A Final Thought: Where are the science celebrities?


By Mitch Allen

In the first two decades of the 20th century, America’s list of top celebrities included many inventors, explorers, scientists and adventurers. But by the time we got to the second half of the century, our celebrities had become almost exclusively entertainers—actors, singers, and professional athletes.

Our interest in the Nobel Prize was replaced by our interest in the Oscar, the Grammy, the Lombardi Trophy, and now, YouTube and reality TV stars.

Superstar celebs from 1900 to 1920 included Wilbur and Orville Wright, Louis Blériot (first flight across the English Channel), Marie Curie (Nobel Prize in Physics), Sir Robert Scott (Antarctic explorer), Henry Ford, Sigmund Freud, and Albert Einstein. The masses would stand in line for hours for a glimpse of any one of these luminaries.

Superstars from 2019 include Taylor Swift, Kylie Jenner, Kanye West and Ed Sheeran.

Why don’t we make celebrities out of the women and men who are working to cure cancer or create energy from the movement of the tides? Why don’t we cheer for these people the way we once cheered for Amelia Earhart and Neil Armstrong? Why don’t we see on the red carpet someone who has walked on the red planet? Not counting B-list celebs like Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson, we haven’t had a science superstar since Jacques Cousteau.

Even many so-called “journalists” are now entertainers, desperate shock jocks who exist to froth our fears and direct our attention like circus ringmasters, all in the name of more “views.” Worse, social media is giving credence to actual science deniers. That’s right, the number of people who believe the world is flat is growing.

If our nation doesn’t start teaching our children the importance of math and science, we are destined to become mere exporters of entertainment to the rest of the world—until they grow tired of us, tossing the Statue of Liberty aside as if she were an aging chorus girl. It’s already started. Some of the hottest celebrities in the world are K-pop stars from South Korea, and Swedish YouTuber PewDiePie has over 100 million subscribers and his videos have been viewed 23 billion times. (It’s okay, I hadn’t heard of him either.) As we increasingly compete with the rest of the world for audiences, you can bet it will be a race to the bottom.

We are often so engrossed in studying the lives of celebrities that we fail to study the natural world around us. For example, contrary to what the diagrams in my fifth-grade science book told me, I now know that the troposphere—the layer of the atmosphere that contains the air we breathe—is just 4-12 miles high. That’s so thin that if the earth were the size of an apple, our breathable atmosphere would be thinner than the apple’s skin.

And the same is true of the earth’s crust. I was taught that the crust is a wide band around the earth, but it isn’t. The crust is just 3-6 miles deep, depending on where you’re standing, which means it’s even thinner than the apple’s skin, making it easy for volcanoes to spew molten rock—which, by the way, is not “deep within the earth.” Right now you may be closer to a pool of molten rock than you are to the mall.

And unlike the logo that appears when The Big Bang Theory television show comes back from commercial, an atom’s electrons don’t orbit in close proximity to its nucleus. In fact, if the nucleus were the size of a basketball, the electrons would be a the size of gnats zipping around a five-county area at the speed of light.

Why does this “trivia” matter? Because if we are going to be a part of (let alone lead) the world’s discussion on, say, carbon emissions, it would help if we understood the nature of the atmosphere, and if we’re going to choose sides on the fracking debate, it would be good to know some basic characteristics of the earth’s crust. And if we simply want to survive, we don’t want to be the second smartest nation in the room when it comes to nuclear physics/quantum mechanics or AI.

The single greatest threat to the United States of America is not our moral decay. Heck, we’ve been shaking our butts in the camera lens since the days of silent movies. The real threat is that we no longer think it’s cool to be smart.


Categories: Smart Living