I always look forward to the final project papers for my Science and Popular class -- watching the students take the wheel and report on their topics always turns up different angles and additional dimensions of the class for me. The projects take in a wide swath of territory, including (as just a few examples) high-spirited analyses of mathematics in Hollywood movies (Stand and Deliver, Good Will Hunting, Mean Girls, Proof and more), to nuanced explications of science fiction stories new to me (this time, of Ursula K. Le Guin's "Newton's Sleep") and to explanations of the popular culture moebius (s)trip that is Futurama -- an animated series that depends on its audience's sophisticated grasp of pop science even as it contributes in its own ways to science and popular culture.
I found a subset of papers that were especially intriguing, though, for their format: future professional scientists (in primatology, paleontology, and neuroscience) reflecting on their observations/interactions with members of the public in settings related to their professional scientific interests (a zoo, a natural history museum, and a science center).
The future primatologist set out to observe visitors at the Oklahoma City Zoo, and found himself reflecting on the differences between his own responses to the zoo as a child and as an adult, and then noting when the responses of the visiting children and adults diverged in certain situations. Outside the snake house, one of the snake handlers brought out a boa constrictor, and within three minutes 25 kids had touched the snake, but only 5 adults. This wasn't due simply to kids being more "hands on" than their elders: when he visited the aquatics area, an equal number of adults and kids had physical contact with the seals. Later, over at the gorilla display, "the [Gorilla] babies brought up an interesting topic that caught my eye. . . the adults were more fascinated with the baby Gorillas than the children were. The reason this caught my attention was due to the fact that most of the time children are more fascinated with babies, not adults." He wasn't sure what to make of all of this, but I bet he'll think about it from time to time. I like students leaving the class with answers; I like it even better when they leave with questions (especially self-generated ones!) as well. It gives me hope that a little piece of the class will travel along with them once we've all said good-bye.
Now, his visit to the zoo's "Great EscAPE" was more than just one stop on his itinerary -- as he finally revealed at the end of the paper: "I want to tell you why the Gorilla exhibit is my favorite part of the zoo. This is the whole reason why I am attending college and studying to become a Zoologist. I want to become a Primatologist and study Gorillas." It was here that he found himself out of sympathy with the zoo's visitors, much to his surprise, for it seemed like the public had trouble knowing the proper term for the Gorillas. He decided to sit at the entrance and record what happened: "I observed twenty-five people total, and out of the twenty-five only five people (three kids and two adults) called them Gorillas," instead speaking of them as "monkeys." A small point, you might think, but he was stunned, as he reported back: "Those numbers were a shock to me." This kind of loose talk grated on his burgeoning professional sensibilities; a few years earlier and a few years closer to the public side of the public/professional divide, and he might not have been bothered by it, let alone have noticed it.
The future paleontologist set off to interview visitors to the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History, and he had his own unsettling moment, in some of the responses to his request for them to "Describe what you think of when you hear the word paleontologist" . . . for when "some people answer that they do not even know what a paleontologist does it is a shock to me." Taking a more activist approach than the silently observing primatologist, he reported that "You can believe that I took that opportunity to educate them on the basics of what a paleontologist does." The ones who answered "Sam Neill" or "the guy in Jurassic Park" got to slide by :-)
Some of his respondents were fanciful, as with "one kid [who] said that he saw a T. Rex eating a paleontologist because the T. Rex did not want to be found," or "the little old lady" who was visiting the museum because "her grandkids call her an old fossil so she figured she'd come in and see the family." Speaking of dinosaurs and how they viewed them when they were children, one adult woman "said that she was always fascinated by them and actually wanted to study them, but got a little boy crazy and that quickly changed. Another woman said that due to religious beliefs she was not allowed to like dinosaurs." Interesting little bits at the intersection of science and popular culture that you don't know about if you don't ask! In his discussion of his interviews, the future paleontologist frequently switched back and forth from describing his interviewees' ideas to recalling his own early encounters with paleontology (it was seeing Jurassic Park when he was 11 years old that inspired his interest in his future profession). It was interesting to see him grapple with the idea of whether he could still be both a member of the public and a non-member of the public at the same time.
The future neuroscientist was staffing an exhibition table at the Oklahoma City Omniplex Science Museum as part of "Brain Awareness Week" (organized by the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives, and locally coordinated by the Oklahoma Chapter of the Society for Neuroscience, "to advance public awareness about the progress and benefits of brain research"). His table featured the "human brain station," which presented:
three human brains that have been donated for scientific use: a whole human brain complete with the outer meninges, a brain with a cutaway exposing internal anatomy, and finally a brain from which the brainstem and cerebellum have been removed from the cortex. . . [I discovered that] the brain as an icon for science elicits a wide range of responses. My favorite of all of these, however, happened when two couples approached the table. As the women recoiled, the men went through the 'who is more macho' routine, looking and sounding just like the younger boys who try to persuade their buddies with 'double-dog dares'.
He noted that this was a repeated theme:
when asked 'Do you want to touch a real human brain!?' . . . Most children respond[ed] with a resounding 'Wow!' or 'Cool!' and fight over the box of gloves in an attempt to get the first finger on the wrinkly pink mass. Other children simply disappear behind their parents' legs, silently answering me in the negative. More often than not, these children are girls.
Our exhibits are gender neutral; we don't tie pink bows around some brains or strategically place male or female volunteers. Our explanations do not vary from child to child. However, it seems that the idea of science being a male pursuit still seems to influence scientific interest. Sometimes, the parents seem to foster these values. 'You don't want to touch a yucky brain do you?' says one mother to her daughter. Conversely, boys who are afraid to touch the brain may be admonished by their fathers,'What's a matter? Don't be a sissy. Go touch the brain.' And this is where boys and girls begin to learn about how they should -- or should not -- interact with science.
In a fascinating turn of events, even as he was an observer of how attitudes were being formed about what is and is not appropriate in approaching science, he found himself in the uncomfortable position (uncomfortable because of his heightened awareness of himself as both an observer and as a participant) of administering lessons as an expert on the proper relationships between scientists and the lay public. Two incidents in particular caught him off guard:
After they began to touch the brain, one of the men asked me a question. I had practiced my demonstration several times, and as a future neuroscientist, I felt confident that I could field any question the 'uninformed' public could throw at me. This man, though, threw me a curve ball. 'So, uh, d'you believe in that whole evolution thing?' the man asked. I froze. Of all the questions I had been asked about where the brain came from or which part of the brain controlled what, I was completely taken aback by the seeming randomness of the question. I knew how I answered could have an effect on how these people perceived science. What's more, I felt torn between the desire to defend biology's most powerful theory and sidestepping the social landmine that this man had planted. His question and my reaction are indicative of the larger cultural battle between evolutionary theory and recent fundamentalist Creationism alternatives. That the image of the brain can serve as the catalyst for the dialogue, however, still continues to amaze me.
The second incident related to his observation that personal values often surface when "parents may redirect any of my mini-lectures over an exhibit." Who knew it would happen at the pig-eye dissection table? There:
an older man interrupted my explanation of the inner anatomy of the eye to offer, 'You know, they say the eyes are the windows to the soul.' I again got a little defensive, hoping that I could somehow steer the conversation back into the realm of the scientific, replying 'Well, uh, yes. If you look here at the back of the eye, you'll notice the optic nerve, which transmits all the information from your eyes and sends it to the brain to be sorted out.'
"Granted," our brain expert remarked, his response "was not as poetic as the old man's account, but I felt like the romantic aphorism needed to get" -- in his memorable phrase -- "a swat of science." In the end, he suggested, "the man and I played the roles of dry empiricist and artistic poet battling it out for the right to explain nature."
I'm always quite grateful that the students are willing to take a leap of faith with me that studying this science and popular culture thing will prove to be worth their time and effort, given that we're exploring an area that still exists off the map in any kind of meaningful way for most historians of science. To see students willing to begin reflecting on their own scientific images and go through the looking-glass -- well, it was a real privilege to share some of their glimpses. And who knows where next semester's students will go? I can't wait to find out.
Image: A John Tenniel illustration from Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There.