Physics Gets No Respect

Kind of a belated gripe, but something I was reminded of today that I forgot to blog when I first noticed it. I griped last year about the fomulaic nature of the “Best Science Writing” anthology, but I had no idea that the 2008 version would be worse.

OK, I haven’t read it, but I leafed through it in the store, and there’s not a chance that I would squander beer money on it: there isn’t a single piece about physics in it. Not one of the 19 articles highlighted by special guest editor Sylvia Nasar is about physics. Or astronomy. Or geology. Or, really, anything that wasn’t essentially biomedical.

This, in a year when there were approximately six million articles written about the turn-on of the LHC. I find it hard to believe that there was nothing of note written about the physical sciences. I mean, Dennis Overbye is still working, right?

What a remarkably useless book.

Comments

  1. #1 Jonathan Vos Post
    February 9, 2009

    Thank you Chad. That’s just as useful as your recommendations of books that we should buy. And saves money, too. Now, about that Stimulus… will there still be time to save the world economy by buying your and Emmy’s book?

  2. #2 cfcasper
    February 9, 2009

    Agreed. I was going to use it in a class this semester, but I went with The Best American Science and Nature Writing, with Jerome Groopman as editor instead. Ironic that I had to choose the one edited by an MD to get some variety beyond medicine.

  3. #3 Jonathan Vos Post
    February 9, 2009

    My wife reminds me that she usually gets up and leaves the room when a TV anchor says: “and now here’s the science news” and cuts to an M.D.

    Of course, she’s from an entire family of M.D.s and Nurses, and has been fed up with this for a long time.

    What I don’t understand is Sylvia Nasar’s motivation. For four years, she did research with Nobel Laureate Wassily Leontief. He’s hardly biomedical. Then she wrote A Beautiful Mind: A Biography of John Forbes Nash, Jr., Winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics Simon & Schuster, 1994. ISBN 0684819066. John Forbes Nash, Jr., is hardly biomedical, though his doagnosis and successful treatment was. Then she wrote [28 Aug 2006 The New Yorker] the article “Manifold Destiny” containing the only interview with Grigori Perelman, who solved the Poincaré conjecture, but rejected the 2006 Fields Medal, and examined Fields Medalist S.T. Yau’s response to Perelman’s proof. Yau threatened to file a lawsuit, but never followed through. Perelman is hardly biomedical, although his problem might be.

    So why is Mathematical Economics and Pure Math okay, but Mathematical Physics not? I’m baffled.

  4. #4 DrugMonkey
    February 10, 2009

    What a remarkably useless book.

    hmmm, whining because there are no physics articles and yet it is “useless” even though it contains biomedical articles. o the irony.

  5. #5 Sam C
    February 10, 2009

    Well said DrugMonkey at 4!

    Humans are hugely social animals, so people are interested in people and people-related issues, that’s a fact of life. If there is progress on causes or treatment of Alzheimer’s, that’s comprehensible and profoundly important to many people. But finding a Higgs boson isn’t going to make a massive difference (geddit?) to us layfolk, is it?

    There is a huge difference between “I am interested in X” and “X is interesting”.

    Too much physics is presented as a load of CGI wank or bad analogies. It’s not surprising that people get turned off.

  6. #6 estraven
    February 10, 2009

    There’s no physics, no mathematics. As usual. Mathematics is even more rare in the news. The exceptions quoted are, well, rare exceptions.

    Sam C, I strongly disagree. It’s just harder to explain something to the public when the bases are lacking. At school we learn recent biology, moderately recent physics, and zero mathematics of the twentieth century. And any mathematics that is taught is made as boring and uninteresting as possible.

  7. #7 bsci
    February 10, 2009

    I might have made this comment last year. I heard an editor of one of the earlier editions of this series speak a few years ago. The publisher choses a different editor for each edition and the editor had a lot of freedom to pick and choose the contents. That means each year’s edition is biased towards the editor’s interests. That, in itself, gives edition a unique style, but it also means the topics covered vary.

    Feel free to do a systematic search of the editors from the past few years. If you can show their editor selection is biased heavily away from non-biological sciences, feel free to post the contents of your research and encourage a letter writing campaign to the publisher.

    Also, I’m curious which specific great physics writing from the past year that was overlooked. Sure there were dozens of pieces on LHC, but most of them were “OMG!!!! we’re going to be swallowed by a black hole” or “OMG!!! Can you believe the crazy people who think we’re going to be swallowed by a black hole” While there’s a lot of great physics, I think it’s hard to argue that there aren’t currently more good bio writers. Who do you consider the top 10 physics science writers? What did they publish in the past year?

  8. #8 Chad Orzel
    February 10, 2009

    I might have made this comment last year. I heard an editor of one of the earlier editions of this series speak a few years ago. The publisher choses a different editor for each edition and the editor had a lot of freedom to pick and choose the contents.

    I don’t remember who it was that pointed it out, but the late David Foster Wallace did an introduction to the volume he edited (“Best American Essays”) describing the process in some detail. The essays for the book are chosen from a list prepared in advance by the series editors, which accounts for some of the sameness of the collections. I imagine the same thing is done in science, as well.

    This might help explain why 15 of the 19 articles are from the New York Times or The New Yorker, a well.

    Also, I’m curious which specific great physics writing from the past year that was overlooked. Sure there were dozens of pieces on LHC, but most of them were “OMG!!!! we’re going to be swallowed by a black hole” or “OMG!!! Can you believe the crazy people who think we’re going to be swallowed by a black hole” While there’s a lot of great physics, I think it’s hard to argue that there aren’t currently more good bio writers. Who do you consider the top 10 physics science writers? What did they publish in the past year?

    I don’t have anything specific in mind, mostly because I’m terrible at remembering the sources of articles. There was at least one really good article about the LHC and CERN relatively recently (in… The New Yorker? The Times Magazine? Something like that), but it could’ve been 2007 for all I know.

    It’s not just physics, though, it’s everything that’s not medical in nature. Physics, mathematics, astronomy, computer science, geology– none of them get any coverage. It’s conceivable that there wasn’t any worthy physics writing (though I highly doubt it) but I have a very hard time believing that there wasn’t any good writing about any of those fields.

    There may not have been any in the New York Times or The New Yorker, but that just means that somebody needs to read a little more widely.

  9. #9 BiophysicsMonkey
    February 10, 2009

    The NYT did have a nice article on the physics of glass a while back:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/29/science/29glass.html?_r=1&8dpc&oref=slogin

    But overall I agree. that article was notable precisely because it was an exception to the rule.

  10. #10 bsci
    February 10, 2009

    Chad, I think you also need to take the problem a step back from these volumes.

    Obviously there is very good science going on that’s not bio-related. Still, off the top of your head, you can vaguely remember one article in the past year that stood out to you. Could it really be that the best science writing of 2008 really does include very few articles about physics? Could it be that the problem is the dearth of good physics writers and not the selection process for this book?

    If one of the first active non-bio science writer I can think of is George Johnson and he tends to write from a more historical perspective and also proved himself to be a bit clueless (see http://brainwaveweb.com/diavlogs/16633?in=00:46:39&out=00:51:05 ) it doesn’t speak well to this section of science writing.

    You are a decent writer. I have you ever tried to freelance newspaper style articles? Have you seen any of your colleagues encouraged? There’s a deep tradition of this is medicine including Alexander Luria, Oliver Sacks, Lawrence Altman, Atul Gawade, and Jerome Groopman. Unsurprisingly there seem to be more MDs than physicists with serious writing careers that go in parallel to their professional work.

    Instead of complaining about this volume, I’d love it if you and your readers made a list of the best physics writing in the past year. I assure you that I would be one of many readers of the pieces on the list.

  11. #11 jeffk
    February 10, 2009

    I’ve had this same gripe about Science Friday on public radio, which is usually mostly respectable. Always about people – biomedical, or some cognition crap. If even NPR’s listeners can’t handle science that’s not about them, it doesn’t bode well for the future of physics funding.

  12. #12 Bee
    February 10, 2009

    Definitely – they should have chosen one of my great posts, say, about the equivalence principle. No respect. Tss.

  13. #13 Eric Lund
    February 10, 2009

    It’s not just physics, though, it’s everything that’s not medical in nature. Physics, mathematics, astronomy, computer science, geology– none of them get any coverage.

    I co-sign this complaint.

    That there would be some articles in the collection, perhaps as many as half of them, on biomedical topics is understandable. It’s relatively easy to convince the Mythical Average Reader that he should care about that kind of thing.

    But there is a lot more to science than medicine. It isn’t just the LHC that got slighted here. Global climate change is a topic that should be of great interest to everybody, and there was certainly a lot of weird weather in 2008 (e.g., unusually warm weather in the Arctic contributing to heavy snowfalls in eastern North America and China). There was a severe earthquake in Sichuan, and some question whether filling the reservoir behind a new dam contributed to the fault slippage. There were advances in dark matter and dark energy. Did none of this get covered in the NYT or the New Yorker? (Disclosure: I don’t read either of those publications.)

  14. #14 Alex
    February 10, 2009

    This, in a year when there were approximately six million articles written about the turn-on of the LHC. I find it hard to believe that there was nothing of note written about the physical sciences.

    The first sentence does not necessarily support the point made in the second sentence :)

  15. #15 bcooper
    February 10, 2009

    At school we learn recent biology, moderately recent physics, and zero mathematics of the twentieth century. And any mathematics that is taught is made as boring and uninteresting as possible.

    Are we talking about high school here? Teaching 20th century math, outside of some things like RSA encryption or “coffee cups = donuts! Wow!” seems pretty much impossible to do in any meaningful way without tons of background. (I was a reasonably involved math/physics major and I think my knowledge of math barely scratches the 20th century, and only in a couple of areas.) Also, the kind of math that people who like math find interesting is either problem solving using basic techniques or requires tons of background. Similarly for physics, although you can give a cartoony explanation of aspects of quantum without extensive background.

    By contrast, DNA doesn’t require a huge theoretical edifice to get. Thus you can have a reasonable chance of explaining fairly up-to-date stuff in a way that is approachable by the interested layman. As Sam C pointed out, there is also increased interest in medical/biological research because of its perceived relevancy to everyday life. Right there that’s a pretty potent double whammy to explain a lot of this stuff. My bigger problem with physics writing is that it seems like 90% of it is in the gee-whiz category of “string theory! dark matter! holographic principle! wheeeee!” I understand why this is but it tends to turn me off on the genre as a whole.

    It also seems to me that what biologists are doing these days is a fair bit more fundamental and new than what most physicists are doing, and likely more deserving of press, on average. But I’m guessing that will be a fairly controversial sentiment.

  16. #16 Chad Orzel
    February 10, 2009

    For those who care, Razib has the full contents, with links.

    bsci: You are a decent writer. I have you ever tried to freelance newspaper style articles? Have you seen any of your colleagues encouraged? There’s a deep tradition of this is medicine including Alexander Luria, Oliver Sacks, Lawrence Altman, Atul Gawade, and Jerome Groopman. Unsurprisingly there seem to be more MDs than physicists with serious writing careers that go in parallel to their professional work.

    I haven’t tried to write freelance articles for two main reasons. One is the same reason that I’m not so good about responding to comments in a timely manner: I have a day job that’s a full-time job, with its own particular status hierarchy. I don’t have a great deal of time to spend doing reporting, and the payoff wouldn’t be worth it in the early stages of my career– academics are rewarded for scholarly publication, and not articles written for the general public. MD’s are in a different sort of status hierarchy, with a different reward structure.

    Now that I have tenure, I suppose I could try to write articles for general magazines, but then this runs up against the other major problem, which is also a big part of why I can’t think of more candidate articles for the best science writing anthology: I don’t particularly like reading the sort of pieces that get picked up for these anthologies, or for that matter, the magazines that print most of them. Since I don’t care for the formula, I don’t feel motivated to write pieces that fit it.

    Instead of complaining about this volume, I’d love it if you and your readers made a list of the best physics writing in the past year. I assure you that I would be one of many readers of the pieces on the list.

    OK.
    I’ll write up a call for suggestions, and post it tomorrow.

    bcooper: It also seems to me that what biologists are doing these days is a fair bit more fundamental and new than what most physicists are doing, and likely more deserving of press, on average. But I’m guessing that will be a fairly controversial sentiment.

    If by “controversial” you mean “using words in a manner not consistent with their general use in English,” then, yeah. Or, to put it another way, I think you’re using an entirely different definition of “fundamental” than most physicists.

  17. #17 agm
    February 11, 2009

    @bsci:
    The Open Laboratory was originally and explicitly to be a collection of some of the year’s best blog posts, not reprints of articles printed elsewhere. The idea was so awesome, and the posts linked to so good, I ran out and bought it immediately. Somehow I missed last year’s, 2008 was crazy for me, but given that the first person I saw complaining wasn’t a physicist, I think we can safely say that it isn’t just physicists showing sour grapes.

  18. #18 bsci
    February 11, 2009

    Chad,
    Oliver Sacks wrote “Awakenings” in the very early stage of his career while he was actively doing research on the patients.. Sacks was a pioneer of his form of writing, but the modern equivalents ARE writing in the early stages of their career. The difference is not career stage or time. It’s culture.
    Looking forward to reading the thread on suggested reading.

  19. #19 bcooper
    February 11, 2009

    If by “controversial” you mean “using words in a manner not consistent with their general use in English,” then, yeah. Or, to put it another way, I think you’re using an entirely different definition of “fundamental” than most physicists.

    What I meant was something closer to “central to the field,” or maybe just “important.” But I’m not certain that this is that different from how many scientists would use it. I think that physicists can refer to results within their specialty as fundamental even if they are far removed from the foundational stuff that the term probably fits best.

    So I’ll try again. I think that what biologists are doing these days looks like learning how to hack life, almost to the point of making artificial life, and that seems to me to be an important and amazing revolution that really gets at the heart of biology. To put it in snooty and possibly ill-advised terms, I think it’s like Kuhn’s distinction between paradigm shifting scientific revolutions and normal science. You could make the argument that there should be more writing about normal science, but to me it’s very understandable that there would be a lot broader interest in the revolutionary stuff. It also works this way in history – I’ve sure read a lot more histories of the golden age of QM or evolution than I have about incremental improvements in calorimetry. (As an aside, this ties in to your other complaints about New Scientist always pitching things as revolutionary. That’s what attracts interest.)

  20. #20 Chad Orzel
    February 11, 2009

    Oliver Sacks wrote “Awakenings” in the very early stage of his career while he was actively doing research on the patients.. Sacks was a pioneer of his form of writing, but the modern equivalents ARE writing in the early stages of their career. The difference is not career stage or time. It’s culture.

    I don’t think we’re disagreeing, here. Oliver Sacks did what he did while working in a system with a very different rewards system than academic science in the 2000′s. You can call it “culture” if you like, but a practicing physician has very different incentives than a faculty member.

    It should also be noted that while the absolute number of doctors writing popular books is larger than the absolute number of academic physicists writing popular books, it’s not really clear that the rate is much higher. There are somewhere around 650,000 doctors in the US (according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics), compared to 18,000 physicists (or, if you prefer, 47,000 APS members).

  21. #21 Jonathan Vos Post
    February 11, 2009

    Re #6, on the Mathematics from the 20th century; and Mathematics being made as boring as possible.

    Only a bad Math teacher can make 20th century Math boring. It’s been a thrill ride, and an explosion of knowledge, insight, and applications that kids carry in their iPods and iPhones, whether the teachers tell them or not.

    On 4 July 2008 I posted a comment on the Good Math, Bad Math blog, about the bizarre nature of 20th century Mathematics and emailed it a number of friends, many of whom made comments. The Biologists and Economists and Inventors and Engineers all had strong opinions on how cool and weird Math has become.

    There is a crisis in science, and there is a crisis in mathematics, with both being due to the difference between human and computer approaches to logic and complexity.

    One of the best articles on the crisis from a mathematical and computational viewpoint is “Whither Mathematics?”, Brian Davies, Notices of the AMS, Vol 52, No. 11, Dec 2005, pp.1350-1356.

    I put a lengthy quotation from that on the “Michael
    Polanyi and Personal Knowledge” thread of the n-Category Cafe blog, with a reference to Greg Egan’s science fiction and a glimpse at the year 2075.

    Before we address the crises in Astronomy (the Inflation theory tottering, Dark Energy, and the like), Biology (what is a “gene” now that the old paradigm has fallen in a deluge of genomic data?), and Planetary Science (now that comparative planetology has covered much of this solar system and something of 300 others), we look back at Math.

    The triple crisis, as explained at length in the Brian Davies article may be summarized:

    #1: Kurt Godel demolishes the Frege, Russell-Whitehead, Hilbert program.

    #2: Computer-assisted proofs have “solved” some important problems, but no human being can individually say why.

    #3: There is sometimes no assurance of global consistency.

    #2 examples include Appel & Haken on four-color theorem (1976), Tom Hales on Kepler problem (1998), the 1970s Finite Simple Group collaboration culminating in the 26 sporadic groups led by the Monster, but with Michael Aschbacher (Caltech) sewing up loose ends through 2004 and still admitting the possibility that there might be another finite simple group out there in Platonic possibility which is different from all others; that skepticism amplified by Jean-Perre Serre.

    “We have thus arrived at the following situation. A problem that can be formulated in a few sentences has a solution more than ten thousand pages long. The proof has never been written down in its entirety, may never be written down, and as presently envisaged would not be comprehensible to any single individual. The result is important, and has been used in a variety of other problems…. but it might not be correct.”

    See also: “Science in the Looking Glass: What Do Scientists Really Know?”, E. Brian Davies, Oxford U Press, 2003.

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