What I Learned About Astro Outreach From Giving a TEDx Talk

Ted LogoTEDxMidAtlantic recently, where I gave a talk about space telescopes and modern astrophysics. It was thrilling (and frightening) to talk to an enthusiastic crowd of 800 people at a professionally-produced event. The next speaker, my favorite chef Jose Andres, even began his talk by riffing on mine: “I’m happy we’re finding water on distant planets. With water, I can cook — I’ll have a job forever.”

I was amazed at how excited the TEDx crowd was, in person and on Twitter, by dark energy. I would have thought this was old hat — the discovery was 1998, the Nobel prize was 2011. People are clued in, right? Nope, not at all. I was mobbed by people who wanted to know about Dark Energy. What is it? Can we find it on Earth? What happens if the Universe flies apart? Apparently even folks in bars want to learn about dark energy.

So, what can we learn from this? Here goes. Don’t assume that the public knows, remembers, or understands the key discoveries of the past 20 years. I’m finding that when I talk to the public, I’m regularly surprising the heck out of people with three core ideas:

  • Every galaxy has a black hole lurking in its center.
  • The universe is expanding ever faster and faster, driven by unknown cause.
  • We’ve found hundreds of planets orbiting other stars.

These, I would argue, are the three most important recent discoveries in astrophysics. Everybody should know them, right? One was even the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics. But I’m finding that people *don’t* know this stuff, and are blown away when they find out.

This is really helpful for me to know, because I’m tempted to talk about my own research in more detail than a public audience wants. So I’m now trying a new approach of the Really Big Picture, and then add a dash of “honest-to-god actual-research” near the end. Audiences are actually fine with the bulge mass / black hole mass relation, if it’s explained clearly. And they like seeing a little data, especially raw images from Hubble or Spitzer, and how we turn those into results. But we need to keep the big picture out in front, because the public doesn’t know it yet.

4 comments… add one
  • Eilat Jan 24, 2012 @ 21:11

    Just sat next to a software sales guy at a hotel bar. He sells mapping software to geophysicists, geologists, etc. he knew all about coding, development, software. He knew all about seismic detectors and even about the recent neutrino result (didn’t know what neutrinos were, though) and GR (sort of, kind of, Einstein-ish). Never heard of dark matter. Was *shocked* to hear that 90% of the “stuff” in the universe that has mass doesn’t interact with anything. Your point was clearly demonstrated for me this evening.

  • Angelle Feb 1, 2012 @ 14:26

    Hey, Jane. I am most curious about how you got this opportunity to give a TED talk. Dish! 🙂

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