A few years ago, VH-1 ran a New Year's Eve marathon of its hugely popular "Behind the Music" TV segments. Music videos have never held much fascination for me, but somehow, this time, I got sucked in. I spent several hours sitting slackjawed in front of the idiot box, fascinated by the antics of bands with whom I had only passing familiarity. I very nearly missed the New Year's festivities with my friends; I was that enthralled with the mini-dramas unfolding on my screen. The series is addictive precisely because of the glimpses it provides into how music is really made. Sure, it capitalizes on any given band's hit single(s), but the real drawing power was that quintessential human element.
Physics isn't any different. It was the opportunity to interact with physicists as human beings when I began working for the American Physical Society that got me interested in the field, and telling the "behind the scenes" stories is pretty much the backbone of (shameless plug alert!) my book, Black Bodies and Quantum Cats. Sure, the research is Very Important, and any major result is Big News. But as I said a couple of posts ago, sometimes we focus too much on the big breakthroughs and not enough on the people and events that led up to them.
Physicists are far more interesting (I would argue) than, say, the lead singers of One-Hit-Wonder rock bands. And they generally don't end up bankrupt and in rehab, although some no doubt wouldn't mind Tommy Lee's dilemma of how to keep both of the two women one brings home sufficiently occupied. (His solution, as outlined in his kiss-and-tell memoir, Tommyland: bring home three! "That way everyone has something to do.") Jen-Luc Piquant would like it to be known, for the record, that she did not actually read Tommyland; she prefers more wholesome biographies of the Marquis de Sade. Yet somehow we became aware of Tommyland. It's as if this kind of information drifts aimlessly around the pop-cultural ether, seeping by osmosis into our brains no matter how we try to resist, until we all know the name "Jessica Simpson." Physicists should figure out how to tap into that ether.
Take the case of my recent post detailing JLab's fat-fighting free electron lasers, a proof of principle that involved zapping packets of pig fat to test the technique's effective. No sex, drugs or rock-and-roll, that we know of, but there's still some fascinating details that the press overlooked. For instance, where did they get the pig fat for the experiments? I never thought to ask, and I should have, because it's a highly amusing story. Bad science writer! No biscuit!
It turns out that the shipping company wouldn't transport the originally ordered pig fat -- especially prepared for scientific experiments -- because it was "improperly packaged." Time on the FEL is precious, and nobody wanted to cancel the experiment, so they took advantage of JLab's proximity to Virginia agriculture and paid a visit to a local pig farmer. Ssshh! Don't tell PETA, but in Virginia, pigs are slaughtered on a daily basis, for reasons that have nothing to do with science. The JLab folks paid full price for a single pig, and asked the farmer not to wash it with the usual vinegar solution prior to the slaughter (it reacts badly with the laser). The farmer shrugged, did as he was told, and the pig met its predetermined fate. The JLabbers picked out their pieces of pig fat, and when the farmer pointed out that there was still an awful lot of useful pig parts left, they told him he could use them as he saw fit. I'm guessing it made the farmer's day, and he's still telling his friends about those crazy scientists who paid full-pig price for a few pieces of lard.
C'mon -- if you were a reporter, wouldn't you be all over that story like, well, a pig wallowing gloriously in a mud pit? I'm thinking science stories would receive more coverage if they bothered to release these sorts of telling details. Unfortunately many scientists seem to find this approach "undignified." And that's too bad, because if they're honest, even scientists would admit that they find this kind of stuff fascinating. One should never underestimate the power of the colorful detail or amusing anecdote to liven up an otherwise dry technical topic.
Early on in my science writing career -- before it had occurred to me that this was a career, and one for which I might prove surprisingly well-suited -- I sat through a session on some obscure specialist topic in condensed matter physics. It should come as no great shock to anyone that the finer technical points eluded me, but I managed to get the gist of three of the four invited talks. The last one, though, fried my brain. I couldn't make head or tail of it, and emerged in a somewhat shellshocked state, convinced I was far too mentally challenged to ever succeed at this gig. Serendipitously, I bumped into Barbara Levy, a long-time science writer for Physics Today, coming out of the session, confessed my befuddlement, and begged her to give me a brief synopsis. She holds a PhD in condensed matter physics, after all. I figured she was the right person to ask. She snorted disdainfully and declared, "I didn't understand it either. That man was a terrible speaker!"
Barbara doesn't even remember this incident, but she unwittingly altered my entire outlook. It was a revelation to discover that if I didn't understand something, it wasn't because I was stupid. (Barbara is a very smart woman.) It was just as likely -- more probable, in fact -- that the concepts were poorly communicated. And it's not just me. Everyone enjoys a clear, well-ordered lecture, regardless of educational status or profession. Perhaps that's why so many established PhD physicists made their way to a session filled with talks targeting undergraduate physics majors at the APS April Meeting in Dallas.
One of the featured speakers was Princeton University's Paul Chaiken, who made headlines in 2004 when he and his collaborators published their results on packing efficiencies of ellipsoid objects. What got the media's attention was the fact that they used a 55-gallon drum of M&M candies to perform the study. Apparently a few of Chaiken's physics students played a prank on their professor by leaving the huge drum in his office, and he chose to put it to good use. (He's known for his fondness for the candies.) You can read more about it here and here, including the history of the packing problem (which dates back at least to Johannes Kepler in the 1600s) and potential applications of the research. But essentially, Chaiken and company found that the ellipsoidal shape of M&Ms led to much more efficient packing. Other tidbits revealed during the Dallas talk: when Chaiken approached the Mars Corporation about how they got the candies to be so uniform in shape, he was sharply rebuffed. Trade secrets and all. And apparently they conducted a similar experiment using Smarties; those candies didn't measure up nearly as well. Seriously, you can't make this stuff up! Truth is invariably stranger, and more wonderful, than fiction... especially when it comes to science.
Jen-Luc Piquant likes to flatter herself that she is unique in the blogosphere, but some truths are so patently universal that it's difficult for any one person to lay claim to them. This is one of those cases. I'd been mulling over this post since my last day in Dallas, randomly jotting down notes and thoughts for when I finally had time to pull it altogether into a (semi)coherent post. In the interim, we were scooped. Thursday morning, two of my science-phile sistahs at Skepchick.org separately pointed me towards the April 25 piece in the New York Times by James Gorman, praising Florida State University biologist Walter R. Tschinkel for an inventive approach to his new academic tome, The Fire Ants. ("Book" does not do it justice: it is 750-odd pages and costs $95 on Amazon. I was going to purchase it, but am now having second thoughts. Jen-Luc thinks it might be cheaper at Overstock.com.)
Sure, it's technically a textbook, and contains a great deal of scholarly information, but apparently it's rendered in clear, accessible prose with welcome flashes of wry humor. More importantly, Tschinkel has scattered random sidebar essays he calls "Interludes" throughout the text, focusing on some of anecdotes arising from the practical difficulties associated with studying tiny, wriggling insects. For instance, it's apparently very difficult to measure the heads of ants. It must be done with tiny forceps to hold the ant's head still under a stereomicroscope outfitted with a special "insect size scale" in the eye piece. It's the most common measurement in myrmecology, and it's maddening. Tschinkel attributes more than one "burn-out" case among his grad students to frustration with trying to execute this technique. That's what I'm talking about, right there. It's "Behind the Music" for the science set. I can't wait for this to hit VH-1. The venomous insect angle alone should be sufficient to pique viewers' interest.
Far from being displeased at coming (fashionably) late to the "Story Behind the Science" party, we choose to take this as a positive sign that the traditional paradigms might be changing for the better, not just for science writers and reporters, but also for the authors of scientific papers: yes, the scientists themselves. We're quite happy to let Mr. Gorman have the last word: "Scientific language is necessary. But so is speaking plainly. And if you have something funny, or human, to tell, that won't undermine your work. (Pipes in Jen-Luc: "Or at least it shouldn't!") But it may bring it to a wider audience." Amen.