Saturday, November 21, 2015

Explaining science wins

The video above is by 18-year-old Ryan Chester, and it won $400,000. It was all because he wanted to explain Einstein. We need more like him.

The video, “Some Cool Ways of Looking at the Special Theory of Relativity” was Ryan’s entry in the Breakthrough Junior Challenge, “an annual challenge that invites students, ages 13-18, to share their passion for math and science with the world”. Ryan said of it:
"Special Relativity has got to rank up there with one of the most revolutionary theories in physics. I've seen it referenced in science books and magazines for years. It was always mentioned in relationship to the idea that you can travel forward in time if you just move fast enough. Time dilation has been in science TV shows and movies like Interstellar so often that I've just accepted it without understanding why it was true. So when this challenge came around I thought this area was a great one to dig into."
In the YouTube description, Ryan explained what he wanted to do in the video:
“110 years ago Albert Einstein published a theory that revolutionized the way we think about the universe. In this video I'll show you how to prove its two postulates using easy-to-understand real-world experiments, and how even the simplest understanding of quantum mechanics can be used to wrap your mind around why time must slow down the faster an object moves.”
Clearly it worked: Ryan’s project won the $400,000 final prize, of which $250,000 will be a scholarship, $50,000 will go to his teacher, and $100,000 will go to his school to fund a science lab. That’s pretty awesome.

I’ve often thought that one of the major problems facing science—beyond politically-motivated deliberate ignorance—is that ordinary people just don’t understand science or scientific concepts. This is part of what makes it so easy for scheming politicians to use that ignorance to steer people into supporting the politicians’ ideological agendas.

There have long been people who did well explaining science. But sometimes the media has referred to them as “science popularisers”, as if that was a bad thing. This implication is that such people aren’t doing REAL science, that making complex scientific principles easy to understand is somehow cheapening science. Obviously, I disagree.

As I see it, science explainers are kind of like those who translate ancient Greek texts in modern English: They take something I could never otherwise understand and make it accessible. Knowledge shouldn’t be locked up and available only to a few who can understand it.

I don’t know what Ryan plans on doing with his life, but if he continues as a science explainer, it would be a good thing. We need more people who can do that so we can all understand the science that we need.

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