Monday, September 04, 2006

RIP Steve Irwin

The crocodile hunter Steve Irwin was killed while filming a nature documentary today. Mr. Irwin was better known outside of Australia than here in his home country, where his success has often been greeted with embarrassment and derision. But his impact on the promotion and education of the natural sciences should not be underestimated.

Academics, like many professionals in demanding careers, seem to automatically assume that the skill set needed for their work is something that the entire population must enjoy. For researchers, the most basic skill set is learning. Thus the vast majority of science media and education material produced starts with the assumption that learning is fun. For vast numbers of people, this is simply not the case.

What made Steve Irwin a great educator is that he was able to reach beyond the narrow subset of people who learn for kicks, and appeal to those people who aren’t interested in books, or study, or arcane facts that have no relevance to their own immediate experience. This is a skill very rarely seen in natural science education, but it is very important.

The planetary system does not affect people differentially, based on their willingness to go to school. The Love and Rayleigh waves produced by the next major quake will not bob and weave to avoid the houses of people who are scared of math. Global warming will not only cook that small segment of humanity which appreciates radiative energy balance. We all live on the same planet. So an Earth scientist who says that the incurious deserve what they get is just as narrow-minded and callous as a plumber who thinks that homeowners ignorant of a good Teflon winding deserve to have their toilet overflow.

On a personal level, have to admit, I was stunned. In the lead-up to the 5 o’clock news, the teaser went something along the lines of “A famous naturalist dies doing what he loves.” I automatically assumed that David Attenborough had passed on, so when the full story played 20 seconds later, I was completely shocked. My parents hadn’t even met when JFK was shot, and I can barely remember when Diana died, but this afternoon I was turning around the east corner of parliament drive after picking up my wife from work when I heard the bitter news.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

RIP Steve. You did bloody good here. Help heaven with its croc problem :) and save a seat for me up there.We'll take care of your family, that's a promise.I will never forget you.