The Outreach Imperative
¦ recently traveled to the Canary Islands for a conference entitled "Communicating Astronomy." Hosted by the Institute of Astrophysics of the Canaries, the meeting attracted attendees from the Americas, Europe, and Australia. Among them were representatives from many of the communities involved in disseminating astro information: astronomers, science writers, radio and television producers, and educators. We enjoyed many animated discussions and fruitful exchanges of ideas, as well as some very fine local wines. I had a good time and learned a lot. But one aspect of the conference disturbed me: professional astronomers repeatedly complained that their colleagues and superiors frown upon their efforts to share the wonders of the universe with the public.
This is outrageous, and not just because the public pays for most of the astronomical research done today (though that's certainly reason enough). Disdain among scientists for public outreach by scientists reflects a combination of ignorance, arrogance, and indifference unbecoming a scholar.
Science and its close cousin, technology, are cornerstones of modem society. It is difficult to imagine where we'd be today without their contributions to health care, transportation, communications, food production, energy generation, and so much else we depend on. Yet too many citizens remain scientifically illiterate and ill-prepared to understand, let alone contribute to, future innovations or policy debates.
Spreading the news about the latest astronomical discoveries isn't going to do much, by itself, to improve the situation, but it's a step in the right direction. Astronomy is uniquely well suited to motivating people to pay attention to science and, in the case of young people, to consider a career as a scientist. What grabs the public's interest are wonderful images from telescopes that themselves are wondrous; mind-boggling extremes of mass, distance, speed, and time; and the possibility that astronomers will find signs of other sentient beings in the galaxy.
More important, though, is the story behind the discoveries — the how of science. Because astronomers get the public's attention, they have a unique opportunity and responsibility to explain the process of scientific inquiry, to shine a spotlight on critical thinking at its best.
Of course, not every researcher has the time or skill required to share his or her work with the rest of us. But those who do should be encouraged in their efforts. In the 1970s Carl Sagan was shunned by coworkers for his popularization of science; he went on to win a Pulitzer Prize and become a household name. Would anyone today argue that science and society are worse off as a result of Sagan's articles, books, and TV programs? I don't think so. We need more Carl Sagans.