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Michael Banks: May 2009 Archives

By Michael Banks

This month was undoubtedly a good time to be an astronomer. The European Space Agency launched the Herschel and Planck satellites that will map the geometry of the universe and study the formation of the earliest galaxies.

While NASA astronauts upgraded and repaired the Hubble Space Telescope to extend the mission’s life until 2014 and giving it increased resolving power to image galaxies in even more detail.

One would think that these missions, in conjunction with the International Year of Astronomy, would help astronomy grow in the public’s imagination. So this year is perhaps a good time as any to take stock and improve how astronomers are perceived by the public.

Michael West, an astronomer at the European Southern Observatory (ESO), has documented some examples of how astronomers in the past have been revered, reviled and also ridiculed as well as offering some ideas about how astronomers can improve their public image.

But why do astronomers care about their image? Well, according to West most developed countries spending on astronomy “is usually equivalent to the cost of one or two cups of coffee per resident” so during times of economic difficulty astronomy could be a tempting subject to cut.

Indeed, astronomers in the UK might concur with West as the UK recently cancelled funding for the Clover telescope, which would have searched for the signatures of gravitational waves in the Comic Microwave Background.

So as astronomy is funded by the taxpayer and also needs the support of politicians to get funding, West points out that the image of astronomy matters greatly.

West documents a number of examples when astronomers had enjoyed favourable public opinion or even elite status including a time as far back as 840 AD when an imperial edict issued by the Tang dynasty said that Chinese astronomers “are on no account to mix with civil servants and common people.”

More recently, West points to a poll in the New York Times in 2005 where the public voted the fifth most prestigious occupation as being an astronomer or physicist.

But perceptions have not always been so rosy. According to West, the recent debacle when the International Astronomical Union stripped Pluto of its planet status was a “public relations disaster” causing the public to express their outrage about the decision.

West points to a review of the fiasco by astronomers David Jewitt at the University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy and Jane Luu at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. They conclude that the public perception of astronomers has been damaged as a result and that “millions of people now think of astronomers as having too much time on their hands and are unable to articulate the most basic definitions.”

So what are his solutions? Not surprisingly, West says that astronomers must learn to communicate with the public and points to a programme run at ESO that gives astronomers media training and helps them become better science communicators.

West also says that astronomers should join the social networking bandwagon and use websites such as Twitter and Facebook as well as writing blogs to communicate their results to the public.

Indeed, the astronomer Edward Bigelow noted in a letter to the magazine Popular Astronomy that “the greatest present need of astronomy, is not more big telescopes and big observatories, but a more favourable public opinion.” That was not in 2009, but 1916. Almost 100 years later, West sees these sentiments just as relevant today.

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Daily Show correspondent John Oliver at CERN (credit: Matthew Searle)

By Michael Banks

One of my favourite political satire shows is the US programme The Daily Show starring Jon Stewart.

So when Daily Show correspondent John Oliver went to the CERN particle-physics lab near Geneva to do a piece on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), I couldn’t wait to see their take on it.

The six minute piece aired on the 30 April edition of the show (you can watch it here), and it didn’t disappoint.

The first person Oliver met was “the pioneering particle physicist” John Ellis, who, according to Oliver, was “clearly an evil genius up to something.”

“Nobody with expertise in physics or astrophysics thinks there is the slightest risk of any danger,” says Ellis, after Oliver asks him what is the likelihood that the LHC will destroy the world.

Cue Walter Wagner, a high-school physics teacher, who infamously filed a federal lawsuit in the US District Court in Honolulu last year to prevent the LHC from starting up. He told Oliver there is a one in two chance that the LHC will destroy the world.

The funniest part is when Oliver asks Wagner to give more details about the “50/50” chance of survival.

“Well, if you have something that can happen and something that won’t necessarily happen, it’s going to either happen or it’s not going to happen, and… so the best guess is 1 or 2,” says Wagner. To which Oliver says to a slightly bemused looking Wagner, “I am not sure that’s how probability works Walter.”

Richard Breedon, a particle physicist at CERN, falls into a similar trap laid by Oliver. As they stand in the CMS cavern Oliver asks how safe is the collider.

“This place is perfectly safe,” says Breedon confidently. “So why are we wearing hard hats,” Oliver quips. The taken aback Breedon stumbles and then answers, “it is safe for safety” - “checkmate”, says a voiceover from Oliver.

The segment ends with Wagner and Oliver in a bunker where Oliver says they may as well try and breed if the world is about to end and they are the only two people left. “It’s worth a shot”, says Oliver, “there is a 50% chance it might work.”