Spinach Blogging

I learned a new term from a producer at a television studio the other day (in a context I do not know if I’m allowed to blog about yet): “Spinach TV”. I love it. This is a term expressing the idea of television programming that is supposed to be “good for you” since it is educational in some way. Some of us are doing this sort of thing in the blogging world, for better or worse. See my about page.

With that in mind, I’d like to offer some words about this week’s science coverage of the two big Astronomy/Astrophysics stories. I’ve heard the issue raised a number of times today (including by my colleague Sean over on CV) that it is somehow to be thought of as a bad thing that there’s more coverage in the press of the Pluto demotion than there is of the new results giving new direct evidence of Dark Matter. The former is supposed to be all about the politics of science while the latter is supposed to be covered more since it is a profound new result.

With all due respect to my friends and colleagues who have expressed that opinion, I would say that such a view is somewhat short-sighted and has more than a whiff of elitism about it. They’re just missing the big picture. I completely agree that the Dark Matter result is vastly more important new science than the simple fact of Pluto’s demotion, but from the perspective of science education, the value of the Pluto coverage is immensely important, and maybe at least as important as the Dark Matter coverage. I can think of several reasons, and here are some:

  • Everyone who has had even a basic education – this includes people from a spectacularly wide range of ages and economic brackets – knows about Pluto, and has grown up with Pluto on their minds. The Pluto issue will catch their eye immediately. This is great! To have the issue of whether Pluto is a planet or not being discussed in the press for a week is of immense value, since it got them thinking about some (however small) science for at least one time this year.
  • That science that they got thinking about was something they could really relate to. It captured their imagination since I’d bet quite a bit that at least for a little while when they were young, they dreamed a little bit about what it would be like to wander around the solar system and see those things whose names they learned. Maybe they’ll take some time out and dream a little again like they have not done for so long. As vitally important as the Dark matter problem is, it just does not have that ability to capture the popular imagination yet. We should not begrudge Pluto it’s ability to do that. Rather, we should continue to strive to get other modern science issues (like Dark Matter, Dark Energy) more firmly in the popular consciousness.
  • The Pluto issue is obviously a valuable loss-leader. It’s the shiny thing in front of the store being sold off cheaply that gets customers in the door. Who knows what else will catch their eye once they’re in the store? For example, that Pluto issue exposes the public to the issue of planetary science. They’ll want to know why it is being demoted, and they’ll quickly find out that there are good science issues there. Of course we want them to learn all the fancy stuff going on in the “big science” issues, the concerns of the universe at large, but it is fantastic that they’ll learn that there’s a great deal of science going on right in our “back yard” -the Solar System- (for example, the recently appreciated richness of the Kupier belt, which threatens to produce tens if not hundreds of Pluto-like objects), and that the contents of science textbooks can change -reflecting the life and vitality of science (a point nicely made at this link too). They’ll learn that all these issues pertain to big questions about how our Solar system came to be, and from there, maybe about how these issues connect to the search for planets about other stars, and so forth. Science is all connected.
  • The loss-leader effect also works nicely in another way. The fact that the Pluto story and the Dark Matter story happened in the same week probably got the latter more attention than it would have had in another week, by virtue of the fact that Pluto would have got people looking in the science section of their newspaper for the first time in a long time, and maybe also seeing the Dark Matter story as a result…

In short, in my opinion, something positive that brings a big audience to science, even for a little while, should not be dismissed just because it is not one’s favourite topic, or because it’s not “profound enough”.

You never know where it might lead.


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10 Responses to Spinach Blogging

  1. Melquiades says:

    Hi cvj,

    I understand your point. Indeed it is a good start for people to get to know planetary science and research that is not part of the “main dish”. But the first thing that came to my mind when I heard about Pluto’s story was the tale of Feynman and his father.

    Feynman tells that his father taught him the name of a bird in different languages, but that really did not said anything about the bird. So knowing that Pluto is a planet or a dwarf planet does not say anything about it. If people get interested on the details of why Pluto was demoted, then OK the story was able to deliver some scientific curiosity to the public. But having “un-educated” people learn just the fact that Pluto is a dwarf planet is not very useful.


  2. Jude says:

    This is a great article. Thanks. No wonder your blog is one of my favorites. In the last couple of weeks, I made an effort to subscribe to conservative blogs and added a lot of homeschooling blogs to my bloglines subscriptions, and that has made me depressed about the state of education and the world. The homeschooling blogs, for example, have been talking about the report that people lose their faith when they go to college–well, then, they say, we’ll have to homeschool them through college too. But you’re right–today they’re all talking about Pluto, talking about science, trying to understand why Pluto is no longer considered a planet. They have the same frame of reference that scientists do–they don’t believe in the earth-centric view of the universe or that the earth is flat. So maybe it isn’t all quite so hopeless after all.

  3. Clifford says:

    Melquiades:- True, but in looking at a lot of the stories that are in the press, I am encouraged that a great many (if not the majority) of them quickly touch upon the deeper science issues. Recall also the Neil Tyson issue with the Hayden Planetarium and leaving pluto out of the exhibit?

    So, I think that the science comes out pretty quickly, if the reporter is even halfway decent at their job. It is an opportunity that is just way too good to waste…..



  4. Clifford says:

    Jude:- Thanks! That was encouraging to read…


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  6. Dissonant says:

    Actually, while the riff-raff was going gaga over Pluto and dark matter, the real elite was pondering this bombshell: On the Absence of Cosmic Acceleration. 😉

  7. Navneeth says:

    The Pluto issue is obviously a valuable loss-leader. It’s the shiny thing in front of the store being sold off cheaply that gets customers in the door. Who knows what else will catch their eye once they’re in the store? For example, that Pluto issue exposes the public to the issue of planetary science.

    I have to agree with Melquiades. For this to work, people should also think about “buying the more expensive wares,” and not be discouraged by it. Incidentally, mathematics also is getting some sort of attention, though not as much as the Pluto, thanks to Perelman rejecting the Fields. If all of this works correctly, it should have the same effect of the closest apparition of Mars in 60,000 years, in 2003 (the original one 😉 ), which got hundreds of people into amateur astronomy.

  8. Dissonant says:

    Is Perelman’s rejection of the Fields medal really good publicity (or is all publicity good publicity)? The story making the rounds in the press is that he considers the mathematics establishment so unethical that he no longer wants to have anything to do with it. At the very least, you have to wonder about the judgment — and motives — of the colleagues who apparently fired him three years ago.

  9. astromcnaught says:

    My view is that as far as math goes, all publicity is good publicity. The stories of great proofs, the eccentrics, the history and the applications oftentimes make great tales. This was exemplified in Singh’s excellent popular book ‘Fermat’s Last Theorem’. Wonderful reading. I hope it got a prize and also hope it turned at least some young minds to the study of such things. One of the chapters is entitled ‘A Mathematical Disgrace’ but that just makes the read even better!

    Of course, the reality of the field, and the embedded behaviours remain mysterious. I agree with Clifford here. The number of folk who are willing to suffer (enjoy i mean) a lecture from your’s truly here always increases on any important-sounding astro announcement. The Pluto effect also allowed me to expand onto dark matter, as it were, to captivated audiences. Or captive at least 🙂

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