I sat in the auditorium of Johns Hopkins University’s Gilman Hall. There, at the podium, lecturing to a crowd of more than a thousand people, stood Bill Nye himself.
Nye talked about his EV1 electric car, and how he had convinced NASA to include sundials on the 2004 Mars rovers. We all gaped, enraptured—a room full of science majors, science grad students, science professors, and Romance Language majors who had started out as biomedical engineers. I admired Bill Nye then, as I do now, so much that I almost capitalized the “H” in “himself.”
Perhaps because I was raised on Mr. Wizard (into whose home random schoolchildren would wander and ask how a Pac-Man joystick worked), I appreciate anyone who shows the world how cool science can be. In a universe of stimuli, it takes real work to wrench kids away from Halo and say, “You know what’s really bitchin’? The general property of buoyancy.”
Then Nye’s lecture ended, and students lined up at microphones. I’ll never forget the first question.
“Bill Nye,” the student implored, his voice filled with demand, “How are you so cool?” As soon as the crowd realized—whew—that the question was neither combative nor sarcastic (we’d all experienced junior high), we burst into applause because we’d all been thinking it. I could almost hear Nye silently thanking his publicist for booking him a gig at this university.
I don’t remember Nye’s answer, but the fact that such a question was asked—and that it elicited applause—was remarkable. Bill Nye was cool. Science was cool. The electric car was cool, and the sundials on Mars were cool. We’d just had a Hopkinsgasm.
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Now, a few years later, another Mars rover has the nation talking about the coolness of science. We couldn’t see the lander’s wheels touch the Martian surface (somehow, not even Rupert Murdoch could get a camera up there, though his staff members presumably tried to delete the text messages the rover sent back). But a lot of us were content to watch the exuberant scientists hugging and high-fiving at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Mission Control Center. Giddy, actually.
The next day, a CNN headline asked, “After Mars Landing, Is Science Cool Again?”
Some said yes. The awesomeness of landing a craft on Mars, combined with the enthusiasm of scientists who behaved more like a recreational league softball team than laboratory workers, had yanked science out of the realm of archaic taxa and into, say, the XFL. Helped by spunky aeronautical engineers—one of whom had OMG A MOHAWK—science glowed with the trendy sheen of one of those new frozen yogurt places that looks disconcertingly like the milk bar from A Clockwork Orange.
Others happily retorted that they were never aware of science being anything but cool. “Oh, is science cool again?” they asked, eyebrows raised coyly. “We hadn’t noticed it fell out of favor. Funny that.”
(The people who think science has always been cool must be selectively repressing part of their childhoods. Either that, or they went to really nice private schools, and I envy them. I can’t imagine the following exchange happening where I grew up:
STUDENT 1: Yo, is that the new issue of
Physical Review Letters?
STUDENT 2: Check it out, bro.
Phys Rev Lettgot some tight-ass spectroscopy this week!
STUDENT 1: Damn! Thermodynamic fluctuations be temporally correlated as a mofo!)
In the debate about whether science is cool again, one answer remained unuttered, so, what the hell, I might as well say it: No. Science is not cool. Here’s why.
First of all, the word “cool” sells science short. Science is wonderful. Science is vital, science is fascinating, science is awe-inspiring, and science is praiseworthy. You know what’s been called “cool?” Parachute pants, slap bracelets, pogs, the Macarena, and Hypercolor shirts. (Maybe I’m unfairly picking on the early ’90s, but holy hell, what an awful lot of crap we liked.) Fist-pumping over science’s newfound coolness implies, it seems to me, that “cool” is a higher aspiration for science, and it isn’t.
Second, even when CNN said “cool,” it didn’t mean “cool.” The nomenclature gets tricky here, but they meant “cool-in-quotation-marks.” Without the quotation marks, the word means something completely different. It means Miles Davis and Johnny Cash in a ’76 Mustang. “Cool-in-quotation-marks” has a much broader connotation, as in, “Hey, that paper clip is shaped kind of cool.”
Third, are we supposed to be grateful that the world has once more seen fit to approve of what we do? Should we spin in ecstasy, shouting, “Cool again! We’re cool again! Put the little sunglasses on the Einstein doll, and let’s bop our heads to Moxy Früvous’s entropy song! Break out the Whole Foods sodas!”
But mostly, I don’t want science to be cool, or even “cool,” because cool is transient. People have to ask “What’s cool right now?” because trends constantly change. Is Gwen Stefani still cool? Is Facebook cool? Is Japan cool, or are we done with that?
Agreeing that science is cool again implies that it can easily lose that designation in the future, either arbitrarily or after science’s next public blunder—say, when a pigeon drops a challah into the particle accelerator at CERN, or after an inaccurately forecast pandemic (Lemur Flu 2018!). And then what? I don’t want science to be a fad that flares up then fizzles again when the next Taco Bell commercial comes out.
I don’t mean to downplay the positive effect the Curiosity rover had on our curiosity. The assertion of coolness at least tries to say something accurate: that earlier this month, science became something people watched on Times Square’s Jumbotron at 1:30 in the morning, something they cheered for as fervently as any sports game.
So how, exactly, did the rover make science “cool” again? Or, at least, how did it spark conversations about whether it has made science “cool” again? After all, teachers, authority figures, and governments have been trying for years to convince sullen teenagers that science is “cool.”
The answer is in the method. Ordinarily, students are forced to watch filmstrips filled with multicultural skateboarding peers who give a thumbs-up to a transmission electron microscope and declare it “radical!”
This time, no one tried to find the “radical” angle to view science. No one forced the standard conception of “cool” onto a scientific endeavor. This time, science spoke for itself.
The public saw, with no strained credulity, that real scientists have real fun while doing really difficult and important things. The moment occurred because someone put a camera in the Mission Control room, and someone else wanted to watch. That kind of genuine and lasting value won’t fade when The Washington Post’s Style section declares that French fries are out but sweet potato fries are in. It would have occurred even without cameras, and it will persist when the cameras leave.
If the Mars landing draws students to science, it won’t be because they witnessed science doing something cool. It’ll be because they witnessed science doing something human, something genuine, something legitimately appealing on its own merits. Something scientific.
That’s why Bill Nye rocks, too. He didn’t force “coolness” into his talk. He just stood on stage and spoke in an engaging way about science that was, without qualification, impressive.
Also, the bow tie.
Adam Ruben, Ph.D., is a practicing scientist and the author of Surviving Your Stupid, Stupid Decision to Go to Grad School.