The Quantum Pontiff

Physics in the New York Times?

One good reason to subscribe to the New York Times is that they have what I consider far above average science reporting for a newspaper. Their Tuesday Science Times section is a must read for me pretty much every week. Over the last three weeks I’ve been keeping track of the stories that were run in Tuesday’s science section. By my count, three weeks ago there were two stories which might be considered as articles about physics, one of which the categorization is a stretch (swarm models have been studied by physicists, but I doubt many physicists would consider this physics), and since two weeks ago, not a single article on physics has appeared. So the question is whether the reason for this is (1) not much is happening in physics that is newsworthy, (2) physics is, after many years of being hailed as achieving great public relations, losing its public relations touch, (3) biology and medicine are much more important, interesting, and newsworthy, (4) the New York Times hates physics, physicists, and even physicist’s children, or (5) none of the above?

By my count there have been at least a few subjects which I think would have made fine articles. Just off the top of my head I’d count negative refraction materials that “trap rainbows”, Berry’s phases in solid-state qubits, and UK withdrawing from Gemini. So it doesn’t gel in my head that there aren’t more physics related stories out there to be reported on, but of course this is a use of extralusionary intelligence of the highest order.


  1. #1 Michael J. Biercuk
    November 29, 2007

    Hi Dave,
    I think the challenges are multi-faceted. First, I think physics is sociologically considered too difficult or uninteresting for the majority of the population, and that the editorial decisions of media outlets reinforce this observation. Second, there are relatively few applications which have recently arisen within a very short time after a fundamental physics discovery. Time to the atomic bomb was incredibly short, and the ties to basic physics were therefore easy to cite. Third, I think there is a growing problem in the nation with physics because it is a discipline primarily studied by “liberal elite” academics. Biomed research, chemical engineering, etc. can be conducted by companies, and in the eyes of loud, right-wing pundits (note I say pundits, not conservatives generally), companies are composed of real Americans. Universities house people who hate America. While obviously a silly argument, I think it might really be impacting the perception of academic scientists among the general population, enough to influence a reasonably scholarly publication such as the Times.

  2. #2 Jonathan Vos Post
    November 29, 2007

    re: “swarm models have been studied by physicists, but I doubt many physicists would consider this physics.”
    cf: [November 13, 2007
    From Ants to People, an Instinct to Swarm

    See also:
    Erik M. Rauch, Mark M. Millonas and Dante R. Chialvo. Pattern Formation and Functionality in Swarm Models. Physics Letters A 207 185-193 (1995).

    I saw the Swarm presentation by Iain D. Couzin (the videos add quite a lot to the static presentation in the N.Y. Times) at the 7th International Conference on Complex Systems, 28 Oct-2 Nov 2007, sponsored by the New England Complex Systems Institute.

    The head of NCSI (Yaneer Bar-Yam) is a hard scientist, with several publications in Science, and recent Physics paper on arXiv. His father (also on the Board) has a named chair of Physics at University of Massachusetts. Yaneer’s brother-in-law is also published in Science. The quality of the people and papers at ICCS is high.

    Flimsy as my Physics credentials are, I chaired both Physics sessions at the 7th International Conference on Complex Systems because, in part, I have gotten to know the Executive Committee and staff rather well, and believe in extensive preparation for session chairs (i.e. reading several papers by each presenter, so as to introduce them well and in context of conference and session themes). Also, I drop the Caltech names of Feynman, Gell-Mann, et al when it does the most good.

    This interdisciplinary conference is the perfect venue for such a paper and dialogue. The default attendee is a recovering Physicist. Computer and Math (Graph Theory, Chaos) background is common. Appreciation of aesthetically strong theory is present, as is an appreciation for how complex Biological systems really are.

    Come to the next one, in May 2009 (17 months from now) to see what I mean. I’ll be running a mini-Science Fiction Convention inside the conference, as I’ve done before, with mostly PhD Physics authors of novels. Between now and then, we’ll read all the Tuesday Science sections of the New York Times, and get our Physics elsewhere as needed.

  3. #3 Frederick Ross
    November 29, 2007

    Just looking over the NYT science blog (is that representative) I see a bunch of stuff that I would consider general news (Congress on an energy bill, China protesting over effects of a big dam, the UN making a statement on effects of climate change on global poverty). Beyond that, it’s largely biology. And speaking as a mathematical physicist turned microbiologist, these stories aren’t exciting for biology either. They are chosen because they involve speculation about cures for disease, neuroscience (which is largely read like religious writings on the ‘soul’), and stories about helping cute, fuzzy animals.

    It’s depressing. The average human doesn’t realize that his primary teleological purpose for existence is to be a host for bacteria and viruses.

  4. #4 Blake Stacey
    November 29, 2007

    Just when I was feeling down about physics on the Internet, you had to go and make me pessimistic about physics in the newspapers. Gee, thanks. . . .

  5. #5 Dave Bacon
    November 29, 2007

    Gee, thanks. . . .

    Happy to help 🙂

  6. #6 Travis
    November 29, 2007

    The problem is that physics is too hard to understand at what I’ll call a general-but-deep level. By that I mean that, in the space of 500 words, a biologist can probably explain what’s original about his or her particular research. All the nuances aren’t there, but it’s enough for a layman to distinguish one biologist’s work from the next.

    Contrast that, with, say, high energy theory, and you see the problem. In 500 (or 5000!) words, a string theorist has little hope of distinguishing his or her work from–say–quantum gravity.

    The public has already gotten about ten articles on every modern physics topic in which the physics content is more or less indistinguishable. There’s no need for more.

    Science without understanding is no more interesting than mysticism, and it’s become too hard for the public to understand physics.

  7. #7 Tyler DiPietro
    November 30, 2007

    “Biomed research, chemical engineering, etc. can be conducted by companies, and in the eyes of loud, right-wing pundits (note I say pundits, not conservatives generally), companies are composed of real Americans. Universities house people who hate America.”

    Yeah, but the biomed people are all depraved evilutionists who want to poison our children with vaccines and make them get gay married. So it all evens out in the end.

  8. #8 Jonathan Vos Post
    April 12, 2008

    The university where my wife has been a Physics professor for 7 years, and I was Adjunct Prof of Math until canned by a psychopath Dean and a plagiarist Chairman, decided to curate an exhibit in their Library of selected Faculty each holding a book in a title-readable way.

    The girlfriend (herself an Asst Dean) of the psycho Dean (now deposed by the Academic VP) is holding “The Cat in the Hat.” I pointed out to my wife that this book is actually about a being with dictatorial powers disguised by friendly demeanor.

    My wife is holding a big hardcover of “Space” — the novel by James A. Michener published in 1982. Good choice! It is fiction (thus smashing through The Two Cultures barrier), it is a short clear title, and the title is meaningful to a majority of the people on campus (albeit interpreted differently by Architects, Graphic Artists, Fashion Designers).

    What irks us is that the plagiarist Chairman is holding a copy of The Feynman Lecture Notes in Physics.

    Now, first, I am an actual coauthor of Feynman, and a Caltech grad with multiple CIT degrees, whereas the Chairman has a degree from the “would you like that curry hot?” college of Obscuristan.

    Second, Feynman did actual research, while this Chairman only does soft-science ed-speak nonsense that tries and fails to prove that his curriculum and textbook actually teaches Physics.

    Third, Feynman wrote and spoke in very good English, while the Chairman is nearly illiterate. In fact, the Chairman, when he tried and failed to get my wife fired, complained in writing about a speculative cosmology paper by myself and my wife (which passed peer review in an international conference whose standards were so high as to have rejected a paper by a Nobel laureate), saying that it read like something “by Asimov.” My wife and I replied in writing that the Asimov reference is actually a compliment; that I have coauthored with Asimov; and that Asimov did actual scientific research, as well as being a great writer and teacher. Personnel didn’t like wither the attack nor counterattack, did not fire my wife, and delayed my wife’s promotion from Asst Prof to Assoc Prof by a year — which she did now get.

    “I knew that would set you off,” my wife said, after she told me about the library photos.

    “Adrenalin is as good as another cup of coffee,” I said, gritting my teeth, and went to the kitchen to get some more coffee and the just-from-the oven pineapple upside-down cake (secret: absolutely fresh pineapple).

    Where was I? Oh, right. Feynman: “The most original mind of his generation” — Freeman Dyson. Feynman reached a new level of fame AFTER his Nobel Prize by being engaged with the public and government and industry in several ways, related to this blog thread by this very title: “The Meaning of It All: Thoughts of a Citizen-Scientist”, and several plays and movies.

    (1) His Minority Report on the Challenger space shuttle disaster, and his great demo on live TV of the O-ring material in the lock-pliers jaws dipped in a glass of ice-water and not elastically recovering shape. One of the two great live Physics demos of the modern TV age. The other was, at the end of the last Apollo 15 moon walk, Commander David Scott holding out a geologic hammer and a feather and dropping them at the same time. Because they were essentially in a vacuum, there was no air resistance and the feather fell at the same rate as the hammer, as Galileo had concluded hundreds of years before – all objects released together fall at the same rate regardless of mass. This video may be easily found on the web.

    (2) Being a best-selling author on not-just-science terms, i.e. personal anecdotes brilliantly and humorously polished; including posthumously:
    * “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!: Adventures of a Curious Character”
    Pub. Date: March 1997 (paperback)
    * What Do You Care What Other People Think?: Further Adventures of a Curious Character
    Pub. Date: January 2001 (paperback
    * “QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter” (Princeton Science Library)
    Pub. Date: November 1988
    * “Most of the Good Stuff: Memories of Richard Feynman”
    Pub. Date: February 1993
    [by Gell-Mann, Wheeler, Bethe, Dyson, Schwinger, Bjorken, Goodstein, Cohen, Goldberger, Hillis, Joan Feynman, and the editors]
    * “No Ordinary Genius: The Illustrated Richard Feynman”
    Pub. Date: September 1995
    * “The Meaning of It All: Thoughts of a Citizen-Scientist”
    Pub. Date: September 1999
    * “Elementary Particles and the Laws of Physics: The 1986 Dirac Memorial Lectures”
    Pub. Date: March 1999
    * “Feynman’s Lost Lecture: The Motion of Planets Around the Sun”
    Pub. Date: January 2000
    * “Feynman Lectures on Computation”
    Pub. Date: July 2000
    * The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: The Best Short Works of Richard P. Feynman
    Pub. Date: September 2000
    * Feynman’s Rainbow: A Search for Beauty in Physics and in Life (Hardcover)
    by Leonard Mlodinow
    Pub. Date: May 2003
    * “Perfectly Reasonable Deviations From The Beaten Track
    The Letters of Richard P. Feynman”
    * “Six Easy Pieces: Essentials of Physics Explained by Its Most Brilliant Teacher”
    Pub. Date: January 1996
    * “Six Not-So-Easy Pieces: Lectures on Symmetry, Relativity and Space-Time”
    Pub. Date: February 1997

    Expanding for a moment on Feynman’s being the subject of a Pulitzer prize-winning biography:
    “Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman” by James Gleick,
    # Paperback: 560 pages
    # Publisher: Vintage (November 2, 1993)
    # Language: English
    # ISBN-10: 0679747044
    # ISBN-13: 978-0679747048
    “For him knowledge did not describe; it acted and accomplished. . . . The science he helped create was like nothing that had come before.” -James Gleick

    Thanks, in part, to Feynman’s personal guidance, I have been actively engaged in publishing, teaching, the Space Program, serving on the Town Council as an elected local politician in two communities of two states (and writing some white papers and speeches for Jerry Brown’s presidential campaign), as well as research in many interesting problems (various types of relatively “pure” Math, Mathematical Physics and Cosmology, Mathematical Economics, Mathematical Biology, and potentially life-saving biomedical research in conjunction with a brilliant surgeon and a med school).

    I just skipped the Nobel Prize step of the process.

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