Decades ago, when the chief science reporter for the New York Times misquoted Roger Payne as saying “owls are dumber than earthworms,” Payne realized the difficulties in conveying scientific ideas through the media. This incident compelled Payne, now a prominent author and researcher, to help better educate the public about environmental issues through informal education.
Payne, who helped discover that humpback whales sing songs and whose research inspired the IMAX film “Whales,” gave a talk Tuesday afternoon sponsored by the Hixon Center for Urban Ecology on 230 Prospect St. In a room crowded with roughly 40 students, researchers and college professors, Dr. Payne chronicled his experiences in a lecture titled “Protecting Whales via the Media: A Parable Containing Lots of Despair and a Smattering of Joy.”
“I really thought he was going to talk about whale songs,” said Mary Beth Decker, a research scientist in ecology and evolutionary biology, “but what he covered is so much more moving and relevant.”
Though Dr. Payne provoked laughter in the audience with anecdotes of his encounters with the famous — he was asked to be on the Tonight Show but had to ask who Johnny Carson was — his openness about the difficulties of making the public listen gave his speech a more somber tone.
“There are always those who think that environmental issues do not concern us because they are problems of the future, but these people obviously don’t understand how exponential functions work,” Payne said.
In his example, he illustrated that if bacteria multiplies exponentially every minute, and in 60 minutes the vial is going to be full, there is already a problem at 59 minutes when the vial is half-full.
In order to stimulate greater interest in environmental issues, Payne spoke of letting the public “swim with the whales” — using exciting media such as the IMAX film to enable the viewer to experience the activity without having to get wet.
Aside from the IMAX film, Dr. Payne also helped generate interest in the plight of whales through recordings of humpback whale songs.
“Some people cry listening to them,” he said.
The songs were so beautiful that National Geographic, with over 10.5 million subscribers, included a printout of the songs in every issue, Payne said. This unprecedented success was followed up when NASA sent a recording of the songs, along with greetings in 60 human languages, into outer space on the space probe Voyager in 1977.
The major advances in environmental education are accompanied by countless failures, Payne added, whether due to jealousy within the scientific community or political inconvenience. He said the national election season could explain why ads at movie theaters asking viewers to embrace Mother Nature are no longer shown.
Payne concluded by saying that hope had enabled him to continue his work even when it seemed as if no one cared.
“[We] must offer hope,” Payne said. “We can get the message out there. It can be done.”
Social ecology professor Stephen Kellert, who organized the lecture, said he was extremely pleased with how the talk turned out. Ery Largay MEM ’04 described the lecture as “inspirational” and “dynamic.”
Dr. Payne is currently the president of Ocean Alliance and is the receiver of various honors such as a knighthood in the Netherlands and a MacArthur Fellowship.