warped thinking

Jenluc_piquant1_6Public outreach is a tricky thing, particularly when it comes to physics. For several years now, the APS has sponsored the odd "public lecture" at the April meeting, with only spotty success. Even when the speakers are excellent, it’s rare for actual members of the public to show up, with very few notable exceptions. It kind of defeats the whole purpose of "public outreach" when the only people in the audience are one’s fellow physicists. Talk about preaching to the converted.

So it was a pleasant surprise to find an auditorium at the Dallas Hyatt Regency filled not just with April meeting physicists, but with an equal number of high school students, teachers, local university types, and interested members of the public — all on hand for "An Evening of String Theory and Cosmology" with Harvard University physicist Lisa Randall, author of Warped Passages. Authors don’t always make the best public speakers — and scientific authors can be more challenged in this area than most — but Randall delivered a polished, enjoyable presentation covering the basics of particle physics, string theory, extra dimensions, and the mysteriously elusive hypothetical "gravitons" — force-carrying particles (part of the family of bosons) believed to transmit the gravitational force.

Those are deep, deep waters, Watson, and it is to Randall’s credit that she held her audience’s attention for well over an hour, even though there were sections where the technical detail admittedly got a bit too heavy. It’s extremely difficult to condense such a complex topic into language a lay audience can understand, and I doubt many people could do better. I won’t go into a summation of Randall’s talk here, partly because I’m feeling lazy. This gives me something in common with gravitons, apparently. Consider Randall’s analogy for why gravitons don’t travel far off their respective "brane": it’s not because someone locked the metaphorical door to prevent them from leaving the "house," but because they’re simply lazy couch potatoes that lack the energy to venture much further than the front porch. (Yes, I realize the analogy lacks context, but perhaps it will spur you to buy her book, thereby supporting the popular science genre.)

As well-received as the talk was, the real highlights were the pre-lecture reception, where Randall mingled with local high school students and their teachers over tasty hors d’oevres and non-alcoholic beverages, and the Q&A afterwards. Randall skillfully avoided engaging the borderline crackpot who brought up Moses of Maimonides’s notion of extra dimensions and asked, "Would you care to comment on that?" She flatly said, "No," and moved on. That’s really the only way to deal with people who only ask questions to push a private agenda. (Whenever someone at one of my own readings begins a question with "Don’t you think…" my answer is inevitably "No.")

More impressive was the caliber of questions posed by the students who were present. One pretty blonde student in bohemian-chic garb asked for clarification on gravitons and their relation to W and Z bosons. Where was her physics teacher when I was in high school? I didn’t learn about W and Z bosons until I became a science writer. The girl received a well-deserved free copy of Warped Passages for her precociousness. And there were flashes of shared humor, such as one student who followed up his question with a second tongue-in-cheek observation: "I notice you keep dropping your microphone. Is it possible gravity is taking your comments personally?" He also received a free book for his trouble, which the otherwise-serious Randall playfully dropped on the floor with a thud, rather than handing it to him directly.

I suppose it depends in part on your criteria, but as public lectures go, I would consider "An Evening with Lisa Randall" a solid success precisely because there were so many non-scientists present. The APS Powers That Be probably don’t care much what we think here at Cocktail Party Physics, but we shall offer our opinion anyway as to why this event "worked" so much better than in past years, in hopes that the Society can build on what it did right to ensure future successful public lectures.

(1) It goes without saying that the choice of speaker is paramount. One should consider the intended audience. If it’s physicists you’re after, by all means choose a speaker with a certain degree of eminence. Nobel laureates are always a safe bet, although a Nobel Prize is no guarantee that they are good speakers. That’s why an ability to speak well, present complex topics simply and clearly, connect with the public and hold a lay audience’s attention should be the primary factors when selecting a speaker for a public lecture; eminence is a secondary (even tertiary) concern. Frankly, even physicists enjoy elegant, well-organized general talks;
the level needn’t extend into the technical stratosphere.

(2) It helps to have some kind of media tie-in, such as a recent book. This gives local radio and newspapers a handy news hook, making them more likely to cover the event, or at least announce the listing prominently.

(3) One of the chief factors contributing to the Randall event’s success was the involvement of local education enthusiasts, who rallied high school teachers, arranged for the reception and book signing, and bused in loads of students — in short, they made it so easy and accessible that people had little excuse not to attend. Alternatively, you can bring the physics out of the meeting itself and into local venues. That’s the model physicist Brian Schwartz employs as part of his "Science and the Arts" program at the City University of New York Graduate Center. In 2000, Schwartz arranged a special scientific/historical symposium tied to the Broadway premiere of Michael Frayn’s Tony-award-winning play, Copenhagen, and the resounding success convinced CUNY that this was a very effective method of outreach. The program has expanded to include staged readings, public lectures and panel discussions, a robot dance competition, and a "concert theater work" inspired by astrophysics. This June 17-18, CUNY will sponsor "Street Fair Science," bringing science demonstration booths to New York City’s ubiquitous summer street fairs. (Unless there’s an unforeseen wrench in the works, Jen-Luc Piquant and I will be on hand that weekend with various members of our former jujitsu dojo, demonstrating the physics of the fight.)

(4) Put your money where your mouth is. The APS spent far more money on this event than it has in prior years. You can’t claim to be a proponent of public education and outreach and then start skimping on the funding. We all know that funds are spent according to priorities; the Society has had a tendency to give lip service to the principal of outreach, and yet be unwilling to make the financial commitment to ensure success. You can’t do outreach as an afterthought. It took a lot more time, effort and money to put together the Randall event, but in the end, it served its intended purpose: to reach members of the general public.

Randall’s lecture provided a tidy wrap-up to what turned out to be a particularly enjoyable meeting (despite the poor wireless service). I’ve got a couple more blog posts in the works about some of the other tidbits gleaned from my time in Dallas, which will appear over the next few days as I manage to get them done. (Sadly, my "real" work has a way of interfering.) All good things must come to an end, even physics conferences, and perhaps I left Dallas in the nick of time. At the Randall reception, I overheard a fellow science writer bemoaning an earlier session, in which a physicist in the audience raised his hand to ask the speaker a question, and filled the room with the unmistakable scent of B.O. "It’s time for the April meeting to end," the science writer sniffed disdainfully. "The physicists are starting to smell."

6 thoughts on “warped thinking”

  1. Since you are a science writer I wonder if you can explain this to me: why are members of the public, high school kids & teachers interested in “An Evening of String Theory and Cosmology”, possibly two of the most inaccessible and mathematically demanding topics in physics?
    I’d love to attribute this attention to general appreciation of physics, but I don’t see a similar interest in, say, fluid dynamics or electromagnetic induction. People are just not equally curious about subjects like acoustics or optics, even though they are much more useful to people sans PhD’s. Feynman writes in “Surely you’re joking, Mr.Feynman” how his curiosity in the wobbling plates at the cafeteria eventually led him to his Nobel prize. How could so many be fascinated by black holes, but not at all by wobbling plates?
    I have two theories. Either those people are singing “if I can’t have you, string theory, I don’t want nobody baby” and ignore/downplay other subjects in physics (thermodynamics is just too hard to study to be worth a damn), or they expect these ‘sexy’ topics to bless them like a magic wand or a religious artifact.
    “A lay audience” of a talk on string theory is surely heartwarmingly cute, but frankly I’d be much happier if they knew nothing about it, but when asked why there are titanium golfclubs, try to learn what’s so special about titanium.

  2. I find that I get a lot of questions about string theory when I mention that I’m a physics person. Fortunately, since I was one of the lucky bunch who got to take Barton Zwiebach’s “string theory for undergraduates”, I was at least reasonably placed to answer them. (Ahem, requisite plug for book: everyone hop over to http://www.cambridge.org/us/catalogue/catalogue.asp?isbn=0521831431 and at least enjoy the pretty front cover!) My fellow physics majors reported the same general phenomenon: string theory makes people’s ears perk up, even that exotic branch of humanity far removed from MIT known as “the Wellesley girl”. My theory to explain this goes as follows:
    First, the “theory of everything” bit really pulls people in. It has the flavor of the ultimate about it. Second, there is probably a cross-fertilization with various bits of New Age flakiness. Think about it: in string theory, particles emerge as the different vibrational modes of a quantized, relativistic string. I can’t help thinking of the goofy voices in Frank Zappa’s **Lumpy Gravy**: “It’s like it’s all one note, man.” When you throw out all the math, string theory starts to sound like Bill Hicks’s description of the LSD experience: “All matter is merely energy condensed to a slow vibration. . . .”
    As a teenager, I was a volunteer guide in a science museum. My experience there makes me think that people don’t really consider physics as a thing applicable in daily life: the perception of the field is skewed, so that when you say “science!”, the listener naturally thinks of rockets, the Bomb, distant stars and string theory. If we’re lucky, somebody will remember a baking-soda-plus-vinegar volcano from a grade-school science fair — but will they recall why it works or have any thought that the acid-base neutralization reaction can be applied elsewhere?

  3. In fairness, judging by the session attendance at the Dallas meeting, it’s not just the public that’s fascinated by string theory, cosmology, and dark matter/energy types of Big Questions. Astronomy and cosmology have always had broad appeal. String theory, while difficult, had the advantage of being the subject of a NOVA special and a bestselling book. Ditto for black holes, time travel and similar exotic concepts, which also feature prominently in a lot of science fiction… These all help bring the topics alive in the popular imagination.
    It’s also often — not always! — true that the more mundane aspects of physics are presented in a less flashy or interesting fashion. But it’s NOT true that the public has no interest in optics or acoustics. Tie it into something they care about — like art, photography, concert hall design and the like — and you’ll get their attention and enthusiasm.
    And just as a side note, I got into physics through the more mundane, applied side, only moving into the more abstract and exotic theories later on, after getting my feet wet.
    There’s a couple of prior posts here at CPP that address the issue, and some pretty interesting comments to boot:
    http://www.twistedphysics.typepad.com/2006/03/mediagenic_101.html
    http://www.twistedphysics.typepad.com/2006/04/pop_culture_ped.html

  4. It’s also worth noting that people hear about science through the news, and what does “news” imply? Novelty, for one thing. Brevity, for another. What comes through the Tube’s “science correspondent” is also skewed towards medicine and high-tech, with a bit of astronomy spinkled in for seasoning. How many times have we heard the phrase “. . . may one day lead to a cure for cancer. Now this.” Astronomy has the advantage that telescopes give you some darn cool pictures — the “mediagenic” part is built-in.
    In contrast to all this, how many times has the TV newscaster ever said, “Today in classrooms around the world, thousands of students learned the fundamentals of quantum mechanics, a strange and often counter-intuitive science which has nevertheless stood up to the most elaborate scrutiny. . .” Quantum theory tells you how and why electrons move through silicon, which tells you how to “dope” silicon by mixing other elements in, which lets you make microscopic switches, which then make possible the computer chips that govern everything from international finance to teenage sexuality. The modern world would not be possible if somebody along the line hadn’t figured out a solid explanation for the atomic-scale behavior of matter. But because the key discoveries aren’t “new”, they don’t become “news”. We can’t rely upon the information channel designed to feed us “current events” if we want to learn about the well-established scientific findings already being used all over the place.
    How many people receive no other view of science? I have the strong feeling this impression — that science is always tentative, never strongly tested — is part of the reason why the present-day creationist lobby can get away with chanting, “It’s just a theory! It’s just a theory!” Scientists know more about many things called “theories” than most parents do about why their daughter is out past midnight, but that’s a different rant.
    More Feynman, from the introduction to **QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter**.
    “What I’d like to talk about is a part of physics that is known, rather than a part that is unknown. People are always asking for the latest developments in the unification of this theory with that theory, and they don’t give us a chance to tell them anything about one of the theories that we know pretty well. They always want to know things that we don’t know. So, rather than confound you with a lot of half-cooked, partially analyzed theories, I would like to tell you about a subject that has been very thoroughly analyzed. I love this area of physics and I think it’s wonderful: it is called quantum electrodynamics, or QED for short.”
    Here is a horribly long URL pointing to a recording of **The Pleasure of Finding Things Out,** if you need more media to fuel your Feynman fix:
    http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=6586235597476141009&q=feynman&pl=true

  5. Hi, have you read this article in the NY Times? I think you’ll enjoy it. It sounds a lot like what you’ve been saying on your blog lately. It’s about using humor and humanity in science writing. There’s also an idea about requiring entertaining sidebars in science journals, which reminded me of your physics essays.
    http://www.nytimes.com/2006/04/25/science/25side.html?_r=1&oref=slogin
    Ants, Better With Dose of Humanity (and Humor)
    By JAMES GORMAN

  6. Why yes, I did notice the Times article, which was also mentioned on http://www.skepchick.org today. It definitely cuts to the heart of what I’m trying to do here at Cocktail Party Physics — and indeed in most of my writing these days. I’m working on a related post today on this very subject that will mention Gorman’s excellent piece; look for it tomorrow morning. 🙂 And I just ordered the ant book from AMazon. That’s one I surely want to read!
    Thanks for the link!

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