The public representation of science has changed. Nothing could demonstrate that better then these two videos, each one about atoms.
The first is a long(ish) video hosted by Carl Sagan. His presentation style treats science as deeply meaningful and fascinating, capable of captivating audiences just by the sheer immensity of the subject matter (no pun intended).
Sagan chooses to represent atoms in their “true” form, featured as red blobs wiggling about on the screen. For the first time, he tells us, we are able to “see” atoms as they are. He reveals the world to us through the mastery of instrumentation.
Take a moment to watch the first minute or two of the video…
Of course, atoms are not red blobs. Red blobs are representations of atoms, just like the popular image that came out of the nuclear age and was attached to anything and everything “sciencey” in the 20th century.
For a start, atoms are not red, they are colourless. Certain electromagnetic frequencies, like the ones they chose to represent atoms as red blobs, make us see red. Atoms are also not blobs.
Some might say the images images we have of atoms are meant to represent them as accurately as possible, that is, as true to life as possible.
Well, okay. But there might be good reasons to represent atoms as other things, say as people partying it up, and occasionally slapping each other in the face.
Take a moment to watch this video…
The Chemical Party is much more entertaining, yes? But why would we want to represent atoms in this way? Does it not make a mockery of the important work that happened in Sagan’s (well Cambridge’s) sombre and deeply meaningful Cavendish Lab?
But anthropomorphizing atoms might also lead to a more informed public discussion of science, because more people might actually be willing to watch a 2-minute video of atoms grinding on the dance floor than watch Carl Sagan inject quiet moments for reflection into a video of red blobs wiggling (no offense to the late Mr. Sagan, I am a big fan). And the more people engage with the picture of science on offer from scientists, the better they will be prepared to evaluate those scientists’ claims. They might even be better prepared to evaluate the trustworthiness of certain scientific claims over others.
More engagement, and well-placed trust, can only benefit science and society.
As for the fears that science is harmed by the Chemical Party. At the end of the day, each video deviates from the textbook image of atoms, but depicts atoms in a way that is true enough to make a point. Atoms are neither red blobs nor do they engage in polyamorous bisexual boogying. But according to the textbook descriptions they do “attract”, “bond”, engage in “explosive reactions”, and a carbon atom can certainly attract four hydrogen atoms! Both videos make these points well enough.
What’s better about the Chemical Party is that it disposes of the traditional picture of science as serious and sombre–a picture that threatens public disengagement–in an attempt to engage as many people as possible and bring them into the discussion. Even if it only brings them superficially into the fold, the image of science as a Chemical Party holds much more promise for public engagement than the Red Blob alterntive.
(Thanks to Alice Bell for tweeting the Chemical Party video, which I can’t get enough of.)