OK to GO: Rehabilitating Awesome

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You know that pejorative term we throw around to describe disposable science writing, “gee whiz”? I use it all the time, even though it pretty much perfectly describes what I do. I don’t lose sleep over it. But it’d be nice if I could find some term that wasn’t freighted with self-loathing.

I made my first (somewhat cheeky) attempt when I applied to a science journalism fellowship earlier this year. Instead of using the j-word to label myself, I called a spade a spade and said I was “in the business of awesomeness.” Much to my surprise, I was accepted. Shouldn’t they be more interested in journalists-with-a-J who track retractions and wonk out on energy policy? Who knows, but I didn’t look a gift horse in the mouth.

Maybe it was because the business of awesomeness isn’t really as easy to be in as the Discovery Channel’s tagline would have you believe. Especially when the meaning of the word has been diluted so much that it’s practically homeopathic. Cats on Roombas? Awesome! Being “mayor” of something on Foursquare? Totally awesome! Capturing the very oldest visible light in the universe so that we can see, literally see, galaxies 13 billion light years away?

Um… awesome?

Well, yes. But this is clearly a concept in need of rehabilitation. If we “gee whiz” types have a bona fide journalistic duty, this is surely it. And not just us: scientists, too.

“Duh,” you’re thinking. Of course connecting with rational wonderment is important to maintaining a broad cultural respect for science and what it tells us about our place in the universe. But how often do we think about actually DOING that, practically speaking? When was the last time you helped awesomeness happen?

Honestly, I don’t know if I ever have. After all, awesome is the acme, a peak experience. You can’t expect to give or get that every day. Or can you?

I’m not trying to go all Tony Robbins here. This is a practical matter. One of my colleagues was recently giving a workshop to working scientists at NASA, and the biggest item on her agenda was this: How do we get people to engage with science? Like, seriously. Not, how do we all pat each other on the back, show some posters, and sing a data-augmented version of kumbaya. (Or collectively grumble in self-satisfied faux-horror at the latest poll about how few Texans “believe” in evolution.)

My humble opinion is that engagement should start from first principles–and I don’t mean elementary physics. Take the beginner’s mind, not the post-doc’s or the cynical reporter’s. Why did we as science writers get into this business? I can’t speak for you, but in my case it wasn’t because I loved how the word “chromodynamics” looked next to a forbidding table of statistics. It was because at some formative point in my life I felt awe and associated it with science. As in,”Wowwww”–then “why?”–then “ohhhh.” I would hazard that many scientists had a similar experiences that sent them on their professional paths.

Awe is our first principle. If we weren’t all using science to chase it in some way or another, why be in this business at all?

So there’s our answer about engagement. Every damn person who’s ever breathed air has once wondered why the sky is blue. So, whatever your scientific subject, just go back in time, dig out that tiny neutron-dense core of wonderment that you felt, and you’ll be well on your way to bringing someone else along for the ride. Easier said than done, of course — but perhaps not as difficult as many of us have learned to believe.

My point: To rehabilitate awesome, we should actually aim for it. This is the practical part. We “gee whizzers” work within a Maslow’s Hierarchy-esque triangle, and I think of awesome being up at the apex. Since I am lazy and don’t feel like drawing one, I’ll just describe it from the bottom up.

1. “Interesting” : This is the wide bottom of the pyramid, the realm of churnalism, so-called “breakthroughs”, and, sadly, a lot of really robustly reported and important science journalism. But whatever its pedigree, this is the stuff that, when someone sends you the link or mentions it in conversations, you say “huh, interesting” and then promptly forget about it. It usually “connects” about as well as a limp noodle used as a grappling hook.

2. Awful / Delightful : This is the level of reptile-brain sensation: clickbait headlines, slideshows, ick-factors, eye-candy, and sexed-up explanations. This is what some media types see as the only way to rise above the netherworld of “interesting.” And it’s true: this stuff can make an memorable impression, but usually only in the way that an ice cream cone or a fart does.

3. Engrossing : Moving up the triangle into rarer territory, here we start to get real engagement — the material somehow makes us feel something AND engages the mind at the same time. Great storytelling, vivid depth and detail, and authoritative/useful context all ACTIVATE us to think, question, react, recoil, seek more, get lost, remember … DO. Not just consume and excrete.

4. Awesome : Finally the peak, the rarest stuff of all — that which whips your feelings and thoughts together into a synaesthetic Slushie, impelling your jaw to drop and your eyes to widen. You feel small and immense at the same time. Something about this material connects you to who you ARE (or want to be), above and beyond what you notice, feel, want, and do. This is inspiration and terror; the stuff that can change lives, or worlds — inner and outer.

Hitting “awesome” is a very, very tall order for anyone, much less a humble science journalist. It’s also not something anyone can (or should) realistically swing for every time at bat. But connecting with awe IS the key to engagement, and it’s been done before, by mere mortals — this is a fact. So to reprise: When was the last time you — as a science writer or journalist or scientist or PIO or graduate student — helped awesomeness happen? Does your work help people — including yourself — move up that triangle, or does it just roll down the edge?

To be honest, mostly I do the latter: I might get really engrossed by something and then, in order turn it into a media product, I inevitably seem to de-rez it down a level or two. Or maybe I just hopscotch around in level 1 or 2. We all do; there’s nothing morally wrong with it. But we don’t HAVE to by default. We’re certainly not going to do meaningful work or “engage” people if we get too comfortable down there.

Carl Sagan, whose birthday I celebrated last week by watching Contact, wasn’t some science-communication god endowed with supernatural powers. Yes, he was a brilliant scientist and communicator — a rare combination. But his real genius was in something simple that we don’t have to be geniuses to do: He aimed for awesome.

Subject doesn’t matter. This works if you’re writing about black holes, plate tectonics, or plain old dirt. If you want to take me with you, just ask yourself this: Are you OK to go?

Guest Blogger Profile: JOHN PAVLUS is a writer and filmmaker focusing on science, tech, and design topics. His writing has appeared in Wired, New York, Scientific American, Technology Review, Fast Company, io9.com, and other outlets. He also creates original web videos for top media brands like Conde Nast, NPR, Slate, Nature Publishing Group, and The New York Times Magazine through his production company, Small Mammal. He lives in Brooklyn.

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