Tag Archives: Public Outreach

Book Review – The Gene

Following the March Meeting, I took a vacation for a couple weeks, returning home to Bangkok, Thailand. During my holiday, I was able to get a hold of and read Siddhartha Mukherjee’s new book entitled The Gene: An Intimate History.

I have to preface any commentary by saying that prior to reading the book, my knowledge of biology embarrassingly languished at the middle-school level. With that confession aside, The Gene was probably one of the best (and for me, most enlightening) popular science books I have ever read. This is definitely aided by Mukherjee’s fluid and beautiful writing style from which scientists in all fields can learn a few lessons about scientific communication. The Gene is also touched with a humanity that is not usually associated with the popular science genre, which is usually rather dry in recounting scientific and intellectual endeavors. This humanity is the book’s most powerful feature.

Since there are many glowing reviews of the book published elsewhere, I will just list here a few nuggets I took away from The Gene, which hopefully will serve to entice rather than spoil the book for you:

  • Mukherjee compares the gene to an atom or a bit, evolution’s “indivisible” particle. Obviously, the gene is physically divisible in the sense that it is made of atoms, but what he means here is that the lower levels can be abstracted away and the gene is the relevant level at which geneticists work.
    • It is worth thinking of what the parallel carriers of information are in condensed matter problems — my hunch is that most condensed matter physicists would contend that these are the quasiparticles in the relevant phase of matter.
  • Gregor Mendel, whose work nowadays is recognized as giving birth to the entire field of genetics, was not recognized for his work while he was alive. It took another 40-50 years for scientists to rediscover his experiments and to see that he had localized, in those pea plants, the indivisible gene. One gets the feeling that his work was not celebrated while he was alive because his work was far ahead of its time.
  • The history of genetics is harrowing and ugly. While the second World War was probably the pinnacle of obscene crimes committed in the name of genetics, humans seem unable to shake off ideas associated with eugenics even into the modern day.
  • Through a large part of its history, the field of genetics has had to deal with a range of ethical questions. There is no sign of this trend abating in light of the recent discovery of CRISPR/Cas-9 technology. If you’re interested in learning more about this, RadioLab has a pretty good podcast about it.
  • Schrodinger’s book What is Life? has inspired so much follow-up work that it is hard to overestimate the influence it has had on a generation of physicists that transitioned to studying biology in the middle of the twentieth century, including both Watson and Crick.

While I could go on and on with this list, I’ll stop ruining the book for you. I would just like to say that at the end of the book I got the feeling that humans are still just starting to scratch the surface of understanding what’s going on in a cell. There is much more to learn, and that’s an exciting feeling in any field of science.

Aside: In case you missed March Meeting, the APS has posted the lectures from the Kavli Symposium on YouTube, which includes lectures from Duncan Haldane and Michael Kosterlitz among others.

Do you ever get the feeling that…

…when you look at science today that things seem blown way out of proportion?

I get the feeling that many press releases make a big deal out of experiments/theoretical work that are not groundbreaking, are not going to cause an upheaval in anyone’s way of thinking and frankly, are humdrum science (not to diminish the importance of humdrum science!).

In all honesty, really great scientific works are rare and sometimes it takes a long time to recognize the importance of a great leap in understanding. There are many examples of this, but here’s one: Gregor Mendel, who I would refer to as the discoverer of the gene, died before his work was recognized as truly path-breaking, which took about 50 years.

A lot of good science happens all the time, but let’s not kid ourselves — the science is not as revolutionary as a lot of press releases make it seem. Of course, most professional scientists are aware of this, but to the young graduate student and to the public at large, press releases can easily be mistaken for groundbreaking science and often are. How many times have you come across someone from outside of science excited about an article they read online that you know is either extremely speculative or actually pretty mundane? It is hard to respond to reactions like this because you don’t want to dampen someone’s excitement about a subject you care about!

I don’t know what is driving all of this — the media, funding agencies, university rankings or some other metric, but to be perfectly honest, I find much of the coverage on sites like Phys.Org ugly, cynical and detrimental.

While it can be argued that this media coverage does serve some important purpose, it seems to me that this drive to “sell one’s work” may have the adverse effect of exacerbating impostor syndrome (especially among younger colleagues), which is already rampant in physics departments as well as in other academic fields (i.e. you feel like because you need to “sell your work”, and because it gets blown way out of proportion, that you have manipulated people into thinking your work is more important than you really know it to be).

If you just went about your business, trying to do science you think is worthy (without the citation-counting and the excessive media coverage), my guess is science (and more importantly scientists!) would probably be healthier.

I know this viewpoint is pretty one-dimensional and lacks some nuance, so I would like to encourage comments and especially opposing opinions.

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.

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).