The incredible scientific discoveries made during the 19th and 20th centuries made possible the boom of science in pop culture. The rise in literacy and the increasing speed of idea exchange helped bring about a demand for knowledge. People wanted, and still want, to learn about the world around them, how it operates, and how they fit into it. While technology has altered the way people consume information, the basic human need of understanding remains the same. Learning about scientific concepts and discoveries through pop culture outlets has proven to be one of the best ways we can feed that need.
William Whewell coined the term “scientist” in 1833, which was first published in his review of Mary Somerville’s "On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences," which appeared in v. 51 of The Quarterly Review. Somerville’s 1834 publication has been described as crucial to the spread of modern popular science as a way of interacting with the public on scientific ideas. In Whewell’s review of her work, he speaks on Somerville's detailing how the belief of a comet impacting Earth was false due to a mathematical miscalculation:
"We may observe that the alarm of which Mrs. Somerville here speaks, affords an example of the confusion of ideas, which popular views of scientific matters often involve; and thus shows us how valuable a boon it is to the mass of readers, when persons of real science, like Mrs. Somerville, condescend to write for the wider public, as in this work she does."
On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences. The Quarterly Review, v. 51, 1834:58.
Some of the more memorable media where science played an outsized role came about because of the interest in space exploration and the possibilities that entailed. Movies such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers and War of the Worlds played on the fear of extraterrestrials, while the various iterations of television’s Star Trek focused more on exploration, as expressed in the original title sequence "To boldly go where no man has gone before." Regardless of intent, they brought complex theories of space travel and technology such as cell phones (communicators), computers, holograms, and androids into homes across the globe.
One of the earliest exposures to pop culture science a person can get is through comic books and graphic novels. Despite initial fear of comics corrupting young audiences, they became a thriving industry over the years with sales of over $1 billion in 2019 External. Comics introduced readers to subjects such as gamma radiation, gene mutation, and nuclear physics. They have also predicted advancements in technology such as remote-controlled reconnaissance equipment, jet packs, artificial intelligence, and modern prosthetic limb capabilities, just to name a few.
Other ways science has become more accessible can be seen in cookbooks that focus on the chemistry of interactions taking place between ingredients; media that explain the science behind popular series like Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings; and even the physics behind that perfect field goal in American football. Science is happening around us all the time, so it’s good to know accessible explanations for those complex phenomena are close at hand.