With a lot of research happening in different fields of science, there is a huge need to communicate these topics effectively to scientists in other fields and the general audience. When discussing the science behind a research topic, pop culture references can serve as an anchor upon which the audience can contextualize the research work.
Pop culture plays a major role in influencing people’s understanding of science and scientists. The use of scientific concepts in books, TV shows and movies also fascinate readers. Who doesn’t know the does-it-all vibranium from the Marvel movies? Concepts in movies can also be used to teach science. There have been instances where instructors used memorable pop culture references in STEM education—movies such as October Sky (propellant systems), Apollo 13 (carbon dioxide filters), Jurassic Park (molecular biology and cloning) and James Bond (chemical compounds and their characteristics), and television medical dramas such as ER and House as case studies in biochemistry. Also, comic books have been an evergreen source of pop culture references to use for science teaching and communication, especially after the recent explosion of comic book-based movies.
Beyond classroom education, pop culture references can be useful tools to share our research to fellow scientists, especially those outside our field of expertise. Typically, SciComm articles and popular science magazines provide science stories to the general audience. As a scientist in an academic institution who publishes peer-reviewed science articles, I think about the use of pop culture in such articles, and how other scientists perceive it. Even Twitter says it’s not too bad to use pop culture in science articles (see Twitter poll below).
Scientists are shown to be serious people, and science articles can most often be technical and monotonous to read. Pop culture references can animate a research topic in a way that grabs the readers’ attention, giving them an anchor on which they can contextualize the rest of the paper. These concepts could hook the reader—the scientist in a neighboring lab who works in a different field or that non-scientist who is interested in reading science articles—to our new research. This would also engage students who are new to research and embarking on reading research papers. Perhaps, pop culture references could be an ice breaker between the scientists who wrote the paper and the readers.
The idea of using pop culture references in scientific articles is not new. Scientists have indeed used pop culture references in peer-reviewed science articles. The most convenient insertion of a pop culture reference in articles could be in the introduction of a paper to convey what the research is about and why one should care. In my research articles, I have mentioned the light-based superpowers of Superman and Cyclops when connecting the audience with our work using photocleavable DNA strands (cutting DNA strands using light). In other cases, having a science-fiction-related pop culture reference could be a hook to get your readers interested in reading the rest of the article (my go-to is the popular sci-fi series The X-Files). There are also scientists who have used pop culture characters for naming their technology: a new DNA-detection method is called Sherlock (from Sherlock Holmes), a computer simulation method is called R2D2 (from Star Wars) and plant scientists have named a new genus (group of ferns) after Lady Gaga. These are just some pop culture examples, and I’m sure there are a lot more.
Scientists can test the waters to find out if fellow scientists like pop culture references and whether the lay audience appreciates our research more through such connections. As an incentive, would more citations entice researchers to use pop culture references more often in their papers? In chemistry teaching, there is something called the “Wow! factor” that provides a set of criteria for choosing effective pop culture references that have higher pedagogical utility. Perhaps, a similar metric could be established to estimate the effect of pop culture references on the reach of scientific articles. Whether used in teaching or in science articles, the pop culture references should be well-known examples that resonate with a large population of readers. A single reference may not connect with the entire audience—age, background and interests vary—but pop culture references can be the common ground to contextualize science, even if only a part of the audience relates to it. At the least, we can make science articles more fun to read. There should also be a caution to not oversimplify the scientific relevance or use inappropriate references but to only use pop culture to provide an anchor to contextualize our research. Science has been featured in pop culture so much; it’s now time to return the favor and use pop culture in science.