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If only physicists talk about physics, only physicists will care about physics. It will remain an obscure, esoteric, unpopular, geeky subject, and we'll continue to have presidents who can't pronounce nuclear and think science is something they can "spin" like one of Dick Cheney's offhand remarks. Experts in any field tend to bog non-experts down in detail that isn't necessary for a general understanding of a topic. The general public doesn't ask questions about quantum mechanics so they can go home and duplicate the experiments. They want to know what it means for them; i.e., what's the use of dark energy if I can't plug my TV into it? Two groups of people are really good at communicating at this level: teachers and writers. Not researchers. So let the teachers and writers do their jobs, and let the researchers pop up with clarifications when necessary.

I think that some technical people are so detail-oriented that they miss the point. I used to be critical of "watered down" explanations when I was still a hard-core geek, so I understand the mentality. It comes from a judgemental side of me that hid behind science as a protective shield when I didn't fit in with the kids in school. I later grew to be more considerate and empathetic and now I'm all for popularizing science because we definitely need a heck of a lot more science literacy in the general public. And if you throw too much jargon and too many equations at people at once, that will certainly scare them off. Heck, I studied physics quite deeply in my time and even I don't want to have to cram to read a book outside of my former specialty!

As you've seen on my website--thanks for the link, by the way!--I am definitely having fun with physics. And I am definitely looking forward to picking up your book! This is the sort of outreach we need.

Seeing how boring the average physics paper is, maybe we physicists ought to be happy that someone who actually knows how to write cares to join us at the table!

Thanks to everyone weighing in with comments, emails, etc. of support. Even Jen-Luc Piquant got a little "verklempt" at the outpouring. The whole blog thing is new to me, but I'm finding it's a wonderfully welcoming community, filled with kindred spirits I might never have known about otherwise. [Ya'll should definitely check out Kristin's radioactive banana site, among the other links...]

FYI, I'm scheming with some cohorts at APS and AIP to develop some preventive, radio-friendly "talking points" on the ABCs of quantum mechanmics for the neophyte listener. Feel free to post or email your own experiences in trying to communicate difficult, abstract science topics in snappy sound bites. :)

[a bit late jumping in...] IMHO, definitely sit at the table. As a physicist who loves it when curious people talk about physics, I'm more than happy to have you there. In addition, I'm honored by the fact that the American public pays me to explore the universe. Yup. I'm spoiled.

Jen, you commented that the DCP criticized you for somehow fundamentally miscommunicating a critical scientific disticnction. I thought your answer to the inevtiable "So how 'bout that Schroedinger's Cat?" question bridges the gap perfectly between classical, logical thought that the world uses, and the new quantum understandings of reality that only a very few scientists are exploring. Congratulations! Don't change a thing. Don't let the physicists define what you're doing.

MJH is correct. When I finally gritted my teeth, went back and listened to that portion of the interview, I realized that I had not, in fact, said anything "wrong." But because a radio interview is on the fly, I had no way of verifying this when I got the call. My biggest regret is that I simply assumed the caller was right... he wasn't. The thing he took issue with is still a matter of heated debate among physicists.

Lesson learned: stick to my guns and don't automatically assume I've made a mistake because I'm not a PhD physicist....

"But if I waited until I understood every last fine-tuned detail to the nth degree, I'd never write anything. Ever."

I don't know if you see comments to very old posts, but in a fit of insomnia (maybe Monday night?), I went back to February and read all your articles to see what I missed. I've slogged through some blogs out there and have never returned, because the fact is, many are terribly boring. Maybe they are interesting to their friends, colleagues, or whomever, but in the case of science blogs if they are going to be so dull and dry, I might as well be reading science sites--NASA, FermiLab's pages for the public, or Physics 'R Us. ;-) The thought comes to my mind when perusing blogs is, "Why should I care about what YOU have to say?"

You are especially good when you're writing about scientists, and tying together whatever concepts with modern-day examples. (A good analogy can be very powerful!)Many scientists don't care about sharing their knowledge with others, nor are some capable of doing so, and that's fine, but they ought to realize when they do more harm than good and stay out of Q&A business, for instance, and realize when they have effectively dampened a fire in someone's mind.

And oh! I could have used this essay of yours last Saturday night while talking on the phone and reading out loud some hideous replies to a physics question on a particular forum. Not only was this one reply a long, unbroken paragraph, but it talked down to the questioner, had a couple of nonsensical analogies, and some equations not really applicable to the question. It wasn't the first time. Another reply was the standard 'you have to study classical physics before you can grasp QM concepts'...yada, yada. Does PBS add a note before showing "The Elegant Universe" that it is advised that viewers review documentaries on classical physics, general relativity and QM first? At some point if someone wants to get deep enough into physics, they will have to, but Lee's point above is well taken.

I thought, here's this highschooler asking a question--maybe he's just read something and the synapses are firing away--and these people come off as condescending wet rags. They didn't even provide links to helpful sites. I've seen it so many times. Some people seem more intent on impressing their fellow Tribe members and they come off as pontificating curmudgeons. Now, I was talking to a math/engineer person on the phone and he felt that the replies were "elitist," so it wasn't layman's resentment on my part. I also know that there are lurkers out there who are afraid to ask "dumb" questions, even though dumb questions often lead to a much firmer understanding of something (and some people just want to sound out what they've learned to see if their own explanations are correct). If I were a lurker I'd have been very turned off.

I guess what I'm ranting about is that some people just can't communicate physics very well (or care to). When someone comes along that can, correct the errors, but very seldom will an error here or there be the end-all to someone who was not an expert in the first place. If I read your book and decide ooh, all these scientists and their experiments sound so intriguing, I'm going to read all their biographies, etc, etc, the little error will be long forgotten. I'm going to remember, oh, it was Jennifer who inspired me to get into this subject matter--she's right this is fascinating.

Case in point for me personally: I went to Phil Plait's site for moon hoax info, then started reading the astronomy stuff and such, thought he was a likeable writer, and here we are almost two years later more aware of what the latest satellite is doing, and two astronomy subscriptions to boot. (I have the 1980 hardcover of "Cosmos," where did that interest disappear to?)

Too, many of his board members are older, non-college educated people (voters, no less). So, there's something to be said about writing style and connecting with laypersons. More power to you!

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    Physics Cocktails

    • Heavy G
      The perfect pick-me-up when gravity gets you down.
      2 oz Tequila
      2 oz Triple sec
      2 oz Rose's sweetened lime juice
      7-Up or Sprite
      Mix tequila, triple sec and lime juice in a shaker and pour into a margarita glass. (Salted rim and ice are optional.) Top off with 7-Up/Sprite and let the weight of the world lift off your shoulders.
    • Listening to the Drums of Feynman
      The perfect nightcap after a long day struggling with QED equations.
      1 oz dark rum
      1/2 oz light rum
      1 oz Tia Maria
      2 oz light cream
      Crushed ice
      1/8 tsp ground nutmeg
      In a shaker half-filled with ice, combine the dark and light rum, Tia Maria, and cream. Shake well. Strain into an old fashioned glass almost filled with crushed ice. Dust with the nutmeg, and serve. Bongos optional.
    • Combustible Edison
      Electrify your friends with amazing pyrotechnics!
      2 oz brandy
      1 oz Campari
      1 oz fresh lemon juice
      Combine Campari and lemon juice in shaker filled with cracked ice. Shake and strain into chilled cocktail glass. Heat brandy in chafing dish, then ignite and pour into glass. Cocktail Go BOOM! Plus, Fire = Pretty!
    • Hiroshima Bomber
      Dr. Strangelove's drink of choice.
      3/4 Triple sec
      1/4 oz Bailey's Irish Cream
      2-3 drops Grenadine
      Fill shot glass 3/4 with Triple Sec. Layer Bailey's on top. Drop Grenadine in center of shot; it should billow up like a mushroom cloud. Remember to "duck and cover."
    • Mad Scientist
      Any mad scientist will tell you that flames make drinking more fun. What good is science if no one gets hurt?
      1 oz Midori melon liqueur
      1-1/2 oz sour mix
      1 splash soda water
      151 proof rum
      Mix melon liqueur, sour mix and soda water with ice in shaker. Shake and strain into martini glass. Top with rum and ignite. Try to take over the world.
    • Laser Beam
      Warning: may result in amplified stimulated emission.
      1 oz Southern Comfort
      1/2 oz Amaretto
      1/2 oz sloe gin
      1/2 oz vodka
      1/2 oz Triple sec
      7 oz orange juice
      Combine all liquor in a full glass of ice. Shake well. Garnish with orange and cherry. Serve to attractive target of choice.
    • Quantum Theory
      Guaranteed to collapse your wave function:
      3/4 oz Rum
      1/2 oz Strega
      1/4 oz Grand Marnier
      2 oz Pineapple juice
      Fill with Sweet and sour
      Pour rum, strega and Grand Marnier into a collins glass. Add pineapple and fill with sweet and sour. Sip until all the day's super-positioned states disappear.
    • The Black Hole
      So called because after one of these, you have already passed the event horizon of inebriation.
      1 oz. Kahlua
      1 oz. vodka
      .5 oz. Cointreau or Triple Sec
      .5 oz. dark rum
      .5 oz. Amaretto
      Pour into an old-fashioned glass over (scant) ice. Stir gently. Watch time slow.