Geek chic: A scientific renaissance

May 20, 2008 12:09:41 PM PDT
Theoretical physicist Michio Kaku remembers the days when science was sexy. When the rocket scientist got the girl. When the launch of the satellite Sputnik meant "it was almost your patriotic duty to get good grades in science to compete against the Russians," he recalled. Then those days faded away. Movies made in the 1980s propelled the jock, not the geek, into the spotlight. In 1993, the United States cancelled its plans to build a supercollider that would smash atoms and Europe carried on with its Large Hadron Collider, slated to start up later this year.

"We scientists have to blame ourselves for not engaging the people about our work," said Kaku, a best-selling author and physics professor at City College of New York. "And it had consequences."

But today Kaku and others are convinced the tide is turning. Science, they say, is experiencing a renaissance.

From the popularity of urban science clubs and Stephen Hawking books to an explosion of science and technology cable programs and Web sites, a scientific resurgence is apparent seemingly wherever one looks.

A group called Dorkbot, self-described as an organization for "people doing strange things with electricity," brings together about 100 people per month in New York City and has also taken off in cities like London, San Francisco and Seattle, according to the group's coordinator, Douglas Repetto.

On May 28, the World Science Festival opens in New York, where organizers expect to draw a diverse crowd of artists and families in addition to scientists. Festival organizers plan to attract people to the celebration with everything from a dance performance that interprets string theory to a screening of The Bourne Identity, followed by a discussion about brain function and amnesia.

"The greatest, say, living scientists today sort of deserve to be as known as Britney or J-Lo," said festival co-founder and Columbia University physics and math professor, Brian Greene. "It's hard, but I think what needs to happen is that science really does need to shift from a position on the cultural outskirts to a place in the cultural center. Part of the way that you do that is what this festival is about. I think a festival like this can help spark a movement."

In increasingly wider circles, that movement is already well under way. Greene's book, The Elegant Universe, spent six months on the New York Times bestseller list. Kaku is now appearing before sell-out crowds promoting his new book, Physics of the Impossible, about how seemingly impossible ideas like time travel and telepathy are realistically being explored by physicists as well as Hollywood script writers. Last month, Kaku's Web site crashed when 300 people per minute were buzzing about those issues.

"They are afflicted with the same bug as I have, and that's kind of being hooked on surprising information, stuff that goes against conventional wisdom, things that evoke astonishment and a sense of wonder," co-founder Mark Frauenfelder said about his readers. According to Frauenfelder, the site that once saw about 300 visitors when it launched in 1995 now gets between 750,000 and one million hits every day. Frauenfelder is also editor-in-chief of MAKE magazine, a publication that he explains "encourages people to innovate and invent and do citizen science at home without funding."

Indeed, Greene contends that now more than ever, there's a need to keep science in the forefront. From stem cells to space travel, from global climate change to urban agriculture and the personalization of health care, "it's just an endless list of things that we need to address or deal with or make use of that all have science at their core," he said.

Scientists agree that's why it's crucial to get the next generation of scientists interested in the possibilities of their field.

"The Mr. Wizard kind of approach to science, it's not bad," Greene said. "But I do have a real concern about it. There are many people who think that the only way you can bring science to kids is to blow things up, to bring balloons and confetti and bulbous letters and lots of exclamation points.

"I think it's a big mistake when one underestimates what kids can take on board," he added.

"It's our duty to do this," Kaku agreed. "You know, Einstein spent a lot of time talking to school children."