no room at the table?

Warpathjenluc_1In an earlier post ("ancora imparo"), I harped on an Apoplectic Physicist who called in during my appearance on a live talk-radio show (KQED-FM in San Francisco). The specific topic at hand was science and religion, but the underlying attitude had to do with whether or not I had any right, as a non-scientist, to talk publicly about physics in the first place. I mentioned that this was an entire post in its own right, figuring (rightly) that the issue would come up again at some point and I could address it in greater detail then.

That time has come. It happened again today, during an hour-long radio interview at WAMU here in DC, with host Kojo Nnamdi. This time the Physicist who called in to complain was not so much Apoplectic as Indignant, or maybe just Deeply Concerned. Basically, he objected to the underlying nuances of my attempted "quick summation" of Schroedinger’s Cat. (Jen-Luc Piquant gets very irate when these things happen; she’s very
protective and loyal. And don’t let that chic black beret fool you —
she’s got a killer left hook.)

The Deeply Concerned Physicist (DCP) was well-meaning, and he had a couple of valid points. I won’t debate the substance of his critique here, partly because I can’t recall what, exactly, I said on the air — I’m way too self-conscious to listen to the tape afterwards — never mind the details of his response, and partly because physicists have been arguing about what constitutes "reality" in the
subatomic realm for decades, and no doubt will continue to do so for decades
more. (In fact, the station forwarded me an email from another physicist who’d tuned in, claiming the DCP erred in his comments, adding, "He should be careful to criticize when he himself is incorrect.") Besides, I have no problem if someone calls in with a correction or clarification of a statement I might make; I’m happy to defer to the experts, so long as they’re polite about it. What I objected to was his insistence that only those with specific expertise (i.e., academic credentials) should publicly write or talk about physics, and that letting a former English major turned science writer chat informally about it on the radio — All by herself! Unchaperoned by her betters! What if she says something wrong? Aieee! — was simply a breeding ground for "misinformation."

Let’s take freedom of speech as a given and just move on. Among other faulty assumptions, he seemed to have mistaken my appearance on an informal call-in radio show — where spontaneity is part of the appeal — for a prepared lecture, or worse, a doctoral candidate’s oral defense exam. It’s not a format that allows you to refine and polish your statements as you could in, say, a book. My book spans 500 years of physics, ranging all over the various subfields, and I never know beforehand what any given person will ask. So inevitably I fumble one or two responses. (Frankly, if a radio guest is too polished, it makes for a rather dreary interview, anyway.) Any off-the-cuff response carries some risk of mis-speaking, particularly on such a complicated (and controversial) topic as quantum mechanics. A physics PhD is no guarantee against this. Knowing more about the intricacies of quantum mechanics may even make it harder to boil down the basics into a snappy one- to two-minute sound bite; the level of discourse quickly becomes far too high for the average listener.

So what if there’s the occasional fumble? It’s hardly the end of civilization as we know it. If we want physics to matter to the general public, it needs to be out there, being debated at all levels of discourse, not just among the experts. This means that yes, at times, there will be errors or gaps in the conversation, places where the concepts get a bit muddied and lack the fine nuance of expert discussions. At least people are engaged and interested in the topic, and physicists can always chime in with their two cents to correct the inevitable misunderstanding or over-simplification. (Helpful hint: it’s best not to call someone stupid when doing so. That’ll quash any nascent interest in physics right there.)

Don’t get me wrong, we should be concerned about misinformation,
and I do my damnedest not to add to the noise, even if I’m not always
successful. But we shouldn’t fret about it to the point where we’re
wringing our hands over every bit of verbal fumbling that takes place. Chances are, it’s not as apocalyptic as we think it is. Even if the DCP’s criticisms were valid, he failed to realize that what to him was a critical scientific (even philosophical) distinction, was utterly lost on 98% of the listeners, most of whom were still trying to get their heads around the basic concepts of quantum cats and the uncertainty principle individually — never mind working through the convoluted intricacies of how they might (or might not) be connected.

I deliberately "outed" myself as a former English major upon publishing the book, because the entire objective of writing it was to make physics accessible to those (like my former self) who are intimidated by it. One way to do that is to show people that even someone with a non-technical background can grasp the basic concepts. After all, the first step is getting people interested in physics; how can they learn if they don’t care about the subject in the first place? And how can we correct advanced "misinformation" when people who haven’t even grasped the basics?

The flip side is that it lessens my status in the eyes of physicists who might not know me, or my work. They hear "English major" and suddenly go on Full Alert — "Not One of Us! Danger, Will Robinson!" — analyzing every sentence or phrase for evidence of my ignorance. Even if I don’t make any outright errors, they will always find some nuance, some awkward juxtaposition, some tiny blurring of the boundaries or fuzziness in my explication — anything they can point to and say, "See? Look at the mess she’s made! This is why only physicists should be allowed to talk publicly about physics." If the DCP hadn’t known I was an English major, and still taken issue with my response, would he have assumed that I’d mis-spoken, rather than simply assuming I was ignorant? Contrary to what the DCP might think, "English major" does not equal
"mentally challenged." We are perfectly capable of critical thought,
and of learning abstract physics concepts if they’re presented clearly.
We simply have a different way of thinking about things.

It’s a sticky wicket. The "experts" are often quite bad at communicating physics concepts in language non-scientists can understand. If they’re the only ones allowed to engage in free-ranging physics discussions, pretty soon it becomes a conversation amongst themselves that excludes everyone else. Physics becomes even more marginalized and — in the public mind, at least — irrelevant.

On one point, the DCP and I are at least in partial agreement. The more deeply I understand the physics underlying the concepts at work, the better I am at finding novel and effective ways to communicate them to non-scientists. In fact, it’s harder than simply writing technical overview articles for professional physicists. Every little thing has to be defined, and the case for each principle carefully built, step by step, to bring one’s reader to the necessary level of understanding — all without losing their interest halfway through. (The DCP seemed to think I was saying that deeper knowledge of physics wasn’t necessary in order to write about it. That wasn’t my point at all.) But if I waited until I understood every last fine-tuned detail to the nth degree, I’d never write anything. Ever. Instead, each piece I write, whether it’s an article, a book, even a blog posting, is its own little  stage in an ongoing process of discovery, building on everything that came before, and setting the stage for the next project on the horizon.

I spent six years earning a black belt in jujitsu at a small storefront dojo in Brooklyn, New York  — a very long learning process, roughly equivalent to the time it takes to earn a graduate degree. I learned primarily through my failures. I’d learn the basics of a technique, try to execute it, fail and fall on my ass, then pick myself up and try again. I did this over and over, in endless cycles, until I got the basics of the technique down. Cliched though it may be, my mistakes were learning experiences. I once missed a crucial block on a stickball bat attack, taking a nasty blow to the skull that required 14 stitches (I still have a Harry Potter-esque scar on my forehead from the injury). It was a hard lesson, but it hit home: I never made that same mistake again. Nor did the learning process end when I mastered the basics. I kept refining my techniques, even after earning the coveted black belt — which is not a symbol of "expertise," as many non-martial artists believe, but merely an indication that one has completed the foundational training and is now ready to begin "true" learning.

I take the same approach with physics: I learn by plunging in, tackling concepts that might be a bit beyond me at the outset, refining my working knowledge of a topic through trial and error. Sure, sometimes I take a few intellectual tumbles — worse, sometimes I take them publicly. But I pick myself up and tenaciously tackle the topic again, and again, until I get it right. Yet even then I continue to refine my understanding; the process never ends. This is how we acquire deep and lasting knowledge in any subject — as opposed to memorizing required elements to pass standardized tests. Maybe one of the biggest problems with physics education is we don’t give our students enough freedom to fail. It should be about the process of discovery, after all, not about parroting back the right answer. If we’re too eager to jump all over new, less experienced players every time they fumble the ball, pretty soon nobody else will want to play with us.

"Surely there’s room for everyone at the physics table," I opined in my very first posting. I very much believe that, despite the occasional negative encounter. In my years as a science writer, I’ve learned a couple of important things. (1) There will always be some jackass who objects to my presence because I didn’t make a reservation, don’t have the appropriate attire, or lack membership in the exclusive "club." (2) Said jackasses are not representative of physicists as a whole, who generally welcome interested non-scientists, and sometimes even chivalrously pull out the chair for them. We’re all on the same team, after all: we just have different skills and strengths, all of which we need to bring to bear on the enormous challenge of physics outreach and education.

So I’m keeping my seat at the physics table. Anyone who’s got a problem with that can take it up with Jen-Luc Piquant. But be forewarned — she’s a worthy Cyber-adversary. And she’s armed.


8 thoughts on “no room at the table?”

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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!

  4. 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. 🙂

  5. [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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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….

  8. “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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