Those forward-thinking SciBlings at ScienceBlogs have decided to put together a series of posts outlining basic concepts in their respective fields; judging by this recent article in the New York Times, their project seems particularly timely. Admirably representing the field of physics, Chad of Uncertain Principles has written two already, on the concepts of force and fields. We here at Cocktail Physics are always ready to jump on the proverbial bandwagon. And since there was a general call for input, we have compiled our own version of a Top Ten list: in this case, the Top Ten Things About Physics We Wish Everyone Knew -- because it would make the job of communicating scientific results so much easier, for scientists and science writers alike, if we didn't have to waste precious column inches constantly re-explaining what should be part of everyone's scientific background knowledge. Dare to dream, my friends!
I'm admittedly biased towards broad concepts, rather than pointlessly memorizing lists of facts. Those facts are important, but it's tough to hold all that information in one's brain, ready to spew forth with an impressive recitation of facts on the offchance you run into one of those pesky polltakers trying to gauge the "scientific literacy" of John/Jane Q. Public. I'll grant that some members of the public are shockingly ignorant about science. But I also recognize that if you're just walking along the street, minding your own business, musing about what the real cause might be of the Cameron Diaz/Justin Timberlake breakup, and someone comes up to you with a microphone and video camera asking you about random scientific facts, it's pretty easy to have a temporary "brain fart" and blurt out something incredibly stupid. (Not that this has ever happened to me... ahem... Well, there was a recent instance where I accidentally referred to a famous Edgar Allan Poe short story as "The Cask of the Armadillo," which is inexcusable for a former English major. Damn you, Cameron and Justin! )
Since Chad's already covered forces and fields (Newtonian mechanics, inverse square laws, etc.), we can omit those key concepts; otherwise, they'd definitely be in the Top Five. And I'll assume that Chad will get around eventually to explicating electromagnetism and related topics. We can also leave out a bunch of basic "laundry list" kinds of things, which could be addressed by putting together several handy charts for future reference: the confusing array of physics acronyms, units of measurement, elementary particles and where they fit into the Standard Model, a metric conversion chart, etc. So, given those initial boundary conditions, here's my working list:
1. Let's start out with the "Duh" concepts. (Oh, stop rolling your eyes!) I'm always surprised by how many non-scientists don't fully grasp the scientific method, specifically, what is a theory versus what is an hypothesis. I think this is generally pretty well covered on ScienceBlogs from time to time, so perhaps a "basics" post could summarize those arguments in one place, and extend the discussion to incorporate the question of what constitutes scientific evidence. How do we know when something is true, or false? The reason many otherwise well-meaning people often fall for the ID-ists' fallacious arguments is that they can't tell the difference between the fake "evidence" cited by, say, The Discovery Institute, and actual scientific data.
This was brought home to me a few years ago at a Christmas party. I struck up a conversation with a clearly intelligent, educated party guest, who didn't run off screaming when he found out I wrote about physics. Instead, he asked about the cold fusion controversy, specifically, how mainstream physicists could write it off so resolutely. For comparison, he pointed to the discovery of the top quark. To him, there was no difference between the evidence cited for cold fusion and the evidence that led us to conclude we'd found the top quark, so he couldn't understand why physicists refused to give proponents of cold fusion the benefit of the doubt. Promulgating a more thorough understanding of what is and is not evidence could go a long way toward clearing up such confusions.
2. What the heck is a "function," anyway? This came up during my first few calculus lessons (and yes, I will be getting back to learning and posting about calculus once my life slows down a bit). It's one of those concepts that is so basic, and so fundamental to anyone in just about any science, that it's not viewed as jargon in the scientific community. Ergo, nobody ever bothers to actually define it in plain English. And yet it is absolutely critical to almost anything related to scientific research. It's easy to look up and memorize the textbook definition, but that doesn't necessarily convey genuine comprehension. Concrete examples help. Once I delved a bit into the matter, I found that actually, I did know about functions, in a conceptual sense. It just never occurred to me that this was the technical term for it. I suspect the same is true for other nonscientists, so making that connection clear would bridge that particular communication gap quite nicely. While we're at it, a more layperson-friendly explication of "vector" would be helpful, too.
3. Frames of reference. Yet another bit of jargon so common to scientists, they forget that the phrase might not hold any real meaning for John/Jane Q. Public, even though it's a fairly simple concept. It's still necessary to define the term. Chad touched on this in his post on forces, but it's central enough that it bears repeating. For instance, it's tough for a nonscientist to grasp why scientists occasionally argue about centrifugal versus centripetal force without a solid grasp of frames of reference. It's just as critical when considering the differences, physics-wise, between linear and rotational motion, and to understanding why Einstein's theory of special relativity was such a revolutionary advance.
4. Statistics and probabilities. The former is, admittedly, more of a mathematics concept (which I'm sure will be addressed on Good Math, Bad Math, if it hasn't been already), but with all the studies and polls and other statistically-heavy news stories wafting about ether these days, a better understanding of what those numbers mean, and how they can be skewed to mislead (or outright lie) could help alleviate some chronic misunderstandings among non-scientists about the numbers can and cannot tell us. Also, what do scientists mean by probabilities? What are the odds of aliens landing in Texas versus the Large Hadron Collider producing a mini-black hole that destroys the universe? And can a better understanding of probability make me a better poker player? (Short answer to the latter: Probably, if you take the long-term view.)
5. Sizes and Scaling. First, let's tackle the jargon problem: Just what the heck is an order of magnitude? I use the phrase all the time now, after years of hanging around physicists, but as a budding science writer, I found the term a bit opaque, and I'd wager the average person on the street is a bit unclear on the specifics, too. Second, this is one of those areas where a picture really can be worth a thousand words -- or, barring that, it helps to paint a word picture. Many science museums use the "powers of ten" approach when discussing various size scales in the universe, from the subatomic level to the farthest reaches of the universe. It's been around since at least the 1960s, and it endures because it's effective. But it's just a start. The laws of physics actually start to change as one approaches the subatomic level, and a clear explication of how size and scaling can change a system's behavior would help with the public's chronic confusion about a number of things, like...
6. ... quantum weirdness. Normally I'd include this under "advanced concepts," but the huge success of that New Age piece of nonsense, What the (Bleep) Do We Know?, aptly illustrates John/Jane Q. Public's need for a better, more nuanced understanding of quantum mechanics -- particularly the fact that while strange things can and do happen in the subatomic world, that doesn't mean they can happen in our daily existence at the macroscale. Example: Just because empty space is constantly churning out virtual particles that wink in and out of existence too rapidly to violate basic energy conservation, that doesn't mean that bunnies made of cheese will magically pop into existence in your backyard. Nor does it mean that saying cruel things to a glass of water will hurt the feelings of its "molecules of consciousness." If there's a way to talk about this without raising the specter of decoherence, so much the better. Part of the problem is that the subject doesn't lend itself to snappy sound bites; I recently stumbled all over myself during a radio interview in Seattle, trying to sum up quantum teleportation in two minutes or less, and I'm supposed to be good at this communication stuff. Still, the widespread misunderstanding of the Uncertainty Principle alone makes better explication of the subatomic subtleties absolutely critical.
7. Thermodynamics. I think many people have at least an intuitive understanding of certain aspects of thermodynamics, because it so directly impacts our daily existence. We know our coffee cup cools until it reaches equilibrium with room temperature, we know that even the best batteries don't run indefinitely without recharging, and we know that if we unplug the refrigerator (or if there's a power outage), eventually heat will seep into the chilled interior and spoil any food left inside. We know this from experience. But we keep falling victim to wishful thinking when it comes to perpetual motion or "free energy" schemes. Somehow, the public doesn't seem willing to accept that the second law of thermodynamics isn't likely to be violated any time soon. We can't in fairness ask them to take our word for it, and then criticize them for a lack of critical thinking, can we? So we must continue to make the case, each time patiently pointing out that really, we're not dismissing the prospect out of hand, we've just tested and re-tested to the nth degree. (See #1 about what constitutes scientific evidence.) It's tiresome, but these issues keep cropping up, so there should be a ScienceBlogs "basics" post about it.
8. Phase transitions/molecular structure. What's important here is how changes in temperature and pressure can have transformative effects on things, and how materials derive their properties (including "phase") from how their atoms are arranged. Again, we see these kinds of things on a daily basis: anyone who's tried to bake a cake at high altitudes has experienced how changes in pressure and temperature can affect a substance. But if you're compiling a bunch of posts on the basics, I don't see how this could be left out. Materials physics is central to pretty much all of modern technology, after all.
9. A primer on accelerators. I'm not trying to single out one field of physics above all the others, but accelerator physics has been in the news quite a bit of late, and with the LHC beginning operation soon, it's going to continue to be in the news. And the news isn't always positive; note my comment above concerning the mini-black-hole hysteria. That sort of public "concern" stems from an incomplete understanding of what's going on, but there's so much basic physics that has to be grasped first before it's even possible to have a helpful discussion of why such a thing is incredibly unlikely. Most people can readily grasp the "smashing atoms" part, and Joanne at Cosmic Variance recently wrote an excellent post on Detectors 101 that makes for a handy supplement to any primer on accelerator physics. But -- and this gets back to the scale and sizing thing -- it's not apparent to the average non-scientist that what might seem like a fairly small amount of energy at the macroscale becomes significant when compressed into a tine subatomic particle like the top quark, so an explanation of why this is so would be helpful. And it's not clear to most non-scientists why size matters when it comes to how long black holes can hang around before evaporating out of existence.
10. Connecting the dots.I've had several conversations with Future Spouse about the need to make crucial connections between the various areas of physics. The concepts outlined in 1-9 above don't exist independently of each other in a vacuum; they are part of a seamless whole that, taken together, provides a reasonably elegant explanation of how the world works, why some things can happen, and other things can't. Case in point: Future Spouse likes to point out that understanding that, in order for a perpetual motion machine to exist, it must violate not just thermodynamics, but several other major physics theories as well, drives the point home that much more forcefully. And he's quite right about that.
Some of the above might strike scientists as ridiculously simple, hardly worth the trouble of a post, while others might seem a bit too complex to be considered among the "basics." Nonetheless, I believe they're all concepts that even reasonably science-literate people tend to think they know more deeply than they really do. So a clear, careful explication of each of them, maintained in one handy spot at ScienceBlogs would help John/Jane Q. Public better navigate the trickier waters of advanced ideas that s/he encounters.
I'd like to close with a reality check. Every scientific field has its own Top Ten list of fundamental concepts, so it's not just grasping the physics outlined above, but also concepts in genomics, biology, chemistry, and every other discipline, which is one reason why the ScienceBlogs project is so badly needed. We live in the Information Age, and it's easy to get bogged down with Information Overload; so we're asking rather a lot of John/Jane Q. Public, the majority of whom don't seem to be learning the basics in their journey through our educational system.
I'm not condoning willfull ignorance, mind you, but we're up against a formidable challenge, and it's best to face the harsh reality head on. There is one hell of a communication gap between scientists and the general public, and we're not going to bridge it in one fell swoop, particularly when there is so much other information out there competing for their attention. The basic concepts series at ScienceBlogs is a terrific start, but the challenge of educating and reaching out to the public never ends.