn't get away with those errors in a movie today because people are more informed. We're smarter than we've ever been, so I'm not ashamed to say that I think the best Science communication is happening right now. Without further ado...
Favourite Science TV Series (Non-Fiction): Planet Earth II
Perhaps it's because I'm not a zoologist and therefore less familiar with the animal kingdom, but every sequence from 2016's Planet Earth II had my jaw on the floor. Narrated by the voice of quality itself, David Attenborough (who writes his own scripts incidentally), Planet Earth II presented the most startling footage of animals and their environments I've ever seen. While Attenborough's recent Netflix series Our Planet is also worth a watch, Planet Earth II has a more optimistic tone. Our Planet puts an emphasis on how much we're screwing the planet up - I mean in fairness, we are - but Planet Earth II reminds us why the planet is worth saving in the first place. Also, Our Planet has an insufferable credits song while Planet Earth II has a score by Hans Zimmer. Planet Earth II wins.
Favourite Science TV Series (Fiction...Sort Of): Chernobyl
A bit controversial as it's not strictly about Science, but I think 2019's Chernobyl is still worth mentioning. Currently ranked #4 on IMDb (Planet Earth II is #1 by the way), Chernobyl shows, in agonising and brutal detail, how the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster occurred and how Soviet Scientists worked to contain and understand the damage, clashing with the political obstructions of their culture. It's a fictionalised account of the real tragedy but it's drawn from transcripts, eyewitness statements and court documents, so while it's not exactly a perfect documentary, it's pretty damn impressive. I started watching it one evening at 7pm and found myself so gripped I binged the whole series in one go, finishing around midnight. It's depressing as hell (the fact it was written by Craig Mazin who wrote Scary Movie 3 is kind of astonishing) but if you can stomach the graphic violence, Chernobyl shows you what Scientific honesty looks like.
Favourite Science Book: Behave by Robert Sapolsky
Robert Sapolsky is probably my favourite living Science writer and his books have genuinely brought me to tears from laughter and sadness. Behave is not only his masterpiece, it is the finest thing he (or anyone else) has written about Scientific knowledge. Sapolsky draws on his expertise in anthropology, primatology, biology, neuroscience, psychology, sociology and philosophy to tackle the human condition itself and figure out why we are the way we are. While it's easy to dismiss difficult questions like "nature vs nurture?" Sapolsky doesn't shy away from them or pull his punches. He gets right down to the nitty-gritty of what we know about behaviour and what makes us act the way we do, covering everything from war to religion to economics to education. I have never felt any book should be compulsory reading because forcing a book on someone will make them hate it, but I might make an exception for Behave. If there was one book every lawmaker, leader, preacher and teacher should read...it's this. Oh, and obviously my book. Duh!
Favourite Science YouTube Channel (Non-Technical): Symphony of Science
This one is just plain old fun. Created by John Boswell, Symphony of Science is a series of music videos assembled from auto-tuned interviews with Scientists and documentary footage. It's kind of hard to describe (check out the one above) but if you want a distilled barrage of cool images set to funky techno-songs about Science, Boswell is your guy. While this series doesn't really educate or explain the facts as such, it encapsulates the fun and wonder of Science perfectly, as well as giving you tunes you'll be humming for days. Science can be playful as well as heavy and it's nice to remember that. Plus if you've ever wanted to hear Bertrand Russell rapping, look no further.
Favourite Science YouTube Channel (Technical): The Theoretical Minimum
So let's say you're wanting to get stuck into the complexities of how modern physics works. Let's say you aren't afraid of putting hours aside to dredge up your high-school math lessons and you want "just the facts ma'am". The guy you want to go see is Leonard Susskind, Richard Feynman's protege and probably the finest Physics lecturer out there. A few years ago, Susskind began a lecture series at Stanford University explaining Physics in full detail and stuck them online for anyone to watch. There's no frills or special effects, but by Thor's hammer, this guy knows his stuff. Be warned, it's "Physics with the hard stuff left in" and there isn't a whole lot of singing, but if you're wanting to be stretched, Susskind's raw approach is for you.
I love science, let me tell you why.