The Internet Exists Because of (Schrödinger’s) Cats

I’m working on some short pop-quantum explainers for reasons that I’ll be a little cagey about. In casting around for a novel way to introduce Schrödinger’s cat states, I hit on something that probably works, but illustrates the problems inherent in being both a professional physicist and a pop-science writer.

The hook, as I mentioned on Twitter a little while back (early on a weekend morning, so nobody read it) is that you have Schrödinger’s cat to thank for the computer you’re reading this on. The core idea of the infamous cat paradox is that it’s both alive and dead at the same time, existing in a mix of both right up until the box is opened. This isn’t just a matter of it being in an unknown but definite state, either– it’s really in two states at once, and that seems weird and troubling.

However, while we can’t see quantum effects with something as large as a cat, we can readily see them with electrons. If you do a double-slit experiment with electrons– the results of which are on the screen behind me in the featured image above– you see electrons detected at single points tracing out a pattern characteristic of wave behavior. One way to understand this is that the electron exists in a superposition of two states at one: the state of having gone through the left-hand slit, and the state of having gone through the right-hand slit. The interference pattern requires both of these, showing that the electron isn’t just in a single unknown state, but a mix of both.

(Obligatory disclaimer here that I’m doing an injustice to a number of interpretations of quantum physics– Bohmian models in particular– that look at this a different way. I’m trying to get across a fairly mainstream version of the key ideas, though, and only have a few minutes to do it.)

This superposition business isn’t restricted to slits, though– it also works within and between atoms. If you bring two atoms close together, and look at the state of one of their electrons, you won’t find it in a state that corresponds to being on Atom A or Atom B, but a state that looks like a superposition of both at the same time. The electron is shared between the two, existing in both states at the same time (technically, it’s in one of two combinations: A + B or A – B, which have slightly different energies, but each give a 50/50 chance of finding the electron on either atom). This is what leads to chemical bonds within molecules (well, one way to understand it).

If you bring in more atoms, this process continues: three atoms, and each electron exists in one of three states that you can understand as a superposition of states associated with each of the atoms. Four, and the electrons are shared between all four. This goes all the way up to macroscopic numbers of electrons (“macroscopic” being a term of art in physics that means “more than you’d care to count”). If you look at a chunk of a solid, and think about one electron within that solid, the state of the electron is not a state bound to a particular atom, but an extended, smeared-out state within a band of same, shared between all of the atoms making up that material.

And this is the connection to technology. Those extended electron states, shared over all the atoms in a piece of material, determine the electrical properties of the material. And understanding how those states work allows us to control them, which in turn enables us to fabricate transistors by butting together bits of material with different properties in just the right way. And the ability to chain together huge numbers of transistors is what makes computers possible. Thus, the computer you’re using to read this is a consequence of Schrödinger’s cat: if electrons couldn’t exist in multiple states at once, the modern semiconductor industry would be impossible.

——

So, that’s my attempt at a new “hook” for talking about the quantum physics of superposition and cat states and the like. I can’t be 100% sure I didn’t subconsciously get this from somebody else, but as far as I know, I thought it up while walking the dog. I wanted something distinct from my prior discussion of it with Emmy:

and this is what I ended up with. Bringing in a bit of practical solid state physics was a bonus.

But as I hinted at the beginning, there’s a good deal of dithering about this. For one thing, calling the extended states of electron band structure superposition states isn’t quite right– you can write those states as some complicated combination of more tightly-bound individual atomic states, but for most purposes, that’s a lousy choice of a basis in which to express the state. The more typical way of looking at it treats those states as their own separate thing, and not a combination of localized atomic states.

On the other hand, though, while it’s not an ideal choice for calculational purposes, you certainly could choose to describe electrons in a material in the basis of localized states. And I don’t think it’s wrong to do so, at least not at the lying-to-children level where this explanation is working.

There’s also a more philosophical sort of argument in that what Schrödinger was worried about wasn’t really superposition per se but the probabilistic nature of the theory and the fuzziness about what constitutes a measurement for purposes of the quantum-to-classical transition. That’s why it’s a cat in the story, because a cat is unquestionably classical in most respects, but there’s no clear dividing line between microscopic systems that follow quantum rules and macroscopic ones that lok classical. And it’s true, I don’t really touch that, but then that’s part of an ongoing argument that’s really difficult to summarize. But I’m also not sure the subtleties matter, again at the current lying-to-children level.

And, you know, if you were to construct a power ranking of arrant nonsense written in pop-physics discussions of quantum mechanics, this would be really, really, really low on the list. At the same time, though, my training as a physicist and an academic makes me twitchy about these questions, even if the only people who will be bothered by them are other academic physicists. There’s also a question of internal consistency, given that I have previously engaged in nit-picking over fine technical points of another pop-physics writer’s discussions of weird quantum stuff.

So. Dither, dither, dither. In the end, I think I’ll probably run with this, because my qualms about it aren’t quite severe enough to force me to abandon it. But it has led to a lot of waffling, and now to a blog post with both a sketch of the argument and a description of the waffling, with a handy comment section in which people with really strong feelings about this argument can try to sway me into abandoning it…

Space Travel, Einstein, and GPS

Below you’ll find the slides from my Physics Day presentations at Space Center Houston, embedded via SlideShare. I was doing the TED-style minimal text thing, so they’re probably not all that comprehensible on their own.

The event was supposed to have a pop-culture connection, so I decided to use space travel and extrasolar planets as a hook for talking about relativity, thus all the movie images near the beginning. The original idea I had was to look at different fictional ways of evading the ban on faster-than-light travel, but they wanted something more in the half-hour range than the hour-long talk I was originally envisioning, so I had to cut it way back.

The problem with using space travel as an intro to relativity is that it’s easy to come off as a total killjoy, saying we’ll never reach other stars. My original plan was to offer causality as a reason why you ought to be happy about the ban on FTL travel– if you can move faster than the speed of light, than some observers will necessarily see effects happening before their causes, which would just be bizarre. I didn’t really have time for that, though, so instead I offered the Global Positioning System as an example of a useful application of the constant speed of light. With a bit of local pandering, as you can see from the maps toward the end.

I probably overshot the actual level of the audience– I was aiming for the upper end of middle school, but one of the larger groups in the audience on Friday was probably in fourth grade, so it pretty much went over their head. On the other hand, though, one of the actual middle-schoolers there (I’d guess about eighth grade) came up to me after the talk and said “Thank you so much! That’s the first time any of this made sense.” Which is a great feeling.

(I said “Thanks, that’s really great to hear. And, have I got a book for you…”)

So, anyway, that’s how I spent the latter part of my week. And if anybody would like an hour-long talk about relativity using fictional space travel as a hook, drop me a line, and we’ll see if we can make that work, because I’ve got the idea, now, and would like to actually do it at some point…

On Persistence and the Counting of Things

Kameron Hurley did a blog post on what it took her to become a writer, which I ran across via Harry Connolly’s follow-up. These are fairly long, but well worth reading for insight into what it means to be a writer– and they’re both very good at what they do. You should buy their books, right now.

As always, reading these made me feel really guilty. Maybe I ought to add “the writing life” articles to the list of topics I just don’t read, with “Let’s make fun of religious people!” and “The Higgs boson is the greatest thing since sliced bread!” Except unlike those two, which just irritate me, stories about struggling writers provide a useful corrective.

The issue, and the source of guilt, is that while I can, in certain countries, call myself a best-selling author, I backed into this. If you haven’t heard the story, I was in a silly mood one day, and wrote a blog post where I talked with the dog about the Many-Worlds Interpretation. That got picked up by Boing Boing, and 50,000 people read it, one of whom was an agent who contacted me and convinced me it would be a good basis for a book. That did reasonably well, so I wrote a second one on relativity, and now there’s a third one (not featuring the dog) in the works.

Around the time of the initial blog post and developing the book proposal, the novelist Walter Mosely spoke on campus. Somebody asked him how he became a writer, and his answer was “The worst people to ask about the writing business are writers, because they all got into the business through some ridiculously unlikely path that would never work if you tried to do it deliberately.” That really resonated with my ridiculously lucky story.

So, I always feel a little guilty when I read pieces like Hurley’s, because I never had to put in that kind of toil. I haven’t had to endure the repeated rejection and struggling to make ends meet, and all that sort of thing. While it occasionally makes me nuts, I have a pretty great day job that pays the bills, and my first book came about via a bizarre accident. And I’ve done very well as a result.

Note that I am not claiming that I never needed to work at the craft of writing. Far from it. At the time of that blog post, I had been running this blog for several years, writing stuff for people to read online, and before that I spent most of the 90’s hanging out on Usenet, communicating with a variety of people primarily through written text. All of that, in some sense, counts as writing practice. And, of course, I have a Ph.D. and a bunch of scientific papers with my name on them, through which I learned about the importance of editing and revision. All of that work, in a roundabout way, feeds into the books.

But it never really felt like part of a struggle to get to a particular goal. The blog was an outgrowth of Usenet, started on a hobby basis because I enjoy the process of typing words and having other people read them. I’ve often said that when it starts to feel like a job, something that I have to slog through, I’ll shut the blog down. That’s not quite true, in that there have been times when I have said “Oh, God, I need to write some sort of blog post…” without me pulling the plug, but on balance it has continued to be more enjoyable than not. And when I’ve had to suspend operations for whatever reason, I miss it a lot.

So, well-written accounts of toil and suffering in pursuit of a writing career always make me feel kind of guilty, because I’ve found myself with a writing career without facing that kind of struggle. (Sadly, this doesn’t really bring with it the power to help anybody else out– the publishing business is highly individual and compartmentalized, so there’s really next to nothing I can do to ease the path for anybody else who’s struggling.) They are, however, a useful corrective, in that they remind me that no matter how much I may grumble about whatever petty problem I’m having, things could be much, much worse. This verges on “too much fucking perspective” at times, but better too much than too little.

This also plays into the conversation Rhett and I had the other day about blogging in academia. Both of us were of a similar mind, though by different paths– Rhett started his blog after getting tenure, while I blogged through the tenure process, but have always kept it quiet. Neither of us have ever tried to get credit for blogging per se on our faculty evaluations, in large part because we haven’t needed to. (Rhett is also concerned about keeping the blog separate from the university, lest they decide to claim control of the product; that’s not something I’ve really worried about directly, though I do take care to be somewhat circumspect when blogging about stuff that happens at work.)

I’ve come to a sort of awkward compromise position on the whole question of blog output– if something I write here gets reprinted in a conventionally cite-able venue (a magazine, an Open Lab anthology, whatever), I list that among my professional output for the year, because I figure that a significant part of what they’re looking for is stuff that enhances Union’s reputation, and my author bio in any of those will always include mention of the college. And, of course, I list the books, because, hey, they’re books, and again reflect well on the college (I hope). And book writing is where most of my activity is directed these days– I’ve more or less suspended work in my regular research lab, particularly since becoming Chair.

But I’ve never really been able to figure out what to do with the blog itself– it doesn’t quite feel like professional scholarly production, what with the regular inclusion of cute-kid photos and other miscellany. I could list it under “service” as an outreach activity, but that feels like under-selling the blog (due in part to a quirk of our local merit evaluation system). And while there’s a substantial educational component to what I do here, I don’t really use it in my classes directly, so putting it under “teaching” feels wrong. Listing it under all three feels like overkill. And so on.

Every time I have to do paperwork for our merit review, I dither about this for a while, then leave it off. Picking a category is too difficult, and particularly this year, I don’t really have the emotional energy to invest in fighting about getting that counted as whatever.

And, of course, I feel a little guilty about this, too, in that I probably ought to fight the good fight to make sure that some future faculty member who needs it gets proper credit for blogging. But again, I don’t really have the emotional energy to spare at the moment, and that’s the only thing that would really be at stake, here. Not getting a small amount of extra cash isn’t going to hurt me, but having a select committee of my colleagues say “No, this stuff that you do isn’t worthy of recognition” would be a slap in the face. To be honest, our review process is so shrouded in mystery that I’m not really sure that the books will be given full weight as scholarly– they’re trade books, not traditional academic monographs, and I suspect there will be at least some “they’re only popular writing…” sentiment. Which is kind of demoralizing and cynical-making, but then again, the amount of money involved in our merit pay is less than I get for writing the books in the first place, so it doesn’t make that much practical difference.

So, in that sense, it’s easier to not try to count the blog. Which is kind of spiritually akin to Connolly’s warning against hope, back in one of the posts that kicked this off. If I don’t expect recognition for the blog through our merit system, I can’t be stung if it’s denied.

Then again, if the college’s official newsletter is going to cite my informal hangout with Rhett in the news of the week, maybe I really need to push this harder…

Explaining, Education, and Outreach

A couple of days ago, Alom Shaha posted on the new Physics Focus blog (by the way, there’s a new Physics Focus blog…) about his dissatisfaction with some popular books:

I recently read a popular science book on a topic that I felt I needed to learn more about. The book was well written, ideas were clearly explained, and I finished the book knowing a lot more about the history of the subject than beforehand. However, I don’t feel I understand the key ideas in the book any better. I won’t mention the name of the book or the author because this post isn’t really about that specific book. It’s about how I feel books of this nature often fail to deliver on what they implicitly promise: that you will understand the science contained within their pages.

There’s a notion among many science communicators and, I suspect, science teachers, that if you can simply come up with a clear enough explanation for something in science, then your audience or students will understand it. I don’t think this is always true.

This is a familiar problem in a lot of ways– first and foremost, it’s a rediscovery of the “deficit model” of science communication, which gets a lot of discussion in relation to policy issues. See this blog post for a recent discussion of some of these issues. Beyond that, though, it’s something I’ve spent a lot of time struggling with.

The problem is there are two related but subtly different things going on in most popular science communication projects, which for lack of better terms I’ll call “education” and “outreach.” Shaha is focusing on the educational aspect of things, but I think it’s a mistake to neglect the outreach side.

Of course, defining these terms is no simple matter, but having spent three years as a member of the APS’s Committee on Informing the Public, arguing about this exact thing every time we had a meeting, I’ll go with the rough operational definition offered at those meetings. Education in this context is the conveying of specific information– leaving people with a deeper understanding of the science, the sort of thing they might be able to apply elsewhere. Outreach is less concrete, going for more of a “warm fuzzy” feeling that science is cool.

Shaha is absolutely right that most popular treatments of scientific subjects are only partially successful on the education front. There’s only so much you’re going to be able to do with one book on a topic, in a format that is intrinsically kind of passive. It’s only through actively engaging with the subject matter and applying it to new contexts that real education happens. This is well known in the education community, and the reason why lots of people teaching intro physics, myself included, are moving away from the traditional lecture model. The primary driver of real learning is active problem solving– even in a lecture model, most of the learning happens not while listening to lectures, but when trying to solve problems.

At the same time, though, I don’t think you can consider a popular science book a failure because it fails to do real education, because there’s also the outreach function. While clear explanations may not be the way to produce real understanding of a subject, they can help inspire readers to get excited about science. In the best of all possible worlds, they’ll inspire students to go seek out more information on their own, which will lead to education down the road.

One of the pivotal moments in my physics career came when I was a junior in college, when Claude Cohen-Tannoudji came to give a talk at Williams. He’s an exceptionally good speaker, and gave a very clear and thorough explanation of the “Sisyphus cooling” mechanism in laser cooling, which won him a share of the 1997 Nobel Prize in Physics a few years later. I didn’t really come away with a deep understanding of the physics– that didn’t happen until much later, when I worked through the gory details on my own– but I did walk out of that room thinking that laser cooling was awesome. and when I found out that a couple of the professors in the department were taking thesis students to set up a laser cooling system, I immediately said “I want to be a part of that.”

Of course, there’s a tension between these two things in writing for a popular audience. The easiest way to get people fired up about science is to do a splashy and superficial treatment, that inspires without really educating. At best this gets you something like the hugely popular I Fucking Love Science Tumblr/ Facebook phenomenon, with cool science factoids printed over the top of eye-catching photos. At worst, it gets you, well, Michio Kaku endorsing incorrect and even crazy stuff because, hey, people love crazy stuff!

I’m not a huge fan of either of those approaches, which is why I spent weeks and months beating my head against a series of metaphorical walls making sure that How to Teach Physics to Your Dog and How to Teach Relativity to Your Dog contain high quality explanations of modern physics, not just inspirational piffle. I hope that I provided clear explanations at a somewhat higher level than typical for pop-physics books. But I also recognize that this is primarily outreach– thus the talking dog– and don’t harbor any illusions that reading my books will produce deep and practical understanding of quantum mechanics and relativity.

The books are, ultimately, a mix of education and outreach, conveying a bit of concrete knowledge, but mainly trying to leave an impression that modern physics is pretty awesome. And there are some signs that it works– one of the coolest things that’s happened this year was getting a note from our Admissions office, quoting a bit of a student’s application essay where she described being inspired to study physics by running across a copy of my book in her school library. (This was an essay on the Common Application, too, sent to a huge number of colleges, so it wasn’t just sucking up to Union…) I rank that right up there with the review by a ten-year-old in the Guardian as far as indications that I succeeded in my goals for the book.

So, anyway, that’s my slightly self-centered take on the question of explanations, education, and outreach. While I agree that clear explanations are not by themselves going to magically lead to education, it’s also important not to overlook the outreach value of explaining things as clearly and correctly as possible.

The Inspiring Power of You’re Doing It Wrong

I’ve got a bunch of browser tabs open on my various computers that have been there for weeks, one of which is Alastair Reynolds on writing science fiction. This is mostly a response to a not-terribly-interesting complaint that the science fiction genre has been “exhausted,” but there was a bit in there that resonated with me, where Reynolds talks about how he started writing one of his books:

That reaction, for me, encapsulates something fairly central to my subsequent relationship with SF. I don’t care for a lot of it. Never have done, never will. But at the same time, I doubt that I’d feel much inclination to write it if it were not for that generative friction, that grit in the oyster. There are two impulses at work when I produce SF – a sense that no one else is doing it exactly the way it should be done, and an acute desire to write it as well as it is written by the writers I most admire, whoever they might be at the moment. Ask me now: David Mitchell, perhaps. If I was truly happy with the state of SF, in other words, I suspect I’d feel very little incentive to write it. When I wrote Revelation Space, for instance, I perceived a massive, book-shaped hole where one ought to be – a book that was true to Einstein, true to our view of the limits of life and intelligence in the universe, true to our understanding of our own evolution, and yet which was also faintly Medieval, and rather ornately gothic, a sort of dark mash-up of the Name of the Rose and Ringworld. I failed, obviously, but that was the impulse – and in the end it produced something quite different from the objective. I’d be delighted if Revelation Space proved sufficiently irritating and wrong to another writer that it served as their generative grit. Pushing Ice, a more recent novel of mine, was written out of a sense of annoyance with the way so much SF cooked the books when it came to speculation about alien intelligence and galactic evolutionary timescales. House of Suns, more recently still, was written out of a conviction that it was possible to create a novel that felt galactic in scope, and yet which was still strongly constrained by the real physics of causality. My most recent novel, Blue Remembered Earth, was written to full another book-shaped hole – a perception (rightly or wrongly) that nobody was doing a mid-term, spacefaring future in quite the way I wanted it to be done. I am very happy to be told that I failed at all of these things, but these were the impulses.

What I am trying – and perhaps failing – to articulate here is that for me, I do not think I could write SF if I were not disenchanted with large areas of the field. Those areas of disenchantment are precisely the interesting interfaces where I can begin to feel my imagination doing useful work.

I think this is dead on, not just about SF, but about all kinds of writing. Including non-fiction– the reason this resonated with me is that I’ve been pitching a new book (and have a verbal agreement but not yet an official contract for it) that was driven in large part by a feeling that other people working a particular vein were Doing It Wrong. One recent highly regarded book in particular I was simply unable to finish because it annoyed me so much– I still have it on the iPad, and look at it every now and then, but I have yet to pick it up where I left off and not immediately close it again.

For that matter, a lot of How to Teach Physics to Your Dog was written the way it is because I didn’t like other pop-physics treatments of quantum physics. This made a great deal more work for me in places– the sections about decoherence in Chapter 4 were a miserable slog to write because I swore I wasn’t going to resort to the typical hand-waving people use to get past that– but it’s a better book as a result. I probably wasn’t entirely successful, but I think it was useful to make the attempt.

Anyway, that’s the useful take-away, for me, from Reynolds’s post: it can, in fact, be a positive thing to have people in your field Doing It Wrong. It’s not necessarily a good thing to call them out on that in public, or anything like that, but having a little grit in the oyster, to copy Reynolds’s metaphor, often leads to better things than reading only congenial treatments of a given subject.

And now, I need to get back to working on the work-in-progress. More details about which will be made public once I have a signed contract. I will say, though, that it doesn’t involve the dog, much to her annoyance.

I’ll be taking advantage of the one daily flight to Toronto that allows Albany to claim an International Airport today, en route to Waterloo, where they are celebrating the opening of their shiny new Quantum and Nano Center with an Open House on Saturday, September 29. I’ll be giving my “What Every Dog Should Know About Quantum Physics” (now with 100% more ephemeral pop-culture references!) at 12:30, and appearing as part of a panel discussion at 4pm with people who are more famous than I am. If you’re in the general area, stop by for one or both of those.

This will, obviously, keep me from substantive blogging, but that’s OK, as I’m not likely to generate anything better than yesterday’s post on relativity for pre-schoolers. If you somehow missed that, go read it. It’s got cute kid pictures, too. If you insist on something new, here are some links:

• David Kaiser’s top 10 books about quantum theory | Books | guardian.co.uk

It’s extremely flattering to see _How to Teach Physics to Your Dog_ among such distinguished company.

• Scientific Thinking in Young Children: Theoretical Advances, Empirical Research, and Policy Implications

New theoretical ideas and empirical research show that very young children’s learning and thinking are strikingly similar to much learning and thinking in science. Preschoolers test hypotheses against data and make causal inferences; they learn from statistics and informal experimentation, and from watching and listening to others. The mathematical framework of probabilistic models and Bayesian inference can describe this learning in precise ways. These discoveries have implications for early childhood education and policy. In particular, they suggest both that early childhood experience is extremely important and that the trend toward more structured and academic early childhood programs is misguided.

• The Frenzy | Easily Distracted

Entrepreneurial action can represent the best social and imaginative potential of modern liberal societies. It’s also a great way to focus and challenge any new initiative or project. Do you want to mobilize groups, sustain collective action? Then it’s totally fair to ask, “With what resources? With what costs or liabilities? With what kind of plan for organizational and financial sustainability?” Do you have a great creative vision, or some change in material practices you’d like to encourage? Thinking “entrepreneurially” is a great filter or structure for approaching those aspirations. What I do not like about “entrepreneurship” is when it starts to collapse into itself, when it’s an alibi for a gold-rush approach to life and aspiration, when it’s part of a frenzy.

• Chuck Klosterman asks: Is fantasy football destroying our perceptions of NFL athletes? – Grantland

There is a massive, ever-expanding class of Americans who cannot remember a connection to pro football that did not involve the drafting and owning of skill players who work on their personal behalf. And the result, I fear, has been the mild dehumanization of humans we were already prone to perceive as machines. Now, I realize dehumanization is a melodramatic word to use when discussing millionaires. I would guess that most people reading this column would love to be “dehumanized” in any context that pays them \$9 million a year. But this isn’t about feeling sympathy for pro athletes. That’s not my point. What I’m proposing has more to do with how a few grains of personal investment prompt normal people to think about strangers in inaccurate, twisted, robotic ways. It’s about how something fun quietly makes us selfish, and it’s about the downside of turning real people into algebraic chess pieces. The person who is making me think about this is Chris Johnson.

Having been on hiatus for a couple of months has made me forget my obligation for self-promotion via the blog, but I should note one fast approaching public appearance: I’ll be at the University of Waterloo next weekend, where they are celebrating the opening of their shiny new Quantum and Nano Center with an Open House on Saturday, September 29, featuring a bunch of public events. Two of these involve me: first, at 12:30 pm, my “What Every Dog Should Know About Quantum Physics” talk:

Chad Orzel, author of How to Teach Physics to Your Dog, will explore everything you — and your canine best friend — need to know about entanglement, superposition and other wonders of quantum science.

(Actually, entanglement isn’t in the talk, but whatever. I can answer questions about it at the end.) A little later, at 4pm, there’s a panel discussion:

Panel Discussion: Bridging Worlds

A panel of world-leading experts researchers and experts will explore how quantum science “bridges words” — the worlds of macro and micro, of our intuition and our experience, of present-day reality and future possibilities. Moderator Ivan Semeniuk, editor of Nature News, will lead a lively, wide-ranging discussion between Raymond Laflamme (Executive Director, Institute for Quantum Computing), Tom Brzustowski (expert on Canadian innovation), Chad Orzel (author of How to Teach Physics to Your Dog) and more.

There’s more detailed information about where these will take place, and how to get tickets at the link above. If you’re in the Toronto-ish area, and would like to hear me talk about dogs, quantum physics, and other stuff, come check it out.

The Perfection of Bay Area Dogphysics

Last night, as I was flying in to San Francisco, Matt Cain pitched the first perfect game in Giants history. Now, a casual observer might think these events were unrelated, but to ancient alien theorists, the connection between them could not be more obvious. Thus, you should come to Kepler’s Books in Menlo Park this evening at 7pm, to see what amazing events will happen next.

Well, OK, the most that will probably happen is that I might read a bit from the How to Teach Relativity to Your Dog in a silly voice. But you don’t know that I won’t use my awesome ancient alien magic to transmute lead into gold, Deepak Chopra books into useful medical advice, or the Golden State Warriors into a competitive NBA franchise. Unless you come to Kepler’s tonight.

Be there, or settle for reading about it in the papers and lying to your grandchildren when they ask where you were when all that awesome stuff happened in 2012.

Relativity for Bay Area Dogs, Among Others

Two How to Teach Relativity to Your Dog items:

First and foremost, I’ll be appearing at Kepler’s Books in Menlo Park, CA, this Thursday, June 14 at 7:00pm. I’ll probably read a bit of the book, so if you’ve ever wanted to hear me do the silly dog voice live, here’s your chance. Provided, of course, that you’re in the San Francisco Bay Area, or will be this Thursday night.

This will be my second trip to California in as many weeks, because all last week I was at DAMOP in Anaheim (the Chain-Restaurant-est Place on Earth). I spent a fair bit of time there explaining the whole talking-to-the-dog book thing to fellow atomic physicists, some of whom had heard about it in the Times and elsewhere. A lot of them expressed some skepticism about the talking-to-the-dog device, which is not at all surprising– I was kind of dubious about it, myself, when it was first suggested that I do a book based on that.

So it was very appropriate for the vanity search to cough up a couple of reviews, one of each book, that nicely illustrate both ends of the reader response spectrum (while both being generally positive, because I’m not without vanity…): Mark on Stuff read How to Teach Quantum Physics to Your Dog, and calls the inclusion of the dog conversations a masterstroke, while Charles Paolino likes the explanations in How to Teach Relativity to Your Dog, but finds that the conversations with Emmy get tiresome.

And that’s about the range of responses I expect– the talking-dog conceit isn’t going to work for everyone. There were points in the process, when I looked at how many odd little jokes and references I threw in there, when I was skeptical that it would work for anyone who isn’t me… But I’ve been really happy to find out that so many people enjoy the silly parts. And, really, since my main fear in the second book was having people with deeper knowledge of general relativity than I have discover some giant glaring error in those chapters, it’s weirdly gratifying that the only complaints I’ve seen have been about the dog jokes.

The Vicious Cycle of Physics PR

In which I talk about why it is that particle physics and cosmology are so over-represented in popular physics, and why my own books contribute to that.

[The too-short excerpts on the new front page are beyond my ability to change, so I’ll be doing Victorian-style “In which…” summaries at the start of posts as a work-around, so a casual visitor has some idea what a psot is about before clicking through.]

One of the maddening things about the recent upgrade of the ScienceBlogs back end has been that a lot of things have been posted during that time that I wanted to respond to. Near the top of that list is this Curious Wavefunction post about Physics’s PR Problem:

But I think physics also has a PR problem, and it’s of a different kind than chemistry’s. This statement should elicit gasps of indignation, since the Greenes, Hawkings and Kakus seem to be doing quite well; they are household names and every one of their books instantly gathers hundreds of positive reviews on Amazon. But there’s still a problem and it’s not one that is acknowledged by many of these leading popular expositors, at least partly because doing so would rob them of their next big NewYork Times bestseller and the accompanying profits. Look at the physics section in your B&N next time and you will understand what I am talking about.

The problem is that most of the popular physics that the public enjoys constitutes perhaps 10% of the research that physicists worldwide are engaged in. Again, count the number of physics books in your local bookstore, and you will notice that about 90% of them cover quantum mechanics, cosmology, particle physics and “theories of everything”. You would be hard-pressed to find volumes on condensed matter physics, biophysics, the physics of “soft” matter like liquids and non-linear dynamics. And yes, these are bonafide fields of physics that have engaged physics’s best minds for decades and which are as exciting as any other field of science. Yet if you ask physics-friendly laymen what cutting-edge physics is about, the answers will typically span the Big Bang, Higgs boson, black holes, dark matter, string theory and even time-travel. There will be scant mention if any of say spectroscopy, optics, polymers, magnetic resonance, lasers or even superconductivity.

This is something I have ranted about before, most recently in the Trickle Down Science post (which was also hurt by the upgrade breaking things, in this case the front-page and Last 24 Hours feeds). The physics that gets most of the press is only a tiny minority of what is currently studied by physicists– the largest single category of physics research is in “condensed matter” physics, dealing with the properties of large collections of atoms and electrons. Not coincidentally, this is also the area with the greatest practical impact– materials and technologies developed by condensed matter physicists are at the heart of just about everything we do these days. Computers, cell phones, iPads and iPods, Kindles and Nooks, and all the rest run on condensed matter physics. Lots of “green” technologies now in development– better solar panels, better batteries, etc.– will come out of condensed matter physics research. And on, and on, and on.

But, as the Wavefunction post notes, you would be hard pressed to find a popular book on these topics in your local big-box chain. The vast majority of what is published in pop-physics covers the same ground over and over again: particle physics, cosmology, and string theory, oh my.

Whenever I post something complaining about this, I’m more or less guaranteed to get a comment or two saying, “Well, if it’s so important to write about this stuff, why are your books about quantum mechanics and relativity? Hmm?” The answer to that is also the reason why this is a hard problem: Money.

I wrote about quantum mechanics and relativity because publishers were willing to pay me to write about quantum mechanics and relativity. They were willing to pay me to write those books because they’re in the business of selling books, and they know that people buy books about quantum mechanics and relativity– just look at the shelves in your local big-box store!

There’s a vicious cycle, here, that makes popularizing a broader range of physics very difficult. The high-profile topics are attractive to the general public, so they buy books about those subjects, so publishers publish more books about those subjects, which makes those areas more popular, and so on.

This is not a problem that’s unique to physics– the same issue plagues pretty much every area of pop culture. It’s why we get long runs of comic-book movies, or Law and Order knock-offs on tv, or My Awesome Werewolf Boyfriend urban fantasy novels, and so on. Publishers are in the business of selling books, and the easiest way to sell somebody a new book is to offer them something just like one they already read and liked.

So that’s the bind we’re in when it comes to expanding PR opportunities for physics. If you want to write pop-physics books that are just slightly different from books that have already been written by Brian Greene and Michio Kaku, there’s a clear market for that. If you want to write about condensed matter, well, that’s a harder sell. People won’t necessarily buy it, unless you find a really clever hook– the closest thing to a popular treatment of condensed matter I’ve read is The Physics of NASCAR, which when I bought it was shelved under “Sports” not “Science.”

Now, there are things you can do to push against this a tiny bit. While my books are about well-trodden subjects like quantum mechanics and relativity, I make a point of emphasizing areas other than particle physics and cosmology. The quantum physics explanations in How to Teach Physics to Your Dog are built around some of the spectacular experiments in quantum optics that have been done in the last twenty years or so. How to Teach Relativity to Your Dog has the unavoidable chapters on particle physics and cosmology, but I worked hard to keep the core examples more grounded than that, and worked in mentions of the optical clock experiments testing relativity at everyday scales. Both book proposals listed chapters on extra dimensions and string theory, but both of those chapters got cut for length.

The other thing that can work is to build popularity in one area, and then leverage that to write about something less intrinsically popular. As the Wavefunction post notes, though, there’s basically no incentive for most popularizers to do that. Greene and Hawking and Kaku are writing about what they do for a living, which they of course think is the coolest thing ever. Why would they turn to writing about some other area of physics that they don’t know as well or think as highly of? Should I become established enough to be able to sell a talking-to-the-dog book just on the strength of my previous successes, I’ll certainly think about doing How to Teach Condensed Matter Physics to Your Dog (the idea I’m currently working on does not involve Emmy, though). But there are some big “ifs” implicit in that sort of plan.

You could also try to get some publisher to take a chance on a book about a different area– I’m actually a little surprised that the 100th anniversary of the discovery of superconductivity in 1911 passed without any popular books on the subject (that I noticed, anyway). But with publishing going through a wrenching transition due to the whole ebook thing, there’s not a whole lot of room for big risk-taking, and smaller publishers (university presses and the like) also have smaller reach. It’s always possible that a relatively obscure book from a smaller publisher might blow up big, but that’s not really a viable plan…

So, it’s a Hard Problem, and I’m not sure what can be done about it. If I land a seven-figure deal for the movie rights to How to Teach Physics to Your Dog, well, that would greatly increase the chances of How to Teach Condensed Matter Physics to Your Dog, but I won’t be holding my breath…