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Pitching Physics to the Public

Ernst Rutherford once said that a good scientist should be able to explain his work to a barmaid. Rutherford’s point was well-taken. He did not mean to say that every layman could or should be brought to understand the details of every scientist’s experiments. But he did believe that scientists have an obligation to communicate their findings and to keep in touch with the community around them.

Which inspires a reminiscence on the same subject. Back in 1972, I was a graduate student taking a course in Indo-European linguistics, feeling overwhelmed with the details of sound changes as they moved through evolving languages and fascinated with their derivations in the modern world. One day in our campus cafe, I overheard two fellow students from the class discussing their work. Christmas break approached, and one of them observed, “My parents will want to know what I’m studying. How can I possibly explain Indo-European to them?”

And my thought was, if you can’t explain what you’re doing at this stage of your career, why on Earth do you think you can teach this subject later on? Let me add Erwin Schrödinger’s thought on the same subject to Rutherford’s: “If, in the end, you cannot explain your doings to the average person, your doing has been for naught.”

Of course, researchers aren’t necessarily teachers — at least, not happily so — and not everyone finds the time to bring complicated findings into the public arena, leaving that job to public relations departments and science writers. But physicists and astronomers who would like to tune up their communications skills have a wonderful tool at hand. The complete proceedings from the 2005 conference called “Communicating Astronomy with the Public” is available for free download online. Or if the size of this daunting PDF file puts you off, individual papers can be downloaded at this Web repository.

The conference, held at the European Southern Observatory’s headquarters, was a four-day affair attended by over one hundred astronomers, public information officers, science writers and other professionals with a stake in getting science across to the public. Topics ranged from broad issues like “Closing the Culture Gap between Scientists and Science Communicators” to highly specific case studies, such as “Communicating Chandra’s X-ray Astronomy to the Press and Public.” Tucked within these presentations are good ideas for any scientists hoping to explain someone else’s work or refine the public face of their own.

Centauri Dreams‘ note: Conference organizers should note how readily this ESO/ESA/IAU conference has been made available over the Internet. We need to consider how more scientific conferences can open up access in a similar way, not only through Web repositories of the relevant papers, but podcasts of their presentation. The tools for doing these things are becoming trivially simple to use.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Joseph February 18, 2006, 15:06

    I do give credit to those that try but far to many seem to have difficulty explaining what beer they want to that bargirl, let alone what the main principle of say mbrane theory is.

    A disturbing minority also seem unable to seperate their political and social stances from their scientific presentations. This leads to unwashed peons such as myself deciding that despite having the resources (due to a lifetime of hard work and saving) to send their child to MIT another university is selected due to the loathing of the percieved political indoctrination of said child by the academia at that university.

    I mention the above because even if some member of that minority could express their theories well they’ve already lost their venue since many won’t listen. To many would rather not hear the social/political baggage that would be interwoven with the explanation.

  • FlyingSinger February 20, 2006, 15:22

    Very good post, and thanks for the link to the proceedings. I am working on various angles for educational outreach (related to space exploration more so than astronomy, though these are clearly related). I’m using the Orbiter space flight simulator, talking with local teachers to get some classroom time, working with the Mars Drive Consortium, and come September I plan to apply to JPL’s Solar System Ambassador volunteer program. This conference has a lot of good material and inspiration.

    As far as the need for scientists to explain their work so non-scientists can understand it, blogs are an exciting new “venue” for this important job. In addition to interesting and well-written “space blogs” such as yours, there is also a lot of good communication coming through http://www.scienceblogs.com, not to mention various independent bloggers who are scientifically literate AND literate. My favorite is http://www.anthonares.net – Anthony has a strong interest in space but paints with a broad brush on a variety of science/public interest topics (and recently started writing also for Damn Interesting). Very readable with a lot of effort to avoid jargon AND to connect non-specialists via “translators” to real journal articles. I still often read Discover Magazine, SciAm, and the new SEED (which is very cross-cultural), but blogs are providing some of the best science writing for non-scientists around today.

    I like this so much it may call for a “me too” post (with credit of course)!


  • Jamahl A. Peavey October 17, 2007, 11:26

    The best way to pitch physics to the public is to show the history of physics. Many of the advancements in physics came from people in the public who might have been studying in different fields before studying physics. Did you know the link between gravity and electromagnetics has already been made through the study of Pulsars and Neutron Stars? You might not know because it is difficult to get published without a PH.D.

  • Morris J. Peavey, Jr. May 16, 2008, 22:11

    Today publishing is actually the easiest thing in the world. However, the problem of sactions and recognization is another thing. The intelligencia is a select crew and the attempt to control knowledge is thier “gold” we have to buy our GPA’s and face it there is only a few CHAIRS available. I come here from time to time hoping to hear what the inovating thinker see as truth about universal principles.