pop culture pedagogy

Jen-Luc Piquant peruses Physics Today regularly, often firing off snidely condescending letters taking issue with the finer technical points of lengthy articles on everything from terahertz radiation and "left-handed" materials, to the latest research news on the superfluidity of hydrogen and/or helium. (The editors wisely have yet to publish one of her missives, since she definitely falls into the "crackpot" category when it comes to her independent forays into physics research.) I know several of the staff writers — all terrific people — and it’s without question a publication revered by its loyal readers, but I confess I rarely do more than skim through it, checking out "Search and Discovery," the science policy news, and the odd interesting tidbit.

Atypically, considering my bookworm nature, I skip the book reviews altogether, mostly because (a) by the time an issue comes out, the books in question tend to be out of print already; and (b) they usually have titles like Sculptured Thin Films: Nanoengineered Morphology and Optics, and are filled with complicated equations guaranteed to make my innumerate eyes glaze over within microseconds. Yea, verily, I exaggerate… at least with regard to (a). But let’s face it, I’m hardly the magazine’s target audience. I struggled mightily with the latter half of The Elegant Universe (‘fess up, how many of you actually read it cover to cover?), and have never cracked open an issue of that multi-headed Hydra, the Physical Review. Unlike Jen-Luc Piquant, I know my limitations.

However, I am the target audience for books like The Physics of Superheroes, by University of Minnesota physicist James Kakalios. So I awaited my April issue of Physics Today with great anticipation, having received a distressed email from a physicist/educator pal spewing indignation over an eviscerating review of the book — along with Barry Parker’s homage to all things scientific in the James Bond franchise, Death Rays, Jet Packs, Stunts and Supercars: The Fantastic Physics of Film’s Most Celebrated Secret Agent. — by one Richard Muller, a physics professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

Mind you, I know next to nothing about Muller, Kakalios or Parker, and I haven’t read these books (yet). They no doubt have their flaws (both the books, and the men). One could make a perfectly valid, thoughtful critique and fairly find the books wanting on any number of things. But Muller’s analysis is wrong-headed from the get-go. It all comes down to knowing one’s audience, and Muller misses the mark on that score entirely, claiming, "I doubt that any reader of Physics Today would enjoy either book."  Hmm. For starters, these kinds of books aren’t intended for physicists — although I contend that many physicists might nonetheless enjoy them as a lark — but to help non-scientists better appreciate an often intimidating esoteric subject.

I smacked my forehead in dismay at Muller’s objections to the way equations are presented in both books. It annoys him that Parker fails to fully derive the equations he cites, and Kakalios — that miscreant — doesn’t use any equations at all, except for one buried among the superhero images. Imagine that! A physics book for a general audience that doesn’t contain any equations! Here’s a news flash for Dr. Muller: equations are not an effective way to convey the beauty of physics to non-scientists. They’re a good way to lose your reader altogether. In fact, I am now a bit leery of Parker’s book, having learned it contains equations. This has been one of the most fundamental truths of popular science writing since at least the 1970s . (Please note that I specified "popular" science writing; there are several different levels, and different criteria apply to each.) Apparently Muller is still stuck in the Dark Ages.

Kakalios teaches a popular freshman seminar called "Everything I Needed to Know About Physics I Learned from Comic Books." Muller completely misses the irony of this course title — not to mention the entire point of the book based on it — soberly observing that "most of what superheroes do in comic books cannot be made compatible with physics." Well, yes. So what? That’s why it’s called fiction, and relies on the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief. Any fictional world need only be compatible with its own physical laws — and even then there’s wriggle room, thanks to artistic license — which may or may not be in harmony with those of the real world. Does Muller seriously think all non-scientists are morons who can’t tell the difference between fiction and reality, just because we happen to enjoy losing ourselves in make-believe worlds on occasion? Trust me, we’ll get over the earth-shattering news that — gasp! — Superman wouldn’t be able to fly in the universe as we currently understand it. 050308a_4
(For the curious, the cartoon at right is provided courtesy of the brilliantly inventive Paul Dlugokencky; you can see more of his work here.)

Muller continues in this misguided vein: "Instead, [Kakalios] describes the powers of… superheroes and uses those traits as an opportunity to launch into interesting physics." Yes. Exactly. This is supposed to be a criticism? Kitty Pryde’s ability to walk through walls is an excellent segue into a discussion of quantum tunneling for someone who is not scientifically minded. Whether or not Kitty’s ability is "totally incompatible with quantum mechanics" is irrelevant to the pedagogical purpose. Discuss her unique ability, use it to segue into real-world quantum mechanics, and guide the reader/student to the inescapable conclusion that the two are incompatible. That is apparently just what Kakalios does. Good for him. This process is called "learning." Among other things, the approach fosters critical thinking: the reader must understand the basics of real-world physics before he or she can apply those basics to a fictional world, and come to a fuller appreciation of why we don’t have similar abilities.

Educators have known for eons that real learning only occurs when students are sufficiently engaged to think about the lesson, rather than learning facts by rote, or dutifully absorbing the salient points of a college lecture, stored just long enough for successful regurgitation on the final exam. The latest studies by neuroscientists at the University College London have affirmed it. How successfully we form lasting memories depends on how well our brain was "primed" to receive that information. ("We will teach no mind before it’s primed," cracks Evil Punster Jen-Luc.)

There’s a lot of potential "priming" power to be gained from pop culture, if only because it’s so pervasive in the national consciousness. A recent poll found that Americans know more about TV shows like "The Simpsons" and "American Idol" than they do about their own Constitution. Apparently only one out of 1000 respondents could name all five freedoms guaranteed under the First Amendment, whereas more than one in five could name all the major "Simpsons" characters.  And while four in ten could name two out of three "Idol" judges, only eight out of 100 could name at least three First Amendment rights. (Isn’t it kinda comforting to know America’s educational shortcomings aren’t limited to math and the hard science?) Much as some might like to pretend otherwise, physicists are hardly immune to the attractions of popular culture. I’ve met more than one physicist whose love for the subject was
inspired by reading Jules Verne’s classic 19th century sci-fi novel From the Earth to the
as a boy, in which men are essentially catapulted to their lunar
target using a rudimentary cannon.

So if a scene in a Hollywood blockbuster isn’t compatible with the laws of physics, don’t sputter self-righteously about the scientific illiteracy of filmmakers; use that example to demonstrate how physics really works. Most of us don’t expect movies to mirror reality perfectly, unless they happen to be documentaries, and even then, the director’s perspective will "color" that "reality." It should. This is art, or if you’re uncomfortable with that designation, creative multimedia entertainment. It’s not a science experiment.

Pop culture can transform a tired analogy into something fresh — say, for instance, Albert Einstein’s excellent man-in-an-elevator thought experiment to demonstrate the notion of the equivalence of gravity and acceleration. Science book after science book has described it in exactly the same way for decades. Why not adapt it to the opening sequence of the movie Speed, instead? Megastar Keanu ("Whoa!") Reeves and his bomb squad partner must rescue a bunch of high-rise office workers from an elevator car stuck between floors, before that psycho, Dennis Hopper, triggers a bomb that will send it plunging down the shaft. This is a terrific way to introduce students to Einstein’s historical analogy, not to mention some basic Newtonian mechanics. Based on the floor number where the car is stuck, we can estimate how far it must fall down the shaft before impact, and therefore — with guidance from our friendly local physics teacher — can calculate how much it will accelerate, how much momentum it will gain, its final velocity, and how hard it will hit.

Muller is not entirely insensitive to this approach, since lurking in the review’s background like the Shadow himself is the specter of the book that launched the whole genre: Lawrence Krauss’ The Physics of Star Trek. Krauss’s tome is undeniably the gold standard for such efforts (along with Roger Highsmith’s The Science of Harry Potter). It turns out that Muller is a big fan of Krauss’s book (even though it eschews equations). A really big fan. So big that he can’t stop talking about it. This is a man who worships at the Shrine of Krauss, which makes his attitude all the more inexplicable.

(For the record, we here at Cocktail Party Physics are also great admirers of Krauss, the Patron Saint of Pop Culture Pedagogy. He does more for public outreach in any given week than many physicists accomplish in their entire careers. He’s that rare breed, a physicist who can connect with a general audience. He writes pretty damn well, too. But we stop short of lighting votive candles and bowing to his image on a makeshift altar. Really, burning a little incense now and then, or leaving milk and cookies, seems to be sufficient to keep the Wrath of Krauss at bay.)

Clearly it galls uber-fanboy Muller that his hero wrote the foreword for Kakalios’ despised book, so much so that he digresses into musing on Krauss’ inner thoughts while doing so. Apparently they have some kind of Vulcan Mind Meld going. How else would Muller know that Krauss deliberately wrote the forward in such a way to avoid openly endorsing Kakalios’s book?

Perhaps most disturbing of all, Muller claims that he "frequently uses popular culture images" in his own introductory physics class. That means he’s out there, right now, actively poisoning young minds, albeit with good intentions. Even more important than knowing one’s audience is recognizing one’s limitations. Please, Herr Muller, leave the pop culture physics pedagogy to those who actually get it — you know, like Krauss. And Kakalios. And the curators of the newly opened Marvel Superheroes Science Exhibition at the California Science Center in downtown Los Angeles. In fact, if you’re a student at UC-Berkeley, I’d urge you to boycott Muller’s
introductory physics class and head south to that exhibit instead. Would you rather listen to a boring old lecture, or (as Erin Torneo put it in SEED), "channel [your] inner Spidey on a climbing wall"?

Maybe you think I’m being unreasonable, calling for a boycott of the man’s class. Consider this: Muller closes his review not just with an emphatic two-thumbs down, but with an exhortation to Physics Today readers to avoid purchasing either book even for non-scientists who might be interested in reading about the science of science fiction. (As my physicist/educator friend acidly observed, "We wouldn’t want them getting used to understanding things without derivations.") It’s at this point that Muller crosses that all-important line
from merely misguided to petty and mean-spirited. (He was skirting pretty close with his comments on Krauss’ foreword.) He can’t be content with simply ripping the books to shreds for arguably specious reasons; that’s a time-honored tradition among reviewers. He must endeavor to make sure that no one ever buys these books he so despises, for anyone, even those who might actually enjoy them.

Look, I can
understand if some physicists find my own populist approach appalling: I’m an upstart, an interloper who sneakily infiltrated the
bastion of physics with none of the traditional academic credentials
for science writing, before anyone thought to stop me. And I sometimes
make boneheaded mistakes.
But both Kakalios and Parker are Esteemed Members of the Tribe; you’d think they, at least, would merit more respectful treatment. Muller’s idol, Krauss,
would never be so uncivil; he wields his pen like a scalpel, not a
bludgeon. He also knows what it’s like to risk putting yourself out
there as an author of popular science books, and appreciates how
difficult it is straddle those two worlds successfully. Kakalios,
Parker, and the readers of Physics Today deserve better.

I close with a Weekend Warrior call to arms. Right after posting this, Jen-Luc and I are heading over to Amazon to order The Physics of Superheroes in a show of solidarity for Kakalios (who, for the record, I have never met). And Parker’s book on the physics in Bond movies. And any other book we can find — equation-heavy warts and all, because hey, at least they’re trying, and we want them to keep on trying — that uses pop culture to introduce the reluctant and unwilling to the wonders of physics in creative, imaginative ways. We encourage you all to do likewise. Call it our own Pop Culture Physics Revolution.

6 thoughts on “pop culture pedagogy”

  1. Yup…I was also disappointed by the review (admittedly I also know Kakalios a little). I can’t wait to check out the book for myself, as I’ve never heard someone (other than Muller) disappointed by what he Kakalios does.

  2. As somebody once said, “Publicity is good. Good publicity is even better.” I expect that the people who read Physics Today are generally folks with some interest in teaching physics, and I have the feeling that they’re typically smart enough to recognize a clueless review when they see one. At the very least, people will know that these books exist and something about how they are written. Obviously, we have plenty of evidence right here that book reviews do not brainwash people into agreement!
    Also, as a meta-meta-review, I should note that people have come down pretty harshly on that Simpsons-vs.-Constitution survey. Interpret its results with caution, for they may not mean what they seem. For examples, see the linguists over at Language Log:
    http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/002890.html (“Counting freedoms, Simpsons and percentages”)
    The survey said that the First Amendment guarantees freedom of “religion”, “speech”, “press”, “petition” and “assembly”. A key point which Mark Liberman makes: “But counting the Five Freedoms is confusing, after all: the Bill of Rights has 10 amendments, but the First Amendment covers 5 freedoms. And the wording of the First Amendment only mention 2 ‘freedoms’ as such (speech and press), plus 2 ‘rights’ (assembly and petition); and religion gets mentioned twice (no establishment of it, no prohibition of it), but only counts as one ‘freedom’ […] Then there are all sorts of other freedom-y things in the other nine amendments in the Bill of Rights, like the right to bear arms, the freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures, freedom from forced self-incrimination, freedom from cruel and unusual punishments. And then there are later amendments that have a lot to do with freedom, like the abolition of slavery in the 13th amendment. I bet that lots of people started listing things like those, and then realized that there are a lot more than five of them, and that some of them are more rights than freedoms, and …”
    A follow-up on the way percentages can be spun:
    http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/002894.html (“Freedom of speech: more famous than Bart Simpson”)
    And yet again, quoting the Wall Street Journal’s “Numbers Guy”:

  3. I’d say that anyone who reads this blog wouldn’t take the PT review seriously, so I am undoubtedly preaching to the converted; I just feel better having vented. 🙂 It was a PhD physicist and good friend who told me about it in the first place, after all, along with their own frustrated rant. But the attitude is out there, and it’s more pervasive than one might think. I ran into it frequently over the last year as I was writing my second book, which is very much in the “Physics of…” pop culture genre. So it’s an issue that’s been simmering at the back of my mind for quite some time now, awaiting just the right platform.
    I’m not seriously worried about the prospects for either book, because as you said, there’s no such thing as bad publicity. Just look at James Frey: all that scandal over making stuff up in his memoir, called on the carpet by the much-beloved Oprah on national TV, and if anything his book stayed at #1 that much longer because of it — although “memoir” is currently a dirty word for publishers. Plus, we now have a new phrase in our national lexicon: “essential truth.” It’s right up there with “wardrobe malfunction.” 🙂
    Thanks for coming through, as usual, with fantastically informative links. I hadn’t followed up on the study, although I’d questioned some of the findings when I first read about for precisely those reasons. Also, whether or not someone can recite the First Amendment is not necessarily an indication that they comprehend it. They might, but that ability has no bearing on it. I have high hopes for any future popular science books you might write; you have quite an eye for the telling detail…

  4. I did finish the Elegant Universe, but I have a Ph.D in physics. I am an experimentalist so I do not have a working knowledge of that material, but I have a much better background than most. I have wondered how much people without a strong background in physics get out of book like that.
    I would say that I am not very good at explaining physics to non-physicists, but I blame that on myself rather than my audience. An example of me trying and failing http://cyclequark.wordpress.com/2006/04/12/explaining-quantum-mechanics-to-my-daughter/ .

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