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…

Comments

  1. #1 RM
    May 29, 2012

    Might I suggest some sort of physical separation between the Victorian summary and the body? In addition to the shortness of the new front page summaries, they also don’t respect formatting, so your summary and first paragraph are all squished together.

    ——-

    If you added a line of dashes between the summary and the first paragraph (vide supra) you could get a clear separation between the two on the front page while maintaining a reasonable formatting in the article.

    P.S. Is there no preview for comments?

  2. #2 Chad Orzel
    May 29, 2012

    This is very much a work-in-progress, so I’m still figuring out the best format. A line of dashes sounds reasonable, though.

    There isn’t any comment preview at the moment, but I’ll add it to the growing list of things to be looked at.

  3. #3 Frédéric Grosshans
    Paris
    May 30, 2012

    In the 1990′s, popular science books on soft-matter physics where not rare in France. Some of them have actually been read by high school students like like me ;-). The reason of this (temporary and local) deviation from the PR problem mentioned above is Pierre-Gilles de Gennes . He received a Nobel prize in physics in 1991 (the previous French physics Nobel was in 1970) and was passionate about public outreach.

    As a teenager wanting to become a scientist, it was a really refreshing read to learn that there was interesting science to be done in other domains than astrophysics and high-energy physics.

  4. #4 Ian Kemmish
    May 30, 2012

    1) Maybe people are simply less likely to buy books about stuff they think they understand. Most people think they understand matter. There must after all have been a reason George Gamow chose relativity and QM for his books, and following the herd clearly wasn’t it!

    2) “Smaller publishers”? Never heard of self-publishing? It’s cheaper than ever to do these days.

    3) If you’re hell-bent on finding a publisher, try a TV tie-in to a field that allows some cool computer graphics or photography. Never mind all those beautiful wildlife programmes on the BBC; they recently managed a three-parter on the physics of metals, plastics and ceramics.

  5. #5 ZW
    May 30, 2012

    I think it might be because ideas from string theory, cosmology and such are easier to describe abstractly qualitatively without having to resort to mathematical details, which as everyone knows turns many readers off straightaway. It is easier to hand-wave the reader through I guess.
    Condensed matter and stuff like nonlinear dynamics are interesting, but I don’t think its possible for the reader to be hand-waved through and hope to understand anything (or at least think they understand something :p)

  6. #6 Eric Lund
    May 30, 2012

    ideas from string theory, cosmology and such are easier to describe abstractly qualitatively without having to resort to mathematical details

    I don’t think it’s necessarily easier to describe these subfields without having to resort to mathematical details. But practitioners in these subfields get more practice at it, because even physicists in other subfields quickly get overwhelmed by the math. YMMV, but at least for me, the mathematics of condensed matter or nonlinear dynamics is easier to understand (and my specialty is in none of the above). So the condensed matter people (at least the theorists; experimentalists have their lab work to fall back on) are expected to use some math in colloquia, but string theory people are usually not held to that standard.

  7. #7 Chad Orzel
    May 30, 2012

    I think the difficulty of explaining condensed matter physics comes from the level of abstraction needed. In most cases, you’re dealing with a system containing an uncountable number of electrons, and to get around that, you have to shift to more abstract quantities that measure collective properties of the system– Fermi levels and band structure and all that. That stuff is hard to describe– I bombed the solid-state course I took in grad school, because I had a harder time making any sense of reciprocal lattice space.

    You can still tell stories in these systems– the topological insulator explanation from a couple of years ago is an example– but it’s harder to do, and often seems like overcomplicating a rather mundane situation.

    I think there are ways to make this stuff more comprehensible, similar to a lot of the techniques used for particle physics and cosmology– the “people crowding around a celebrity” explanation of the Higgs mechanism that you see over and over again is a nice approach to a similar problem. And if you run across really good communicators of this stuff, they do exactly that. But this is where the vicious cycle thing comes in– the techniques for doing this aren’t as well developed, because there aren’t quite as many opportunities for writing about this sort of thing for a popular audience.

    Regarding the tendency of condensed matter folks to use more math in general colloquia, I think that’s less a matter of the math being more familiar than of condensed matter physicists being more numerous, so there are always experts in the audience. Seminars by particle theorists at places known for particle theory tend to be completely impenetrable to outsiders.

  8. #8 czf
    United States
    May 30, 2012

    nice.

    i work in policy and environment and science. i am not a scientist but i love science and consume it always, esp. cosmology and physics. and i can tell you that one of the primary reasons that i love cosmology is the story that is inherent in the science.

    i think this helps explain the pop recognition of “the search for the Higgs-Boson” or the multi-verse of Greene or the string of kaku, etc. there are inherent narratives that are gripping that have been successfully woven into the public. the presence or absence of math in the story is actually of far less concern to non-scientist science consumers than many in the sciences think. people will struggle through the math to have their vision of the universe expanded or enlightened. people have no vision of condensed matter.

    because condensed matter physics hasn’t made itself into a popular narrative. find the popular narrative. find the popular implications–i’m sure they’re there. its the same in my own work. Climate Change sells books. energy regulatory policy in the midwest, doesn’t.

    also. publishers are no longer taking chances.

  9. #9 Doug Natelson
    nanoscale.blogspot.com
    May 30, 2012

    I’ve written about this before a few times. I think Chad’s comment above gets to the essence of the problem. While condensed matter has (arguably) had more influence on our daily lives than any other branch of physics, it’s tough to appreciate its coolness without some pretty abstract concepts. In the end, you really do need quantum mechanics (incl the Pauli Principle) and statistical physics (the ideas of order, thermodynamic phases, transitions between these phases + broken symmetries). If I had the time, i’d love to try my hand at a popularization, but that’s a distant hope at the moment.

  10. #10 Derek in DC
    May 31, 2012

    I find there is a shocking curiosity deficit on the part of the general public unless it’s a medical or a techy topic (“Will it kill me, heal me, or be on sale at Best Buy?”). It’s all the more shocking considering how much people pay for science each year (too much for some people, not enough for others, “I’m paying for what?” for far too many).

    In the near future I will be trying to attack the curiosity deficit by attempting to drum up curiosity about algebraic topology. I’ll let you know how that goes.

  11. #11 bobh
    June 4, 2012

    The thing that has fascinated me over the years is the similarities between “sexy” physics and condensed matter physics including broken symmetry and phase transitions. While renormalization was first applied to particle physics, Kenneth Wilson received a Nobel prize for its application to condensed matter physics (Kondo effect). Lattice models such as the ising model, used initially for condensed matter, have been expanded as tools for quantum and cosmological problems. I think it is the deep connectivity of the sexier physics and condensed matter that would make a fascinating read for the none expert, although perhaps not the layman.