Colleges and research facilities around the world are filled with brilliant men and women working hard to expand what it is we know and understand about our universe, but it's a rare scientist who can step out of the lab and explain their work in a way that captures the imagination of the general public. Yet in an era of ever-increasing dependence on science and technology - not to mention an increasing ability to cause self-inflicted harm through their misuse or misunderstanding - good communications between the public and the scientific community are imperative.
Credit: smbc-comics.comThere are many good science journalists who help fill the gap, but their work is often buried behind the headline-grabbing sensational stories that, more often than not, get everything wrong. Even the bad science stories get buried if a reality TV star gets divorced or a politician gets caught having an affair. So it's incumbent upon the scientists themselves to grab attention away from American Idol and bolster interest in science and science education.
The five men listed below are the ones who, in my opinion, have had the greatest impact on the public perception of science in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. All have been called on for talk shows, science-oriented television series, and even roles in fictional shows or films (often appearing as themselves). All speak passionately about the wonders of science and manage to convey through metaphor and simple, sometimes poetic language the mysteries of life, the universe, and everything (to borrow a phrase).
Part of Hawking's fame comes from his inspiring personal story: Diagnosed at age 21 with ALS, he was told he probably had only about two years to live. This year he turned 70. Wheelchair-bound and unable to exert more than the slightest voluntary muscle control - for many years he's relied on computers mapping his eye movements just to speak - he still managed to revolutionize astrophysics, write multiple bestsellers, marry, and father several children. (He likes to joke that it's only his voluntary muscles he can't control.)
Even putting aside the obstacles he's had to overcome, Hawking's contributions to both science and the public's understanding of it are nothing short of amazing. He authored A Brief History of Time and The Universe in a Nutshell, and other works - books that are considered seminal snapshots of our current understanding of the universe, but written in accessible language. He's made many television appearances, even showing up on episodes of Star Trek, Futurama, Red Dwarf, and The Simpsons. (How many cosmologists can you name who not only been a Simpsons character, but had that character turned into an action figure?) His digital voice has been used in music recordings by Pink Floyd and other bands. He even co-authored a science-themed fictional children's book with his daughter.
"Rock star" scientists are often criticized by their less publicized compatriots for spending more time talking about science than actually doing it. This certainly can't be said for Hawking. When he wasn't busy with his public appearances, he found time to formulate groundbreaking theories about black holes, the Big Bang, and the density and structure of the universe. It's for good reason that he's viewed by many as the intellectual successor to Albert Einstein.
He even has a form of radiation named after him!
This Oxford zoologist has in recent years become a controversial figure through his anti-religious stance as summarized in his bestseller The God Delusion. But those who would discount his other work because they take umbrage at his views on the divine are doing themselves a disservice.
Bestsellers like The Selfish Gene, The Blind Watchmaker, and the more recent The Greatest Show On Earth discuss the evidence for the theory of evolution and many of its nuances, mechanisms, and implications. In Unweaving the Rainbow he argued that understanding the world around us did nothing to reduce its beauty, and in fact made it more beautiful. His latest work is an illustrated book called The Magic of Reality, aimed at inspiring awe for the natural world and teaching critical thinking skills to children and young adults. He coined the term "meme" - a unit of cultural ideas somewhat analogous to a gene in biology - that's become part of the lexicon of anyone discussing societal fads, trends, and changes.
Dawkins has been a vocal opponent of dangerous pseudo-science like homeopathy and a champion of science education and scientific literacy. He's a frequent talk show guest, especially in the UK, and has participated in a number of television documentaries. While he hasn't been a Simpsons character yet, he's appeared as himself on Doctor Who and been parodied on South Park.
Nye lived a double life as an engineer and a stand-up comic until he discovered he could combine his passions. He launched a career that used humor and real-world examples to illustrate scientific principles in ways that grabbed people's interest. He is of course best known for his 1993-1998 television show, "Bill Nye the Science Guy", which helped kindle scientific curiosity in a generation of young people. That was followed later by a more adult-oriented "The Eyes of Nye". In addition to his own shows, he's made frequent appearances on TV news to discuss scientific issues, and has had roles in a variety of fictional shows and films. Nye's voice narrates rides at Disney's Epcot and Animal Kingdom.
Bill has served as the vice president and then Executive Director of The Planetary Society and is a fellow on the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, an organization dedicated to the promotion of critical thinking and science education.
Neil DeGrasse Tyson
Credit: Twitter.comAstrophysicist Tyson often speaks in awed tones about his first visit to the Hayden Planetarium as a child; a city-dweller who seldom saw a starry sky, he looked up at the images projected on the ceiling and decided that studying that sky was what he wanted to do with his life. He's now the director of that planetarium, host of ScienceNOW on PBS and of a popular podcast called StarTalkRadio. He's been involved in numerous other documentaries on PBS, and is a regular on Real Time with Bill Maher, The Daily Show, and The Colbert Report. He's been a member of multiple presidential commissions on space exploration and held multiple officer positions for the Planetary Society. In 2011 it was announced that he's working with Ann Druyan (Carl Sagan's widow and long-time collaborator, and herself quite the science communicator) on a new Cosmos series (bankrolled, oddly enough, by the creator of the cartoon Family Guy).
Oh, Carl, how we geeks miss you! It's not just about the Cosmos TV series and accompanying book. It's not just teaching us to say "bill-yuns and bill-yuns" in that peculiar way - in fact, you never used the phrase until you turned it into the title of your final book. It wasn't your Pulitzer prize for The Dragons of Eden, the baloney detection kit and garaged dragon in The Demon-Haunted World, or your frank discussion of mankind's place in the universe in Pale Blue Dot. It wasn't even your foray into science fiction with Contact.
All those works were influential and inspirational, but the root of your appeal and success was this one simple fact: you made science poetic.
More than a decade after Sagan's death, his memory is still celebrated and his words are quoted often. A popular YouTube channel called The Sagan Series sets his voice recordings over original music and inspiring imagery. He was even transformed into a singer for the inaugural video in the Symphony of Science series, where he (and all the others on this list) have become frequent vocalists.
The sky calls to us.
If we do not destroy ourselves,
we will one day venture to the stars.
A still more glorious dawn awaits -
not a sunrise, but a galaxy rise,
a morning filled with four hundred billion suns:
the rising of the Milky Way.