Dr. Mermaid saves the world — and shows everyone how sexy science is

Dr. Debra Tillinger is giving another lecture on the science of climate change — only, her audience is not made up of her usual college students at the City University of New York. Her audience members are wearing an assortment of goggles, tutus, and bandanas — if they’re wearing anything at all. Everyone is covered in a thick layer of dust, including Dr. Tillinger and the microphone she is holding in her hand. And while she goes over how principal component analysis is used to recognize an El Niño event, her audience gazes at her in rapture. They transported from their current occupation at the Burning Man Festival in the Black Rock Desert to the warming, undulating waves of the Pacific Ocean.

When Dr. Tillinger is not teaching climate science in the ordinary places where one would expect to find it, such as the Marymount Manhattan College or the American Museum of Natural History, she can be found blowing minds at popular outdoor festivals like Burning Man and Gratitude Migration. Her alias at these unlikely places is “Dr. Mermaid,” and her ultimate goal is making science education more accessible to the public.

Normally when I write articles, I embed all my interviews…but this one was filled with so many good quotes that I left it as is. Enjoy.

Me: I love how you seek the intersection between art and science…you mentioned before how you use Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner’s poetry to begin your lectures. I also believe that storytelling is the best way to deliver a message. People flock to cinemas, people flock to charismatic politicians…but they may not flock to science as much, perhaps because they might see it as missing that human narrative.

Debra: Some people flock to science. Some people flock to poetry. People have different ways of interacting with the world around them.

Me: School me on Schrodinger’s cat.

Debra: Schrodinger’s point was the opposite of what most people think it was. This is one of the places where I diverge from mainstream science cheerleaders — you know all of the people who are like, “yay science!”? Who wear the T-shirts that say cute things about science? I have developed a theorem that the nerdier the T-shirt someone wears, the lower the odds that they could tell you Schrodinger’s equation. There are exceptions — I saw a friend of mine wear a T-shirt once that said “There are only two things that make me happy: Seratonin and dopamine.” And all I could think was, “You’re a psychiatrist and that should be beneath you.”

Schrodinger’s point was that it was ridiculous. He was talking about how we deal with this idea of a microscopic event, a quantum event — he was trying to find a way to more precisely frame the problem. His point was, isn’t that shit crazy? His point wasn’t anything about the cat being both alive and dead. It was simply to show the absurd conclusion of the reasoning. He was trying to bring quantum weirdness to a scale that humans will understand it — and he thought, “oh, I know, I’ll do a thought experiment with a cat in a box.”

This is the whole thing about the best-known “science stories” — we create the gods that we need. You know, people quote Darwin because oh, it’s Darwin so this quote must be worthwhile. We quote Newton because he was incredibly brilliant…but he also believed in a bunch of stupid shit, like phrenology and astrology. And on a personal level, he had tons of issues. Have you heard the quote, “I have seen further by standing on the shoulders of giants”? That’s heartwarming, isn’t it? Here’s the thing: Newton had a colleague named Robert Hooke, who would have been just as well-known as Newton if history had gone a little differently. Hooke was a hunchback. So the “shoulders of giants” thing? Newton wasn’t inspiring generations. He was just insulting the cripple.

Me: That’s a dick move.

Debra: Yeah. So I think making all scientists out to be heroes can be really damaging.

Me: But I always figured that was the whole point of science — to challenge each other.

Debra: Right, that’s the whole fun. “Science advances one funeral at a time.” Plate tectonics is accepted because everyone who didn’t accept it died without leaving enough graduate students. There are great geologists who went to their graves saying, “This is some bullshit!” Einstein went to his grave without believing in quantum mechanics. That whole “God does not play dice with the universe” quote — which could mean anything at this point — he did say it, but he said it because he wanted to be wrong about quantum mechanics. He couldn’t emotionally deal with these intellectual conclusions. He believed in quantum mechanics in the rational sense, but he couldn’t believe that there isn’t something else. Because if there isn’t something else, then God does roll dice with the universe. It wasn’t a statement about his scientific opinion…it was him admitting what was bothering him about it.

If we teach that scientists are people, we have a slightly better chance of generating more interest. You can’t tell a bunch of teenagers that scientists never get laid, and then be surprised that they don’t want to be scientists.

I’m a big fan of teaching the history of science while I teach science. When I say “Brahe,” you should think of a drunk moose.

Me: What?

Debra: He had a pet moose, and he liked to get it drunk.

Me: Oh. Why?

Debra: Because it was hilarious. Brahe was a great man of science.

Me: Oh.

Debra: But really, scientists are people too — we are curious about things and are fortunate enough to be in situations where we can “adult” at curiosity. Geology started in England not because British geology is so fascinating or English people are so brilliant, but because there were a lot of people who had free time and money. You need rich people if you’re going to have science. The first step of the scientific method — the way I teach it, anyways — is to obtain funding. Because if you’re hungry, you can’t do science.

Me: What do you say to people who aren’t interested in science because they don’t think they’ll be good at it?

Debra: People who think that they’re the worst at something, they’re usually just average at it. No one says “I’m about average,” but at average, they are about average. That’s actually what that word means.

Me: Why don’t people believe science — or worse, are offended by it?

Debra: To those people who say, “climate change is just a theory” — I want them to follow their idea through its logical conclusion and I want them to stand up for what they believe in. If you don’t stick by things that are “just a theory,” why do you wash your hands after you use the bathroom? Germ theory? It’s also “just a theory.”

Me: Maybe there is some way to reconcile differences. Maybe there is a way to convince those people?

Debra: A long time ago, some people were able to convince other people that this engineering stuff wasn’t total crap because they built the Brooklyn Bridge. Which is amazing, because it was an incredibly difficult project. They hadn’t invented electric lights yet. It was the most unlikely project to succeed. Many new suspension bridges did fall. A disturbingly high percentage, in fact. And a lot of people actually died building the Brooklyn Bridge. You don’t build something that spectacular without some blood, guts, and gore. But everyone said it couldn’t be done, until it was done and then they shut up about it.

I think science has become entirely too rarified. Here’s the problem: the amount of information that you need to know to have a basic scientific understanding of the world is friggin’ enormous. My favorite living physicist, Leonard Susskind, has courses called the Theoretical Minimum, which is the theoretical minimum that you would need to understand the basics of the standard model of physics — and I hope I can get through it one day! It’s a little tongue in cheek, but we need to work on the way we teach. We teach this quasi-historic-but-not-really version of science, and we teach it with personality, but only the good guys, right? You never hear about the scientists who slept with each other’s wives, which is too bad, because…a lot of them did.

Me: Tell me more about that time you gave a TED talk on El Nino at Burning Man. Why might people be interested in attending a science lecture at a crazy festival like that?

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Debra: I think that Burning Man is the perfect place for people to be into science because one of the great intersections between science and popular culture is: drugs. Also: the math that was developed to explain climate change is chaos theory, which is also where fractals come from. You know how much burners love fractals.

Me: Also, people at Burning Man have that “yes” mentality. “Just say yes!” The mantra is to be open-minded and go to workshops and learn things and be in the now. Random everyday people might not go to a lecture on ocean science because the topic mildly interests them…but at Burning Man, why the hell not?

Debra: Right, and you’re out of your comfort zone anyway. Think about this: science museums are designed for children, and adults are tolerated. Art museums are the opposite. Is that the message we want to send to people?

Me: In its defense, the Franklin Institute has some really good Science After Hours events. The obvious solution is to combine science and alcohol.

Debra: There is more and more of that happening! We do that at the Museum of Natural History too.

Me: But do we really need to combine science with things like alcohol and drugs in order to provide an incentive for people to be interested in it? Or for them to believe that science isn’t totally above their heads?

Debra: People who know that they can’t sing still go to the opera. So this idea of “I’m not going to go to this science thing because I’m not a scientist” is like…what?

They have the wrong idea that you can only get something out of science if you’re good at it. Fortunately, my society has gotten the message through to me that I don’t need to be “good” at art. It’s nice to be “good” at art, but I don’t need to be. Nobody thinks it’s weird that I glue things to other things and that’s my art. The fact that I’m not talented at art doesn’t seem to be a problem.

Me: Do you believe that our society is more accepting of art than science?

Debra: I don’t believe it’s accepting of either. I also don’t believe that things fall nicely into those two categories — buckets are useful for carrying things, that’s why we invented them, but I wouldn’t use them for this. Our society values people who earn money. After WW2, scientists were in a very unusual and special position because on some level, scientists did win WW2. I mean, not really, because it was almost over anyways. But scientists ended it on more of an…ending note, let’s say. After the bomb, there was no question. There was this idea of “wow, science can do anything!”

But science has also been responsible for a lot of really bad ideas. Case in point: eugenics. And it wasn’t just the Nazis who went crazy with eugenics…people in this country’s history have forcibly sterilized “undesirables.” At least we’re not Nazis, but we probably shouldn’t have done that.

Me: At least we’re not Nazis…except, oh wait.

Debra: Oh yeah, except for our president.

Me: I think you’re right, in that we should tailor science more as something for everybody, no matter what age you are. We should combine science with storytelling. Hopefully your facts and figures are correct, but it’s the story that counts.

Debra: Science isn’t a list of facts; it’s a way of doing things. You see it in kids: they come to conclusions that are very wrong! My niece came to the conclusion that her next sibling was going to be a boy because her friend had had a girl. And none of the adults could figure out how the two pieces of information had anything to do with each other, but she clearly worked out an internal schema where there was a boy-girl tradeoff in her social group.

Me: I’ve actually heard someone describe science once as retaining that childlike innocence. You get to poke and prod things and make observations the way that children do.

Debra: For a lot of great scientists, it has been. And people like Nate Silver and Neil DeGrasse Tyson (who are doing amazing work, God bless them) are preaching to the choir. The people who willingly go to a science lecture are probably already interested in science.

Part of it is the work that you, the listener, are willing to put in. This goes back to that problem: “Math is hard.” You need to know a lot of it. (And by the way, none of it includes factoring polynomials. Think of what we could teach middle schoolers if we didn’t have to factor all those polynomials!) And while you do need to know a lot of math, you don’t need to know very much arithmetic, and that’s the stuff that people really hate the first time around. So I think there’s hope in that regard.

People need to realize that math is fun. Just think about all the cool shapes you can make. I went to the Museum of Math recently, and I thought to myself: If I had gone here before I learned linear algebra, my life might have been much more pleasant.

#thaliathoughts #thursdayisforthalia