Everyone talks about the Sputnik Moment, when the nation realized we had to focus on science to remain competitive. But I was more inspired by people closer to Earth. A recent Facebook post wishing Jacques Cousteau a happy (posthumous) birthday got so many likes and comments that I realized I wasn’t the only one who wanted to be him when I grew up. He opened a fascinating new world to me and my brothers; none of us ever did become deep-sea divers, but we all thought it was possible.
While I couldn’t name them, the National Geographic photographers were a group of people who also inspired our sense of wonder. My dad collected years’ and years’ worth of issues, and whenever we were bored we’d select a few at random and meander through parts of the world we’d never even previously imagined. It wasn’t always curiosity of a scientific nature. I was particularly fascinated with one old issue that showed the then-President of the United States in an ordinary ad—one’s path in life really could start in one direction and lead to another—incredible journeys were pictured in Nat Geo every month. One issue arrived at our door with a recording of whale sounds. Before you could Google every animal alive, that was mind-blowing to us; we all gathered around to listen to that one.
Today, I’m lucky enough to work with lots of brilliant teachers and meet today’s science superheroes at NSTA conferences. At one, I recently heard a talk by Bill Nye that made me think about sun dials in a whole new way. And I realized that some of the same people who inspired me as a kid are still relevant today. Buzz Aldrin is setting his sights beyond the Moon, encouraging Mars exploration—although according to a recent interview, he doesn’t necessarily want to go there himself!
I have to say I agree, and I’m still drawn more to those who open my mind to the wonders here on Earth. Many of today’s inspirational scientists call themselves Science Evangelists, and that’s a term I like. People who self-describe themselves as science evangelists include Ainissa Ramirez, and they are passionate about engaging our youth in the wonder of science. I think Jacques Cousteau might even hit the “like” button on that if he were still with us today.