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Weird Science Science in Media and Popular Culture Matt Malkan Astronomy UCLA www.astro.ucla.edu/~malkan.

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Presentation on theme: "Weird Science Science in Media and Popular Culture Matt Malkan Astronomy UCLA www.astro.ucla.edu/~malkan."— Presentation transcript:

1 Weird Science Science in Media and Popular Culture Matt Malkan Astronomy UCLA

2 Weird Science Houston (New York, Hollywood…), we have a problem… And a fantastic opportunity!

3 Science (2) and Scientists (1) Incompletely Understood (1)Creative Exploration of new ideas, original situations is becoming more feasible (and profitable), BUT (2)are great F/X, CGI in “science fiction” a license for bad writing? (3)Much writing about science and scientists is: Confusing, Illogical, Unrealistic, to point of stupidity Misleading, Unfair. Why do (some) scientists care? Because: (4) Popular/Fiction probably influences public as much as all our Prose/PR

4 Weird Science Sloan Foundation will see more Science when it stops being: Inhuman, Incomprehensible, Impractical, Unreal, Uncertain, Uncreative Guilty as charged! Sort of…. But WHY?

5 Scientists /Intellectuals Cannot Relate to People (1) Learning science separates exceptional students from humanities, communications Requires an almost unhealthy obsession with the esoteric; their way of being special If someone had told me I would be Pope one day, I would have studied harder. Pope John Paul I “You don’t LOOK like a professional astronomer!”… ”I’ve been sick.”

6 Scientists Cannot Relate to People Are scientists unbalanced fanatics? Many of the best ones are (like film makers, And other high achievers) (2) They’d rather work than socialize or “have fun”, since their choice of research career shows disregard for monetary, leisure benefits “That post-doc is so gung-ho, his coffee mug at work says “TGIM”.

7 Scientists Do Not Relate to People (3) This accompanies intellectual arrogance, impatience with those who are not dues- paying members of “the club” comment about 3 rd caveman: “He’s become just insufferable since he invented fire” Human craving for prestige, authority “Back off! We’re scientists.”--Ghostbusters

8 When they try relating, Scientists are Naïve, Value-Free Drones Striking analogies with markets, price system “objective standard” It’s NOT “Who you know” Technology flowing from scientific discoveries CAN be exploited by bad, desperate politicians and it is harder to build up than to tear down

9 Guilty as Charged! Sciences Cannot Relate to People Scientific method is a relentless quest for UNIVERSALITY, impartiality. To protect it from human weaknesses, Person who did the science should be irrelevant Principles trump personalities (eg, Samurai code) This is the core of “Western” intellectual tradition, at least back to Galileo. ie, its results should work for anybody “What’s so great about computer standards is that there are so many of them to chose from.” --- Anon

10 Physical Science is Impersonal; lacks human references (1)Human systems can’t be described by simple physical laws; most important human ideas are normative choices. Thus most problems do not have purely technical fixes, contrary to what academics want to believe. “The streets are safe in Philadelphia, it’s only the people who make them unsafe.” --- Frank Rizzo, ex-police chief and mayor of Philadelphia “The laws in this city are clearly racist. All laws are racist. The law of gravity is racist.” --- Marion Barry “The hardest thing in the world to understand is the income tax” --- A. Einstein

11 Physical Science is Impersonal; lacks human references (2) All scales of space and time are utterly different from daily experience, making it so hard to get a sense of perspective My friend sent me a postcard with a satellite photo of the whole Earth, and wrote “Wish you were here”. What makes the universe so hard to comprehend is that there’s nothing to compare it with.

12 Science is Magic (1) Huge amount of difficult preparation before discussing it, since we’re building on an enormous base of prior knowledge. (2) Math, the natural language of the physical world, is a huge barrier. “Half of the world has NO IDEA how the other three-quarters lives!” --- Bertie Wooster

13 Science is Magic (3) Just mention fancy-sounding “science”, and ANYTHING GOES! Toss all physical laws and write fantasy ex: psychic powers, impossible accelerations, sounds in vacuum (EXCEPT Clarke/2001!), (backwards) time-travel Writers don’t get away with that nonsense in ER or LA Law

14 Science is Magic (4) But actually, simplest is usually best— science (if not technology) loves Occam’s Razor e.g. Copernican Revolution naturally explains retrograde motion; Eratosthenes, Olber’s paradox “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” -- A. Einstein

15 Science is Too Unreal (1)Vast extension of senses to unfamiliar realms; intuition often inadequate, analogies can be dangerous; intuition and appearances deceiving simple explanations require special talent! At party, “you both have something in common, Dr. X is working on a particle no one has ever seen; Dr. Y is working on a galaxy no one has ever seen.”

16 Science is Too Unreal (2) Much current data and models lack a satisfactory fundamental explanation, which is why we’re working on it “All science is either physics or stamp collecting.” --- E. Rutherford “When the going gets tough, the tough get empirical” Whenever anyone says, “theoretically”, they mean, “not really”

17 Science is Too Uncertain (1) Scientific method is almost obsessed with understanding its own limits and uncertainties, so that they can be under constant attack: if no error bars are given, and it isn’t falsifiable, it’s lousy science. “Creative destruction” -- we specialize in admitting we were wrong “When a scientific field starts paying a lot of attention to its history, you can tell it’s on the way down” Wal Sargent “I asked a scientist her phone number. She gave me an estimate.”

18 Science is Too Uncertain (2) Public attention goes to the first “discoverer”, so there is a huge practical motivation to risk jumping the gun, which erodes public credibility over long run. (ex: Taubes Nobel Dreams, Cold Fusion) why don’t you scientists just make up your minds and then let us know?!

19 Science is Too Uncertain (3) Most people have little understanding of probability and statistics, Nevada vacation, Dr. Smith 1 to 5. “let’s find another one, I’m sure we can get better odds.” and regularly overestimate the significance of apparent patterns. “Random events tend to occur in groups” Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence

20 Science Stifles Artistic Creativity: It’s Cookbook Formulae That is how it is experienced in most non-scientist’s education, and even for many scientists at many times and places in their work.

21 Science Stifles Artistic Creativity: It’s Cookbook Formulae Revolutionary breakthroughs are as rare as in art or other fields, often by newcomers. Many occur “by accident”, when a well-prepared mind uses some new tool (from Galileo to Penzias/Wilson) Striking analogies with evolution, mutation and natural selection of theories (survival of “fittest”)

22 Science Stifles Artistic Creativity: It’s Cookbook Formulae Aesthetics are important, but abstract (eg. Symmetry), formal (ex: physicists are musicians, not painters, used to clearly defined rules).

23 Science is Boring (1)Slow, abstract, rarely visually active (compare Shakespeare in Love writing sequences: limited material for a music video): how to show problem-solving in a mystery. Even most documentaries show little process of science As Chou En-lai responded to a question about the significance of the French Revolution, “It’s too soon to tell.”

24 Science is Boring (2) Theoretical and impractical…. AT FIRST, but unpredictable technological applications (ex. Helium, nuclear reactions in sun, stars).

25 Properly understood, science is an exciting human adventure There is always something exciting about pursuing a (surprising) discovery that explains many things everyone previously considered a deep mystery

26 But audiences CAN get scientific insights about science and scientists AND be entertained simultaneously! Exceptional “science” movies A Space Odyssey

27 Awesome attention to realistic details, most Intelligent science show in history of TV

28 Edison, The Man Many great classic biopics

29 More great Science Movies Heavenly Body (William Powell, Pasadena astronomer, and his wife Heddy Lamar, who dabbles in astrology) Madame Curie Fat Man and Little Boy Story of Alexander Graham Bell Colossus Contact minus the ending (always toughest part of sci-fi) Most writings of Greg Benford Several screenplays written for Sloan Foundation!


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