I somehow overcame my inherent fear of high schools, and protected by only a suit of business casual armor I stood in front of twenty-odd sophomores to teach them about science communication. The fact that this had been my high school, if only for a year, made me all the more nervous. This was the kind of miserably urban place where a student had to swim against the tide to succeed. I was only nineteen that morning, but I dressed to be mistaken for thirty. The thought of being mistaken for a student and treated accordingly terrified me. When I was fourteen, a security guard knocked me face-first into a wall as he rushed to break up a fight.
When I saw the students, my anxiety evaporated. Here were the boys trying to keep their grades up so they could go to Florida for spring training, the girls popping bubble gum, the angry daughters of alcoholics and the struggling sons of migrant workers. They reminded me of the friends I’d left behind when I’d run from Vineland High. I wanted to leave them with something valuable. I needed to give them something I hadn’t gotten, something I’d run away looking for.
My Powerpoint was bare-bones at best, but I managed to talk to them for the full forty minutes of their class about how important it was for them to understand scientific information. Scientific literacy, I pressed, wasn’t about memorizing the periodic table. Scientific literacy meant being able to understand information that was presented to you. It was about being able to process information for yourself. We don’t all need to know how a jet engine works, but we should know enough about the laws of physics to understand that magicians can’t actually make things disappear. Being scientifically literate means that you’re that much harder to fool.
You all write lab reports, I said, so who can tell me what they’re for? Silence.
There are several acceptable answers, and “because our teacher makes us” is not one of them. Science, I explained, is a field in which results must be reproducible. If something happens once and never again, it might as well not have happened at all. The lab report is designed to allow someone who wasn’t looking over your shoulder as you performed your experiment to reproduce it on their own. Its purpose is to explain the purpose, method, procedure, and outcome of what you’ve done in the lab.
Lab reports, I told the students, evolve into research papers. Those dense, scary–looking articles (not that any of these students had ever seen one) are really just high school lab reports on steroids. The purpose is still the same. A researcher needs to make others understand their research, or it doesn’t count. Did they really think that scientific discoveries just happened, and were never questioned? Yes. They did.
In every class, there were at least three students who seemed fascinated, asking question after question, polite if not enraptured. There were also at least three in every group who put their heads down and fell asleep. The rest filled the entirety of the spectrum between two extremes of public education, dividing their time between my voice and their chipping nail polish, pencils digging dirt clods out of a prized pair of Nike sneakers.
I told them stories about “science” articles that had been published by idiots or liars, leading thousands of readers to false conclusions. Did they understand, for example, the implications of a newspaper article claiming that vaccines could cause autism? Here was an instance where fear-mongering had sold a lot of papers and caused the deaths of innocent children. The misunderstandings could layer upon each other to the point of disaster: A reporter misreads a scientific paper, passing along a hysterical article to his editor. The editor reads what he wants to, either missing the lack of evidence or ignoring it in his rush to publish. The reader takes this information for granted, as do hundreds of other writers who cite the article as a source. Some readers take the information to heart, and decide not to vaccinate their children against diseases that they feel aren’t a threat. A parent assumes that polio no longer exists, since they’ve never known anyone with it, not understanding that this is the result of an extremely effective vaccination program. Their child contracts polio, facing life permanently disabled. Their infant cousin, under the age when the vaccine is recommended, catches the virus from them and it spreads through their nursery school, causing a dozen deaths.
A dramatic example of the misuse of science by the media, but not a fictional one.
I pointed out how little politicians even talked about scientific issues to the press during elections. I asked them to think of popular culture that presented science, or even scientists, in a positive light. No one could name anything more recent than Bill Nye, but they were just old enough to get nostalgic over him. Until that moment, most seemed to have forgotten how much they’d once loved watching a guy in a bow-tie talk about science on TV every afternoon.
I’m not proud: I looked for a good angle to use to get to them. I told jokes, I talked about science as if it was a great way to fight “the man” (which, hey, it is), and I flaunted my young-adult knowledge of their favorite shows and pop-icons. While throwing out the names of some prominent science communicators, I introduced Stephen Hawking as someone they’d probably seen on The Simpsons a few times. Sure enough, they knew who he was in that context. Did they know he was a physicist, or that he’d survived to age seventy with a disease that should have killed him by thirty? No, but they were fascinated to learn.
A boy asked me if writing about aliens counted as “science writing.” However facetiously it was asked, it was an excellent question. Sure, I said, as long as some research went into the speculation. Did he know that Stephen Hawking loved talking about aliens, and time travel too? I was practically drooling at the prospect of getting him interested in something specific, but he thought I was joking. Scientists, he’d always been taught, were serious, boring people who crunched numbers and poured chemicals into test tubes all day. They didn’t use their scientific knowledge to dream about the unknown. I promised him that Stephen Hawking did more than stare at the sky and see balls of gas: He stared at the sky and saw infinite possibilities. I directed the student to the proper literature.
I don’t think I changed any lives, but over the course of the day I got to teach over one hundred students something new. If half of them were listening, that’s fifty sophomores who learned something. A small and yet staggering feat in the world of science communication.
That’s all I was hoping to do. At the end of every class, I played a Symphony of Science video on YouTube. The videos take clips from interviews and lectures of famous science communicators, then use auto-tune software to create music from them. In one clip, Neil DeGrasse Tyson spoke about the fact that we all contain molecules that were present at the birth of the Universe: “I know that the molecules in my body are traceable to phenomena in the cosmos. That makes me want to grab people on the street and say: ‘Have you HEARD THIS?” In the video, he shakes an imaginary person violently, shouting in excitement. I know that feeling all too well. You don’t have to know these things, but you should. I wanted to grab each and every one of those students and tell them, one on one, exactly how much the world could open up to them if they made it their business to understand science.
I wanted to tell them how beautiful the world looks to me now that I understand even the smallest fraction of how it works.