Forsaking the Ivory Tower

By Seth Shostak

Patrick Moore -- the brooding presence with the gruff voice and monocled eye -- has died. The famous British popularizer of astronomy passed away at the age of 89 this week. He had the distinction of being the author of more than 70 books and the host of the world's longest-running television series featuring a single host: The Sky at Night.

Moore was a popularizer; not a traditional research astronomer with a PhD, tenure, grad students and -- most important -- a stack of academic reprints. Moore chose broadcasting over narrowcasting, and tried to educate the everyman. His work was for the public, not the specialist.

That may sound like a worthy, indeed an admirable, life. But to many scientists, it isn't. All too often they feel that talking at a level that the general populace can grasp is somehow a lesser activity. Taking science beyond the lecture hall borders on the unseemly -- as if NBA stars were to routinely engage in pick-up games with the neighborhood kids.

Popularization, and even more so its less frequently used synonym, vulgarization, have a distinctly low-brow tenor.

This is a relatively new development, however. Towards the end of the 19th century, when science was growing like kudzu and inventors including Nikolai Tesla, Thomas Edison and George Eastman were warping its discoveries into everyday products, there was good reason to connect the public to science. Science was something that any educated person could understand -- and in many cases, turn to use. Lectures and popular magazines were ubiquitous. Top-notch academics went on the road to speak of the latest developments. British scientist John Tyndall traveled to New York to give some physics lectures, and when these were written up by a local newspaper, fifty thousand copies were sold.

Read the rest at Huffington Post.