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Does anyone else think Space is REALLY boring?

On Saturday morning I read this blogpost and it's sent me into a bit of a rant. As I've put directly in a comment there, what annoyed wasn't so much the content of the post, rather the general discourse of space science it sampled. E.g:

The inspirational power of space and rocket ships [...] captivated and fired the scientific and technological imagination of a generation of young people. Some became the scientists and engineers of the Golden Age

When we talk about space in popular culture, we often use such lofty language. The sense that space, especially space exploration, can provide some 'inspirational power', ready to fuel a whole generation of scientists is also a familiar tune. There's been some controversy over manned spaceflight vs other space science recently, and this post isn't about that debate. What I want to pick out is the dependancy on superlatives.

It's not just rocket-science, astronomy similarly bangs on about the majesty of the night sky (and let's just draw a line under cosmology now). All this talk of how space is awe-inspiring/ exciting/ wonderful/ simply-just-the-most-amazing-thing-ev-er just makes me roll my eyes. I'm tempted to say its self-aggrandising, but I think I'll just settle on calling it boring. Mind-numbingly boring.

spaceship

I respond to space hype similar way that I do to a lot of religion (and um, football, HD telly, some music, the odd film, several books, particular brands of chocolate...). I feel like I'm told I should be inspired, as if that's enough and no one needs to show me why. Lacking a solid and explicit basis for inspiration, I tend to think "that's must be something other people get", a matter of taste. I also get a tad wound up at the assumption that its all A Good Thing. You earn my respect; don't assume it. So, I shrug and turn my back. I have plenty of other things to play with.

Recently, I've become more aware that my stubborn refusal to drink the space-flavoured kool-aid means I've been missing out. So, I've been trying to engage with space news a bit more, and have to admit, am finding the various UK and USA funding issues fascinating. I've been listening to the Naked Astronomy podcast, and dragged myself to a public lecture on astrobiology last week. Aside from realising there's a lot more to space science than just the rockets, sparkly bits and big numbers I have previously written it off as, I might have, despite myself, noticed my jaw dropping slightly.

I'm not the only one who shrugs at space. Chatting with some friends a few days ago, one piped up with "You know, I think space is a bit dull" Then, after a pause: "Why do I feel like a dick for saying that?". I should note, this guy has a PhD in the politics of translating Zola. He isn't stupid. Aside from the intellectual-sounding thesis, he's a generally well-informed, opened-minded and thoughtful chap. He's not scared of talking about science, and even likes the odd bit of sky-gawping: he ran outside with me last week to stare at the Moon and Mars. I think it's telling that he feels a bit embarrassed about finding space a bit dull. There can be an implication in a lot of this hype that if you don't get it, you are somehow lacking a soul, or at least some understanding. It's a shame he lumps the whole of space together, but I can see how he might have got there, after years of being told "OMG! Spaceship!" or "See here children, the great inspirational majesty of Our Night Sky", and all he can do is nod politely. So, no: I don't think he is being a dick. It is just that other stuff has caught his attention.

If nothing else, I wish someone would cite more than anecdote when they bang on about about how we could solve all the problems of declining number of trained physicists if we sent more people into space. No one has, to the best of my knowledge, done any (reliable) work on this causal link between sending the odd astronaut into space and getting young people to sit through maths exams. It seems rather expensive, as education programmes go. You can throw all the biographies of scientists/ engineers at me that you like. I want to know about today, for 21st century kids.

Until such data is forthcoming (which I doubt it will be, though if anyone wants to give me a large research grant...) space-hypers should acknowledge that their rhetoric can dis-enchant as much as it may also act as a call to arms. You do yourself and your audiences no favours if you assume they already share your enthusiasm, or assume wonder is self-evident. The language of space science needs to extricate itself from its religious and military histories: cut all that bleeding reverence, loose the superlatives, inject a bit more piss-taking and get on with showing us some specifics of how great you are.

Comments

Hi Alice, I just posted this on my own blog in response to your comment; but it really belongs here. I've not addressed all your points, but this keeps the ball in play.


There certainly is a question for me too around whether today ’space stuff’ is inspiring young folk (in particular) to do constructive things with their lives – one of which might be taking up a career in science and technology – to the degree it supposedly did in the past. One of your other points was around concern that today’s commentators blithely recycle the assumptions and rhetoric from a previous age.

As regards evidence, I guess for the historical situation we are, as you say, looking at the various testimonials from scientists who list space as a developmental influence (along with chemistry sets and such like). This sort of evidence seems to pop up in popular accounts and ad-hoc studies, and I suspect they’ll be an academic treatise on it somewhere?

Then there is the anecdotal and personal evidence, like my father-in-law’s story and, for that matter, my own story and that of my contemporaries. I’ve in the past wondered whether these reports, and my own memories, are subject to some kind of retrospective romanticism; but as far as their influence on my own actions is concerned, I’ve come out against that. It’s been said so many times before and you know all this, but the Apollo period, especially the moon landings from 1969 to 1972, was quite unusual in terms of space being in the public eye. I know the scene in the Tom Hanks movie where the US audience has lost interest by Apollo 13 but, counter to that, it’s not that long ago my parents removed the last vestiges of the whole sequence of mission stickers, through to Apollo 17, that as a kid I’d collected and stuck to my wardrobe door. Evidence if you like.

As with other areas where science influences the broader populace, I think it’s important to look at how individual groups – however we might classify them (I went to a grammar school in the 70s, so might today be seen as privileged/elitist – right?) were and are influenced by spacey stuff, particularly given that certain groups often have impact on society disproportionate to their size, or even visibility. It would be interesting to see how researchers in this area have cut the data re social groupings and other demographics.

Looking to the situation post Apollo and particularly today, what is the evidence that kids are inspired by space? Again, I think any research would need to consider individual demographics: e.g. is the general populace bored now but the swotty kids still motivated?

Lunar landings have been replaced by the Shuttle and unmanned exploration of the planets; is that an equivalent turn on?

Your point about whether space is boring is interesting, and I think the discussion goes beyond space. The most mundane museum object can become captivating to those who have read a 500 page history about it and its historical context. In some aspects it’s the same with space; and I’d throw evolution in there too. Looked at from that perspective, the more remote-sensing, probe-based, and unmanned planetary missions of the post-Apollo era may rate lower on the instant gratification scale for the uninformed majority, but represent a deeper, broader, motivating, interest for some. So I guess I’m agreeing with you; if someone doesn’t know what they’re looking at, there is a lot to do with space and astronomy that is deathly boring. But perhaps no more so than the earthier, blobbier, artifacts in the British Museum; opera period; and much of Shakespeare. (I digress, but am reminded of Microsoft’s space flight simulator ‘game’ in its day. Hopeless unless you were into the detail and the physics behind it.)

So there I go committing two science communication sins in one paragraph; counter to the prevailing paradigm, with appeals to both elitism and the need for a good dose of PUS before folk can start enjoying science properly :-) . (For non-scicom folk, the Public Understanding of Science PUS movement, in the UK at least, is associated with branding the public – in a bad way – as having a deficit of scientific knowledge that needs filling – forthwith!)

And I agree it’s a fascinating topic for research – seeing how folk feel about these things today. Really interesting, relevant topic. Screaming to be funded.

But there is a piece of research out there you know? – albeit small sample, in the form of the Exquisite Corpse of Science ;-) . Seriously, I was quite surprised how much space stuff and rockets featured in the pics. O.k. – coming clean, most of the drawings are by scientists and their children; but it’s valid data for ‘that group’ all the same.

Anyhow, that was a ramble. Hope it made some kinda sense.

Tim

I didn't mean to imply that sort of anecdotal evidence isn't important, interesting or usable, I just don't think we can build science and/ or education policy upon it alone. In fact, I think it's really important that we keep and use these sorts of memories of childhood science, just because they are only partially useful/ reliable, doesn't mean we should throw them out.

Also, for all that I'd argue that a fair number of us born after Apollo 13 are a bit incredulous towards a Cold War wonder at space, there is a cultural stickiness to these things - not just on your wardrobe door or in terms of still influencing our vocab, but in hearts and minds of kids today. For every person I know who says space is boring, I can probably find at least one who bounces up and down like a freak as soon as you even mention spaceships (though I suppose I know a disproportionate number of geeks...)

I know you are trying to be cheeky with the suggestion that the public need to be dosed with a bit more science. But I would probably agree with you - to enjoy science is often to be told something new. Where I'd reject 'PUS' deficit models is when its says all people NEED science, and/ or must demonstrate some level of knowledge before they can have an opinion about science. Learning and engagement are, perhaps, a bit different (intimately related, but different).

And yes "screaming to be funded", natch :) Seriously, I do have a research proposal along these lines currently running round my head, and some of the research methodology isn't a million miles from Exquisite Corpse.

V. interesting post. The problem most of the time is that in the eye of the public astronomy is hardly distinguishable from space science. You seem mostly to be talking rocket launches and manned spaceflight, which in my opinion is enginneering and politics more than science. I am interested to know if you think the same applies to astronomy? Worth noting here that I am not specifically defending astronomy, just interested in your thoughts on it.

Colin,

Good points!

I think that post reads like I'm conflating aspects of space science because part of my point is that they get conflated together. Or maybe just that I stupidly lumped them together as 'annoying space crap' for years... :)

As you imply, astronomy is different from rocket science ("engineering and politics more than science" - good line!), but I do, personally think that the language of astronomy relies on superlatives. Maybe echoing a religious history rather than military one though. I also know very well that this isn't always the case though. Lots of imaginative and exciting things in popular astronomy!

Space is dull only because we're lagging behind science fiction.

I caught the recent Shuttle launch when I flicked on BBC News the other day, and found it pretty boring. We've been launching rockets for decades, so it's hard to get excited about it.

If the situation was closer to Arthur C Clarke's vision of 2010, I'd be much more interested. Alien monoliths aside, how could you not be inspired by a manned mission to Jupiter? Imagine the constant news coverage, the reality TV programme, the unbelievable pictures. It'd be the most talked about thing in the world.

I know that scientifically, human space exploration is a waste of time compared to probes and telescopes, but I don't think that should stop us. But then maybe I just read too much sci-fi...

Regarding surveys about the inspiration of astronomy:

A survey was commissioned by PPARC (or perhaps its predecessor SERC) from (I think) DTZ Pieda consultancy of undergraduates in STEM subjects asking what inspired them to take up science education. Astronomy (and particle physics) came near the top, perhaps at the top, of the lists. So was relativity, I seem to remember. I have tried and failed to locate copies of the survey - it is a long time since I worked at the Research Councils! - but perhaps there are copies in the National Archives (Minutes of Council meetings).

However, Mary Beard on Desert Island Discs a couple of weeks ago related how she was inspired to take up classics by a curator at the British Museum who unlocked a glass case that she wasn't tall enough to see into and gave her to handle a piece of carbonised bread from an excavation. I think it is the memorable engagement with another person or with a thing or event that is most important. Since the night sky is readily accessible, astronomy offers opportunities for that engagement.

As an astronomer, I am in favour of using astronomy to inspire students. But, as a citizen and a person, I am in favour of using anything and everything to inspire students. I think we can't afford to be fussy or dog-in-the-manger.

Paul,

Thanks to the mention of PPARC research.

Moreover, I like the Mary Beard ref and your line about "I think it is the memorable engagement with another person or with a thing or event that is most important" - as you say the night sky is 'readily accessible' which I guess is a good reason to support anti-light pollution campaigns!

Jacob,

Ah, you're missing out!

On the Shuttle Launch - how GEORGOUS is this http://apod.nasa.gov/apod/image/1002/sts30nightlaunch_nasa_big.jpg (via Dr Stuart Clark's twitter feed).

And... there was a lovely tweet from Seed Science writer the other day:

"A good SF story lurks here: Astronomers puzzled by "runaway" stars moving so fast they'll eventually fly out of galaxy. http://bit.ly/cIGOqH"

am sure Felicity would approve... :)

And, ALIENS, well, you really should have seen Lewis Dartnell's astrobiology talk at UCL (think the video link is still active, in the post). I normally find SF on aliens really, really dull, but his descriptions on possibilities of 'wet rocks' were ace.

I'll stop now, otherwise I'll be in danger of replicating that hackneyed old pop sci line about science being more fun than the SF because it's "really real", and you know how I hate that :)

That picture is actually my desktop background, which perhaps undermines my entire argument ;) but the point is it could have been from any Shuttle launch as they've become so routine. Maybe my thoughts are best expressed by this tshirt:

http://www.threadless.com/product/63/Damn_Scientists

It's 2010, where are my holidays on the Moon?

Hello Alice,

No, I don't think that space is by any possible stretch of the imagination boring, but I think your post is more about the clichéd portrayals of the universe and its exploration rather than space itself.

Whilst gap-year stories are often mindless and bland, we shouldn't allow ourselves to glaze over at the very idea of distant countries and cultures, which are neither of those things.

The mass media and its mouthpieces portray many topics in a similarly effusive but contentless manner. I'm a musician--ergo study the second-oldest science after astronomy!--and love my subject unreservedly, but am all too often dismayed at its portrayal by arts correspondents online and in print.

(There are reasons beside brain-training to listen to Mozart, for example, and John Cage spent more on ink than is perpetually suggested.)

In each case the problem is with the carriers, who are unremittingly predictable, not the content, which is invariably fascinating and intricate.

Best wishes,
Jonathan

I was just talking to my favourite astronomer, and realized in the course of our conversation that space exploration programs (NASA in particular, but most of them in general) have been coasting for a long, long time on the sensationalism of that first step for mankind taken by Neil Armstrong.

Unlike any other massive outlay of public money, space programs have never actually taken the time or the trouble to explain what the potential benefits of exploration actually are. There has always been an arrogance about personned space flight in particular, and a presumption that it's worth doing because if we don't do it, a rival nation will get there first. As if that matters.

Every once in a while you'll hear about something wonderful that's crept into common usage as a result of the personned space exploration program - Teflon coatings or new ways of treating burst spinal discs. But in general, to get all 'marketing speak' on you - the personned space exploration programs have focused solely on the features of the programs (we'll use this much rocket fuel and that many pounds of steel to send x number of astronauts on a journey lasting x number of days and travelling x number of light years) rather than the benefits, which much more simply and profoundly address the question, 'why are we doing this?' Once that's answered, we get out of the realm of hype and into the realm of truth.

Ruth,

"coasting on the sensationalism of Neil Armstrong" - nicely put!

Have you read this?

http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/jonathanjonesblog/2010/feb/01/hubble-space-telescope-astronomy

I felt it was couched in a bit of art waffle, but it's point (that Apollo makes us feel like we're failures in terms of space when actually astronomy's been doing all this amazing work in terms of understanding the universe) was, I thought, pretty good.

I love that article (but then I majored in English, so I get excited by terms like 'spagghetification' and 'space minnows').

I think this discussion is a really important one, you know. Obviously we're not ever going to agree 100% on how we spend and expend our resources. But I think it's time more people started talking about what actually increases our body of knowledge rather than blindly assuming the space cowboys are the real astronomical heroes.

Just read this via Twitter. You probably shouldn't read this old post of mine mentioning the space programme...

Though actually I think it is more that kids notice whatever "science-y" stuff is current at the time. People of the "vintage" - *cough* - of the Univs & Science Minister, or me, or your and my mutual friend Stephen Curry, were children in the late 60s and remember the space programme very vividly. But for kids now it likely will be something different that is the "science in the news" topic they notice.

I also tend to think that a general interest in the natural world comes before interest in more technological science-y things. Put another way, interest in science is (or should be if fostered), an outgrowth of kids' natural curiosity about the world... so ANYTHING that encourages that is good. Including dinosaurs.

Perhaps the real point is that when kids are curious about stuff, teachers (and parents) should, where appropriate, be asking:

"Would you like to hear something about how they found that out?"

Ta for that link Dr Aust. Read and enjoyed :)

Think you have a point about relative "vintages". Indeed, I have a theory I'd like to test about green issues and kids of the 80s (i.e. my own personal vintage).

As well as that nice post by a teacher on the SpaceDino thing I can recommend Ben Goldacre's posterous post on this, which makes good link to a study of 20th C UK news that showed a shift from physics to biomedicine (not sure media content analysis is thing here, but that's another issue...).