World's Fair

This post was written by World’s Fair guest Rachel Carr.^

I am the village idiot.

It’s not obvious, mind you, when the locals first meet me. I approach them — the 30-some nuclear physicists at Michigan State University’s National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory, where I’ve miraculously landed a science writing internship — like I approached crepe vendors on the streets of Paris. I whip out the full reserves of my introductory college physics, or high school French, as the situation dictates, and start off sprinting. Ah! Bien sur, les neutrons volent aux les incroyablement grandes vitesses et puis ils frappent les… Pause. Ils frappent les… les… how you say…uh, those scintillation things?

And suddenly my interlocutors know: I’m not from here. I’m a little… slow.

They’re very nice about it. They smile generously, slow their speech, and switch to single-syllable, all-present-tense words. “So. The world is made of small things called a-toms…”

Well, it’s not quite that severe. But two questions into a interview, ostensibly about a professor’s cutting-edge experiments in accelerator physics, I’ve often dropped down to billiard-ball level. “Poor dear,” I expect my interviewee is thinking. “She has to write a story about me, and she doesn’t have a clue what I’m talking about.”

For me — class-leading, scholarship-winning, champion brown-nosing, sprung-from-my-parent’s-head-fully-formed me — this is unendurable. I hate being stupid. I cannot be stupid.

I rip through Wikipedia, devouring every scrap I can scavenge on islands of stability and many-body problems. But it’s like dropping individual atoms in a (non-nanotech) bucket. I was a biology major. I can still recite every intermediate in the Krebs cycle, or identify the flowers growing in our lab’s weird little atrium, but when it comes to the language of nuclear physics, I’m a sputtering nincompoop.

To be fair, I’m getting much better. I pick up loads every day, and I like to think my writing is comprehensible. But my ego still aches. The other townspeople have bigger brains, plain and simple.

One day, I’m complaining to a visiting professor, and he shushes me and says, “But you can’t be a second-class citizen, because that implies that there is a hierarchy, and there is no hierarchy.”

Sure, I’m thinking. The vice president of a glitzy consulting company had told me the same thing a few weeks ago. This man made $400,000 more than his starting employees.

“Everyone here contributes to our research,” the professor goes on. “The physicists, the engineers, the administrative staff, the janitors–”

I see. I, science writer, am every bit as vital to this scientific endeavor as the people who clean the johns.

He started afresh. “Your ignorance is an asset.”

I wished he’d used a more delicate word. But I let it sink in a little. And pretty soon I thought, yeah… yeah, maybe it is.

And now, folks, I am here to declare: the scientist spoke the truth (but is it ever otherwise?). His was a lovely little kernel of Zen: just accept your ignorance. Embrace it, even. Once you surrender your pride, you open yourself to learning so much – blah blah, cue the woozy inspirational music. I suppose, to most people, this is no revelation.

Maybe I’m making a stupid point. But I think stupidity, if you like that term, has a special value for the science writer. So you’re not a Newton, you’re not a Watson or a Crick. You can’t see all the world as – in the charming words of Erwin Schrodinger – “an elaborate differential equation.” (He was, in that phrase, talking about how a devoted physicist might see his wife.*)

You’re stuck seeing it as, you know, a place to live in, where simple stories hold the most power. That’s how you write it, and how the vast majority of the world will ever read it.

There need be no shame in that. Even Einstein used meowing cats and blinking lights and cute girls to explain his science, right? Possibly even billiard balls.

So I like to think, as I pass the pastel portrait that hangs in the stairwell of my lab (experimentalists downstairs, theorists upstairs, but again, is it ever otherwise?). He looks affectionate, a placid face haloed by tufts of pale hair, not unlike a graying Golden retriever. I’m not sure if it’s intended as homage or inspiration, but it’s probably fair to take it as both.

I do know that he said famous and lovely things about the relative bigness of brains.

There is one I especially like these days:

“Any intelligent fool can make things bigger and more complex. It takes a touch of genius, and a lot of courage, to move in the opposite direction.”**

* I only know this quote because I spent my physics study time reading the guy’s quasi-mystical writing rather than learning to deploy his equation.
** I found this one on a recent burn though – yes, indeed – Wikipedia.

^Carr is a student at the University of Virginia and currently, the keen reader may have surmised, an intern at the National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory. See more of her work in the next issue of Symmetry, a magazine about particle physics and its connections to other aspects of life and science from Fermilab and SLAC; at her own blog; and with her widely read previous guest post at The World’s Fair about an experiment in ArtScience with hydrocolloids and rabbit mousse.


  1. #1 Coriolis
    July 21, 2008

    As a grad student in physics, I find the knowledge of your own stupidity to be one of the most valuable ones ;). And pretty much no one goes to grad school in physics without learning that one. It’s not a minor point at all hehe.

  2. #2 Bob O'H
    July 21, 2008

    Thanks – I enjoyed that read. When you understand quantum mechanics, can you explain it to the rest of us, please.

    If you’re still stuck, try this idea from xkcd.

  3. #3 megan
    July 21, 2008

    welcome to the East Lansing neighborhood. As someone who hangs out with cyclotron grad students on a regular basis, I say don’t be afraid to ask them stupid questions. I learn a lot from them that way. And go get breakfast at the Golden Harvest north of Old Town Lansing when you get the chance.

  4. #4 Christie
    July 21, 2008

    Beautiful post, and a point relevant in any field. Thanks for writing it.

  5. #5 travc
    July 21, 2008

    I remember seeing an article in a physics journal many years ago reviewing a big conference… The article was all about how maybe 2 or 3 people at each talk had any clue what the speaker was talking about. Particle physics is probably the very worst field, not just because it is ‘hard’, but because a large number of the practitioners believe it isn’t supposed to actually make sense. Utter BS IMO. Even quantum physics can make sense (though the Copenhagen interpretation is not the way to go).

    If you are at MSU, you should definitely find an excuse to visit Rich Lenski’s lab. Charles Ofria over in CS is almost certainly doing very cool stuff too.