Pop culture is a great way to frame new information. And a teacher like Neil can make a huge difference. Why spend hours explaining something in great detail when you can simply use what they already know? Pop culture is a great scaffold to build and hang information off of argues Neil deGrasse Tyson. For example: you need to understand basic laws of gravity in order to play Angry Birds, so why spend hours explaining Newton’s Law when you can just fling a red bird at a pig? In this video, Neil uses a great anecdote about watching a football game and realizing that physics and science play a huge part in it whether the audience knows it or not.
I guess I’m lucky that my chosen profession is astrophysics because unlike so many other fields of study, especially academic fields of study, in my field we have an essentially completely transparent lexicon so I don’t have to translate anything, hardly anything. If I show you a photograph of the sun and you see spots on the sun you say, “What do you call those?” And I say, “We call them sunspots.” I show you a picture of Jupiter, “There’s that red spot in the southern hemisphere of Jupiter what do you call that?” “We call that Jupiter’s red spot.” “There is this place for you to fall in and you don’t come out and light doesn’t escape what do you guys call that?” “Black hole.” So I don’t see myself translating anything. I don’t have to. I celebrate discovery using all the language that is fundamental to my field and what it means is to the person listening they don’t have to slog through, navigate through vocabulary to gain access to the interesting idea that’s sitting on the other side of it.
So let’s take biology, for example. They discovered deoxyribonucleic acid. Now, if you don’t know biology these are just syllables coming out of your mouth. Well, what is it? Well, it encodes to the identity of life and it’s in the shape of a double helix. So fortunately – double helix – that’s a word and there’s nothing else really that’s a double helix so that’s kind of a translated term for deoxyribonucleic acid, but notice you spend all this time just getting through the word before you get to an understanding or a conversation about what it does and how it does it and why. So I’m lucky that my field does not have this lexicon challenge for the educator. But what I also do is I have come to recognize the obvious that everyone exists with a certain pop-culture scaffold that they carry with them. That’s the definition of pop culture. So it’s not everyone but it’s most people. There’s a common base of knowledge that we can all reference. We all know what football is in America. We know what we mean when we say football. What is baseball? Who is Beyoncé? Who is Donald Trump? Who is Hillary Clinton? What is the capital building? There are things we just know as part of pop culture. And I say hum, if you already know that then if I clad that…
Once I’ve recognize that you are walking around with a pop-culture scaffold I can then clad that scaffold, if I think about how to do it, I can clad that scaffold with real and genuine science and you will care about it because I’m attaching it to something that I know in advance you already do care about or already do know about. Just as a quick example I was channel surfing, came across a football game that had just ended in a tie; they went into overtime. I had 15 minutes to kill before my movie came on. I said I’ll sit there and watch this overtime period. And I’m watching it and there’s the requisite exchange of possession before you go into sudden death overtime.