When was the last time that you remember the nation being completely abuzz by scientific research or discovery? Every once and a while, a stray headline will make its way to the news, but I don't think I've ever seen anything spark any real buzz with the majority of folks longer than a couple of news cycles.
It was before my time, but I think that the space race to the moon may have been the last time the country really experienced a homogenous excitement for scientific discovery. From what I hear, it was something that the entire nation followed, and when it came to the day of touchdown, everyone stopped to tune in whatever way they could.
One of the closest things that I can think of from my lifetime is the landing of the Spirit rover. I recall dropping everything to tune in to the "live stream" online to find out if the first ½ of the $820 million project would survive its bouncy entrance1 to the red planet. It was thrilling to feel a part of that dramatic series of events! It definitely wasn't a nation-wide phenomenon like the moon landing, but from my tiny worldview in 2004, it seemed like a huge deal!
So naturally, the Curiosity landing in 2012 is also on that list. Especially because it was using an entirely new and previously-untested landing system2 to get the two-ton piece of scientific equipment to the Mars surface. Thanks to the improved live-stream abilities the Internet gained in the years since Spirit (and Opportunity), it was all a much more news-friendly event. In fact, I distinctly remember that mohawk guy3 from the NASA control room becoming somewhat of a minor celebrity in the weeks after.
The most recent that I can think of is the New Horizons probe which hit the news headlines hard in 2015 when it made its flyby past Pluto. But despite pictures and data being received from the craft for over a year, the news outlets seemed to quickly become bored with subject. Even now, the probe has been repositioned for an extended mission towards the Kuiper belt in 2019, but I've only seen strictly science or "nerd" news sites post anything about it.
When you look at those dates, it's easy to recognize the huge gaps in time that pass between each of those events. Also, they all happen to be space-related. Certainly there were countless of other scientific endeavors that existed in those "gaps" (and most of them probably not at all related to space exploration). But if any of them make it to the news, they are largely drowned out by the other more fashionable headlines of the day/week.
What we end up with is a news culture focused on celebrities, politics, scandals, and tragedies. Without making the conscious decision or realization, we've kinda been trained to consider science news as mostly unworthy of attention. It's something that certainly is not helping the scientific illiteracy and apathy that seems to be dominating the country right now.
I recently stumbled upon a video in which Neil deGrasse Tyson offers up a perspective on the kind of impact a more visible presence of scientific progress in our news culture could have. In short, it could reignite a passion in science. As he usually does, he emphatically elaborates on the idea, but it mostly sums up to:
All of a sudden, the community becomes a participant on the exploratory frontier...
If this becomes the new culture, the secondary effect is everyone is engaged in some way in the STEM fields...
Rather than forcing programs on people to get them interested in science, do something interesting in science. And then the interest follows like day follows night.
It's an interesting thought! I have the segment queued up in the video below. His thoughts on this subject are only a couple of minutes long (but the entire video is as interesting as any of NdGT's ramblings).
I'm curious to hear about other scientific progress that made substantial buzz in the recent past not mentioned here. I'm also curious to hear about your thoughts on NdGT's perspective on how effective this sort of "culture" would have on scientific interest. The comment section below is always open!
The airbag style landing was the same strategy used by the Pathfinder in 1997, but it was still a risky and frankly violent way to (hopefully) get safely to the ground: ↩
The "sky crane" landing system was much more elegant than the airbag system, but it had to be timed just right to avoid catastrophic failure. Sure did look badass, though: ↩
Bobak Ferdowsi, the "NASA Mohawk Guy"photo credit: Brian van der Brug, AP ↩