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« the importance of being nitpicky | Main | behind the physics »


Since you are a science writer I wonder if you can explain this to me: why are members of the public, high school kids & teachers interested in "An Evening of String Theory and Cosmology", possibly two of the most inaccessible and mathematically demanding topics in physics?

I'd love to attribute this attention to general appreciation of physics, but I don't see a similar interest in, say, fluid dynamics or electromagnetic induction. People are just not equally curious about subjects like acoustics or optics, even though they are much more useful to people sans PhD's. Feynman writes in "Surely you're joking, Mr.Feynman" how his curiosity in the wobbling plates at the cafeteria eventually led him to his Nobel prize. How could so many be fascinated by black holes, but not at all by wobbling plates?

I have two theories. Either those people are singing "if I can't have you, string theory, I don't want nobody baby" and ignore/downplay other subjects in physics (thermodynamics is just too hard to study to be worth a damn), or they expect these 'sexy' topics to bless them like a magic wand or a religious artifact.

"A lay audience" of a talk on string theory is surely heartwarmingly cute, but frankly I'd be much happier if they knew nothing about it, but when asked why there are titanium golfclubs, try to learn what's so special about titanium.

I find that I get a lot of questions about string theory when I mention that I'm a physics person. Fortunately, since I was one of the lucky bunch who got to take Barton Zwiebach's "string theory for undergraduates", I was at least reasonably placed to answer them. (Ahem, requisite plug for book: everyone hop over to and at least enjoy the pretty front cover!) My fellow physics majors reported the same general phenomenon: string theory makes people's ears perk up, even that exotic branch of humanity far removed from MIT known as "the Wellesley girl". My theory to explain this goes as follows:

First, the "theory of everything" bit really pulls people in. It has the flavor of the ultimate about it. Second, there is probably a cross-fertilization with various bits of New Age flakiness. Think about it: in string theory, particles emerge as the different vibrational modes of a quantized, relativistic string. I can't help thinking of the goofy voices in Frank Zappa's **Lumpy Gravy**: "It's like it's all one note, man." When you throw out all the math, string theory starts to sound like Bill Hicks's description of the LSD experience: "All matter is merely energy condensed to a slow vibration. . . ."

As a teenager, I was a volunteer guide in a science museum. My experience there makes me think that people don't really consider physics as a thing applicable in daily life: the perception of the field is skewed, so that when you say "science!", the listener naturally thinks of rockets, the Bomb, distant stars and string theory. If we're lucky, somebody will remember a baking-soda-plus-vinegar volcano from a grade-school science fair -- but will they recall why it works or have any thought that the acid-base neutralization reaction can be applied elsewhere?

In fairness, judging by the session attendance at the Dallas meeting, it's not just the public that's fascinated by string theory, cosmology, and dark matter/energy types of Big Questions. Astronomy and cosmology have always had broad appeal. String theory, while difficult, had the advantage of being the subject of a NOVA special and a bestselling book. Ditto for black holes, time travel and similar exotic concepts, which also feature prominently in a lot of science fiction... These all help bring the topics alive in the popular imagination.

It's also often -- not always! -- true that the more mundane aspects of physics are presented in a less flashy or interesting fashion. But it's NOT true that the public has no interest in optics or acoustics. Tie it into something they care about -- like art, photography, concert hall design and the like -- and you'll get their attention and enthusiasm.

And just as a side note, I got into physics through the more mundane, applied side, only moving into the more abstract and exotic theories later on, after getting my feet wet.

There's a couple of prior posts here at CPP that address the issue, and some pretty interesting comments to boot:

It's also worth noting that people hear about science through the news, and what does "news" imply? Novelty, for one thing. Brevity, for another. What comes through the Tube's "science correspondent" is also skewed towards medicine and high-tech, with a bit of astronomy spinkled in for seasoning. How many times have we heard the phrase ". . . may one day lead to a cure for cancer. Now this." Astronomy has the advantage that telescopes give you some darn cool pictures -- the "mediagenic" part is built-in.

In contrast to all this, how many times has the TV newscaster ever said, "Today in classrooms around the world, thousands of students learned the fundamentals of quantum mechanics, a strange and often counter-intuitive science which has nevertheless stood up to the most elaborate scrutiny. . ." Quantum theory tells you how and why electrons move through silicon, which tells you how to "dope" silicon by mixing other elements in, which lets you make microscopic switches, which then make possible the computer chips that govern everything from international finance to teenage sexuality. The modern world would not be possible if somebody along the line hadn't figured out a solid explanation for the atomic-scale behavior of matter. But because the key discoveries aren't "new", they don't become "news". We can't rely upon the information channel designed to feed us "current events" if we want to learn about the well-established scientific findings already being used all over the place.

How many people receive no other view of science? I have the strong feeling this impression -- that science is always tentative, never strongly tested -- is part of the reason why the present-day creationist lobby can get away with chanting, "It's just a theory! It's just a theory!" Scientists know more about many things called "theories" than most parents do about why their daughter is out past midnight, but that's a different rant.

More Feynman, from the introduction to **QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter**.

"What I'd like to talk about is a part of physics that is known, rather than a part that is unknown. People are always asking for the latest developments in the unification of this theory with that theory, and they don't give us a chance to tell them anything about one of the theories that we know pretty well. They always want to know things that we don't know. So, rather than confound you with a lot of half-cooked, partially analyzed theories, I would like to tell you about a subject that has been very thoroughly analyzed. I love this area of physics and I think it's wonderful: it is called quantum electrodynamics, or QED for short."

Here is a horribly long URL pointing to a recording of **The Pleasure of Finding Things Out,** if you need more media to fuel your Feynman fix:

Hi, have you read this article in the NY Times? I think you'll enjoy it. It sounds a lot like what you've been saying on your blog lately. It's about using humor and humanity in science writing. There's also an idea about requiring entertaining sidebars in science journals, which reminded me of your physics essays.

Ants, Better With Dose of Humanity (and Humor)

Why yes, I did notice the Times article, which was also mentioned on today. It definitely cuts to the heart of what I'm trying to do here at Cocktail Party Physics -- and indeed in most of my writing these days. I'm working on a related post today on this very subject that will mention Gorman's excellent piece; look for it tomorrow morning. :) And I just ordered the ant book from AMazon. That's one I surely want to read!

Thanks for the link!

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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.