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My Thoughts: Confronting the Unknown

Physics professor George Rhee on changing his mind, debating the science, and the importance of public lectures.
People  |  Jun 6, 2014  |  By Cate Weeks
Physics professor George Rhee. (R. Marsh Starks/UNLV Photo Services)
Editor's Note: 

As media pundits debate climate change, politicians decide which projects to fund, and American universities work to attract students to technical fields, George Rhee hopes more scientists hone their communication skills. The author of Cosmic Dawn: The Search for the First Stars and Galaxies, Rhee shared his own scientific quests during UNLV’s University Forum and TEDx lectures this spring. He also organizes the Russell Frank Astronomy Public Lecture series, which draws a mix of curious minds from the general public. [Interviewed May 6, 2014]

My love of astronomy -- and wanting to share it with others -- began when I was a teenager. I attended a weekly series at CERN (Geneva, Switzerland), the site of the large Hadron Collider. These lectures were called "Science for Everybody" and were led by a remarkable man named Rafel Carreras. His enthusiasm for astronomy was contagious.

I thought I would like to be like him and just be curious for a living.

Some colleagues were skeptical when we started our physics and astronomy lectures. It's Vegas, they'd say. We can't compete with all the entertainment offerings here. But our lectures now fill the auditorium and some 30 people stay after to ask questions.

It's fun when audience members compare what they believed before to the new things they've just learned. It's not a matter of bulldozing over someone's point of view but of just raising questions and advancing the thought process.

I change my viewpoint all the time on science issues.

Science operates at the frontier of the known and unknown. Science is the constant process of confronting our conjectures -- the way we think the world ought to be -- with experiments that tell us the way the world actually is.

You're not a scientist if all your ideas are confirmed by your research. You're not truly stepping into the unknown.

What changes minds, or at least my mind, is numeracy. With real, quantifiable measures you can have a more rational discussion.

Having lived in Nevada for a number of years, I've been very anti-nuclear energy. But I recently read a book on renewable energy. It showed the casualties of nuclear versus coal, and how much more dangerous coal mines actually are. I realized that I might be wrong, that nuclear might be a safer solution after all.

During one of our astronomy lectures, a speaker put up an equation. I've always had the prejudice that you'd lose your audience with algebra. But this guy said, Now, I'm going to show you the real stuff, and it engaged the audience. They wanted to see the math.

The audience wants to be respected. They should be respected. You're not communicating if you're talking down to them.

In the hallway earlier today we were talking about the (National Climate Change Assessment) and the lack of appreciation for the urgency of this issue in media coverage. We talk endlessly about how to deal with that gap. It's a volatile subject. And I don't have an answer other than to keep talking and to keep sharing our enthusiasm for the science.

As just a man on the street -- I've never studied secondary education practices -- I suspect the lack of science understanding has to do with what we pay teachers. I'd like to see teaching become just as attractive to those gifted and passionate about math as high-paying jobs in private industry laboratories.

Communication is also key to how we get university research funded. Astronomy is expensive. The successor to the Hubble Telescope will take $5 billion dollars of taxpayer money. That's not much compared to bank buyouts, but it's certainly more than can be funded by private industry. So we have to build public support for our work.

Fortunately, in astronomy we have images -- amazing, mind-blowing images -- to help explain our work.

Almost everyone is interested in astronomy at some level. People look up at the stars and want to know more.

When I started teaching at UNLV in 1993, we didn't know of any planets outside our solar system. Now we know of more than a thousand.

Telescopes are time machines, so we push back further and further in time looking at fainter and fainter images. All of this brings us closer to answering the question of when and how the first galaxies and stars were formed.

Where we came from -- that's a question all of us ask on some level. I feel so fortunate that my job is to help answer it.