Scientific advancement has long been the timeline by which we judge our progress as a culture. Its appearance in entertainment all the while traditionally has been in a learning capacity, as many of us remember watching Bill Nye the Science Guy or Cosmos as children. But that was back in a time when doing so was considered an educational requirement more than it was thought of as entertainment. Nowadays, celebrity scientists not only exist, but are numerous to boot. Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Bill Nye, and Stephen Hawking as seen as men to be admired and emulated not just by their peers in the scientific community, but by young people as well.
So when and how did this all change? How did a subject that before was the territory of “nerds” become unequivocally cool? In theory, science has always been this way: Mankind has been pushing the boundaries of what’s possible since before Galileo ever peered into the heavens through a telescope. What’s changed now is the way it’s been marketed and packaged to the general public, thanks in large part to both the Internet, and subsequently Hollywood.
First, the Internet created the market. Generation Y began to wax nostalgic for the shows of its childhood, with one result being the unearthing of long since forgotten series like Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. Thanks to online communities and the proliferation of meme and viral Internet culture, an audience for science and learning that had never before existed was suddenly created out of thin air. People began picking their favorite scientist instead of their favorite boy band member, and before we knew it, the amazing accomplishments of science were suddenly getting the attention they always deserved.
From here, Hollywood stepped in to capitalize on the demand, providing the supply. In just the last couple years, we’ve seen a full-on reboot of Cosmos, this time led by Neil DeGrasse Tyson. Millions tuned in over its season-long run, showing unequivocally that if we built it, they will come. Meanwhile, the luminaries of the scientific community are getting their stories told, beginning with The Theory of Everything netting Eddie Redmayne an Academy Award playing Stephen Hawking. Already Hollywood is planning a Carl Sagan biopic, proving once and for all that the prevailing market is demanding these movies be made.
In the world of fiction, sci-fi has never been more popular. The genre has always acted as a sort of “what if” realm, sometimes predicting an impossibly advanced future based on generally sound science. Movies like Gravity, Interstellar, and the upcoming Matt Damon led project, The Martian, are dominating the cinema-scape. Each successive film only serves to push forward the idea of space travel and scientific advancement, all through an entertainment rather than purely educational lens. While the educational side will always be a necessity though, it’s been repackaged into something more digestible for wider audiences.
Some may argue that this shift in popularity for science in entertainment only serves to saturate the market. But what it really ends up doing is continuing to push the boundaries of actual scientific advancement. Things like space travel, complex studies, and experimentation all cost money, and there’s more funding to go around when there’s more general public interest in seeing something accomplished. Of course there’s more at play for things like funding NASA than simply more movies about space, but giving science celebrity status certainly doesn’t hurt the march of progress.
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