Tag Archives: Public Outreach

An Excellent Intro To Physical Science

On a recent plane ride, I was able to catch an episode of the new PBS series Genius by Stephen Hawking. I was surprised by the quality of the show and in particular, its emphasis on experiment. Usually, shows like this fall into the trap of giving one the facts (or speculations) without an adequate explanation of how scientists come to such conclusions. However, this one is a little different and there is a large emphasis on experiment, which, at least to me, is much more inspirational.

Here is the episode I watched on the plane:

John Oliver on Science

John Oliver on Last Week Tonight did a bit about how science is represented in the media. It is sad, funny and most of it true. You can watch it here:

Amusingly, he shows a clip of an interview with Brian Nosek, whose work I have discussed in a similar context previously.

Balibar and his Beef with Science Magazine’s Depiction of a BEC

I’m coming to the end of reading Sebastian Balibar’s physics book (intended for a general audience) entitled The Atom and the Apple. Thematically, the book works by asking a basic question at the beginning of each chapter and seeing the wondrous science that has to be understood to answer such a basic question. The author pulls on a dangling thread and watches entire garments unravel. The book is interspersed with personal anecdotes, which gives the physics some semblance of humanity.

Just to whet your appetite a little, let me recount one of the amusing stories Balibar relays. In 1995, following the discovery of Bose-Einstein Condensation by the Colorado and MIT groups, Science had the following image on the cover (sorry, I couldn’t find a large picture in color anywhere, it’s supposed to be primarily blue if that helps). It shows marching soldiers, a supposed metaphor for BEC.


Balibar takes issue with this representation and goes onto say about the cover:

No, what bothered me was actually that march—those orderly
troops. True, I had bad memories of my own experiences with military marches. Before May 1968, the hierarchy at the École Polytechnique had little patience for the antics of its rebel students, and my deviance had cost me fifteen days in prison and gotten me barred from marching with my fellow students on the Champs Élysées. But regardless of these youthful memories, I saw in that march of atoms a basic error of interpretation as to what the recently discovered “Bose-Einstein” condensation was. The order of the actual condensate seemed radically different to me from the regimentation depicted on the magazine cover.
The artist at Science hadn’t just dreamt up this march all by him or herself, though: the military analogy had been hanging around in the public scientific discourse for a long time. Nevertheless, in becoming famous, this image threatened to distort the understanding of the discovery. I intended to denounce it firmly.

What Balibar had in mind about BEC is much more accurately depicted in this great little video.

The book also has some anecdotes about the history and controversy surrounding the Nobel Prizes awarded for superfluidity in liquid helium-4 among many other interesting historical detours. The discussion on radioactivity is also noteworthy. This charming little book is written with an approach that I feel more popular physics books should take, or Balibar could write a couple more himself.

Condensed Matter Physics in the Eyes of the Public: A Note from N.P. Armitage

Note: This post is actually a comment on Jennifer Oullette’s blog Cocktail Party Physics. It was in response to a post about why particle physics tends to generate more wonder and hype in the eyes of the media and public at large compared to condensed matter physics. The comment was originally posted in 2006 by N. P. Arimtage, but it still rings true today. I reprint it below:

Nuestra culpa. You’re right, Jennifer. We condensed matter physicists (henceforth CMP) have not been good with providing a compelling narrative for our research. There may be many reasons for this, but I believe it comes in part from a misconception of how we should sell ourselves to the public (and thereby funding agencies).

As a field we can be justifiably proud to have discovered the physics that led to the transistor, NMR, superconducting electronics etc etc. But this boon has also been a curse. It has made us lazy and has stifled our capacity to think creatively about outreach in areas where we don’t have the crutch of technological promise to fall back on.

This is a luxury our cosmology colleagues don’t have. They feel passionately about their research and they have to (get to?) convey that passion to the public (with predictably good results). We feel passionately about our research, but then feel compelled to tell boring stories about this or that new technology we might develop (which predictably elicits yawns and perhaps only a mental note to take advantage of said technology when it is available in Ipod form). We do this because we are bred and raised to think that technological promise is a somehow more legitimate motivation to the outside public than genuine fundamental scientific interest. It doesn’t have to be this way.

Due to our tremendous technological successes there is also the feeling then that at some level ALL our work should touch on technology. This is the easy strategy, but ultimately it hasn’t been good for the health of the field. This is because, for many of us, technology isn’t our passion and it shows. Moreover, the research or aspect of research that has the greatest chance of evoking feelings of real awe and wonderment is typically the precise research that has the least chance of creating viable products. Perhaps this last statement is one regarding human nature itself.

This current modus operadi has lead to 3 things:

-A marginalization of some of the most exciting research (which may have no even tenuous connection to commercialization).

-Big promises about technological directions when it isn’t warranted. And then consequences when results fail to live up to prognostications.

-And most relevant for the current discussion, a lack of focus at and practice on evoking awe and wonderment.

It is telling that virtually every Phys Rev Focus (short news release-style blurbs from the American Physical Society on notable discoveries) on CMP ends with a sentence or two about what technological impact said discovery will have. Sometimes these connections are tenuous at best. Obviously there is no similar onus in articles on cosmology and so those Focuses can focus on what it is that really excites the researchers (instead of the tenuous backstory technological connection). This is nothing against Phys. Rev. Focus, but serves to illustrate the prevailing philosophy in public outreach. The “public” can tell when we’re bluffing and they certainly can feel passion or lack thereof.

The reality is that many of us in CMP don’t have the inclination or interest to ‘make’ anything at all. For instance, we may pursue novel states of matter at low temperature and consider the concept of emergence and the appearance of collective effects to be just as fundamental and irreducible as anything in string theory. We should promote what excites us in the manner that it excites us.

The research that Jennifer cites on graphene is a case in point. Yes, perhaps (but perhaps not) there is technological promise in graphene, but there is also a remarkable (and awe inspiring) fundamental side as well. Here we believe that the electrons in graphene are described by the same formalism that applies to the relativistic particles of the Dirac equation. One can simulate the rich structure of elementary particle physics in a table top experiment! I would posit that this kind of thing is much more likely to provoke enthusiasm from the public at large then any connection to graphene as yet another possible material in new computing devices.

Our cosmology and particle physics colleagues are raised academically to believe that knowledge for knowledge’s sake is a good thing. By and large they do a wonderful job of conveying these ideas to the general public. Although we believe the same thing, we CMP have presented ourselves not as people who also have access to wild and wonderful things, but as people who are discovering stuff to make stuff. We have that, but there is so so much more. We need a new business model and a new narrative.

Merchants of Doubt

I watched a documentary yesterday entitled Merchants of Doubt, which is based on a non-fictional book by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway. It centers around public relations (PR) specialists who play “experts” on TV, radio and other forms of media. These PR specialists are hired by corporations (e.g. ExxonMobil, Philip Morris, etc.) to undermine scientific consensus in the public domain in a field of study where they have no formal expertise.

For instance, Philip Morris would hire many of these specialists to appear on TV as “authorities” to convince the public that there was no scientific consensus regarding the health effects of tobacco. When pitted against actual scientific experts on TV, these “authorities” are often aggressive and argumentative, thereby seeming to subvert the scientist’s message in the eyes of the public.

One of the most startling revelations from this documentary (at least to me), was the role played by two prominent physicists, Fred Singer and Frederick Seitz. Both physicists have aided in legitimizing the claims against anthropogenic climate change. Strangely, both figures had also played a role “in helping the tobacco industry produce uncertainty concerning the health impacts of smoking”. According to Wikipedia, Singer has also publicly questioned “the link between UV-B and melanoma rates, and that between CFCs and stratospheric ozone loss”.

Clearly, for these two physicists, there is a political element to these decisions, which cannot be based on sound scientific reasoning. It is deeply disturbing for me to know that the building in which I have worked for the previous few years, the Frederick Seitz Materials Research Laboratory, while an historic research facility, is named after a man who has purposefully eroded the public’s trust in the scientific consensus on anthropogenic climate change (paywall).

Neil deGrasse Tyson on NASA Funding

I reiterate a previous post about scientific public intellectuals. There are few scientists as impassioned, articulate and persuasive as Neil deGrasse Tyson as evidenced by this short clip:

Let me also quote his inspirational testimony in front of the United States Senate:

The 2008 bank bailout of $750 billion was greater than all the money NASA had received in its half-century history.

Battle of the Public Physicists

At the present time, there are a few (still living) people who represent the physics community in the eyes of the English-speaking public. The most popular are probably the following (in no particular order):

  1. Neil DeGrasse Tyson
  2. Michio Kaku
  3. Brian Greene
  4. Stephen Hawking
  5. Sean Carroll
  6. Bill Nye

There wasn’t a particular order, but Neil Degrasse Tyson, for me, is definitely #1. This is partly because of his central role in the remake of the popular educational series Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey With Neil deGrasse Tyson Revealed. The other traits that make him stand out among the others are: (a) he is a gifted, articulate public speaker, (b) he engages with comedians, pop stars, etc. on his podcast Star Talk in good humor unlike any other physicist can, and (c) he is not (or at least less) biased toward one particular subfield of physics. These traits are also shared by Bill Nye, though I would argue that Tyson is a more eloquent orator.

Michio Kaku is almost disingenuous in his attempts to draw in the public, marketing lofty ideas without concrete scientific backing. My criticisms of Brian Greene, Sean Carroll and Stephen Hawking, is that they are scientists first, and public engagement is a side-project to them. Of course this is in no way a true criticism, but when it comes to representing a field in the eyes of the public, I believe that Tyson has it won because he is willing to engage with others in topics outside his field of study. In his podcast, Tyson even goes so far as to talk about the origins of salt as well as the art of how to make a good wine.

More bluntly put, Neil Degrasse Tyson represents the different facets of physics much better than any high-energy or string theorist could, because they have nothing to say about my particular field of study, condensed matter physics (which incidentally is the largest subfield of physics). Tyson does not sell to the public any unverified theories (including string theory), but just sticks to what we know to be the best theories in describing the physical world. I would like to see him speak more about superconductivity, superfluidity and Bose-Einstein condensation every once in a while, but no one is perfect!  Jokes aside, I am proud to have Tyson representing our field in the eyes of the public, and I hope that he keeps the baton for many years to come.