Sunday, July 12, 2009

And now a brief word from Dr. Tyson


Those of you who get the research channel (or in Canada those with Rogers Digital - check under TV/Documentary Channel on ROD*) might be interested to check out a chat with Neil DeGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium sponsored by HHMI. In it he describes his early career and answers questions from students. It becomes obvious early on why it is that he is such a great spokesperson for our profession. He's certainly an engaging personality, ("Illuminating and Entertaining" as the host summed him up) and has a talent for reducing concepts down to their essentials, not unlike my own advisor Peter Smith.

It's a lesson that we all can take to heart and one he summed up with an interesting anecdote. Early on in his career he described an encounter with the media in which he tried to explain, in scholarly fashion, why "wobble" wasn't quite the right term for describing the doppler method for detecting extrasolar planets. It turned out that his gyrations to demonstrate were the only thing that ended up on screen. From then on, he has made sure to have one two and three sentence descriptions in plain language of just about every topic in astronomy. This ensured that the message that he wanted to get across to the public did so directly, without misinterpretation or edit.

I try to remember that oft quoted phrase "If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter" typically attributed to Blaise Pascal. Conciseness is a challenge, especially for myself, but I aim to improve it! It's also very important to maintain this directness. Many of us are publicly funded and should be able to describe what we do to a broad audience. Besides, it's more fun anyways when we can share our passion and energy with a broader audience!

One final comment on the documentary: while I applaud Tyson's response to a student asking about challenges, I have to warn anyone considering Science that it tends to be more gray in practice. Tyson responded by telling the student that blind alleys abound in Science and it's not whether you make the big discovery or not that defines you as a Scientist, but instead your ability to regroup and make it around obstacles. Even a negative result is a publishable result. This is a good ideal, but I wonder how much hiring committees get caught up in trying to hire superstars with first author articles in the most prestigious journals. Likewise on the opposite side, it's a bad sign that "Experiment didn't work out" is not an uncommon reason for leaving the field (see an anecdote buried in this article describing the difficulties of working in Science: http://philip.greenspun.com/careers/women-in-science ).

*UPDATE: the lecture is now available online. Click on the image above or type http://www.hhmi.org/grants/Cech_deGrasse/index.html into your browser.

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