Popular science.

Amazing Science Stories March 1951, via VISCOOne way to make science more interesting is to make it more relevant. Rocket scientists and astrophysicists have gotten pretty good at this lately: For instance, when they land a spacecraft on Mars they toss off a carefully crafted folksy analogy, such as “it’s like hitting the back of someone’s head in Los Angeles with a spitwad launched in San Francisco.”

Another way to grab people’s attention is to make it more exciting. Wired Science suggests, following Nature‘s editor, that more scientists and science writers should write science fiction:

…here’s a good way to bring people back into the fold of scientificism and away from what Sagan rightly derided as The Demon-Haunted World: Build good science into a ripping yarn full of ray guns and bug-eyed monsters.

This is roughly what the first generation of great science fiction writers, led by Asimov and Clarke, were doing. Both of these writers started out with very solid, hard-science backgrounds and then spun their knowledge of cutting-edge science into yarns full of rayguns and monsters. For them, the “science” in science fiction was preeminent, and for writers like these, I suspect a major role of science fiction was the popularization of science itself. (That, plus having fun.)

Now, some fifty years later (or eighty, depending on when you’re counting from), the most successful SF writers are anchored less in science, and more in social commentary of one sort or another. Whether it’s Cory Doctorow railing against DRM and extolling nerd culture, or Neal Stephenson exploring the ramifications of cryptography, or David Mitchell (author of the amazing Cloud Atlas) using a science fiction-like framework to explore the ways in which history is shot through with repetition, distortion, and cruelty–all of these writers are not centering their work on science per se. Or if they are using science, it’s psychology, sociology, economics — the soft sciences, not the physics and rocketry that characterized mid 20th century SF.

Time for a change? Not really. I love these writers’ works. But there is something to be said for popularizing science more effectively, and that is perhaps the job of a new crop of science fiction writers.

On a related note, a recent NPR science story had an element I’d never heard before in science journalism. The interviewer was talking to a scientist about how his research had shown absolutely no health benefits to eating raw garlic. The scientist admitted he was “crushed” by the results, because he really wanted some confirmation of this popular and likeable belief. Hey, that’s cool! It’s not often that scientists admit to having some personal stake in their research. The admission can be dangerous, if it suggests bias. It can also be very effective, because it shows that science–even the hardest of science–is done by humans.

Popular science.