TEDxUCLA 2012: Open

The science gap


About Jorge

Jorge Cham is the creator of the online comic strip “Piled Higher and Deeper (PHD)” as well as the video channel PHD-TV. Born and raised in the Republic of Panama, he obtained his Ph.D. in Robotics from Stanford University and was an Instructor and Research Associate at Caltech before becoming a full-time cartoonist.


I’m a cartoonist as Scott mentioned. And to me cartooning is about taking a blank page and filling it with your ideas. The idea that I want to draw out for you guys here today is this idea of The Science Gap.

Now I’m a cartoonist, but in addition to that, I also have a Ph.D. in robotics. Now you might be wondering what does cartooning and robotics have in common? What do they have to do with each other?

Well, I can tell you that my parents are also very concerned about that. (Laughter) But because of this kind of unique combination of academia and the arts, I kind of find myself, a lot of the time, travelling all over the world talking to scientists and researchers about what they do and how they do it.

And it’s very interesting to me to find out, to learn all the things that we know about the universe, about our bodies, about ourselves and about our societies. But even more interesting, more amazing to me is to find out how much we don’t know.

So for example, here are some things that you’d think that we as a human species would know by now, but actually don’t. (Laughter) Starting with, first of all, What is 95% of the Universe made out of? (Laughter) 95%, right? Like all those billions of stars, all the atoms in this room, inside of me, inside of you. That’s just 5% of the entire Universe. So what’s the other 95%? We don’t actually know, apparently.

Even the stuff that we think we know about, that 5%, it’s just still so many questions that we don’t know. Right, like you know, what is cancer? How do we cure it? What is gravity? What makes markets work? How do we — What is Alzheimer’s disease? How do we cure it? And on, and on, and on. There are so many questions that we still don’t know.

But that’s not actually the gap that I want to talk to you about here today. The gap that I do want to talk to you about today is this gap between the people who are trying to come up with answers to these questions and the general public.

So right now if you’re a scientist or a researcher, the only way — basically the main way that you have for communicating what you do to the public, basically is — the following things have to happen.

First of all, you have to write a long and esoteric journal paper, and then your university maybe will issue out a press release about it, and then maybe some reporter somewhere will catch actually this press release, and maybe they’ll get interested about it, and maybe they’ll talk to their editor about it, and then maybe they’ll write a good story about it, and maybe they’ll do a good job of it, and then maybe they’ll actually get published somewhere.

But it won’t actually reach the public really unless the media, general media picks it up, or the Internet picks it up, and then maybe it will actually reach the public, and then maybe somebody will actually read it and understand it. Yeah, so that seems a little bit, um, sub-optimal to me. (Laughter)

But then something pretty interesting happened to me last year. I was contacted by this physicist called Daniel Whiteson from UC Irvine. Yeah, I know you’re UCLA, but you shouldn’t laugh at UC Irvine just because I said UC Irvine. (Laughter)

Yeah, but he contacted me and he said, “Jorge, you know, I want to pay you to write a comic about the Higgs Boson.” And I said, “What?” He’s like “Yeah, I feel like people are really curious about this topic, and, you know, the media’s not doing a very good job of explaining what it is.” And so I said, “Sure!”

So I went and I interviewed him and I recorded this conversation that I had with him. And at the same time I was looking on the Internet, people were really experimenting with YouTube videos and taking recordings and making animations of it. And so I decided to also experiment and so we made this video about this animation that explains what the Higgs Boson is.

Then when the Higgs Boson was discovered, or some form of it was discovered earlier this year, this video kind of went viral. It was everywhere. It was posted in all kinds of media outlets and websites. Millions of people saw this video and they understood a little bit more about what these scientists were trying to do.

So imagine that, right, the best and most clear explanation of what this complex and nuanced topic was came from a scientist himself, in his own voice, who took the initiative to hire a cartoonist, and experiment with new ways to sort of close this gap between him and the public.

He didn’t wait around for the press release. He didn’t wait around for the reporter to come calling. He just took the initiative and did it. So that’s pretty cool.

But I think, you know, part of the general problem is also that there’s another gap, I think, between scientists and the public which is in how the public perceives scientists and researchers. And I know this because probably the thing that I’m most known for as a cartoonist with a Ph.D., as the most over-educated cartoonist in the history of mankind. 

One of the things that I’m probably most known for is to make this comic strip called “Piled higher and deeper” or Ph.D. Comics. (Laughter) And this is a comic strip that I started while I was in grad school because, you know, you have a lot of free time in grad school. (Laughter)

But people sometimes call it like the “Dilbert of academia”. Or they say that it’s really interesting because it actually portrays scientists and academics as real people, you know. Apparently they’re not robots, and you know, I’m an expert, so I think I would know the difference. (Laughter)

But these comic strips, they’re pretty popular in academia. They get forwarded around a lot and the website gets about seven million visitors a year. But, you know, outside of academia, in the general public, most people haven’t heard about it.

What they have probably heard about is probably the most, one of the most popular television sitcoms in network TV today it’s a show called “The Big Bang Theory”. (One clap) Exactly. (Laughter) Some people groan, some people cheer.

“The Big Bang Theory” is also a show, a major TV network show, but that’s also supposed to be about scientists and researchers. And, you know, the show has a lot of fans and I don’t want to offend them, especially on the Internet. (Chuckling)

This show is, does show smart people, all the smart people in this show they have these — their glasses, they dress really weird, they’re socially inept. And all the pretty, cool people are blond, they’re dumb, they’re outgoing, etc. And so I don’t have anything personal against this show. But I do sort of worry about what these stereotypes, what impact they have on society in general.

So, for example, I sometimes volunteer in this middle school in East LA called Endeavor College Prep. And these are kids that come from very disadvantaged communities. Most of them, their parents never went to college. Half of them statistically won’t even graduate from High School.

But, you know, for all we know the next Einstein, or the next Marie Curie, or the next Darwin could be sitting in one of those classrooms now. And so I wonder sometimes, you know, what these stereotypes, the effect that they have.

First of all, how are these kids going to get communicated the science that they need to catch up and become these superstars. But most importantly, how are they going to ever see themselves as future scientists or researchers if all they see when they turn on the TV are these stereotypes and caricatures of what scientists and researchers are supposed to be?

And so my point here today is that, you know, what we don’t know about the Universe should inspire us, but it should also inspire us to try to close these gaps in communication, and in perception, so that more people, more of us, most of the human species can participate and be engaged in looking for these answers, so that maybe we can even discover blank pages to fill up with ideas. Thank you. (Applause)