Science is rad. For reals. For so long, the world of ‘science’ suffered from its public image defined by the stereotypical lab coat-shod propellerheads with pocket protectors and sex appeal equal to fuglio septia. But now, it has managed to break free from all that and (to an extent) fashion itself a new certain coolness. In fact, 4.9 million people ‘Fucking Love Science’, according to Facebook, and I count myself as one of them. It’s this new brand of ‘science-all-up-in-your-face’ attitude that has reinvigorated its place in the public sphere. Knowledge is cool, science is cool, biology is cool, the solar system is cool. Robots are so cool, they even formed a band – a kickarse band. But, it’s not as if the world of science has experienced a geomagnetic pole reversal and now all research findings are published as memes on Instagram or something. The eggheads still toil away uncovering the secrets of existence with their blackboards covered in alien language and particle-smashing multi-multi–billion dollar toys. And they are still as out of touch with the rest of the world as gravitational singularity.
So, who should we really thank for demonstrating that science is worth the love? If my calculations prove correct (and they always do), it’s those precious links between us and those in vanguard of discovery – the science communicators. They can be journalists, writers, spokespersons – or even practising scientists themselves, but they are the people who funnel and translate the impossibly esoteric mountains of information produced by experiments and research, and translate it into something understandable, informative – and most vitally – entertaining. They skilfully shrink down the overwhelming into something small enough for inexpert minds to grasp and enjoy, without insulting the intelligence of neither scientist nor reader alike. Without them, the undeniable awesomeness in all disciplines of science would remain invisible, foreign and boring. It’s a rare ability we take for granted as we ooh and aah watching docos, or raise a fascinated eyebrow reading Scientific American.
The idea of bringing news from the scientific frontiers to the layman goes back to the early 20th century, when Science Monthly became Popular Science Monthly – signalling a shift toward relatable and entertaining science literature. Albert Einstein was indeed an advocate. He famously said: “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” His ageless concepts remain the foundation of modern quantum physics, and so are pretty much as synapse-snappingly complex as they come, but he proves his point by offering some explanation of his theories of relativity in a pithy, sorta charming way. “When you are courting a nice girl an hour seems like a second. When you sit on a red-hot cinder a second seems like an hour. That’s relativity,” said the great man.
Now, I (because it’s all about me!) was never destined to be a scientist. Lab coats don’t suit me, mathematics terrifies me and I’m simply not blessed with the focused intelligence the line of work demands. But I do have a healthy appetite for knowledge. My brain is never satisfied without an enormous feast of facts – no matter how obscure – actually, sometimes the more obscure the better. Often I find myself trapped on Wikipedia – unable to escape those enticing blue hyperlinks, lures that promise to take me to new enlightenments. One minute I’m looking up premier leageue statistics, then I’m boning up on nuclear dynamics, and suddenly I’m reading this and wondering how I ever got there. Imagine information as lillypads – I’m like a frog hopping from one to another, as if the lillypads were hot, and I didn’t have little frog-shoes on my frog-feet. That was an analogy. I’m fairly crap at them, as you can plainly see… And that is the reason why I’d never cut it as a science communicator either, unfortunately.
That really is a key to great communication – particularly in this field. Finding that great analogy – that spot-on simile that simple metaphor that twists the tumblers of the ‘I-don’t-get-it’ floodgate and lets the waters of understanding rush into the sluice chambers of your ‘now-I-get-it’ brain aqueduct. I’m simply not very good at it. I’m certainly not about to take up creative writing, for fear of ending up in some infinite tautological loop (“The sea glistened like a gigantic puddle of water’); nor romantic novels for fear of ruining the idea of romance for the entire literate world (“The dancing glow of the candles illuminated her gentle skin like a flickering TV left on in a dark room… she rolled her head back and inhaled deeply, feeling her desire escalating like the electricity bill from the carelessly forgotten TV set left on in the living room.”).
But there’s a difference between painting descriptive scenes with metaphor and striking a moment of mutual understanding with the reader. It’s the latter that is so important for scientific communication to work. If you notice in the first paragraph, I tried being clever and done flipped it around – tossing in a few obscure scientific allusions to the mix. Unless you were quite familiar with fungal growths, geophysics and quantum mechanics, it’s doubtful you’d readily comprehend what the hell I was talking about and so would be less inclined to read on. As with any matter, if the writing is too dense, it will sink. Had I used references more universally understood, then perhaps I’d have more success engaging you, the dear reader. And that’s why it is such a valuable skill in a communicator’s arsenal – particularly when it comes to explaining science. As much as I wish I did, I simply don’t have the knack for drawing perfect parallels – my mind doesn’t think along those lines (see what I did there?). But my lack of ability gives way to a heightened appreciation and respect for it.
So this is more or less a thank you to those people who enlighten us by taming the flames from the fires of great minds and lighting the torches of those who are out of reach. (Kinda better?). These are exciting times in all corners of the scientific realm, from the Higgs-particle; to new eco-innovations, robots (obviously), and bioethics – and without the talents of the world’s science scribes, we would barely even know such things could be exciting, let alone revel in the excitement of discovery. And that would be a tragic thing.
I had a minor rage incident recently. T’was just a little outburst of incredulous shock: the end result of an insidious combination of rainy weather, boredom, curiosity and YouTube You see, I’d just slogged through a particularly stressful and demoralising week, and instead of enjoying my long-awaited weekend outlets of playing soccer, eating sushi train and drinking afternoon ciders at the pub, howling winds and thumping rain forced me, hermit-like, indoors.
Needing entertainment and some reminder that life was worth living, I decided to finally watch a film I’d been meaning to see for years. After Letters From Iwo Jima left me welled up with tears and wallowing in a dank pit of despair, I turned to the net for some typically senseless, but always entertaining YouTube hilarity. As I was wondered what to search for, I was struck by a sudden thought – a name, a phrase, a meme, or something or other that I’d heard of but knew little about – except that it was somehow popular. So, like a stupid cat poking its nose into a bear trap, I typed the words ‘Honey Boo Boo’ into the search field and clicked the first result that came up. It took less than a minute before the tears returned. However, these were not tears shed from sorrow over the futility and ruin of war… this time they were tears of rage. Tears of angry, salty, what-the-fuck-is-wrong-with-the-world rage.
What – to my increasing horror – I witnessed, was the latest and most heinous of reality television’s crimes to humanity. A truly face-palmingly moronic program about a bizarre family hailing from a ‘Murican backwater so deep that brain cells simply have no choice but to drown. The show primarily followed its protagonist, little seven-year-old Alana ‘Honey Boo Boo’ Thompson, an agonisingly annoying little brat with a sugar habit, who happens to be a full-time children’s beauty pageant contestant. Prodding her along each step of the way was her intellectually-derelict mother June, aka ‘Mama’, who I assume to be the unholy spawn of Cletus from The Simpsons and Jabba the Hutt. Shockingly, I also learned that this show had spun-off from another reality show entitled Toddlers in Tiaras AND that both programs aired on a network called THE LEARNING CHANNEL.
I can’t even… how the… what?
I truly believe that if humanity was stored in a barrel, and you had reached in and scraped your fingers along the bottom, the grimy filth clinging to the underside of your fingernails would still be more worthwhile to modern society than whatever the hell ‘Here Comes Honey Boo Boo’ is meant to represent.
I get that trashy reality TV exists. I get that it’s fake, melodramatic and its characters are one-dimensional epsilon minors of our species. I even get that it’s a guilty pleasure for the rest of us. But this? This is next level exploitation; this is the 21st century way of locking freaks in a cage and carting them from town to town. Things such as this can only emerge from a place suffering a poverty of intelligence and integrity. On every level Honey Boo Boo is shameful, from the controversial axis on which it revolves – children’s beauty pageants – to the patronising mockery encouraged by the producers who make these monkeys dance for a banana with one hand, and rake in the cash from the idiotic laughing masses with the other.
Let’s put aside the silly rednecks and scumbag television producers for a moment and examine at pageantry as a thing. I don’t think it even bears explaining that coating a five-year-old in makeup and making them dance to provocative music is a bad, bad thing. But even the ‘grown-up’ versions, the Miss Universes and the Miss Worlds – really are no different. First of all, the original pageants were held to judge animals by inspecting the undersides of their tails and measuring their teeth – so there’s that. Second of all, the first human ‘beauty’ pageant, run in 1854, was the brainchild of a man named P T Barnam – the same P T Barnam who wrote a book entitled The Art Of Money Getting.
Now, Mr Barnam was a man who unashamedly pandered to the lowest common denominator, and mastered numerous unctuous ways to suck the pennies from people’s pockets. He ran gigantic circuses built on animal abuse and freak show gawking, he staged cheesy plays and was, in general, a champion of low-brow. Not surprisingly, he ended up in politics. To be fair, Mr Barnam did accomplish many great deeds and eventually became quite a generous man who was simply obsessed with grand spectacle. Nevertheless, beauty pageants don’t list among his more culturally-affirming legacies.
During the next century these pageants expanded from their hokey town fair origins, and with the help of television and institutionalised sexism, became the highly profitable trash parades we see today. Of course the name and the game is ‘beauty’ – but somewhere along the way, that term became far more removed from its literal meaning. ‘Beauty’ connotes elegance and allure, not just a pretty face but a beautiful being. Today’s ‘Miss General Location or Theme’ pageants seem to advertise that to achieve admiration, a woman must venture down a path of teeth bleaching, eating disorders and body-enhancing/ personality-reducing surgical procedures. To make matters worse, it almost sarcastically pretends that intelligence carries any bearing at all on judging criteria. Yeah… The question and answer time is included to give the audience a bit of a laugh, no-one there wants or expects any mind-jolting flashes of perspicacity. The inane questions are invariably designed to lure out inane answers; I mean when would you ever seriously ask an adult what they would do if they were ‘President of the world’? Oh, end world hunger? Have peace for all peoples? Even if a contestant happened to be bright and insightful, she’d unfortunately never be allowed the chance to shine. One, because the questions are dumb and two, because at that point everyone else has tuned out waiting impatiently for the bikini round.
If you need any more convincing, just look at who runs Miss Universe: Donald Trump. A man whose sleaze, bigotry and repugnance knows no bounds. Even Mr Barnam lived in an age where cheesy vaudeville and awful freak shows still maintained a feathery touch of class. The Trump effect, with it crass, charmless Vegas-vibe, only guarantees a complete bankruptcy of dignity.
And so, back to little Honey Boo Boo and her televised saga of child abuse. It’s bad enough that beauty pageants exist for teenagers and adults, but children? The entire concept is based upon critical sexualisation and superficial values, which for adults is wrong and for children is criminal. The halfwit parents who enter their kids into these competitions might say it’s good for raising self-esteem and confidence. In other words, teaching them that self-worth and confidence is smattered over your face in foundation and mascara, and that you are judged and estimated by how you look. Some even defend it by saying it’s no different than, say, signing your kid up to a junior soccer team. How, exactly, participating with peers in a team sport and prancing around in fishnets high on sugar are comparable, I’m not sure. Either it’s an absurd comparison or they play soccer very differently in the States. (That could perhaps explain David Beckham’s five year stint there.)
I’m not going to completely write off the idea of a pageant. It’s just another (and certainly not the worst) manifestation of a natural competitive instinct – and the ignoble but nonetheless pleasurable predilection for casting judgement on others. Of both those counts I am guilty a thousand times. But I just cannot see a positive seed sprouting from under the layers of dirt. It’s trashy, it’s superficial and worst of all, is a grand exercise of false empowerment. What’s more, it’s frustrating that having a problem with these things is so often dismissed as the jealousy of a foot-stomping, frumpy feminist – or, if you are a straight male like me, irrefutable evidence of homosexuality. Well, it’s not seeing a beautiful woman that offends me (though plastic matchsticks aren’t really my thing), but it’s the lamentable fact that so many young women will grow up to believe that donning a glittery little tiara on your head and a ‘Miss Anything’ sash on your shoulder is the greatest achievement a woman could dream of. An ‘achievement’ that is ultimately nothing more than artful exploitation… money-getting, some might even say.
I really hope it doesn’t rain again next weekend.