Monday, February 03, 2014

Science and public outreach - Nerd Nite

Last Thursday I was fortunate enough to be invited to speak at the first Nerd Nite HoustonNerd Nite was described to me as "like TED, only with alcohol," which seems to have been pretty accurate.  The event was largely organized by Amado Guloy, a solid state chemist by training who now does IP law, and the first speaker was Andy Boyd, who has been doing serious science outreach as a contributor to the syndicated-on-public-radio Engines of Our Ingenuity.  I spoke last of the three, which had the benefit of letting the audience get, umm, relaxed by the time I took the stage.  In some sense I gave a meta-talk - I was a scientist speaking to a general audience about scientists speaking to general audiences.  The quote in my title - "It's late; we're all tired; why should any of us care about anything you're saying?" - is something that I once heard a certain famously irascible condensed matter theorist say to a startled speaker who had committed the sin of not really giving an introduction to a talk.   Hopefully the video of the talks will be online soon, and when that happens I'll update this post to link there.  The talk went very well, and I had a great time.  The audience was terrific, particularly in the question period, when they asked about a variety of challenging topics (e.g., is the upcoming Bill Nye vs. creation museum guy debate a good thing?  How much can we expect average people to know and understand about science?  Isn't asking average people to trust us on science - taking science as a matter of faith - antithetical to the whole point of science as a skeptical way of interacting with the world?).  The whole experience really made me think yet again about how nice it would be to have a Sagan-esque figure in terms of explaining the cool, fascinating parts of condensed matter (emergence; the crossover from quantum to classical behaviour; the nature of irreversibility; how modern technology has roots in cm physics; to name a few) to the general public.

Speaking of Sagan, I hope that the new version of Cosmos is must-see viewing.  UPDATE:  check out this blog post from the Library of Congress - you can get Sagan's lecture materials and homeworks for a course that he taught at Harvard, and some stuff from a course on critical thinking at Cornell.  Very cool. 

Lastly, if you want a fun example of a Nerd Nite talk, check out "Godzilla:  History, Biology, and Behavior of Hyperevolved Therapod Kaiju". 

3 comments:

Amado Guloy said...

Thanks for plugging us in, Doug! We had a blast having you there. BTW, the name of the dimsum place is HK Dim Sum on Bellaire and Beltway 8.

I hope to see you at future Nerd Nites! Also, just out of curiosity, what did you think of the Bill Nye/Ham debate?

Douglas Natelson said...

Hi Amado - Thanks again! Please let me know when your pal from Nerd Nite Austin puts up the vimeo link.

As for the Nye/Ham debate, I didn't watch it, so I can only say limited things. Ignoring creationists does not make them go away, but I am very uncomfortable with (1) somehow affirming the idea that the science is "debatable" in this case; and (2) carrying on an exercise that is unlikely to change a single mind.

David Brown said...

"... how nice it would be to have a Sagan-esque figure in terms of explaining the cool, fascinating parts of condensed matter ..." Is there some crowdsourcing approach to finding or developing such a figure? Perhaps have condensed matter theorists nominate plausible candidates and then find some organization or individual to fund the Sagan-esque condensed matter theorist?