Big Media Me: Here and Now

The NPR program Here and Now has been running segments this week on Science in America, and one of these from yesterday featured me talking about science literacy. We had some technical difficulties getting this recorded– it was supposed to happen at a local radio studio last week, but they had some kind of glitch, so instead we did it via Skype from my office on campus. (Where there was some sort of heavy equipment running outside my window before and after the interview, but miraculously, they took a coffee break for the crucial fifteen minutes of the actual call…)

You can listen to the clip online, but the main question was whether Americans know enough about basic science. I talked a little about numbers from various iterations of the Science and Engineering Indicators reports that the NSF puts out, and made a pitch for science as a process because, well, I have a whole book about that. While a pre-interview talk with one of their producers was the proximate cause of the Beyoncé analogy from a couple weeks ago, the conversation didn’t go in that direction, so I didn’t use that bit.

Anyway, it was fun to do, and I think it came out well (even though I continue to not particularly like the sound of my own voice). So if you’ve got ten-ish minutes to kill, give it a listen…

Beyoncé and LIGO: Stochastic Awareness of Science Is Probably Okay

I’ve had this piece by Rick Borchelt on “science literacy” and this one by Paige Brown Jarreau on “echo chambers” open in tabs for… months. I keep them around because I have thoughts on the general subject, but I keep not writing them up because I suspect that what I want to say won’t be read much, and I find it frustrating to put a lot of work into a blog post only to be greeted by crickets chirping.

But, now I find myself in a position where I sort of need to have a more thought-out version of the general argument. So I’m going to do a kind of slapdash blog post working this out as I type, and hopefully end up where I need to be, whether or not anyone else pays any attention.

So. The general thrust of both Borchelt and Jarreau’s pieces is pretty similar: a lot of work in “science communication” seems to be misdirected or ineffective. The audience for science blogs and web sites and the rest is drawn from the same limited pool of people who actively seek that stuff out. Most of the rest of the public isn’t looking for information about science, and thus, they’re not getting it. Which is generally a cue for much hand-wringing among the science-communication crowd over how we’re failing, and need to Do Better.

But over the last few years, I’ve started to wonder whether that’s really as big a problem as all the deeply concerned blog posts I’ve read seem to think. And the reason for that is Beyoncé.

It’s not anything that Beyoncé herself did, just the fact that I’m aware of her. I don’t own any of her music, and I’m not sure I’ve ever listened to a complete song of hers, as occasional snippets have been enough to confirm that it’s really not my thing. Nevertheless, I know of her, and have a generally positive impression, because news about her manages to impinge on my awareness in a variety of indirect ways– performing at the Super Bowl, bits of gossip on the pop-music station I listen to when SteelyKid’s in the car (they don’t regularly play her stuff, but they talk about her a bunch), or various science-y people on Twitter gushing about her dropping a new album, etc.

Beyoncé is just the most positive example of a general category of people I don’t have any particular reason to care about who I am nonetheless vaguely informed about. I think of this general phenomenon as “stochastic awareness of pop culture.” I don’t have any systematic knowledge of Beyoncé or the various Kardashians, but I know who they are and a bit about them because that information randomly shows up in front of me. Which is more or less inevitable, because there are a lot of people out there who care very deeply about the activities of these individuals, and pump an enormous amount of effort into generating stories about them. And the end result is that even though her music is not my thing, I have a hazy sense of her place in the pop-culture firmament, and a generally positive impression.

And hand-wringing blog posts aside, I think science communication could do a lot worse than operating on this same basic model. That is, we generate a lot of content about science that is primarily consumed by people who already care about the subject, in the same way that legions of reporters generate endless stories and thinkpieces about Beyoncé and other celebrities. And some fraction of that content will, from time to time, randomly end up impinging on the awareness of people who aren’t actively seeking information about science, leaving them with the same kind of stochastic awareness of science news that I have about celebrity culture.

Most of the time, this involves big, splashy stories– LIGO detecting gravitational waves, or the Pluto fly-by, and that kind of thing. In the pop-culture analogy, these are basically like Beyoncé performing at the Super Bowl. But there’s also a lot of connections that are essentially random. My favorite personal example of this is when my Forbes blog post about friction, inspired by a silly episode where I didn’t lose my phone off the roof of my car, wound up as a story in the Daily Mail. On a typical day, I’m pretty sure the overlap between my blog readership and the readership of the Daily Mail is negligible, but for essentially random reasons, this story ended up being put in front of a lot of people who wouldn’t actively seek it out.

From a communications and policy perspective, the hope is that when these stories land in front of people, they spark a “Hey, that’s cool…” sort of reaction. Ideally, this might prompt people to learn a bit more about the specific random topic, by reading other articles, or striking up conversations at work, etc. I can’t say how effective this is for random phone-on-the-car stories, but it works for big news events– whenever NASA holds a press conference, I can expect a few questions about it at Starbucks the next day, from the regulars who know I’m a scientist. And hopefully those leave a generally positive impression about science as something that’s pretty cool and thus worth a bit of money.

I would argue that the implication of the Borchelt and Jarreau posts I linked at the start of this post is that this is essentially what we’re already doing. That is, the work people who write about science (or make videos, etc.) are doing mostly ends up in front of an audience who already care about that subject. In the same way that most of what celebrity-culture reporters write about Beyoncé ends up in front of people who already care deeply about pop music. But I think those posts, and a lot of other writing about this, sort of underplay the effect of the occasions when, for random reasons, science news ends up in front of pop-music fans.

This isn’t an argument against doing science communication, though I’m sure it will be taken that way by some. It’s not even an argument against trying to find better and more effective ways to communicate science. On the contrary, I think both of those things are essential– the more science content we put out there, the better the chance that something breaks through, and if we can figure out and put into practice techniques for making stories land more effectively, we can hopefully boost the impact of those stories that do break out. I think we’ve seen some real progress on the latter, actually– NASA comes in for some ribbing about the number of press conferences they hold, but their PR people are genuinely good at crafting their messages, and the LHC has done a brilliant job of getting public attention for really abstract stuff.

So I don’t mean this as a “Science Communication: You’re Doing It Wrong” article. Instead, it’s an “Everybody take a deep breath and try to calm down” article. Yes, we’re mostly talking to ourselves, but “mostly” isn’t “only,” and I’m not so sure that stochastic public awareness of science is a major crisis that we need to wring our hands over endlessly.


(The obvious counterargument to my position takes the form “Yes, but science news is Important, while celebrity gossip is just trash.” Which is true to a point, but this is yet another area where science is not in any way unique. Pretty much any field of study that has even a slight connection to public policy has the same issues of stochastic public awareness of their subject, which is more Important than whatever Beyoncé is up to these days. And it’s been that way for decades (at minimum; Borchelt offers some documentation in the case of science) without the world coming to an end. So, you know, maybe it’s not that big a problem.

(I also find that I’m becoming less comfortable with declarations that this issue or that is What Really Matters, because there’s a kind of fundamental elitism to the whole business that rubs me the wrong way. At the end of the day, what matters to the general public is what they say matters to them, and if that doesn’t align with the elite consensus, it’s on us to convince them otherwise. This is maybe a sign that I’ve been in academia too long, and the secondhand smoke of “postmodernism” is rotting my brain, but whatever…)

Division of Labor Is a Good Thing for Science and Skepticism

Noted grouchy person John Horgan has found a new way to get people mad at him on the Internet, via a speech-turned-blog-post taking organized Skeptic groups to task for mostly going after “soft targets”. This has generated lots of angry blog posts in response, and a far greater number of people sighing heavily and saying “There Horgan goes again…”

If you want to read only one counter to Horgan’s piece to get caught up, you could do a lot worse than reading Daniel Loxton’s calm and measured response. Loxton correctly notes that Horgan’s comments are nothing especially unique, just a variant of an argument that you find everywhere:

I’ve spent much of my career confronting the common argument that skeptics should not perform the service skeptics do best, but instead tackle other subjects we may not be qualified to address. It’s a head scratcher, honestly. “You have specialized expertise in X, but I think X is trivial. Why don’t you specialize in Y, because I think Y is important?” Nobody ever says this to Shakespeare scholars or doctors or plumbers. (“Dear ‘fire fighters,’ fight fires less and solve more murders”?) Seemingly everyone says it to skeptics.

There are only two minor points where I disagree with Loxton. One is the claim that this is primarily deployed only against skeptics, because the general tactic is everywhere. I get occasional comments and emails of the form “Why are you wasting time writing about arcane quantum physics when climate change is so much more important?” The endless arguments defending “the humanities” in academia are another version of the same basic thing– “Why should students study English lit when computer coding is so much more important?” And there’s even a sense in which much of the Democratic primary campaign has been dominated by this sort of thing– the arguments between Bernie Sanders supporters and Black Lives Matter activists, for example, basically boil down to each side thinking that the other is too focused on an issue that is not as important as their own primary concern.

So, skeptics have a lot of company in fending off “Your issue is trivial, you should spend more time on what I find most important.”

The other tiny disagreement I have is that I would slightly expand the qualifications justifying a decision to work on X rather than Y. That is, I don’t think it’s just a matter of specialized knowledge, but also a question of temperament. I don’t spend a whole lot of time battling quantum kookery– a rich source of targets both hard and soft– not because I lack specialized knowledge, but because I don’t have the right sort of personality to be good at it.

It’s not that I’m not bothered by charlatans trying to profit from misrepresentations of physics– on the contrary, I’m a little too bothered by it. I do occasionally write about this sort of thing, but it’s very difficult for me to do it without becoming snide. It’s sort of cathartic to vent about on occasion, but mostly not particularly productive– when I go back to stuff that I write in that mode, I generally don’t like the way I sound.

And it’s absolutely not in any way sustainable for me. One of the most notable thing about the skeptical fight is that it’s neverending. No debunking of Bigfoot, or Ancient Aliens, or quantum crackpottery is ever definitive– the folks on the other side always come back for more. There are two ways to deal with this: you either draw from a bottomless well of righteous indignation, a la Orac, or have a similarly deep reservoir of patience, as Loxton seems to.

I can’t really do either of those. I can be patient long enough to give a reasonably gracious reply to the nutty questions I get after public lectures, but that’s exhausted pretty quickly. And while I can get angry about this stuff at times, I can’t keep it up long enough to sustain me through the fifteenth round of the same stupid shit. I burn out, and that leads nowhere good.

Don’t get me wrong– I’m not saying this to disparage Loxton or Orac or any of the other folks out there fighting the good fight. What they do is good and valuable, and I’m glad they’re doing it. I’m also glad that I don’t have to do it, because I just don’t have the temperament.

But in the end, that’s the fundamental problem with Horgan’s provocation, and the similar arguments deployed by advocates of every Cause Y confronted with people who work on Issue X. It’s not necessarily the case that someone who does good work on X will be well suited to help with Y. There’s specialized knowledge involved in any of these issues, but also questions of personality and inclination. I’d do a lousy job of fighting kooks even within my field of expertise, let alone some other kind of “more important” political activism, because I don’t have the personality for it.

At bottom, this is just the classic problem of specialization and division of labor in economics. Different people are good at different things, and making people do things they’re not suited to will get you sub-optimal results. The best course is to have everyone work on the things they’re good at: Orac does rage, Loxton does patience, I do “Hey, isn’t quantum physics cool?” And Horgan pokes anthills with sticks.

This can be really hard to remember, especially when you’re passionately attached to a particular thing. God knows, I do my share of grumbling about the overemphasis on particle physics and lack of attention for atomic and condensed-matter physics. But it’s important to try to maintain perspective and recognize that just because you think Y is the most important thing in the world doesn’t mean that the world would be improved by making people who are good at X work on Y instead.

Physics Blogging Round-Up: ARPES, Optics, Band Gaps, Radiation Pressure, Home Science, and Catastrophe

It’s been a while since I last rounded up physics posts from Forbes, so there’s a good bunch of stuff on this list:

How Do Physicists Know What Electrons Are Doing Inside Matter?: An explanation of Angle-Resolved Photo-Electron Spectroscopy (ARPES), one of the major experimental techniques in condensed matter. I’m trying to figure out a way to list “got 1,800 people to read a blog post about ARPES” as one of my professional accomplishments on my CV.

The Optics Of Superman’s X-Ray Vision: Spinning off a post of Rhett’s, a look at why humanoid eyes just aren’t set up to work with x-rays.

Why Do Solids Have Band Gaps?: A conceptual way to see why there are some energies that electrons simply can not have inside a periodic structure.

How Tropical Birds Use Quantum Physics: Blue feathers on many birds aren’t blue because of pigment, but thanks to the same physics that gives solids band gaps.

Why Do We Teach Old Physics? Because It Works: We had another round of people lamenting the emphasis on “old” topics in introductory courses; here’s my defense of the standard curricular order.

How Hard Does The Sun Push On the Earth? In which one of The Pip’s silly superhero books gets me thinking about radiation pressure forces.

How To Use A Laser Pointer To Measure Tiny Things: In which I use a green laser to settle the question of who in Chateau Steelypips has the thickest hair.

Don’t Just Talk About Science With Your Kids, DO Science With Your Kids: A simple home experiment, and a pitch for the importance of doing simple experiments at home.

How Quantum Physics Starts With Your Toaster: A blog version of my half-hour fake class on the “ultraviolet catastrophe” and why Planck needed the quantum hypothesis to solve black-body radiation.

Both blogs are likely to be on a sort of hiatus for the next little bit. I’m giving a talk at Mount Holyoke tonight, which will get me home really late, then Thursday and Friday I’m going to NYC for a space conference. Then on Saturday, we’re flying to Florida with the kids and my parents, and going on a Disney cruise in the Caribbean for all of next week. Which will provide a badly needed opportunity to kick back by the pool, because oh, God, so busy…

The Schrödinger Sessions II: More Science for More Science Fiction

As you probably already know, last year we ran a workshop at the Joint Quantum Institute for science-fiction writers who would like to learn more about quantum physics. The workshop was a lot of fun from the speaker/oragnizer side, and very well received by last year’s writers, so we’re doing it again:

The Schrödinger Sessions is a three-day workshop for science fiction writers offering a “crash course” in modern physics, to be held at the Joint Quantum Institute (JQI), one of the world’s leading research centers for the study of quantum mechanics. We will introduce participants to phenomena like superposition, entanglement, and quantum information through a series of lectures by JQI scientists and tours of JQI laboratories. We hope this will inform and inspire new stories in print, on screen, and in electronic media, that will in turn inspire a broad audience to learn more about the weird and fascinating science of quantum physics and the transformative technologies it enables.

The workshop will be held at JQI from Thursday, July 28 through Saturday, July 30. Participants will be housed locally, with breakfast and lunch provided at the workshop; evenings will be free to allow participants to explore the Washington, DC area.

Participants will be selected on the basis of an application asking about personal background, interest, and publication history. We will work to ensure the greatest possible diversity of race and gender, as well as type of media (print, television, etc.), with an eye toward reaching the broadest audience. Applications will be accepted on-line from March 1 through March 20, 2015, and acceptance decisions will be made around April 15, 2015.

The online application form is now live, so if this is something you’d be interested in, check it out and send us an application. And please share this with anyone else you know who might be interested.

What To Tell Your Dog About Quantum Physics: The Movie

A few weeks ago, I traveled down to Jefferson Lab in southern Virginia to give a talk for their Science Series of public lectures. They recorded the talk, and have done a very nice job of editing together the video, which you can see at that link, or right here:

It’s a bit under an hour, which must include the Q&A period at the end. So, if you’ve been wondering what sort of thing I do when I travel to give talks, well, here’s an example. And it’ll give you something to keep you entertained while I travel to Illinois to give another (different) talk tomorrow…

March Appearances

I’ve been really, really bad about using this blog to promote stuff I have coming up, but I’ll be doing two public-ish appearances in the month of March, and I probably ought to announce those here:

1) Next week, on Wednesday, March 2, I’ll be giving the Physics Colloquium at the University of Illinois, on public communication stuff:

“Talking Dogs and Galileian Blogs: Social Media for Communicating Science”

Modern social media technologies provide an unprecedented opportunity to engage and inform a broad audience about the practice and products of science. Such outreach efforts are critically important in an era of funding cuts and global crises that demand scientific solutions. In this talk I’ll offer examples and advice on the use of social media for science communication, drawn from more than a dozen years of communicating science online.

(This is basically the same talk I gave at Vanderbilt last year, updated a little. I tend to re-use titles a zillion times…)

2) A couple of weeks after that, on Wednesday the 16th, I’ll be speaking at the APS March Meeting, reporting on last summer’s workshop for SF writers:

Abstract: P47.00003 : The Schrödinger Sessions: Science for Science Fiction

In July 2015, we held a workshop for 17 science fiction writers working in a variety of media at the Joint Quantum Institute at the University of Maryland, College Park. “The Schrödinger Sessions,” funded by an outreach grant from APS, provided a three-day “crash course” on quantum physics and technology, including lectures from JQI scientists and tours of JQI labs. The goal was to better inform and inspire stories making use of quantum physics, as a means of outreach to inspire a broad audience of future scientists. We will report on the contents of the workshop, reactions from the attendees and presenters, and future plans.

This is a contributed talk, so it’ll be super short, but it’s a good excuse to go to the March Meeting, which was a good time the only other time I went. The program is massively intimidating, but I’m sure there’ll be tons of good stuff. If you have suggestions, even if they’re just “Hey, I’m going, too, we should get a beer!” you know where to find me.

Also, stay tuned for an announcement regarding our “future plans” (hint: we’re going to do another workshop…).

And here, I’ll send you on your way with some thematically appropriate music:

160/366: Nice Crowd

I did bring my good camera with me to Newport News, and took it on the tour of Jefferson Lab yesterday, but despite the existence of DSLR pics, you’re getting a cell-phone snap for the photo of the day:


That’s the audience about 10-15 minutes before my talk last night, so it was a good turnout. And they laughed in the right places, and asked some really good questions last night. I also got asked to appear in a selfie with a bunch of students from a local school, so they could prove they were there to get extra credit for their science class…

The talk went well, though we had some technical difficulties. The shiny new video projection system in the auditorium has an audio input jack on the VGA cable for the laptop input, but it’s about four inches long, and the headphone jack for my laptop is on the far side of the keyboard from the VGA out. Whoops.

We ended up taping a lapel mike to the desk right under the laptop speaker, which was mostly fine, except for a couple of occasions where we got earsplitting feedback. Technology, man. What can you do? Video will be posted to the JLab web site at some point in the future, after they edit it and get closed captions done (I’m very sorry for whoever has to do that…)

I was also pleasantly surprised that a couple of Williams classmates showed up to the talk (they live in the area), so I went out with them afterwards for a couple of beers, to catch up. All in all, a good day.

Now, I just need to get through most of a day of airports and Regional Jets to get home to Niskayuna.

Quantum Physics for Dogs at Jefferson Lab: TOMORROW

I’ve been remiss in my self-promotional duties, but I’m giving a public lecture tomorrow night in Newport News, VA, as part of the Jefferson Lab Science Series. This will be my traditional “What Every Dog Should Know About Quantum Physics” talk, with the sad addition of a slide honoring the late, great Queen of Niskayuna (visible as the “featured image” with this post). This isn’t the first dog-physics talk I’ve given since her death in December, but the previous one was the relativity talk, which has less Emmy-specific content. This one includes one of the video clips I made around a dog dialogue from the book:

That’s going to be a little hard to watch…

The talk was also written up in the local paper down there, which is always nice. And I’m looking forward to getting a tour of the JLab facilities. Assuming, of course, that the airline actually gets me there, which is no sure thing. Though my change of planes in Charlotte might be less of a problem than anticipated– I was fully expecting the Panthers to win big at the Super Bowl last night, and have their team plane come in at the same time as my flight…

Anyway, if you’re in that part of the world and free for the evening, stop by and hear some dog physics.

Quantum Short Fiction, Voting Open Now

The Center for Quantum Technologies is running a “Quantum Shorts” contest, where they solicited short stories exploring some aspect of quantum physics. They cut their large number of applicants down to two short-lists of ten, one for the “Open” category, and one for the “Youth” category. They’ll be giving out a “People’s Choice Award” based on Internet voting, so you can go over there and vote for your favorite.

There are also judged prizes, and I’m serving as a judge for the “Youth” category (and already sent in my rankings), so it would be inappropriate for me to plug any particular stories as really good. I can, however, point you to all of the finalists, to help you procrastinate on a Friday morning by reading fun stories about quantum physics: