The Quantum Pontiff

Popular Science for Scientists?

Over at Cocktail Party Physics, Jennifer Ouellette shares her thoughts on good science communication

I’ve learned over the course of my varied career that the trick to all good science communication is being able to boil a complicated science story down to its most basic components — the “core narrative” — to which one can then add layers of detail and complexity to tailor the narrative to a wide range of target audiences.

The main point I tried to get across in that first workshop is that this is not the same thing as the “dumbing down” epithet that many physicists like to fling at popular approaches to difficult subjects.

Beside the fact that physicists (and scientists of all stripes don’t-think-you’re-getting-off-easy-you-chemists) like to call things “dumbing down” simply because it makes them seem smarter than they might be, I think Jennifer is exactly right: the best popular science I remember reading never felt like they were dumbing things down for me. (In this way does the best popular science share a similarity with the best children’s literature?) I don’t remember reading “Godel, Escher, and Bach” and thinking it was oversimplifying the Church-Turing thesis. I don’t remember reading “A Brief History of Time” and thinking Hawking was pulling his punches (although I do remember I disagreed with him on all sorts of topics.) “The Turing Omnibus” from my recollections was certainly not about dumbing things down: it’s where I first learned about computational complexity classes, analog computers, and the busy beaver problem. The explanations I remember were not contrived and oversimplified, from my perspective, but seemed like actual objects the scientists were working with, explained without technical jargon and complicated analysis, but with their scientific heart still beating.

But this got me wondering. Once upon a time, I was a great consumer of popular science. I’m fairly certain I read every popular science book in my hometown library (along with the books all the books on pseudoscience as well.) But over the years I’ve read less and less popular science. Why has that been?

Well maybe, I think, it is because I now know more about science and so, what was once not a “dumbing down” of the science, now feels like a “dumbing down.” If I reread “Godel, Escher, and Bach” would I now see it in a different light? And I wonder if maybe I’m not the only one who feels like this? Is there an audience of sophisticated popular science writing that may not appeal to the twelve year old with no background in science that I used to be, but the scientist I currently am? Popular science for scientists? I wonder. (*Ducks* as cynics and pessimists let loose with a torrent of negative comments 🙂 )


  1. #1 Jennifer Ouellette
    February 27, 2008

    If you were reading “Godel, Escher and Bach” as a 12-year-old, I’d say you were quite exceptional. 🙂 No wonder you read less popular science today…

    But the reason I like the whole “core narrative” approach is because the same core can be used for populist level science books and for more technical books/talks, etc. I’m not the target audience for the kind of science books you’re looking for, but I’d wager they certainly exist. Many university presses, the Joseph Henry Press, and others publish science books at a bit higher level than Hawking (or myself) tends to write. Brian Greene’s ELEGANT UNIVERSE started out simply, but the latter half was quite advanced and detailed. I guess it depends on where your interests lie.

    I’m all-inclusive when it comes to such things. There are many, many levels of discourse when it comes to science writing, all valid, and there are books out there to meet most interests and varying degrees of expertise. I hope folks more well acquainted with that particular niche weigh in with some recommendations…

  2. #2 Dave Bacon
    February 27, 2008

    Jennifer: It’s interesting to me that you use the word “narrative.” I think most scientists, when you ask them about what they’d like to convey in their science communication it is the “core idea.” I mean certainly when I think about a talk I try to think about a “core idea” when framing my talk. But maybe I’ve got this all messed up (it would explain the puzzled looks on peoples faces when I give my talks…that and the bad puns)! The talks I’ve enjoyed the most are much more narrative focused then idea focused. Michael Nielsen, I think, once expressed a similar idea about writing journal articles that were more narrative based than idea based.

    Hm, sounds like a good idea to try out for the talk I’m avoiding preparing by procrastinating on this blog.

  3. #3 Cosma
    February 27, 2008

    If I reread “Godel, Escher, and Bach” would I now see it in a different light?

    I somehow missed GEB as a geeky kid, and only tried to read it as a grown-up who already knew something about computation, logic, etc. I found it insufferable, and suspect that if I’d stuck with it it would have achieved “not to be set aside lightly, but rather hurled with great force” status. On the other hand lots of other poplar science books (e.g. William Poundstone) remain eminently readable.

    I suspect one reason scientists come to read less popular science as they age is that they become increasingly busy reading and writing scientific papers…

  4. #4 Blake Stacey
    February 27, 2008

    I second Cosma‘s remarks (although not being a rabid botany enthusiast, I’m not too familiar with the “poplar science” genre). I didn’t come across an actual copy of GEB until college, and then I only read a few of the dialogues. (I’ve heard good things about I Am A Strange Loop, and it’s shorter, so I might have to give it a try.) However, Larry Gonick’s books have held up very well, for example. And just a couple days ago, I was having a late lunch with a colleague, and we had an admiring conversation about Feynman’s QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter.

    This past Christmas season, my mother and I were browsing through a bookstore, and we came across a display of popular science books. “Oh, look,” I said, “this book became infamous among the linguists for including non-facts supported by spurious citations. And this guy has his own pet history of physics during the last twenty years, which doesn’t exactly match up with what physicists were really doing. And, hey, this fellow drives people up the wall because halfway through his book, he stops thinking and starts faith-ing. . . .”

  5. #5 Dave Bacon
    February 27, 2008

    “reading and writing scientific papers…”

    Damnit back to work…

  6. #6 Eric Roston
    February 27, 2008

    For guidance in writing about science, I keep QED nearby at all times. Feynman writes:

    “To understand how subtraction works–as long as you don’t have to actually carry it out–is really not so difficult. That’s my position: I’m going to explain to you what the physicists are doing when they are predicting how Nature will behave, but I’m not going to teach you any tricks so you can do it efficiently. You will discover that in order to make any reasonable predictions with this new scheme of quantum electrodynamics, you would have to make an awful lot of little arrows on a piece of paper. It takes seven years–four undergraduate and three graduate–to train our physics students to do that in a tricky, efficient way. That’s where we are going to skip seven years of education in physics: By explaining quantum electrodynamics to you in terms of what we are really doing, I hope you will be able to understand it better than do some of the students!”

  7. #7 Joe Fitzsimons
    February 28, 2008

    I used to read an aweful lot of popular science when I was younger, but I too seem to have grown out of it. I think the reasons for this are two-fold.

    The first reason is that I already know more about most areas of physics than will generally be conveyed in a popular science book, and these were my favorite books.

    The second is that I like to play around with ideas that are new to me, and for this I need the book to contain at least some mathematics. I remember from reading books about quantum mechanics (In search of Schroedinger’s cat,etc.) that I felt I was gaining some understanding right up until I tried to work out what happens in a slightly different situation than one described in the book. I suspect that this removal of all traces of mathematics is what leads to the view that such books dumb down a subject.

    There are some books to which the second point doesn’t apply (the Feynman lectures etc.) but these gems are few and far between. The result is that now when I want to learn about a new area I buy an introductory textbook. It’s certainly not as fun to read as a good popularization, but I at least feel I have learned something new.

  8. #8 Tom
    February 28, 2008

    There’s no doubt that it takes a certain talent to boil things down to the core narrative, but I don’t think the scientists call it “dumbing down” to make themselves appear smarter. Scientists communicate with equations and jargon because it’s generally very efficient, and in popular communication about science you remove these two tools, because a general audience is not going to understand them. (It’s a misuse of the word, because the audience isn’t dumb, it’s that they are ignorant of what the jargon means and how to interpret the equations.) Stripping away those two tools does make the job harder, and the final explanation can end up being less robust as a result.

  9. #9 Dave Bacon
    February 28, 2008

    I agree Tom. Mostly my “dumbing down”=”make the smarter” was said in jest, although sadly, I must say, it is not entirely untrue for some subspecies of scientists 🙂

  10. #10 Peter Morgan
    February 28, 2008

    The skills required to describe Physics to non-Physicists are similar to the skills required to describe new Physics, particularly radically new Physics, to Physicists, so they’re good to have in the toolbox for anyone who wants to change how Physics is done in any fundamental way. I believe that finding a way to describe what a new idea does, why it works and is useful, etc., in terms that a Physicist can understand in a few moments, so that they think there might be something to pursue after they’ve read the abstract, and then after they’ve read the paper, is a rather similar process to the distillation required in writing good popular science.
    If you never need to convince anybody that what you’re doing is not outrageous, then as a researcher you may be coasting. Good teaching, at any level, of course also needs the skills of distillation.

  11. #11 Mark O'Connor
    February 28, 2008

    I was a HS science teacher for many years. Much of my waking day I spent trying to find good “narratives” to help kids get a grip on scientific ideas. Interestingly, it was the scientific “attitude” that was easiest to deal with. I often found myself saying, in response to those wonderful “why?” questions kids always ask: “here’s how a scientist would think about that” or “here’s a question a scientist might ask (because he/she MIGHT be able to create an experiment).” Stephen Jay Gould, may he rest in peace, was a great source for this sort of thing. I remember something from Robert Frost that helped a lot. He said that learning (to paraphrase) was “putting one thing in terms of another.” In other words, the poet’s most powerful tool–metaphor–was the essence of understanding. I think he’s on to something, and the good “popular” science stuff out there taps into our natural ability to do this–express something in words or images we CAN grasp. As we mature, we find these metaphors to be incomplete, and we reach for newer, more sophisticated ones. Scientists, of course, not only have to have SHARED metaphors (models), but efficient (and testable) means of communicating about them (mathematics). Someone once asked Lewis Thomas (“Lives of a Cell”) his thoughts on cosmology (he was a biologist). He said “I don’t know, I can’t do the math!”

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