Margaret Wertheim is my new personal hero. She's the author of Pythagoras' Trousers: God, Physics and the Gender Wars, among other things, and she gave a terrific lunchtime talk today at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) meeting here in San Francisco, calling for some radical changes in existing strategies for communicating science (all in a charming Australian accent). It's a familiar, well-worn issue, but Wertheim has a take that resonates at the same frequency as my own thoughts on bringing science to a much broader audience. Ergo, she is a true Sister in Solidarity, and I really must get around to reading the aforementioned book, which has been languishing on my "To Read" shelf for the last six months. (No slight to Wertheim -- I've just been too busy to read much of anything of late.)
Specifically, Wertheim maintains that much of the focus in scientific communication is on the transmitter (scientists and public information officers, for example), but the question of who is actually receiving this information tends to be ignored. Hence the title of her talk: "Who is science writing for?" If the numbers are to be believed, science writing is predominantly for prosperous, well-educated, white males over 40 with healthy incomes who already have a solid foundation in science. That didn't come as a great shock to me. What was a shock was just how disproportionate the readership numbers really are for the top eight science magazines in the country.
Wertheim took the trouble to gather the actual circulation numbers and readership demographics from those leading science magazines (which carefully track such things because those numbers impact their advertising revenue): Popular Science, Scientific American, Discover, Wired, Natural History, Science News, Astronomy, and Science. (SEED is a relative newcomer to the market, and Wertheim's data is from 2002.) Taken together, these publications reach about 21 million Americans every year. Seventy-eight percent of them are men; 21.8% are women. Median ages range from 41 to 49. The high end of that range belongs to Scientific American, which is actually very good news for them, since it wasn't so long ago that their median readers' age was 62. (No doubt there are some grumpy old-timers still out there complaining about the overhaul of the magazine to target a younger demographic.) The audience demographic numbers for radio and TV science are less readily available, but Wertheim asserts that the same trends are evident there as well.
Arguably, 21 million people reading about science on a regular basis is nothing to sneeze at, but the gender divide is nonetheless distressing -- even more so when one considers that the top eight leading women's magazines combined reach as many as 70 million readers (one assumes most of those are women). Cultural gender stereotypes and social conditioning once again rear their ugly heads. So Wertheim set out to reach those readers, writing a regular science and technology column for Vogue Australia, something she describes as "one of the hardest things I've ever done." It required capturing and holding the readers' attention -- no small feat when the competition is a shocking photo of Britney Spears' newly shaved head -- as well as explaining the science science in the simplest possible terms while using no jargon, and doing it all in 900 words or less.
I feel her pain, particularly since she has experienced the same kind of criticism frequently lobbed at my two books: that the science is simplified far too much, making it inaccurate, potentially misleading, and downright insulting to the reader's intelligence. In fact, one retired scientist sent in a 21-page letter detailing every instance in Black Bodies and Quantum Cats where he perceived there to be a misleading or inaccurate or incomplete statement -- including the Preface and Acknowledgements. (You heard me: he claimed to have found errors in the acknowledgments. Jen-Luc Piquant wonders why he didn't just write his own book in the six months it took to compile his list of my alleged writerly sins.) This might be because I lack a science degree, and am quite open about my former English major background; I might as well just plaster a "Kick Me" sign on my back. But Wertheim holds degrees in both math and physics. This still didn't save her from being bawled out by a prominent scientist for eliding over what he felt was a crucial point in an article she'd written in The New York Times. Imagine what he would have said about the pieces she wrote for women's magazines. (I can't believe she convinced Vogue Australia to run such a column in the first place -- a truly impressive achievement.)
Invariably, these criticisms come from older white males with strong backgrounds in science, and they object the most strenuously to simplification of their particular area of preferred knowledge or expertise (where they clearly have a lot invested emotionally). Again, there's nothing surprising about this. That's the traditional demographic for popular science books, you see; and it's also the predominant demographic for the hard sciences, like physics. But those critics completely miss the point, because they're operating in an outdated paradigm. What about all those potential readers who are interested in science but, to cite Wertheim's example, couldn't get past Chapter 1 of A Brief History of Time? Who is writing for them?
These are the people that science writing forgot, but if we're truly serious about communicating science to a general audience, we've got to bring it down to their level. They won't come to us -- I know tons of highly intelligent, well-educated people, of both genders, who would rather be tortured than pick up a popular physics book -- so we must go to them. We need every weapon in the arsenal to do this. More importantly, says Wertheim, we can't just rattle off easy answers; we must provide the broader context, helping them to see why a particular question matters enough for scientists to spend countless hours and millions of dollars to find the answer. Amen. Speak it, sister!
I try to provide a broader context by weaving in pop culture, history, literature, sports, and personal anecdotes to illustrate science. In addition to her stories for women's magazines and mainstream publications like the Los Angeles Times and LA Weekly, Wertheim founded The Institute for Figuring. It doesn't have much of a physical home: she runs the operation out of her living room. But its activities are very real indeed, including publications, lectures, and museum exhibitions aimed at a broad general audience. For instance, they've sponsored public lectures on the physics of snowflakes (which I blogged about here), tiling and tesselation, knot theory, and the mathematics of paper folding.
The IFF also developed a museum exhibit on the Invention of Kindergarten. It was supposedly was invented by a 19th century German crystallographer -- I didn't catch his name -- around 1850, and featured activities such as paper cutting and folding to rigorously demonstrate abstract geometrical concepts with roots in crystallography. That German scientist believed kids were perfectly capable of understanding abstract ideas -- more so than adults. "Nowadays one must go to grad school to learn about abstraction," Wertheim noted. Not surprisingly, the children from that model, which dominated Europe until 1900, grew up to become innovative scientists like Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, as well as pioneers of the modern art movement, such as Paul Klee and Piet Mondrian.
Most recently, Wertheim has been working on a project to create a crocheted coral reef -- a miniature replica of Australia's Great Barrier Reef, which is in serious danger of extinction within 30 years. It turns out that many marine creatures exhibit some form of hyperbolic structure, since they need to maximize their surface area in a very small volume. (A woman named Daina Taimina came up with the first crochet models for hyperbolic space, but nature has been doing it for hundreds of millions of years.) What I found interesting about Wertheims' description is how a slight change in the code for a basic hyperbolic structure will cause it to evolve into ever-more complex beautiful shapes. It's a point she's been able to communicate quite well to women of all ages who show up to learn how to crochet a sea anemone and pick up a bit of geometry in the process. Placing a daunting topic -- hyperbolic geometry -- into a familiar, non-threatening context, made the subject matter more palatable to them, and also helped them retain that new knowledge.
It's only fitting that I also managed to catch a clip of the forthcoming public television special on Absolute Zero: The Conquest of Cold, based on the book of the same name by Tom Shachtman. "History continues to be alive in low-temperature physics," Shachtman insists, and the clip he showed illustrates that perfectly. Among other colorful personalities, we heard about Cornelius Drebbel, court magician to King James I, who attempted to air-condition Westminster Cathedral way back in 1620. But the focus of the clip was on James Dewar's race to become the first to liquefy hydrogen -- only to lose the race to liquefy helium to Dutch scientist Heiki Kamerlingh Onnes, who won the coveted Nobel Prize instead. I especially loved the re-enactments of Dewar's famous Royal Academy lectures on low-temperature physics.
The two-part film is slated to air on England's BBC this spring, and on PBS in the US later this year (June or November). Of course, if the audience follows the established statistical trends, only educated white males over 40 will be watching. But I'd like to think that there'll be plenty of women watching as well. Certainly I'll be tuning in....