Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Science Needs Superstars

"What is a scientist after all? It is a curious man looking through a keyhole, the keyhole of nature, trying to know what's going on."
~ Jacques Cousteau

These are benighted times. In our culture, fame often seems more important than accomplishment. In the news, inflammatory opinions and imagined scenarios are treated with the same seriousness as facts. In the classroom, ignorant school boards try to substitute fables for science.

I say it's time to fight fire with fire. Science needs is its own superstar, and I nominate Edward O. Wilson for the job. An evolutionary biologist, researcher, theorist and author, he is the winner of two Pulitzer prizes for nonfiction, a Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and a Humanist Laureate of the International Academy of Humanism. His day job is Pellegrino University Research Professor in Entomology for the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University.

At a time when Kim Kardashian, Perez Hilton and Octomom are household names, the fact that Dr. Wilson's fame is generally limited to fellow scientists and random civilians (like yours truly) who admire his work is wrong in more ways than I can enumerate. However, right now his fame has the potential to expand, at least among people who think. He could, as the saying goes, break big. But it will take some work.

Dr. Wilson is already doing his part. For an 81 year old who has been blind in one eye and hard of hearing since childhood, he really gets around, and he is exceptionally visible right now. He has a wonderful article about biodiversity in National Geographic and a short story — yes, fiction — in the New Yorker. His subject is the creatures he has studied throughout his career: ants.

Okay, so maybe an elderly scientist who studies ants isn't as easy a sell as Johnny Depp in a pirate outfit, but we need to try. When ignorance is praised and intellect is vilified, drastic measures are called for.

Please take a little time to learn about E. O. Wilson and his work, and then start building some buzz. Here are some places to start.
  • Dr. Wilson's TED talk about saving life on Earth is thought-provoking way to invest 22 minutes; your brain will thank you for it.
  • At the 2009 World Science Festival in New York City, Dr. Wilson participated in a fascinating discussion titled "What It Means to be Human." Led by moderator Alan Alda, the panelists examined the roots of human cooperation from biological, anthropological and psychological perspectives. I was fortunate enough to see this discussion in person, and now everyone can see it, in four parts, on World Science Festival Web site.
Get this man a fan club!
    "I am among those who think that science has great beauty. A scientist in  his laboratory is not only a technician; he is also a child placed before natural phenomena which impress him like a fairy tale."
    ~ Marie Curie

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