One of the major problems facing science--and by extension, science-fiction--is that the ordinary man on the street doesn't understand it. Oh, he's perfectly capable of enjoying the fruits of scentific labor, but as for understanding *how* these things work, he has no more comprehension of the principles involved than his dog does about how din-din gets into the cans.
The thing is, most ordinary people don't really see science as a means to an end, or a career choice, or anything other than something that goes on in the background, done by other people. They don't really know what it takes to run a power generation plant, either, or to raise cattle or corn or make sure the water that comes out of the tap is clean enough to drink. The very ubiquity of our daily miracles makes them unnoticable. As I type this essay, I have no idea how my keystrokes are getting translated to electronic impulses being stored in a data collection system, rendered into a code which can be sent via cables and satellites to just about anywhere in the world. It happens, and I'm happy about that.
But lots and lots of people were and are involved in this process, and they were involved because something inspired them to take an interest in science. Most likely, they were already leaning that way, and it happened as a natural progression. But how can science attract the non-nerds? How can the field give itself a make-over, without losing its essence?
I had really high hopes for the TV series "The Big Bang Theory." It first came to my attention on an airplane; I was trying to take a nap and my wife suddenly started punching my arm and shoving a headset onto my ears. "Wake up! YOU GOTTA HEAR THIS!" she mouthed. My jaw dropped open, because it was the scene where the Caltech guys are discussing the mechanics of the Star Trek teleporter. What astonished me was that I had just had a nearly identical conversation the previous evening with a friend who was going to be house-sitting for us. Almost. Word. For. Word.
These were my kind of people.
"The Big Bang Theory" made geeks chic for the first three seasons--then it went off a cliff, burst into flames on the way down, augered in, and smoldered for the subsequent seasons while the corpses of the characters lay rotting in the sun. Oddly, that's when it really caught on with the "mundanes."
Now it's nothing but arguing, sex, more arguing, creepy gay jokes, more sex, overbearing mothers, and oh, maybe a science joke every so often. It's going to give people the wrong idea about scientists and geeks. Or reinforce the wrong ideas they already have.
I don't need scientists to be depicted as heroic, I just need them to be...interesting. Oh, and to be nice people who have ethics and are dedicated to their vocation enough to care whether or not the information they're disseminating is correct. I also need scientists to make science approachable. An affable guy like James Burke did a fantastic job with "Connections" back in the 1970's. And Alan Alda, who's no scientist, made a pretty good Everyman host for "Scientific American's Frontiers." He seemed to have a lot of fun, without ever needing to talk down to anybody. He may be a screaming liberal but his enthusiasm was infectious.
And not all of these theoretical programs need to be about scientists. There was a really neat series called "Junkyard Wars" where teams competed to build machines out of scraps they'd salvage from a (salted) junk yard. The first season or two, the team members worked together to design, find, and construct the challenge machine; the teams got points for completing the build first, and then they went on to race the results.
In later seasons, I guess in order to capitalize on the fad for angry people in reality TV shows, the team members were less likely to get along, and the projects rarely got finished on time, let alone worked. I lost interest, because watching five people bickering with each other over a pile of scrap was boring. If I liked that sort of thing, I'd spend more time over my brother-in-law's house.
Another series I've enjoyed is the long-running "Modern Marvels," although in recent years they've stretched