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Gosh I wish I'd heard this. I'd have been weeping for joy. Of course, it's preaching to the converted, since this is a long running discussion between us, but really scientists have got to stop treating science like a sacred text that only a few privileged people can understand--or stop bitching and moaning about how no one understands science.

I've been a longtime fan of Margaret Wertheim, having discovered her book Pythagoras' Trousers in the window of a bookshop in Christchurch, New Zealand six months after I left physics. It explained a lot of things to me about my perception of the culture of physics that I hadn't noticed as being particular to physics because I grew up Catholic and was therefore immersed in that patriarchal culture to begin with.

I hadn't realized that physics wasn't so much in opposition to the religion but rather had sprung from the same root. As I remember from when I last reread the book a couple of years back, the motivation to understand the cosmos came from the church's desire to discover the divine plan which was embodied in the symmetries and mathematical precision of the church.

Anyway, I enjoyed the lecture, too, and I went up afterwards as a babbling fan and we exchanged cards! So cool!

All for communicating science here. But not at any price. Maybe the paradox is not resolvable, to appreciate the current advances in science *requires* a lot of background. It's not possible to communicate them without that background, one can tell people *about* them but then onemust ask them for that leap of faith: "I can't explain it to you in simple words but believe me it's true, if you spend a couple of years studying you'll see it as clear as day!"*.
Writing for the beginner (talking physics only) it would be appropriate to start with Newtonian mechanics. A subject that is fascinating, if one is into abstract thinking, but not at all sexy.

As for more abstract thinking at early and all ages, hell yeah! I have met people who hated maths until they took a course at college level and the abstract ideas were not just implicitly assumed as in high-school but actually the topic of investigation and they immediately loved it. It's not for everyone, but I'm sure it would reach a lot more people.

* As the joke goes:
In his lecture, ** formulated a theorem simply stating: "The proof is obvious". Seeing the puzzled faces of his students he stopped, looked at the theorem again and started pacing back and forth.Finally after ten minutes of deliberation he started to smile turn to the students and declared: "Indeed, it IS obvious!"

You're misreading my post if you think I'm advocating communication at any cost. I'm saying you give them a little bit of the science at a time (NOT just Newtonian mechanics, c'mon, don't kill their enthusiasm outright!), with the understanding that you can wean them, little by little, to a deeper, more complex understanding over time -- but you've got to reach them in the first place, and under the current model, we're NOT readhing them.

It's equally counter-productive to assume such people are stupid just because they haven't spent years amassing lots of scientific facts and learning about theories. And it's VERY unfair to ask them to take a "leap of faith" and just trust you. How does THAT develop critical thinking? It's infantalizing. You're advocating for the role of a sterm parent or other authority figure who answers a curious child's questions with "Because I said so," and "Just trust me, that's how it is."

Seriously -- don't we WANT people to think for themselves? In order to foster that, people have to be free to misunderstand, to make mistakes. That's how real learning happens.

The paradox mentioned by fh is very real, and extraordinarily frustrating. The "problem" is not that scientists expect readers to think to little, but that we can expect them to think too much, and are concerned that if the explanation is over-simplified, audience members will draw incorrect conclusions. If we thought the audience were simply stupid, this wouldn't be much of a worry. It's the smart, interested audience members that draw perfectly reasonable conclusions out of simplified explanations that are the worry. This concern isn't just idle fantasy; many of the strange things people believe about, for example, quantum mechanics and relativity, are reasonable conclusions that can be drawn from popularizations of these topics. One shouldn't fault either the audience or the popularizers here; the audience is doing the best it can with the information given, and I doubt it is possible to provide explanations so good that this won't happen.

Any smart person will draw conclusions, but the ability to draw correct conclusions is hard, and understaning the material well enough to do it takes real work. I had a professor who kept this quote on his whiteboard:
"If you cannot create it, you do not understand it."
This goes nicely with the common intro lament:
"I understand the material, I just can't do the problems."
Doing the problems is the most important part of learning science; it's how you know if you have understood it.

While focusing on Newtonian physics may be taking things to a bit of an extreme for, say, a magazine columnist, a shift in emphasis in the choice of topic is the best approach to this problem I can think of. Instead of aiming at the modern cutting edge of research, which is often the modern cutting edge precisely because it is the hardest to understand, aim at the basic science applied "close to home:" back yard (or neighborhood park) biology, kitchen chemistry, naked eye or binocular astronomy, and other topics which encourage the reader to actually observe.

Should we give up on explaining advanced stuff? Of course not. Thinking very carefully about how we might be misinterpreted is essential, though.

Sing it, sister!

The Daily Show does an excellent job of conveying real news - and in some cases makes more complex points than regular news programs. And it reaches an audience that typically doesn't weatch network news - by being entertaining.

Hard? You bet, which is why there aren't dozens of Daily Shows.

But do we need similar approaches in science! At the risk of tooting my own horn, a friend posted some clips of my Physics of Superheroes talk on YouTube. The clip where I describe Impulse and Momentum, and show how these concepts account for how airbags save lives, has been very popular. I think that's because I present this information in the context of Amazing Spider-Man # 121, the famous issue concerning the Death of Gwen Stacy, Spidey's girlfriend.

This clip has been viewed over 60,000 times. That is, in my day job as a mild-mannered physics professor, it would take me over 30 years, teaching 2000 students a year (and even at Minnesota, are classes aren't that large) to reach the same number of people that this clip has in under six months time.

You can have the most accurate physics explanation in the world. If no one is listening - does it make a sound?

After I first lectured at the US summer school for graduate students in theoretical particle physics (TASI), I produced a written version of the lectures for the proceedings, as is standard protocol. Later, I received a copy of my lectures, in the mail, in an anonymous vanilla envelop. Every single grammatical error was underlined and highlighted in red ink. All I could do was wonder who had the time....

As for explaining scientific concepts, my theory is that if you can't explain a concept simply, in ordinary language, then you don't really understand it to begin with.

I am one of those people who writes to authors to let them know about errors because they drive me batty. I hope that they will fix the errors in the next edition of the book (or revise the web page). It really bugs me when I'm reading and some random fact just doesn't seem right. I'll go look it up to make sure that I wasn't mistaken and then note it at the back of the book. If there are too many errors, I'll just stop reading. If it is a web page or article I may never go back to the original article but instead I'll read about the topic somewhere else.

One thing that Jennifer and JoAnne should realize is that they are asking readers to trust them to present a subject in an unbiased and factual manner. If there are little errors in things that I know about, then I start to question the validity of things that I don't know about. That is precisely the reason I let my subscription to Scientific American lapse and why I've never subscribed to Discover.

I appreciate it when writers simplify things for me but there is a big difference between over-simplifying and getting things wrong.

By the way, I like it when readers of my manuals call in with questions or suggest improvements. It means that they have actually read the manual. I figure that if it was confusing to them then there are other people who didn't call in who are just as confused.

fh: the only people who can legitimately ask for a leap of faith are theologians. I mean, wasn't that what the whole Age of Reason was all about? No more leaps of faith? Everything subject to reasoning? You can't have it both ways. That's just setting up science's "scripture" in the place of theology, and with less moral authority.
Hildaur's complaint that people think too much and will therefore misinterpret the material is an inevitable part of learning, indeed, of experimentation itself. The job of science communicators is to keep a dialogue open to counter those misinterpretations, not just to say, "well, it's too complex for you to understand." As JoAnne says, unless you can explain a concept in simple language, i.e., teach it, you do not really understand it. That's true of anything from Shakespeare's plays to general relativity. The amount of work required to explain the concepts, however, is what varies from subject to subject. And JScarry, all I can say is that there is a very fine line between the demand for more detail and nit-picking. One must always consider the audience the piece was written for. You may not be a member of that subset.

I have an example in my IN box of a problem with simplification and misunderstanding. The ironic thing is that the simplification was really made as a gee-whiz cool thing for physicists, not as a way of making the subject simpler for lay people. This example came up in a question and followups to our Ask a High-Energy Astrophysicist website.

Richard Feynmann in his lectures popularized the idea of relativistic mass. This was really to point out how cool it was to still be able to write E = mc^2 when E was the total energy. He was not the first or only one, but one of the most influential. He, of course, and many of his primary audience of Caltech students (really mostly grad students and faculty), understood that so-called relativistic mass was the time component of the mass-energy 4-vector, but the real mass was the magnitude of the whole vector. For the rest of us, it has led to confusion. People think, as my correspondent did (past tense, I hope) that some fast-moving object will gravitate more, for example, or will act as if it was more dense, because they have heard, "Mass increases with speed!" I far prefer Taylor and Wheeler's emphasis (e.g. "Spacetime Physics").

Other simplified treatments of various subjects are made with the intention of communicating to lay people (non-majors, poets, politicians, whatever). I think simplified is great, so long as simplified does not mean wrong. Unfortunately, it often does. This is sometimes only in the detail, and only gets a specialist exercised. Sometimes, however, it is more fundamental. That is always bad. And then sometimes, similarly to above, it is not wrong, but can be easily misconstrued. So, for simplifiers: Please be careful. I hope that besides just chuckling at the apparently hypercritical reviewer, you actually checked out their list of suggested mistakes, and made corrections where necessary.

At some point, you do have to take some things on faith. The days are long gone when you could hope to know everything from reading, let alone by your own reasoning and research. We each have to make our own decisions in whom and when to place that faith, and realize that whoever it is, they will occasionally be wrong, incomplete, or misunderstood. I look at popularization of science partly as educational attempts to help people develop reasoning skills, partly as entertainment, and partly as encouragement to people to make scientists among the ones they put their faith in.

I'm a white male over 40. I give astronomy talks regularly. But i also have a 10 year old, who'll be facing MEEP tests in science soon. What to do? Kitchen science. Balls rolling down inclines. Basic math. I like this idea of crystalography with paper.

For the early science student, what they really need is a framework into which to pour the rest of science. But, it needs to be exciting and memorable. For exciting, one can use the experiment. For memorable, one needs a story.

For a start on arithmetic see this:

Very nice post, and good observations about science writing. Also, let's not put down Newtonian mechanics, it can be *very* exciting...Sure, the Standard Model is "sexy", but it won't help you put a spacecraft in orbit, whether it's Cassini about Saturn or a DirecTV satellite around Earth!


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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.