Chris Impey goes for the big numbers when doing science outreach.
The astronomy professor works hard to convey the excitement of discovering and understanding the universe. And why not? Astronomy provides good raw material by just looking up.
“Pretty much everyone has an intuitive sense of what the world of astronomy is about and what the objects of the universe might be like,” he says.
In addition to his research on distant galaxies and how their big black holes evolve and grow, Impey gives 20 public talks a year to audiences as large as 5,000, from NASA engineers to Circuit Court judges to first-graders. For a decade, he has traveled to India to teach science to Tibetan monks, part of a program started by the Dalai Lama.
His “teach astronomy” website has drawn more than 1.5 million unique visitors. More than 180,000 adults from 160 countries have enrolled in his two Massive Open Online Classes, also known as MOOCs.
He’s surveyed more than 15,000 students on their science literacy and attitudes toward science. And he writes books — textbooks, trade science books and novels.
To promote science literacy widely, Impey and his team are developing an extension for web browsers that will help people determine if articles and pages on the internet present real and evidence-based information, or fake or pseudo information branded as legitimate science.
“There is as much bad stuff as good stuff out there. It’s huge problem,” he says.
The group is training a neural net to look at word patterns in sample articles of both real and fake science, and students are checking the computers’ work. Impey says early results show the computer algorithm to be 80 percent reliable.
He’s also spearheaded a three-course certificate program in science communication for graduate students to expand their outreach skills.
Since not everyone earning an advanced degree will end up in a laboratory but may work in a museum or science center, or follow a career in developing policy, Impey says it’s important for oral and written communication to be “part of their toolkit.”
He plans to build an online version to reach a national audience.