Now That's Edutainment!

Even after almost a year and a half, I'm still getting used to living in a city dominated by the entertainment industry, rather than one equally devoted to politics. Wherever I live, I often find myself looking attending science and technology events, but the nature of my hometown drives the mix of offerings I have to chose from: in DC, it was science + politics, and here in Los Angeles, it's science + entertainment. I'd gotten a good introduction to that fusion through MindShare LA, the monthly gathering of tech enthusiasts from all backgrounds I've attended a few times, first as a speaker and later as an audience member (this seems as good a place as any to note that some of the Mindshare crowd were behind the brilliant Rube Goldberg-inspired OK Go video that is tearing across the internets right now. Go watch it, if you haven't already. I'll wait.).

But last night, I went to an event that took the science + entertainment fusion to a whole new level. Thanks to a National Academy of Science program called the Science & Entertainment Exchange, I got to spend last night hearing some hard hitting lectures on evolutionary biology at an event that was held at the home of famous producer Jerry Zucker and moderated by Seth MacFarlane. Yes, you read that right: lectures on evolution hosted by the folks behind such not-so-scientific entertainment franchises as Family Guy and Airplane!.

One lesson was made clear right from the start: a science parable in Peter Griffin's beard is worth more than two in a book. Or something to that effect, at least. One of our hosts told us how the President of the National Academy of Sciences, Ralph Cicerone, loves the episode of Family Guy pictured at the right here, and how that episode is one example of how entertainers can incorporate scientific themes--in this case, conservation of biodiversity, behavioral development, et cetera--into pop culture vehicles, helping drive home lessons that many viewers might otherwise never hear or never accept.

The message from the scientists rang clear throughout the night. Scientists and Engineers have fundamentally important and exciting things to tell the world about--but are ill suited to do the telling. By working together with entertainers, they hope to play to each group's strengths, with the end result of conveying the key messages to an audience in an understandable way. To that end, the National Academy of Sciences is organizing events like last night's salon, and even offering free scientific consultation to film makers and other entertainers who want to improve the scientific accuracy of their products.

Although I fundamentally agree with that point, I must admit that the two speakers last night--Sean Carroll and Neil Shubin--both did a fantastic job of conveying scientific information in an entertaining way. With more advocates like these two speaking to the public, the need for these salons might not be so great. They certainly sent my imagination buzzing, and brought back some very pleasant memories of the opportunities I had to learn from a true legend of evolutionary biology and even to work in an evolutionary biology lab myself back in my undergraduate days. I picked up copies of Carroll's and Shubin's latest books, and I'm looking forward to reading them and expanding my mind.

During the question and answer period, I had a chance to ask a very X PRIZEy question: are there any breakthrough technologies or exploration campaigns on the horizon that will allow a massive surge of progress in the study of evolution? Fans of our work here at the X PRIZE Foundation will happy to know that two of the first answers given were more rapid gene sequences (a la the Archon X PRIZE for Genomics) and increase space exploration (a la the Google Lunar X PRIZE - space exploration actually came up several times last night, to my pleasant surprise). But Neil Shubin also mentioned one other possibility that is just plain cool: evidently, various companies are working to adopt medical imaging and visualization technologies to create portable tools that could allow paleontologists in the field to essentially see through a few feet of rock, picking out the choice fossils and extracting them with minimal labor and minimal damage.

Science talks that leave you day-dreaming about a plausible future version of "X-Ray specs" being used to find further missing links? Now that's edutainment!

Getting inspired about evolution at an event put on by an organization founded by Abraham Lincoln and hosted by the creators of Naked Gun and The Cleveland Show was pretty surreal. But that wasn't the strangest thing of the night. That honor has to go to a bizarre coincidence. Before the talks, my colleague Meghan Murphy and I struck up a conversation with the gentleman seated next to us, who turned out to be the the Chair of the Presidents’ Circle of the National Academies. His name? Davis Masten.


Image Notes: Image from Family Guy episode 3ACX03.

Those two books, in case you feel like picking up a copy:





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