My friend D., a condensed matter physicist (a.k.a. CMP, or March meeting kind of person), took mock-issue with my recent post about the relative "mediagenic" qualities of the APS March and April meeting physicists. She emailed that, on a good hair day, she is "more mediagenic than anyone at the April meeting." That's right, folks, D. is throwing down. Welcome to "Graphene Dreams Part Deux: The CMPs Strike Back."
CMPs couldn't ask for a better champion to take up their cause, since D. is indeed one of the most mediagenic physicists I know, in any subfield. But just what do I mean by "mediagenic"? It's actually an elusive quality, and therefore difficult to pin down an exact definition, or lay out a specific set of criteria. (If only we had a snazzy Mediagenic Meter, similar to a Geiger counter, with which to measure it.) For starters, it's not really about the conventional notions of beauty that bombard us everywhere we look on a daily basis -- and certainly not the plasticine Hollywood variety. D. is a bit of a physics bombshell, it's true, but the attractiveness of the mediagenic personality comes from within.
"Mediagenics" are insightful, articulate, and likeably approachable, with a good sense of humor and innate ability to connect in any number of different ways with various audiences. It's making the connection that's so critical, because without that, communication is impossible. We need more mediagenic physicists, in every subfield. So in the interest of fostering constructive debate, I offer the following five basic guidelines to those wishing to improve their "score" on our hypothetical Mediagenic Physicist Meter (MPM).
Among those who commented on the linked post above was Peter Armitage, a CMP at the University of Geneva in Switzerland. (I encourage everyone to take the time to read in full his eloquent analysis of CMP's "PR problem.") Armitage has all the requisite elements for a Mediagenic Maven in the Making. I know this because Jen-Luc Piquant is really nosy and Googled him. For instance, in place of the usual standard head shot on his home page, Armitage has posted a photograph of himself standing at the head of the Mer de Glace in Chamonix, France. How cool is that? Lesson the First: Interesting hobbies and other personal details help give physicists a less intimidating human face that members of the public generally find very appealing.
He's also insightful and articulate, judging from his prose. Armitage opines that CMPs feel compelled to talk only about the technological potential of their research to non-physicists, which is the aspect they find most boring. Their intended audience inevitably senses their lack of passion and enthusiasm, and responds in kind. That's an interesting point, and provides me with Lesson the Second: know your audience, and tailor your message accordingly. While emphasizing real-world applications is a very effective tool for coaxing more funding out of Congress, perhaps it's no longer the best approach to take when speaking to the public at large about CMP research. These are two very different audiences.
Congressional representatives are a breed unto themselves. When making the case for science funding, it's vital to have those potential technological tie-ins, because Congress is making an investment in the nation's future, and wants reassurance that such investment is warranted -- although mostly, they just want to get re-elected. In contrast, the general public is just as fascinated by the bizarre features of the subatomic realm as they are by the vast reaches of outer space, or the mind-bending concepts contained in string theory. They appreciate the benefits offered by cutting-edge technology, but most could care less about the specifics of how their iPod works (until it stops working, that is). Finding a new narrative for CMP rightly should involve tapping into that inherent fundamental fascination, namely, where and how various materials acquire their very different (and sometimes exotic) properties.
It's easier said than done, alas. To a certain extent, science reporters like myself are guilty of compounding the problem by focusing too much on the "So what?" aspect of scientific research. That's partly due to journalistic training -- any given science story must be justified as "news worthy" to our editors, who tend to be very "bottom line" kinds of people -- but there's another factor as well.
I was reading along, savoring Armitage's prose style, and thinking, "Right on, speak it, bro!" Or whatever the kids are saying these days to indicate enthusiastic agreement with a kindred spirit. And then I collided headlong with what he considers to be the most exciting fundamental aspect of the graphene research: "The electrons in graphene are described by the same formalism that applies to the relativistic particles of the Dirac equation. One can simulate the rich structure of elementary particles physics in a tabletop experiment."
If you're a physicist reading this, you are no doubt nodding to yourself and thinking, "Hmmm, interesting point." If you are, say, anyone else, you don't have the faintest idea what the guy is talking about. Aye, there's the rub. Which brings me to Lesson the Third: watch your language.
One of the (many) purposes of starting this blog was to help bridge the communication gap between scientists and non-scientists. So I'm thrilled that Armitage bothered to to contribute such a thoughtful and well-written response. His comment provides an excellent opening to demonstrate just how enormous that gap has become-- even if you're like me, with one foot firmly planted in both camps, thereby forced to uncomfortably straddle the Great Divide.
For one thing, hardly anyone outside the math and physics communities knows what is meant by "the Dirac equation." Most don't have a clue who Dirac is at all, although a few -- and perhaps I'm giving average Americans too much credit for their awareness of other countries -- might misconstrue the reference and assume Armitage meant "Chirac." (All those Frenchified names start to sound alike after awhile; just ask Jen-Luc Piquant, who is frequently mistaken for the captain of some obscure starship.)
There were numerous fundamental aspects of the graphene research discussed during that infamous press conference -- most centering on the material's unique quantum properties -- and the scientists were clearly excited and passionate about those aspects. They were so excited that they lapsed into "scientific shorthand," stringing together long strands of jargon-laced sentences that imparted very little actual information to a non-scientist who might have been listening. It was like Technological Tourette's, or a bizarre form of physics glossolalia. I would have liked to have written the "story" of the fundamental aspects, but frankly, I couldn't understand what they were talking about. I'll figure it out eventually; in fact, I'll be spending the next few days beating my head against that particular wall. But very few people are as stubbornly tenacious as I am about pursuing deeper knowledge in physics -- and newspaper reporters face very tight deadlines and just don't have the time. So naturally they fall back on the one tangible thing available to them: the potential real-world applications.
My intent is not to single out the graphene folks unduly, because this problem isn't limited to condensed matter physics. Despite the comparatively broad media coverage, there are still some very fundamental gaps and misconceptions in the public's knowledge of, say, particle physics. This brings me to Lesson the Fourth: don't assume knowledge that isn't there. You must build your scientific case -- your narrative, as it were -- carefully, brick by
brick, in order to gradually raise your audience to the necessary level of comprehension. It requires a great deal of patience and time, and more than a little creativity. But the potential impact on scientific literacy is well worth the extra effort.
Case in point: In the process of writing two popular science books (one out, the second forthcoming), I asked some of my physicist pals to help me find better ways to convey to a lay reader exactly the kinds of energies we're talking about when it comes to, say, creating a top quark. Many people know you collide protons with anti protons after accelerating them to almost the speed of light, and that the collision releases energy as the particles split apart, creating new subatomic particles in the process, like the top quark. The more scientifically literate among them know this is due to energy/mass conversion, as described by Einstein's famous equation: E=mc<2>.
We just assume -- because it took so damn long for physicists to find the top quark -- that these energies must be enormous, and on a subatomic scale, they are indeed "non-trivial." But I was surprised to discover just how little that energy is when you translate it into macroscale units: 1.8 x 10<12> electron volts is roughly equivalent to the amount of energy required for an adult to perform a single push-up. I forgot one very important factor: the relative masses of a quark versus an adult human being. All that energy is concentrated into a tiny subatomic particle instead of a man (or woman). It is exceedingly difficult, therefore, to reproduce the exact conditions necessary for creating top quarks in an accelerator, although physicists have made huge strides in doing so.
This is an aspect of accelerator physics the average man on the street doesn't grasp. Yet it is absolutely critical to understand this concept before one can take the next step towards a deeper understanding of particle physics, or even, for instance, why it's so difficult to test the predictions of string theory. It's also one of the reasons there was so much public panic about the opening of Brookhaven's RHIC facility back in 1999. (Mini black holes! Strangelets will gobble up the world! For god's sake, someone organize a Congressional hearing already, before it's too late!) And understanding why the rules are so different at subatomic scales in turn can relate back to materials properties. For all the playful nudging about who's more mediagenic, are March and April physicists really all that different, fundamentally?
There's one last attribute that defines a Mediagenic Physicist: accessibility. Sean Carroll of Cosmic Variance -- who inadvertently sparked this line of thought with a dashed-off witticism -- recently wondered aloud on his own blog why reporters keep calling and asking him to comment on the latest cosmology news, when he doesn't consider himself to be the most illustrious physicist in his chosen field. (He is, in his words, "an associate professor with a blog.") That's easy: he's mediagenic, and he takes their calls. You can be as mediagenic as they come, but if people can't reach you, or if you never have time to talk to them, pretty soon, they'll stop calling when they need some clarification. Unless they find someone with comparable expertise to provide that clarification, they'll probably end up printing something that isn't quite right, if it isn't just outright wrong. And that will just make you crazy, won't it?
So, Lesson the Fifth: make the time to take the call. I know physicists are among the busiest people on the planet, which is why I'm always so grateful when one of them sits down to explain things to me. But if you can't be bothered to answer a layperson's questions about physics, then as far as I'm concerned, you've forfeited your right to complain about the growing public ignorance of science in general, and physics in particular -- because you are part of the problem.
Here endeth the lesson.