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Stars to the Rescue

Science as a new cause célèbre



Gregg DeGuire/Getty Images

In magazine reporting (and maybe science blogging), they say three events suffice to in­dicate a trend. So let me an­nounce a new trend: popular entertainers are sticking up for science. Here are three trend­setting entertainers turned notable science advocates.

Actor Alan Alda wrote an editorial in Science this past March launching a science communication contest to be judged by 11-year-olds. He challenged scientists to write an explanation of what a flame is “that an 11-year-old would find intelligible, maybe even fun.” Alda is also a founding board member of the Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University, which is hosting the contest.

Icelandic pop singer Björk gave a series of shows at the New York Hall of Science this February in support of her latest album, called Biophilia. She also helped to develop a series of classes for middle school students on scientific concepts mentioned in the album, like crystalline structures, lunar phases and viruses.

Earlier this year rapper will.i.am teamed up with Time Warner Cable to launch a competition called Wouldn’t It Be Cool If ... (www.wouldntitbecoolif.com), encouraging 10- to 15-year-olds to submit ideas for inventions powered by math or science that would make the world “more awesome.” Last summer will.i.am co-produced a back-to-school TV special called i.am FIRST—Science Is Rock and Roll, which promotes education, science and technology. In the process, he successfully goaded singer Rihanna into tweeting “science is dope” to her millions of followers.

Of course, the bulk of our task to restore science to its rightful place in American society remains ahead of us. But I wonder if the good work done by these stars signals the begin­ning of a deep change in our culture. Is science starting to become cool again?

On the one hand, the out­look for science appears bleak. In February, Nina Fedoroff, now chair of the American Association for the Advancement of Sci­ence (AAAS), said at the 2012 AAAS Annual Meeting in Van­couver that she was “scared to death” by the antiscience movement. “We are sliding back into a dark era,” she observed. “And there seems little we can do about it. I am profoundly depressed.”

I’ve started to think that the recent celebrity interest in science is partly our own doing. Maybe celebrities tend to sym­pathize with struggling groups that show a kind of helplessness, like endangered animals and abandoned children. And may­be scientists have been seeking that kind of sympathy, con­sciously or unconsciously.

Federoff joins a chorus of scientific voices begging for aid. A report from the Union of Concerned Scientists came out this February called Heads They Win, Tails We Lose: How Corporations Corrupt Science at the Public’s Expense. And you’ve probably heard of the 2010 report published by the Na­tional Academies Press called Rising above the Gathering Storm, Revisited: Rapidly Approaching Category 5.

Branding scientists as a kind of endangered species—that’s probably not a market­ing stra­tegy I would have suggested we employ. But at the moment, in Hollywood, it seems to be working.

This article was published in print as "Stars to the Rescue."

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