On the Importance Of Fun

by Dan Gareau

Everyone likes to have a good time and “laughter is the best medicine,” but for scientists, having fun may serve a greater purpose. Science is a creative process, and that creativity can be seen in glimpses that make it into mainstream culture. Bad Project1 got 3,000,000 hits, but Gangnam Style got 200 times more. The difference is that (perhaps as a result of advisor floggings during Ph.D. programs) scientists are generally not inclined to be flashy. A paper in Cell or Nature and associated acknowledgment by sc

Melody Li, Dan Baker-Jud, Maria Vittoria Cannizzaro, Simona Giunta. Scientists dressed as their favorite viruses on Halloween. Needless to say, they went
viral at the party. Infectious personalities help scientists to be remembered and remarkable.
Photograph by the author.

ientific colleagues is typically where progress ends—where the threshold of success has been reached. However, there is another step that is rarely taken: when scientists polish and distill scientific content for broad understandability, the public generally receives it well.

If politicians pandered to this public sentiment by increasing National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation funding, we would be in a better place, so there is a real value to science embodiments that are seductively shiny and maybe even a little fun. Outreach has long been a focus of many institutions, but on the horizon is a geek-chic revolution. It is important to prepare for the global phenomena by acting locally. On Halloween day of 2012, scientists at The Rockefeller University threw a party for scientists, providing an opportunity to let loose a bit and dance. A science-themed costume contest took place and the winners were the set of viruses shown in the photo below or above and their companion, a white blood cell. By a not so big leap of imagination, we could see these characters in an educational video for kids. Perhaps, if the production and scientific integrity were top-notch, parents would catch on and not only learn a bit, but also remember their appreciation when it came time to vote for science and education funding. The key to success may be interdisciplinary collaboration between science-friendly forces in Hollywood, such as George Lucas, and Hollywood-friendly science forces, such as Neil deGrasse Tyson.

Beyond our local aim to provide a good time and some release for the Rockefeller University community, there is a broader outreach goal to increase the public visibility of science. As a medium of choice, the music video can be an attractively viral vessel to deliver content. The recently launched Sound Science project (facebook.com/ScienceGroove) aims to combine sound didactic content with pop sensibility. Music about science has been around since Thomas Dolby’s “She Blinded me with Science,” but there is a bimodal distribution: excellent songs that have little instructive content, and poorly written or produced songs that have great content. The songs that have poor composition and no real content never make it and the ones that hit both nails on the head don’t exist yet. Thinking back to the original science works like Dolby and Kraftwerk, buzzwords like “science” were thrown around to great success (demonstrating feasibility) but their songs lacked content that was scientific or educational. These works could have been executed in a way that also could have been peer-reviewed by the scientific community. Science music has largely fallen short of delivering high quality didactic content with the pop sensibility of, say, a Taylor Swift song, with a few notable exceptions. The 2009 release of Here Comes Science by They Might Be Giants featured the theme song from the hit TV show The Big Bang Theory. The show is evidence that pop culture is beginning to embrace science. The content of the theme song is good and the quality of the music is excellent. Yet it remains a challenge to distill scientific content without “dumbing it down.” Scientists obviously need social skills, communication in particular, to disseminate findings—perhaps not at the top level, where the Nature paper speaks louder than words—but as a workhorse utility at conferences and lobbying in our nation’s capital. Furthermore, depicting fun and wonder in science is essential to getting young people into the educational pipeline that produces tomorrow’s scientists. Communication sometimes requires the use of analogy, which scientists resist for fear of compromising precision. However, the net effect of a combined approach that uses analogy to achieve the “aha, I get it!” moment, and then exploits the connection to deliver content with integrity can be much more useful than saying nothing at all. While there is nothing inherently wrong with being introverted, if we occasionally pause to polish a gem for public display, power and funding may follow. The goal of global prosperity through science-enabled technology may be funded through diplomacy and be associated with reduced war spending. This fiscally feasible paradigm to fix major problems like climate change while promoting peace can be aided by efforts to portray science more attractively. Nothing is more attractive to the public than fun.

1. [YouTube Fl4L4M8m4d0]

December 2012