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Between the Knows and the Know-Nots

We (by which I mean the human race) landed a spacecraft on a comet just now. Actual spacecraft, actual comet. A moving comet, if that needed clarification. Now, let us pause for a moment and realize that the preceding statement likely engendered one of three reactions:

  1. WOW! That is so cool! We’re awesome! This is a great, great day! I was so nervous it wouldn’t work!
  2. What’s the big deal?
  3. (Insert your favorite fart joke)

Now, let’s just be clear: the landing of the Philae lander from the Rosetta spacecraft on the catchily-named comet “67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko” is a really big deal in terms of space science, mathematics, engineering, geology, and who-knows-what else. However, something else needs to be made equally clear: The vast majority of humanity will not understand this. It isn’t because we nerds won’t tell them–we will trumpet from the rooftops, no doubt–the problem is that we will not be understood.

There is a sharp and ever-growing division between those who are engaged and interested in cutting-edge science and those who are not. Those who are not are not stupid people. They are not even (usually) willfully ignorant. They are however, disconnected from all those dorks out there who suggest that every space probe would be cooler if it were shaped like the TARDIS. The space dorks have really important things to say, mind you, but most of humanity doesn’t listen, mostly because they say things like “it would be cooler if the thing were shaped like the TARDIS.”

This is not an inspiring image for most people. That matters.

This is not an inspiring image for most people. That matters.

First things first: no, it would not. Whovians, I love you, but the TARDIS is not a “cool” object unless you already love Dr. Who. If you do not, then the TARDIS is a weird blue phone booth-thing that is about as cool as a third-grader’s lunch box. No, third-grade lunch boxes are not cool, either. It’s stuff like that which keeps the nerds from getting through to the “normals”. When you gush and hurrah over a small metal box affixing itself to a space snowball, it falls flat with a non-invested audience.

Now, on the one hand, there’s nothing wrong with the science junkies of the world to hoot and holler over this – it is a pretty big deal for science. However, such news needs to be, shall we say, “repackaged” for common consumption. Comets are inherently less inspiring than planets, because planets might have aliens and have names people can pronounce. A robot shooting harpoons (or not) into a dustball isn’t making the front page. Discussions of planetary geology is not going to create a groundswell of public support.

Public support for things like this matters because scientific research like this affects us all. However, the average person isn’t going to care or know that if every conversation surrounding such things makes his or her eyes glaze over and they take to scanning their iPhone for pictures of Kim Kardashian’s ass. This, right here, is where science fiction can (and should) step in. Movies like Interstellar and Big Hero 6 might, on occasion, play fast and loose with the science (Big Hero 6 especially), but that’s okay. At that point, stuff like that isn’t about the science anyway. It’s about the story. It’s about that tickling feeling in your guts you get just before something amazing happens. For some of us, that happens when we watch a metal box hitchhike on a comet. For others, they need a little bit more. We need to give it to them.

We’re all in this together, folks, and the sooner we learn to talk to each other and understand each other, the sooner all of us will be able to get off this dying rock or find a way to bring it back to life. Science is important to all of us, and we must strive to make it more accessible to everybody.