the people that science forgot

Soundjenluc_7Margaret Wertheim is my new personal hero. She’s the author of Pythagoras’ Trousers: God, Physics and the Gender Wars, among other things, and she gave a terrific lunchtime talk today at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) meeting here in San Francisco, calling for some radical changes in existing strategies for communicating science (all in a charming Australian accent). It’s a familiar, well-worn issue, but Wertheim has a take that resonates at the same frequency as my own thoughts on bringing science to a much broader audience.  Ergo, she is a true Sister in Solidarity, and I really must get around to reading the aforementioned book, which has been languishing on my "To Read" shelf for the last six months. (No slight to Wertheim — I’ve just been too busy to read much of anything of late.)

Specifically, Wertheim maintains that much of the focus in scientific
communication is on the transmitter (scientists and public information
officers, for example), but the question of who is actually receiving
this information tends to be ignored. Hence the title of her talk: "Who
is science writing for?" If the numbers are to be believed, science
writing is predominantly for prosperous, well-educated, white males over 40 with healthy
incomes who already have a solid foundation in science. That didn’t come as a great shock to me. What was a shock was just how disproportionate the readership numbers really are for the top eight science magazines in the country.

Wertheim took the trouble to gather the actual circulation numbers and readership demographics from those leading science magazines (which carefully track such things because those numbers impact their advertising revenue): Popular Science, Scientific American, Discover, Wired, Natural History, Science News, Astronomy, and Science. (SEED is a relative newcomer to the market, and Wertheim’s data is from 2002.) Taken together, these publications reach about 21 million Americans every year. Seventy-eight percent of them are men; 21.8% are women. Median ages range from 41 to 49. The high end of that range belongs to Scientific American, which is actually very good news for them, since it wasn’t so long ago that their median readers’ age was 62. (No doubt there are some grumpy old-timers  still out there complaining about the overhaul of the magazine to target a younger demographic.) The audience demographic numbers for radio and TV science are less readily available, but Wertheim asserts that the same trends are evident there as well.

Arguably, 21 million people reading about science on a regular basis is nothing to sneeze at, but the gender divide is nonetheless distressing — even more so when one considers that the top eight leading women’s magazines combined reach as many as 70 million readers (one assumes most of those are women). Cultural gender stereotypes and social conditioning once again rear their ugly heads. So Wertheim set out to reach those readers, writing a regular science and technology column for Vogue Australia, something she describes as "one of the hardest things I’ve ever done." It required capturing and holding the readers’ attention — no small feat when the competition is a shocking photo of Britney Spears’ newly shaved head — as well as explaining the science science in the simplest possible terms while using no jargon, and doing it all in 900 words or less.

I feel her pain, particularly since she has experienced the same kind of criticism frequently lobbed at my two books: that the science is simplified far too much, making it inaccurate, potentially misleading, and downright insulting to the reader’s intelligence. In fact, one retired scientist sent in a 21-page letter detailing every
instance in Black Bodies and Quantum Cats where he perceived there to be a misleading or inaccurate or
incomplete statement — including the Preface and Acknowledgements.
(You heard me: he claimed to have found errors in the acknowledgments. Jen-Luc Piquant wonders why he didn’t just write his own book in the six months it took to compile his list of my alleged writerly sins.) This might be because I lack a science degree, and am quite open about my former English major background; I might as well just plaster a "Kick Me" sign on my back. But Wertheim holds degrees in both math and physics. This still didn’t save her from being bawled out by a prominent scientist for eliding over what he felt was a crucial point in an article she’d written in The New York Times. Imagine what he would have said about the pieces she wrote for women’s magazines. (I can’t believe she convinced Vogue Australia to run such a column in the first place — a truly impressive achievement.) 

Invariably, these criticisms come from  older white males with strong backgrounds in science, and they object the most strenuously to simplification of their particular area of preferred knowledge or expertise (where they clearly have a lot invested emotionally). Again, there’s nothing surprising about this. That’s the traditional demographic for popular science books, you see; and it’s also the predominant demographic for the hard sciences, like physics. But those critics completely miss the point, because they’re operating in an outdated paradigm. What about all those potential readers who are interested in science but, to cite Wertheim’s example, couldn’t get past Chapter 1 of A Brief History of Time? Who is writing for them?

These are the people that science writing forgot, but if we’re truly serious about communicating science to a general audience, we’ve got to bring it down to their level. They won’t come to us — I know tons of highly intelligent, well-educated people, of both genders, who would rather be tortured than pick up a popular physics book — so we must go to them. We need every weapon in the arsenal to do this. More importantly, says Wertheim, we can’t just rattle off easy answers; we must provide the broader context, helping them to see why a particular question matters enough for scientists to spend countless hours and millions of dollars to find the answer. Amen. Speak it, sister!

I try to provide a broader context by weaving in pop culture, history, literature, sports, and personal anecdotes to illustrate science. In addition to her stories for women’s magazines and mainstream publications like the Los Angeles Times and LA Weekly, Wertheim founded The Institute for Figuring. It doesn’t have much of a physical home: she runs the operation out of her living room. But its activities are very real indeed, including publications, lectures, and museum exhibitions aimed at a broad general audience. For instance, they’ve sponsored public lectures on the physics of snowflakes (which I blogged about here), tiling and tesselation, knot theory, and the mathematics of paper folding.

The IFF also developed a museum exhibit on the Invention of Kindergarten. It was supposedly was invented by a 19th century German crystallographer — I didn’t catch his name — around 1850, and featured activities such as paper cutting and folding to rigorously demonstrate abstract geometrical concepts with roots in crystallography. That German scientist believed kids were perfectly capable of understanding abstract ideas — more so than adults. "Nowadays one must go to grad school to learn about abstraction," Wertheim noted. Not surprisingly, the children from that model, which dominated Europe until 1900, grew up to become innovative scientists like Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, as well as pioneers of the modern art movement, such as Paul Klee and Piet Mondrian.

Most recently, Wertheim has been working on a project to create a crocheted coral reef — a miniature replica of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef,Coral1
which is in serious danger of extinction within 30 years. It turns out that many marine creatures exhibit some form of hyperbolic structure, since they need to maximize their surface area in a very small volume. (A woman named Daina Taimina came up with the first crochet models for hyperbolic space, but nature has been doing it for hundreds of millions of years.) What I found interesting about Wertheims’ description is how a slight change in the code for a basic hyperbolic structure will cause it to evolve into ever-more complex beautiful shapes. It’s a point she’s been able to communicate quite well to women of all ages who show up to learn how to crochet a sea anemone and pick up a bit of geometry in the process. Placing a daunting topic — hyperbolic geometry — into a familiar, non-threatening context, made the subject matter more palatable to them, and also helped them retain that new knowledge.

It’s only fitting that I also managed to catch a clip of the forthcoming public television special on Absolute Zero: The Conquest of Cold, based on the book of the same name by Tom Shachtman. "History continues to be alive in low-temperature physics," Shachtman insists, and the clip he showed illustrates that perfectly. Among other colorful personalities, we heard about Cornelius Drebbel, court magician to King James I, who attempted to air-condition Westminster Cathedral way back in 1620. But the focus of the clip was on James Dewar’s race to become the first to liquefy hydrogen — only to lose the race to liquefy helium to Dutch scientist Heiki Kamerlingh Onnes, who won the coveted Nobel Prize instead. I especially loved the re-enactments of Dewar’s famous Royal Academy lectures on low-temperature physics.

The two-part film is slated to air on England’s BBC this spring, and on PBS in the US later this year (June or November). Of course, if the audience follows the established statistical trends, only educated white males over 40 will be watching. But I’d like to think that there’ll be plenty of women watching as well. Certainly I’ll be tuning in….

14 thoughts on “the people that science forgot”

  1. Gosh I wish I’d heard this. I’d have been weeping for joy. Of course, it’s preaching to the converted, since this is a long running discussion between us, but really scientists have got to stop treating science like a sacred text that only a few privileged people can understand–or stop bitching and moaning about how no one understands science.

  2. I’ve been a longtime fan of Margaret Wertheim, having discovered her book Pythagoras’ Trousers in the window of a bookshop in Christchurch, New Zealand six months after I left physics. It explained a lot of things to me about my perception of the culture of physics that I hadn’t noticed as being particular to physics because I grew up Catholic and was therefore immersed in that patriarchal culture to begin with.
    I hadn’t realized that physics wasn’t so much in opposition to the religion but rather had sprung from the same root. As I remember from when I last reread the book a couple of years back, the motivation to understand the cosmos came from the church’s desire to discover the divine plan which was embodied in the symmetries and mathematical precision of the church.
    Anyway, I enjoyed the lecture, too, and I went up afterwards as a babbling fan and we exchanged cards! So cool!

  3. All for communicating science here. But not at any price. Maybe the paradox is not resolvable, to appreciate the current advances in science *requires* a lot of background. It’s not possible to communicate them without that background, one can tell people *about* them but then onemust ask them for that leap of faith: “I can’t explain it to you in simple words but believe me it’s true, if you spend a couple of years studying you’ll see it as clear as day!”*.
    Writing for the beginner (talking physics only) it would be appropriate to start with Newtonian mechanics. A subject that is fascinating, if one is into abstract thinking, but not at all sexy.
    As for more abstract thinking at early and all ages, hell yeah! I have met people who hated maths until they took a course at college level and the abstract ideas were not just implicitly assumed as in high-school but actually the topic of investigation and they immediately loved it. It’s not for everyone, but I’m sure it would reach a lot more people.
    * As the joke goes:
    In his lecture, ** formulated a theorem simply stating: “The proof is obvious”. Seeing the puzzled faces of his students he stopped, looked at the theorem again and started pacing back and forth.Finally after ten minutes of deliberation he started to smile turn to the students and declared: “Indeed, it IS obvious!”

  4. You’re misreading my post if you think I’m advocating communication at any cost. I’m saying you give them a little bit of the science at a time (NOT just Newtonian mechanics, c’mon, don’t kill their enthusiasm outright!), with the understanding that you can wean them, little by little, to a deeper, more complex understanding over time — but you’ve got to reach them in the first place, and under the current model, we’re NOT readhing them.
    It’s equally counter-productive to assume such people are stupid just because they haven’t spent years amassing lots of scientific facts and learning about theories. And it’s VERY unfair to ask them to take a “leap of faith” and just trust you. How does THAT develop critical thinking? It’s infantalizing. You’re advocating for the role of a sterm parent or other authority figure who answers a curious child’s questions with “Because I said so,” and “Just trust me, that’s how it is.”
    Seriously — don’t we WANT people to think for themselves? In order to foster that, people have to be free to misunderstand, to make mistakes. That’s how real learning happens.

  5. The paradox mentioned by fh is very real, and extraordinarily frustrating. The “problem” is not that scientists expect readers to think to little, but that we can expect them to think too much, and are concerned that if the explanation is over-simplified, audience members will draw incorrect conclusions. If we thought the audience were simply stupid, this wouldn’t be much of a worry. It’s the smart, interested audience members that draw perfectly reasonable conclusions out of simplified explanations that are the worry. This concern isn’t just idle fantasy; many of the strange things people believe about, for example, quantum mechanics and relativity, are reasonable conclusions that can be drawn from popularizations of these topics. One shouldn’t fault either the audience or the popularizers here; the audience is doing the best it can with the information given, and I doubt it is possible to provide explanations so good that this won’t happen.
    Any smart person will draw conclusions, but the ability to draw correct conclusions is hard, and understaning the material well enough to do it takes real work. I had a professor who kept this quote on his whiteboard:
    “If you cannot create it, you do not understand it.”
    This goes nicely with the common intro lament:
    “I understand the material, I just can’t do the problems.”
    Doing the problems is the most important part of learning science; it’s how you know if you have understood it.
    While focusing on Newtonian physics may be taking things to a bit of an extreme for, say, a magazine columnist, a shift in emphasis in the choice of topic is the best approach to this problem I can think of. Instead of aiming at the modern cutting edge of research, which is often the modern cutting edge precisely because it is the hardest to understand, aim at the basic science applied “close to home:” back yard (or neighborhood park) biology, kitchen chemistry, naked eye or binocular astronomy, and other topics which encourage the reader to actually observe.
    Should we give up on explaining advanced stuff? Of course not. Thinking very carefully about how we might be misinterpreted is essential, though.

  6. Sing it, sister!
    The Daily Show does an excellent job of conveying real news – and in some cases makes more complex points than regular news programs. And it reaches an audience that typically doesn’t weatch network news – by being entertaining.
    Hard? You bet, which is why there aren’t dozens of Daily Shows.
    But do we need similar approaches in science! At the risk of tooting my own horn, a friend posted some clips of my Physics of Superheroes talk on YouTube. The clip where I describe Impulse and Momentum, and show how these concepts account for how airbags save lives, has been very popular. I think that’s because I present this information in the context of Amazing Spider-Man # 121, the famous issue concerning the Death of Gwen Stacy, Spidey’s girlfriend.
    This clip has been viewed over 60,000 times. That is, in my day job as a mild-mannered physics professor, it would take me over 30 years, teaching 2000 students a year (and even at Minnesota, are classes aren’t that large) to reach the same number of people that this clip has in under six months time.
    You can have the most accurate physics explanation in the world. If no one is listening – does it make a sound?

  7. After I first lectured at the US summer school for graduate students in theoretical particle physics (TASI), I produced a written version of the lectures for the proceedings, as is standard protocol. Later, I received a copy of my lectures, in the mail, in an anonymous vanilla envelop. Every single grammatical error was underlined and highlighted in red ink. All I could do was wonder who had the time….
    As for explaining scientific concepts, my theory is that if you can’t explain a concept simply, in ordinary language, then you don’t really understand it to begin with.

  8. I am one of those people who writes to authors to let them know about errors because they drive me batty. I hope that they will fix the errors in the next edition of the book (or revise the web page). It really bugs me when I’m reading and some random fact just doesn’t seem right. I’ll go look it up to make sure that I wasn’t mistaken and then note it at the back of the book. If there are too many errors, I’ll just stop reading. If it is a web page or article I may never go back to the original article but instead I’ll read about the topic somewhere else.
    One thing that Jennifer and JoAnne should realize is that they are asking readers to trust them to present a subject in an unbiased and factual manner. If there are little errors in things that I know about, then I start to question the validity of things that I don’t know about. That is precisely the reason I let my subscription to Scientific American lapse and why I’ve never subscribed to Discover.
    I appreciate it when writers simplify things for me but there is a big difference between over-simplifying and getting things wrong.
    By the way, I like it when readers of my manuals call in with questions or suggest improvements. It means that they have actually read the manual. I figure that if it was confusing to them then there are other people who didn’t call in who are just as confused.

  9. fh: the only people who can legitimately ask for a leap of faith are theologians. I mean, wasn’t that what the whole Age of Reason was all about? No more leaps of faith? Everything subject to reasoning? You can’t have it both ways. That’s just setting up science’s “scripture” in the place of theology, and with less moral authority.
    Hildaur’s complaint that people think too much and will therefore misinterpret the material is an inevitable part of learning, indeed, of experimentation itself. The job of science communicators is to keep a dialogue open to counter those misinterpretations, not just to say, “well, it’s too complex for you to understand.” As JoAnne says, unless you can explain a concept in simple language, i.e., teach it, you do not really understand it. That’s true of anything from Shakespeare’s plays to general relativity. The amount of work required to explain the concepts, however, is what varies from subject to subject. And JScarry, all I can say is that there is a very fine line between the demand for more detail and nit-picking. One must always consider the audience the piece was written for. You may not be a member of that subset.

  10. I have an example in my IN box of a problem with simplification and misunderstanding. The ironic thing is that the simplification was really made as a gee-whiz cool thing for physicists, not as a way of making the subject simpler for lay people. This example came up in a question and followups to our Ask a High-Energy Astrophysicist website.
    Richard Feynmann in his lectures popularized the idea of relativistic mass. This was really to point out how cool it was to still be able to write E = mc^2 when E was the total energy. He was not the first or only one, but one of the most influential. He, of course, and many of his primary audience of Caltech students (really mostly grad students and faculty), understood that so-called relativistic mass was the time component of the mass-energy 4-vector, but the real mass was the magnitude of the whole vector. For the rest of us, it has led to confusion. People think, as my correspondent did (past tense, I hope) that some fast-moving object will gravitate more, for example, or will act as if it was more dense, because they have heard, “Mass increases with speed!” I far prefer Taylor and Wheeler’s emphasis (e.g. “Spacetime Physics”).
    Other simplified treatments of various subjects are made with the intention of communicating to lay people (non-majors, poets, politicians, whatever). I think simplified is great, so long as simplified does not mean wrong. Unfortunately, it often does. This is sometimes only in the detail, and only gets a specialist exercised. Sometimes, however, it is more fundamental. That is always bad. And then sometimes, similarly to above, it is not wrong, but can be easily misconstrued. So, for simplifiers: Please be careful. I hope that besides just chuckling at the apparently hypercritical reviewer, you actually checked out their list of suggested mistakes, and made corrections where necessary.
    At some point, you do have to take some things on faith. The days are long gone when you could hope to know everything from reading, let alone by your own reasoning and research. We each have to make our own decisions in whom and when to place that faith, and realize that whoever it is, they will occasionally be wrong, incomplete, or misunderstood. I look at popularization of science partly as educational attempts to help people develop reasoning skills, partly as entertainment, and partly as encouragement to people to make scientists among the ones they put their faith in.

  11. I’m a white male over 40. I give astronomy talks regularly. But i also have a 10 year old, who’ll be facing MEEP tests in science soon. What to do? Kitchen science. Balls rolling down inclines. Basic math. I like this idea of crystalography with paper.
    For the early science student, what they really need is a framework into which to pour the rest of science. But, it needs to be exciting and memorable. For exciting, one can use the experiment. For memorable, one needs a story.
    For a start on arithmetic see this:

  12. Very nice post, and good observations about science writing. Also, let’s not put down Newtonian mechanics, it can be *very* exciting…Sure, the Standard Model is “sexy”, but it won’t help you put a spacecraft in orbit, whether it’s Cassini about Saturn or a DirecTV satellite around Earth!

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