Public Engagement: What’s emotion got to do with it?

A Case Study: The Pluto Effect

On the afternoon of 24th August 2006, members of the IAU present at the General Assembly in Prague were able to vote on a resolution to essentially classify what it meant to be a planet in the Solar system. 

With new so-called Kuiper Belt objects being discovered, it became apparent that the planet Pluto – heralded as the 9th planet since 1930, had company.  Astronomers were either quickly discovering several new planets or alternatively our categorization of Pluto as a planet was perhaps inappropriate.  Maybe Pluto wasn’t so special after all? This was a decision that planetary astronomers needed to discuss and it was time to formally define what we mean by “planet”. 

The  upshot of this dilemma was that after much debate, comment and several proposed definitions , on August 24th the IAU presented the world with a decision and a definition: 

The IAU resolves that planets and other bodies in our Solar System be defined into three distinct categories in the following way:   

  1. A planet is a celestial body that (a) is in orbit around the Sun, (b) has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium (nearly round) shape, and (c) has cleared the neighbourhood around its orbit.
  2. A “dwarf planet” is a celestial body that (a) is in orbit around the Sun, (b) has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium (nearly round) shape, (c) has not cleared the neighbourhood around its orbit, and (d) is not a satellite.
  3. All other objects orbiting the Sun shall be referred to collectively as “Small Solar System Bodies”.

It seemed to be a sensible decision. The thought of including at least 3 and possibly according to Caltech planetary astronomer Mike Brown upward of 50 new objects as planets made this a manageable, logical solution.  Problem solved?  Maybe not.  I am unsure as to whether the members of the IAU expected or were aware of the public interest in their definition wrangling and debate-filled meetings at the time.   As unlikely as it is for the subject of an astronomical meeting to gain worldwide attention – this one did. 

And not just attention, but in some cases, public outcry.  Even anger.   It is certainly not every day that an astronomical meeting produces material that is later used in a hip-hop song as with 2007’s “Bring back Pluto”.  People marched and formed online protest groups.  Pluto-supporters insisted that the demotion of Pluto to a “dwarf planet” was “unfair” and people stated their strong belief that Pluto should be a planet. Their justification for this was not always clear but their emotion was undeniable. 

Were these people closet planetary experts? Not really. When the American Museum of Natural History left Pluto out of it’s Solar system models, disgruntled schoolchildren wrote letters of protest like this one: 


None of the protests really made clear in the same way the IAU did why they saw Pluto as fulfilling a certain quota of conditions that seemed suitable for defining it as a planet. That wasn’t really the point. This was about emotion. Pure human emotion. 

So, why Pluto? Astronomers and scientists can try until they are blue in the face to get the public “engaged” in whatever great discovery or project they are involved with – the truth is, it’s very hard going. There’s a constant question: “how do I make this fun, exciting or interesting?” And oftentimes the best efforts result in at most, a small flourish of public interest. And yet an astronomical meeting in Prague to vote on a scientifically acceptable definition for the astronomical community turned into a worldwide “support Pluto” campaign.  Without really trying the world was engaged and knew what was going on. Media were only too happy to discuss the controversial result of the IAU meeting. Everyone had an opinion and very rarely did that opinion involve terms like “hydrostatic equilibrium” or any other similarly esoteric considerations. 

This was about how people felt

About how so many people grew up learning about the NINE planets and came up with clever mnemonics for the MVEMJSUNP order of the Solar system lineup. My own: “My Very Energetic Mice Jump Swiftly Under Nervous People” becomes a complete dud without the crucial last P. 

Our passion and enthusiasm for Pluto was developed because of pure human emotion. Pluto’s discovery by an unlikely man by the name of Clyde Tombaugh in 1930 – is a heartwarming story in itself. A triumph for a small town American boy against the odds. 

And then there’s Pluto – the planet most distant and shrouded in mystery.  It remains unvisited by spacecraft – with NASA’s New Horizons craft due to pass by Pluto in 2015.  It’s cold, it’s small and it’s just “different”. Picking Pluto as your favorite planet cemented you as a little bit unusual – eccentric perhaps like the planet. It’s the “misfit” in a line of huge gas giants. In some way don’t we all just feel a little sorry for Pluto?   Haven’t we all felt a bit like Pluto – distant and different and then…thrown out of the “club”.  Has Pluto become the small child that we wanted to protect from bullies at school? And if so, why?  After all, our textbooks tell us that Pluto is a rocky object, roughly spherical with a diameter of 2274km.  This is essentially a big inanimate rock we’re talking about.  Protesting about. Writing letters in support of. 

Is this attention crazy? Maybe.  But it’s human, and if we don’t pay attention to why we care more about Pluto’s demotion than, for example, what a Kuiper Belt object is or how many moons Jupiter has, then we’re missing an opportunity to learn about how to truly reach people and engage them in science. 

Because as much as I scientifically agree with Pluto’s definition as a “Dwarf planet” and not a planet, I have felt “sorry” for Pluto. Yes, for an inanimate object.  Oh admit it – maybe you have too?   

 Image credit: Snorg tees 

Why is this important? 

When we talk about outreach and engaging people, it pays to be aware of what it is that we as humans respond to strongly.  As much as the Higgs Boson or the Cosmic Microwave background or the next planetary spacecraft may excite scientists – we also need to accept that sometimes the people we want to engage with are not going to immediately see what all our fuss is about.  Scientists spend a great deal of time and effort trying to make subjects as exciting as they themselves may find them and occasionally they don’t try at all because they believe that people should just “get it”. That approach isn’t usually terribly successful. 

But emotion? Why do we have to consider emotion?  Because, as we saw in the case of Pluto, emotion can be very strong and motivating and it is often a starting point for interest, passion and engagement. 

There are more examples of people developing emotional engagement with scientific endeavors. 

Take for instance human spaceflight.  When people have the opportunity to hear first-hand from an Apollo or shuttle astronaut just what it’s like to be in space – they are normally filled with questions and interest. Because of the human element, people can immediately picture themselves doing what Neil Armstrong or Mike Massimino have done and can empathize with feelings of excitement, triumph, fear, and facing the unknown, for example. We want to know what it “feels” like to be in micro-gravity, what it’s like to take a huge risk to life and limb, how it feels to look up at the Moon and know you had been there.  Our human emotion brings us closer to these experiences and eventually to learning the reasons human spaceflight exists and what we stand to gain from it. 

The triumph of the Apollo program and the pure emotion and wonder on the face of an awed public as Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon is undeniable. When the public started to lose interest, a story of human survival and emotion during Apollo 13 grabbed our attention once again.  The Moon missions were clearly planned with a knowledge that the public needed to be engaged in what was happening – playing golf on the Moon for instance was unlikely to have been about science.  It’s always been slightly disappointing, as a scientist that stunts to interest or entertain the public may have taken precedence over scientific pursuits, but again – without public interest at some level, much that we want to do would be unsupportable. 

As seen with the case of Pluto, the emotional connection doesn’t always require a direct human involvement.  We also make emotional connections with very unemotional targets.  A good example of this might be the Mars Rovers.  Of all the planetary probes and experiments the Mars rovers have captured the interest of the public in an extremely strong way. 

Perhaps at first we were intrigued by the thought of being able to remotely drive a car around on another planet. That is pretty cool and for everyone who has ever operated a remote controlled car it sounds like fun and it grabbed people’s attention. It’s become more than that though. The interested public has been excited and awed by the success of the mission and the detailed photos we have received from the Martian surface. Newspaper cartoonists have had fun with the prospect of the rover stumbling across the famed little green men. And the public has received what we could compare to “postcards” periodically from the rovers documenting their travels – something we can relate to: a sense of adventure. 

It is as if we have attributed human characteristics to the rovers. Some people even have a favorite rover.  When we hear that a rover is stuck – we’ve had schoolchildren thinking of ways to “free” Spirit or Opportunity. Then there’s the fact that the rovers have operated for so much longer than scientists and engineers initially had guessed at.  There are scientific explanations for this lifespan but instead we have felt pride in these dogged, hard-working, intrepid little explorers.  Don’t we feel they have gone above and beyond our expectations and “done us proud”? 

And aren’t all those descriptions essentially about human characteristics? 

This comic sums it up nicely: (click to enlarge)

That strip received pages of comments on forums and message boards – the predominant feeling was one of sadness and sympathy for the sad little Martian rover.  Again, an inanimate object but one that we’ve connected with so strongly we’ve attributed human feelings to it. 

In September 2010 issue of “Sky and Telescope” magazine, J. Kelly Beatty presents some amazing results from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which has been orbiting the red planet for the past 4 and a half years.  In the very first paragraph he admits that this is a mission that many people do not know about- having been upstaged by the Mars rovers. He suggests that a possible reason for this is that the MRO images are perhaps too good and present much more detail on a small scale as opposed to sweeping panoramic images. This seems feasible but I have to wonder how many people are even aware of the program and whether another “satellite” taking pictures is just a lot less captivating to us than our adventurous “friends” on the surface. 

It would seem foolish to ignore the powers of engagement that occur through this channel of human emotion.  

There are many more examples – everybody’s favorite telescope, the Hubble Space telescope, is another. 

Sure – everyone was pretty frustrated and shocked when our new eye on the heavens turned out to have been shortsighted due to a human error. People were angry at the “waste of money” and the fact that a debilitating fault could have been allowed to occur. Then came a story that included human ingenuity, adventure, uncertainty and skill. The Hubble repair mission was something we haven’t seen the likes of in many years and it garnered admiration from the public for NASA and their ability to problem solve and carry out difficult technical repairs in space. 

Hubble was essentially being fitted with a pair of glasses and it became a hard-luck story turned success. We love those. Soon after the repair, we were rewarded with stunning vistas of the cosmos that made us all appreciate the sheer beauty of our universe. Hubble was finally able to do what it had been designed to do- it could “see” again and the public has become very fond of this floating eye in the sky and “proud” of how it has succeeded against the odds. 

The presence and strength of the public’s emotional response to scientific endeavors can also work against those trying to increase understanding of a particular mission. Take the recent LCROSS, LRO “bombing the Moon” debacle.  Perhaps in an effort to add some excitement and drama to the publicity surrounding the mission (aimed at determining the presence or not of water under the Moon’s crust) scientists described an explosion at the point of collision when LCROSS impacted the Moon. 

Soon, some headlines were describing what seemed to be a “bombing” of the Moon using explosives. Suddenly members of the public who had not been seen objecting at the date of the mission’s launch demanded that NASA explain itself and what gave it the right to blow up the Moon. Objectors came from many disciplines and seemed genuinely concerned for the welfare of our Moon and were bent on protecting it.  Scientists on twitter and in the media went into overdrive explaining that the predictions of large sections of the Moon being blown away and a change in the gravitational balance between the Earth and the Moon were grossly exaggerated.  I doubt that scientists realized how many staunch Moon supporters were out there ready to spring to the defense of something that is clearly seen as precious and vulnerable and belonging to us all.  This was an emotion-fuelled response and regardless of how misplaced or not you see that reaction as being- we can’t and shouldn’t ignore the fact that humans react in this way. It can be a powerful tool in public engagement and also a lesson in how not to present things. 

In some sense, the LCROSS debate was still a success in terms of public engagement in science. As soon as the media saw a story with drama, they started discussing it. People who may never have known about the mission were hearing about it through the mainstream news and for scientists it is perhaps true that any publicity is good publicity. 

Because space exploration, space science and astronomy often involve stories, technological and human triumphs, great beauty and a sense of exploring the unknown, these fields offer a huge advantage in terms of public engagement that many other scientific fields don’t have. The connection with emotion shouldn’t be passed off as irrelevant or unworthy. Perhaps science and outreach could be improved if we took some lessons from social science, psychology and human behavior. By understanding not just the science but also the target audience, we could improve our efforts at engaging people and promote a greater interest in science and technology within society. 

It’s something worth thinking about.  And feeling about. Because despite all our achievements in science, engineering, and technology we remain, as always, very human.

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Public Engagement: The Power of Inspiration

This video gave me goosebumps.  Not only am I a supporter of NASA and all they do, I am a long time admirer of Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson and his enormous ability to communicate science in a charismatic, succinct, approcahable way.  That is a skill that is lacking in a great deal of the scientific community but it’s an important one.  We need people to care about what we do.  We need people to feel comfortable walking up to scientists, astronauts, teachers, professors and talking with them and even more importantly perhaps we need the “specialists” in the scientific fields to be equipped and proficient at responding.

Perhaps that can go someway towards chipping away at the misperceptions the public might have about science, it’s importance and it’s cost.  Dr. Tyson touches on how many people are unaware of exactly how much it costs to have a “NASA” for example.  Why isn’t this more commonly known?

I know one thing though: Nobody listening to Dr. Tyson giving this presentation left without knowing in a few short minutes the unique ability NASA has to inspire, the direction the agency is currently taking and the comparitively tiny cost of all that we get out of the “space program”.

Nicely done, Dr. Tyson. Kudos.

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