10 Pop-Culture Icons Who Make Us Love Learning About Science

Clockwise from upper left: Neil deGrasse Tyson, Jane Goodall and Jad Abumrad. . (Photo: Clockwise, NASA/Bill Ingalls; U.S. Dept of State; The John D. and Catherine T. McArthur Foundation/Wikimedia Commons)

Science and technology improve our world in countless ways, yet the people who love science can often be misunderstood. They may be labeled as geeks or nerds, while models or athletes get all the cool cred. But that is, thankfully, changing. Nerds are celebrated on TV shows like "The Big Bang Theory," and geniuses like Mark Zuckerberg have become pop-culture icons. That shift in public perception is due in no small part to the personalities below, who make us see just how fun, interesting, weird and awe-inspiring science can be.

1. Jane Goodall

In 1960, at age 26, Goodall began her research into chimpanzee behavior at Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania, and she has been studying and advocating for primates ever since. In 1977, she established the Jane Goodall Institute to protect primates and their habitats, and it now has 19 offices around the world. In recent years, this vegetarian has advocated for other animals, including farm animals. "Thousands of people who say they 'love' animals sit down once or twice a day to enjoy the flesh of creatures who have been treated so with little respect and kindness just to make more meat," Goodall has said. She also founded Roots and Shoots, a youth-led action and educational program and resource for kids that has programs in more than140 countries. At 82, Goodall still travels the world more than 300 days a year, advocating for animals, teaching, speaking and educating both children and adults about our closest living animal relations.

2. Carl Sagan

Carl Sagan

Sagan is the only non-living person on this list, but he might be the first modern-era popularizer of science. Born and raised in Brooklyn, he attended the University of Chicago for undergraduate work through his PhD, studying both genetics and planetary sciences during the 1960s in graduate school. He published more than 600 papers and wrote, coauthored or edited 20 books, focusing on cosmology, astrophysics and astronomy. He was a skeptic who promoted the search for extra-terrestrial life (he worked for NASA beginning in the early days of the space program), and he was known as a deep thinker who was a "liaison between the sciences." His PBS television series, "Cosmos" (episode 1 above), has been seen by more than 500 million people in 60 different countries, according to NASA.

3. Neil deGrasse Tyson

If you haven't heard of Tyson, you must be living under a rock. The man is everywhere, including the White House. The NYC-born-and-raised Tyson went to Harvard (after Sagan tried to recruit him to Cornell) and then Columbia University where he got a PhD in astrophysics. In 1994, he joined the Hayden Planetarium in NYC — where he was inspired to study the cosmos as a kid — and was charged with running it by 1996. A prominent speaker, he was tapped to host "NOVA ScienceNOW" on PBS and has appeared regularly on The History Channel's "The Universe." In 2014, he hosted a reboot of Sagan's "Cosmos" that aired on Fox. His TV show, "StarTalk," airs on the National Geographic Channel.

4. Bill Nye

Nye once came under fire by Sarah Palin prior to the White House Science Fair, when she told lawmakers that Nye was "...as much of a scientist as I am," according to Salon. That's not quite true — Nye studied mechanical engineering at Cornell (where he also took a class taught by Sagan). He then worked as an engineer at Boeing and applied every few years to be an astronaut at NASA, where he was always rejected. His TV show, "Bill Nye the Science Guy," which ran from 1993 to 1998, is still rebroadcast and used as a teaching aide in science classrooms. A whole generation of kids grew up on his shows, each episode of which focused on a particular area of physics, biology, astronomy, botany or another science topic. In April, he'll return to TV with "Bill Nye Saves the World," a Netflix series in which he'll bust myths, do demonstrations and explore scientific issues with celebrity guests.

5. Danica McKellar

McKellar is well-known for her role on the popular '80s drama "The Wonder Years," but she has since parlayed her popularity about as far from teenage angst as you can get: Math. After graduating from UCLA summa cum laude with a degree in mathematics, she's written and directed films and continued to act, with guest roles on TV shows like "The Big Bang Theory" and "How I Met Your Mother." She has written four books aimed at young women: "Math Doesn't Suck," "Kiss My Math," "Hot X: Algebra Exposed" and "Girls Get Curves: Geometry Takes Shape." Now she hosts a series on Nerdist called "Math Bites" and speaks and teaches around the world about math and related topics.

6 & 7. Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich

Abumrad and Krulwich are the stars of NPR's popular radio program, Radiolab. While not strictly a science show (they call it a "curiosity-driven"), they have tackled subjects from neurobiology to the environment to the beginning of life to quantum physics. As Krulwich says in the clip above, "There's an adventure to this. We choose complicated subjects, we don't completely understand them all the time, and then we try to make sense of them. To do that you have to have fun, you've gotta experiment."

8. Randall Munroe

Munroe worked as a roboticist for NASA until 2006 when his contract wasn't renewed — so naturally he became a cartoonist. While he started the comic part-time in 2005, he dedicated himself to it after leaving NASA and its popularity allowed him to work on it full time. In his own words: "I was going through old math/sketching graph paper notebooks and didn't want to lose some of the work in them, so I started scanning pages. I took the more comic-y ones and put them up on a server I was testing out, and got a bunch of readers when BoingBoing linked to me. I started drawing more seriously, gained a lot more readers, started selling T-shirts on the site, and am currently shipping T-shirts and drawing this comic full-time." The comic, xkcd, covers computer science, technology, mathematics, science, philosophy, language, pop culture and romance. He published an xkcd book in 2009 and maintains a blog —"What If?" — that answers readers' science queries, which became another book of its own in 2014. His latest publication is "Thing Explainer," which endeavors to parse complex ideas using simple language (see video above). In 2017, selected comics from xkcd will be incorporated into textbooks by Houghten Mifflin Harcourt.

9. Simran Sethi

Sethi is a journalist who started out at MTV making documentaries, but by the 2000s she had co-wrote an award-winning book, "Ethical Markets: Growing the Green Economy." (She also hosted and produced videos for Treehugger.com — a sister site of MNN.) She hasn't strayed far from covering, explaining, writing and researching environmental issues since. She was recognized as an environmental leader in Vanity Fair and other magazines and websites in the mid-2000s. Sethi then became host/digital contributor to the PBS series "QUEST: The Science of Sustainability," appeared as an environmental expert on "The Oprah Winfrey Show," "Ellen" and many more. She also hosted the Sundance Channel's web series "The Good Fight," which took a close look at environmental justice issues. Sethi teaches, writes and continues to speak publicly, with a current focus on food in her new book, "Bread, Wine, Chocolate: The Slow Loss of Foods We Love."

10. Alan Alda

Alda is an actor who has blended his affability with his love of communicating science. His acting has run the gamut from playing Capt. Hawkeye Pierce on "M*A*S*H," which ran for 11 seasons, to "The West Wing." But it was his 14 seasons of hosting "Scientific American Frontiers" that brought him to the fore as a science communicator. Alda is currently a visiting professor at Stony Brook University in New York, and a founder and member of the advisory board of both the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science and the Future of Life Institute. Alda's flame challenge, which aims to demystify scientific concepts, poses questions to scientists like, "What is a flame?" "What is time?" and "What is sleep?" with explanations that an average 11-year-old could understand.

Photo of Sagan: Hulton Archive/Getty Images