Geeking out on science may be a sure path to uncoolness for some kids, but not for Joe Hanson, the unapologetic (and unquestionably cool) geek behind the super popular science blog, It’s Okay to be Smart. For him, science has always been a sure path to wonderment and inspiration, something anyone can enjoy — young and old, geek and non-geek.
“I get messages from a lot of young people saying, ‘I don’t have anyone in my school who’s into this…I thought I was weird for being into science,’” he says. “So many people are hungry for this stuff. They just haven’t been able to connect to it before.”
Apparently, PBS agrees. In January, Hanson signed on with PBS Digital Studios as host of the new "It’s Okay to Be Smart" web series that he hopes will sway even more people over to the geek side. Episodes are lively, humorous and eminently watchable, tackling questions that many of us ask but never get answered — things like how do bees seem to miraculously locate flowers. (Hint: It’s not the wondrous colors and fragrances that so captivate us humans. Bees not only sense a flower’s electrical field, but they also see the world bathed in ultraviolet light, which illuminates a bull's-eye pattern in the flower’s center and guides them toward the pollen and nectar.)
Hanson himself never felt uncool for loving science. It was just a normal part of life growing up. “My parents are both mathematicians, so in our house that was dinnertime conversation,” he says. “But I was also involved in art and athletics, so I was pretty well-rounded.”
Now 32, Hanson had every intention of becoming a research scientist, and, in fact, just finished his Ph.D. in molecular biology at the University of Texas/Austin in May. But about three years ago, he began hearing how tough it was to find faculty and research positions. The blog was partly a way to spread his love of science to family and friends, but also potentially a way to make a living if nothing else panned out. “I didn’t really think it would lead to a career, but it just took off,” he says. It’s Okay to be Smart now boasts millions of unique visits per year, and the web series already has 17,000 subscribers.
Hanson seems tailor-made for his new role — a sort of Bill Nye (the Science Guy) for a new generation. Fans of his boyish enthusiasm and geeky cool confidence run the gamut from kids to seniors, all drawn to Hanson’s exuberant take on a discipline usually maligned for its dry equations and tedious memorization.
Many teachers are even using the web series to add sizzle to science lessons. “I’m not down on the way science is taught in schools because there’s a lot of stuff you just have to learn and memorize,” Hanson says. “But we need to make sure people don’t think science is just a collection of pieces and parts. Many get the idea that there’s not much left to know, when in reality there’s an amazing amount of stuff scientists have yet to understand.”
Not that Hanson is seeking more converts to the world of white lab coats and microscopes. “There are actually too many scientists,” he argues. His real aim is to broaden the idea of science — from something for an elite few to an attitude of curiosity and exploration that anyone can use in any field, from figuring out the stock market to writing a poem. The key, Hanson says, is learning to weigh what’s true and what’s not and letting that creatively guide all your decisions and pursuits.
“Artists take their influences, their previous knowledge, and a set of skills, assemble them together, and make something new,” he says. “That’s exactly what a scientist does. I view it as a creative effort — creating new information and new knowledge. It’s not much different from putting a song together or making a sculpture.”
If Hanson sounds a little like a master explaining the path to enlightenment, you might not be too far off. As he notes, “It just seems like you’re not fully engaged in life or living to your fullest potential if you don’t have questions about the world around you. Amazing things can happen when you ask questions.”
Wise words for the inner geek in all of us.
To learn more about Hanson, check out his TED-Ed video "DNA: The Book of You."
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