One Dimensional Thoughts

I spent last weekend exhibiting for the American Physical Society at a joint meeting of the American Association of Physics Teachers and American Astronomical Society. Freebies are one of the main reasons conference attendees come to the exhibit hall and I certainly don’t blame them.

In the hall teachers load up on free posters, lesson plans, pens, luggage tags, stress balls, calendars, and even laser pointers – all decorated with the logos of publishers, non-profits, and other companies. At some of the larger meetings teachers roam the hall with crates on wheels to hold all of their goodies and bring extra suitcases to carry them home.

One of the things that impressed me at this meeting was the type of goodies the astronomy booths were giving away. I picked up some beautiful and very high quality posters and full calendars filled with images of planets, galaxies, and other cosmic objects. I found myself getting caught up in wonder as I paged through them, as was, I suspect, the intended reaction. Yet there is always some part of my mind that feels uneasy when I look at those pictures. They certainly inspire wonder and amazement, but in a way I feel like they can be a little deceiving.

Pictures of the whirlpool galaxy and the Hubble deep field show people a beautiful view – but lack the life and ferocity of that exists as a result of being a 2-D representation of what things look like through man‘s eye (okay, a telescope’s “eye”).

Zoos are great because they allow us to see exotic animals that we never would otherwise, but there is something unsettling for me about visiting a zoo too. I feel like they keep me from recognizing the animals for what they really are – wild, powerful creates often capable of ferocity and or skills completely foreign to us. Have you ever seen people on hiking trails walk closer to bears to get a better picture? Or try to feed deer from their hands? Zoos only expose us to one particular view of the animal world. Similarly, cosmic images only show us the objects from one point of view – by virtue of being images, of course.

It seems that different fields have their preferred means of engaging the public; for astronomy it’s clearly images and for physics its probably written words, but these methods are kind of one dimensional on their own and often don’t provide the whole picture. I’d love to see science outreach engage peoples other senses – smell, sound, taste, touch – in addition to showing them beautiful pictures and eloquent articles. I think this would help us form a more complete picture of what’s really going on out there.

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