Ira Flatow, the host of NPR’s Science Friday, skewered Harvard graduates who, wearing cap and gown, didn’t know why it is hotter in the summer than in the winter. But he spoke fondly of Grace Hopper, the U.S. Naval officer who helped develop COBOL, one of the first modern computer programming languages.
He brought videos of both, the Harvard graduates and Hopper, to his presentation Monday at Duke University that was part of N.C. Science Festival.
In the Hopper video, the “Queen of Software” explained to David Letterman what a nanosecond is. On the show, which was taped shortly after her retirement from the Navy in 1986, she pulled out a bundle of wires, each about a foot long, and told Letterman that’s the maximum distance light or electricity can travel in a nanosecond.
Hopper is a favorite, Flatow said, because she made something that was hard to understand – a billionth of a second – into something easy to grasp. And she was accurate and entertaining. Letterman could even pick a nanosecond color.
“We need scientists and engineers who are good at communicating,” he said.
Why? Because American adults would flunk basic science. A recent survey by the California Academy of Sciences showed that, for example, 47 percent of respondents didn’t know how long it takes the earth to revolve around the sun.
Americans want to know more about science, Flatow said. In a Pew Research Center survey a few months ago, 44 percent of the respondents said they want more news about science. That compared to 6 percent of the respondents who wanted more sports coverage.
But they’re not getting it in the mainstream media, Flatow said. “It’s becoming harder and harder for people like me and other science journalists to find a way to bring science to the public, when the mainstream media dumbs down science.”
Experienced science reporters were the first ones to let go and science sections discontinued when the recession accelerated the damage the Internet had been doing to mainstream media. But the Internet is also where a grassroots science movement is bubbling up, Flatow said. Blogs, Facebook, Twitter are reinvigorating science communication. But how to pay for it is a question yet unanswered.
“Maybe in the future we’ll see a golden age of science [communication].” he said.
Listen to Flatow answering questions by Science in the Triangle after the Duke presentation:
Watch the Letterman show with Grace Hopper: