Science Writer Throwdown: Fear and Loathing of Physics

Breaking news: Physics has a serious image problem. Okay, that's not really news to anyone engaged in the Sisyphean task of physics-related education and outreach to the general public. But it seems the problem has spread to the science writing community. And that makes Jen-Luc Piquant very sad.

Let me explain what prompted this post. There are many excellent science blogs around these days, and one of the best is The Last Word on Nothing (LWON), so named in honor of Victor Hugo: "Science says the first word on everything, and the last word on nothing." It's a group blog featuring a dozen very talented and accomplished science writers specializing in a wide range of disciplines. LWON just celebrated its five-year anniversary — congratulations! — and to mark the occasion, five of the writers contributed to a post on what they considered to be the best and worst fields of science to write about.

Fair enough — we all have topics for which we have a natural affinity, and others where, for whatever reasons, we struggle to summon much enthusiasm. Alas, I was dismayed to find some rather bizarre commentary from the two who chose physics as their "worst." First up: Craig Childs, who moaned, "It’s the numbers. I’m sorry. It’s more math than anything, and math is hardly a science." Then he tells a story about this one time where a physicist wrote an equation on the blackboard, he didn't understand it, and it made him feel dumb, and hence physics is Teh Worst.

Then came Jennifer Holland: "I struggled enough with these in high school that I should have known not to get near them again. I like writing about things I can see clearly, and that I can explain in a way that’s fun and exciting and accessible. All that theoretical junk is confusing and hard to explain, and the physicists I’ve talked to are incapable of dropping down to my level. I’ve had them become rather condescending, in fact." So a physicist didn't explain things very clearly and got a bit condescending and made her feel dumb, and hence physics is Teh Worst.

My reaction to these kneejerk criticisms:

[insert video]

Anyway, lively debate ensued on not one, but two, Facebook threads (mine and LWONian Ann Finkbeiner's), where additional LWON writers confessed their loathing of physics — and also physicists, who apparently are viewed as dull, colorless, characters with no good stories to tell, working on things far too abstract and removed from everyday human experience to drive a compelling narrative. Oh, and they were all mostly kidding, except when they weren't.

Look, I get that the post is meant to be light-hearted and at least partly tongue-in-cheek. And I certainly don't expect every science writer to share my love of physics. But It's frustrating to have such accomplished professional colleagues perpetuating — even in "fun" — the kind of lazy riffs on physics I typically encounter in non-science-minded folks: it's hard, it's math-heavy and they suck at math, physicists aren't clear when explaining the concepts and can be arrogant and condescending, the complainant hated math and physics in high school, it's too abstract, and so on. I expected better from my peers. As fellow physics fan Lisa Grossman observed on Facebook, "It's disheartening to have to fight against physics fatigue even among science writers."

Every science writer has favorite and least favorite subjects. But let's phrase the reasons why as something a bit deeper and more nuanced than "Ewww! Math! Eww! Physics!" In that same post, Sally Adee picked behavioral economics as her Best choice, and neuroscience as her Worst choice — but her reasoning behind the latter was thoughtful, citing the interdisciplinary complexity of the topic and the many potential pitfalls when it comes to peeling back layers of hype and separating the wheat from the chafe. She didn't go on about how she was grossed out by dissected brains in school, or didn't grok neuro-speak, or once had an unpleasant experience with a condescending neuroscientist who couldn't translate his/her research into plain English effectively.

See the difference?

It would have been nice if physics — even when placed in the "Worst" category — had warranted the same measure of respect. I'm not really interested in offering a point-by-point rebuttal, because physics isn't perfect, nor are physicists, and sometimes those critiques apply. But they also apply just as often to every other scientific discipline.

I personally find the technical details of genetics as mind-numbing and baffling as others find the Standard Model of Particle Physics, just because I'm more familiar with the latter. It's not because I have a natural affinity, or because I'm some genius-level whiz kid — I majored in English lit, with a minor in journalism, so I am first and foremost a "word" person — but because I am dogged and patient and put in the hard work to improve my grasp of the particle zoo early on in my science writing career. I take that same approach when writing about topics well outside my disciplinary comfort zone, too. Science writing is hard. It's supposed to be hard — that's what makes this such a fulfilling and challenging career.

LWON contributor Helen Fields picked ecology and evolution as both her worst and best fields to write about — a savvy move, since it recognizes that even one's favorite topics have their pros and cons. Allow me to take a similar approach.

For me, physics is the best field to write about because it is so incredibly broad and all-encompassing, it's impossible to become bored or run out of ideas. It is constantly surprising me and helping me to see the world in new, fascinating ways. Physics explains how the world works at the most fundamental level.

Physics is there when you're sailing upwind on a weekend boat jaunt, or when a fire breaks out on a NASCAR track. It's at work in home appliances like your dishwasher,, and in your light bulbs.

Physics explains how geckos stick to surfaces and the best way to crack an egg You can see its beauty in soap films, in the breaking of ocean waves on the shore, in the flight of the falcon, in diving gannets, in insect swarms, and in the unique structures that give beetles and bird feathers — and the occasional overturned icebergs — their breathtaking hues. [Image credit: Alex Cornell,]

Physics helps analyze art and ancient artifacts It can mathematically model the likelihood of encountering extraterrestrial zombies, or analyze a dirty joke cracked on a popular cable sitcom Heck, the predator/prey dynamics Fields cites while singing the praises of ecology and evolution is based on mathematical modeling (specifically, Lotka-Volterra curves), and hence involves physics at some scale.

But physics is also the worst field to write about, because despite the best efforts of so many of us engaged in writing and communicating physics, it so badly misunderstood. Most people reject it out of hand, unwilling to take the time to delve just a bit deeper to see past the bewildering jargon and scary-looking equations and appreciate the elegance and clarity of the (often counter-intuitive) concepts lurking just beneath the surface. And those people apparently include many of my fellow science writers.


Scroll to Top