Paul Crowther is a professor of astrophysics in the Department of Physics & Astronomy at The University of Sheffield. His main research area involves observations of hot, luminous stars in nearby galaxies using space- and ground- based telescopes (including Hubble Space Telescope and the Very Large Telescope) and he has co-authored a monograph on this subject. Paul has an interest in UK science policy and has maintained a website charting the highs and lows of the Science & Technology Facilities Council funding agency since its inception four years ago. He also tweets.
Has anyone else noticed that the mainstream media have gone slightly science gaga? Last week, Higgs-teria attracted front pages in broadsheets and lead stories in news bulletins, even though no more than “tantalizing hints” of the Higgs were announced. Before that, we had plenty of stories salivating over Kepler 22b, a.k.a. Earth 2.0, even though most exoplanet hunters were rather more cautious in their interpretation. Indeed, the Kepler team themselves only claimed Kepler 22b was a “milestone on the road to finding Earth’s twin.” Only yesterday the first genuinely Earth-sized planets were reported, although they wouldn’t resemble our planet in any other respect, given their close proximity to their host star. And not to mention the shenanigans with those pesky Italian faster-than-light neutrinos that spurred nuclear physicist, Jim Al-Khalili, into promising to eat his boxer shorts on live TV should the result be confirmed.
As a jobbing astronomer, I can’t deny that I’m all for the latest physics results getting publicity. Of course, as with all other branches of science, such results are merely the tip of the iceberg, with dozens of astrophysics papers posted on free-access archives daily. Still, there is an inherent risk of adverse reactions too. Cynical presenters may criticize the fanfare about the latest exoplanet discovery as useless because of its great distance. Hadn’t we got along just fine without the Higgs boson? Couldn’t and shouldn’t the costs devoted to the Large Hadron Collider have been better spent? In our new era of austerity, fundamental scientists need to be mindful of the “so what?” or “why bother?” mentality. Technologies and tools required to do big science may sometimes make a (really) big splash in the real world, even though practical applications aren’t intended at the outset. Surely though the biggest benefit of the media’s reports about the Universe is the power to inspire, attracting pupils into science and technology.
The pulling power of astronomy – the second oldest profession – is unique in it’s extraordinary breadth of scale. Astronomical eye candy can serve a useful purpose, although media reports regularly fail to focus upon the science behind the pretty pictures. On the same day as the fanfare over Kepler 22b’s discovery, the biggest black holes and the fastest spinning star were announced, each with their own ‘artists impressions’. I too have stumbled upon such objects, having identified the ‘most massive star’ and ‘biggest stellar mass black hole’ known to date. Stumbled was the right verb in my own case, since these record breakers involved more than a dash of fortune, not having explicitly set out to find the most extreme example of their peers. Serendipity and science combine surprisingly often.
In common with most university-based scientists, most of my work involves teaching students, supervising graduate students and carrying out research. In my case I study the biggest, baddest stars of all. The public appetite for astronomy, though, also adds to my diary through Café Scientifique-type talks to the public, at local primary and secondary schools, or amateur societies. Occasionally, more unusual requests come my way. Earlier this month, I hosted a film crew from NHK (Japanese TV) who interviewed me about minute details of the most massive star known for a programme about the satellite galaxies of our own Galaxy. Last week, I was asked to watch and discuss the science (or lack of it) behind ‘Another Earth’ for a local culture listings magazine.
Beyond the mainstream broadcast and print media, there are many initiatives actively involving the general public in science. Galaxy Zoo has been particularly successful in `citizen science’ for astronomy, and social networking sites such as Twitter do help to make connections between scientists and the public. There’s an increasing archive of wonderful short films explaining complex subjects in an incredibly accessible way, such as minutephysics. Google and YouTube are funding new science ‘channels’. Deep Sky Videos is one such initiative in which film make Brady Haran is ambitiously attempting to produce short videos on all 109 Messier objects, starting from next month.
Despite the adverse risks, it’s reassuring that the media interest in fundamental physics and astrophysics remains strong. Curiosity-driven basic research can capture the public attention, perhaps especially so in the midst of the current gloomy economic crisis. For the moment, then, the future looks bright for physics and astronomy, even though UK funding for this branch of science has taken a sharp downturn turn over the past few years. Let’s hope too that – if, and when, they are eventually found – the Higgs and genuine Earth–like planets make a big splash in the media, and continue to inspire future generations of scientists.
So far, the jury remains undecided on the fate of those boxer shorts.