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Science friction

Space is so cool right now—but not all the geeks are happy

  • "Gravity"
"Gravity"
October 31, 2013|By Mick Swasko, @swasko | RedEye

It’s really old, lifeless, mostly empty and freezing cold—at least to the best of our human knowledge. Yet here on Earth, space is so hot right now.

“Gravity,” director Alfonso Cuaron’s space disaster thriller starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, spent an impressive three weeks at the top of the box office. Big in every way—the theatrical release included nationwide Imax 3-D screenings—“Gravity” is just one example of the final frontier being launched into pop-culture orbit.

In August 2012, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory live-streamed its successful late-night landing of Mars rover Curiosity, which attracted 3.2 million viewers to the “seven minutes of terror.”

In more than a year of poking around the red planet, not only has the rover vaporized rocks with a laser and detected signs of water, it also has amassed more than 1 million Twitter followers with its combination of pop-culture references and colorful space puns.

Back on the blue planet, evidence of space lust is everywhere:
» Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson has achieved Internet meme status for his frank advocacy for science and space, and has been a regular guest and subject of commentary on both “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report.”
» After sending one if its main characters into space last season, “The Big Bang Theory” continues to bring geek culture to the mainstream with astronomical ratings.
» In May, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield recorded David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” the video of which quickly went viral and currently has about 18.5 million views.
» Most recently, Us Weekly reported Lady Gaga would be the first pop star to perform in space, during a Virgin Galactic flight slated for 2015.

“Certainly we’re seeing a recovery of some real concentration in popular culture and interest in these sorts of things,” said Robert Thompson, professor of popular culture at Syracuse University.

Pop culture never really forgot about space exploration, Thompson said, noting the perennial popularity of sci-fi series such as “Battlestar Galactica” and “Star Trek.” But movies like “Gravity,” advances in commercial space flight and missions to Mars have shifted interest away from science fiction to actual science, he said. And those developments have helped repair NASA’s reputation, which took a beating during some unsuccessful times.

“Instead of getting stories about broken Hubble telescopes and stuck rovers, we have pictures coming down from Mars,” Thompson said.

But don’t expect the buzz generated by “Gravity” to translate to the next generation of hopeful astronauts, Thompson warned.

“Take 10 kids that leave ‘Gravity’ having seen a new vision of their future, and nine of them [will say], ‘I want to make movies like that.’ ”

For all its success, the film has received criticism. After it debuted, Tyson took to his Twitter account to blast what he says are scientific inaccuracies in the film. His beefs included why Sandra Bullock’s character’s hair failed to float in zero gravity, why a medical doctor was servicing the Hubble Space Telescope and satellites that orbited in the wrong direction. Even former astronaut Scott Parazynski took his jabs at the film in an interview with Vulture.

Mark Hammergren, an astronomer with Adler Planetarium, says he understands the critiques but is happy the film has captivated mass interest in his line of work.

“[The criticism] reinforces the stereotype—the negative stereotype—of the geek,” he said. “Nobody goes into ‘Gravity’ thinking these are how things really operate.”

Instead, Hammergren said he’s excited to see space take the spotlight. He gives the example of Bobak Ferdowsi, the young, mohawked mission planner for Mars Curiosity, as a case study in increased interest in astroscience. After the successful landing, Ferdowsi’s image went viral, prompting entire Tumblrs dedicated to him and even getting President Obama to refer to him as “Mohawk Guy.”

“It’s a little dismaying for him being trotted out as being unusual for a scientist,” Hammergren said. “But it kind of breaks down the stereotypes, and I am all for that.”

It’s becoming cooler and cooler to be a nerd, and Hammergren is seeing his line of work only getting more attention.

“At some point, it became not only socially acceptable, but hip to be a geek,” he said. “And space is coming right along with that.”

mswasko@tribune.com

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