Jenn Does Science

Audacity of imagination

Month: March, 2012

Worth a Thousand Words

Monday, I went to one of the labs where they’re doing research about which I am writing for my institute’s website to take some photos and video. It was an interesting experience; while I’ve taken photos before, it was always either outside or for my food blog posts. Photographing scientific experiments is a completely different experience.

When I see presentations where the speaker shows a photograph of his or her lab, I’m always annoyed at how useless most of these photographs are.  It’s fairly impossible to get an idea of an experiment by looking at a photo of the optical table because it’s so cluttered that unless you know the experiment intimately, you’re going to need a while to trace out what’s actually happening.  Of course, you’re unlikely to do so during the minute or so it might be displayed in a talk, or in the few minutes you might glance at a photo accompanying an article.

But the general public might just think it’s cool to see a picture of all the stuff put together, even if they can’t understand what’s going on, in detail.  So there’s a fine line between a throwaway picture to just show “science” and a picture that might prove interesting to someone with a little more knowledge of the field.  Luckily, the photos I was taking were in a clean room, so there was less in the way of clutter, as they want to avoid having unnecessary things in the room.  That meant that I could get clean shots of optics and mechanics, without having to play focus tricks.

So far, I’ve finished the most recent round of edits for two pieces, and I’m excited to see them come together.  I’m finding I really enjoy writing about science, as it gives me a chance to stretch intellectual muscles I don’t often get to use as an experimentalist.  I like trying to find ways to explain things without the ability to resort to technical jargon.  The pieces on which I’ve been working have also added the layer of trying to illuminate the text with visual aids.  It’s been interesting to try to come up with efficient and interesting ways to enhance the text with pictures and video.

The Most Satisfying Thing

Last Wednesday, a review committee from the organization that funds my research visited the university.  I presented a poster, and also invited my father to come and see the lab and the poster.  It was interesting, since my dad is a mechanic and has little formal physics background beyond what he learned in high school, but his intelligence definitely leans towards the quantitative, so he’s very interested in what I do.  So I spent most of the time explaining what my research is, and some of the general physics concepts behind it.

One of the big ones was bosons versus fermions.  He kept thinking of them as specific subatomic particles, so I explained it again in terms of dogs and cats.  There are dogs and there are cats, but there are also different kinds of dogs and different kinds of cats.  So you wouldn’t say you have fermions and electrons, because electrons are a type of fermion.

Later on this weekend, I heard him on the phone with his sister, talking about seeing the lab, and I listened to him explain some of the things that I explained to him.  His sister is a scientists, a chemist, so she has a basic understanding of a lot of the general concepts.  Dad didn’t parrot back exactly what I had said, but he did give a pretty decent explanation of the general workings of the lab.  I felt kind of proud of myself that I had been able to explain things clearly enough that he felt comfortable explaining them back to someone with a higher level of physics knowledge than he has, and get things right.

I realized that listening to someone to whom I’d explained something re-explain it to someone else was one of the most satisfying things about explaining my work to a non-scientists.  It is not enough to see the utterly lost look leave someone’s face; it goes so much further when you realize that he’s actually gotten it enough to pass the information along.  I sometimes wonder how authors, both fiction and non-fiction, feel about book clubs.  If I ever did write a popular science book, I would want to tour around to book club groups discussing my book and just sit in a corner without telling them who I was, so that I could hear how the audience understood my work and communicated it to someone else.  If there are any authors reading this, do you feel the same way?

On Writing and Audiences

Lately, I’ve started taking on some projects writing about physics experiments for a broader audience.  One piece I’m writing is for the general news section of a website, and the other is for news shared with collaborators and colleagues who are not necessarily in the same field, but are probably scientists or engineers.  This has gotten me thinking about how to gauge the audience of a piece and how to alter my explanations for a given audience.  It’s harder than it seems; as I’ve mentioned before, different words have different meanings to scientists versus non-scientists.

The first thing to think about is just how much science education the reader is likely to have had.  This seems obvious, but I think a lot of scientists, myself included, forget that most people have never had a class that covers quantum mechanics.  Think about how much advanced physics involves a reference to quantum mechanics and then think about how you would explain it without that knowledge.  Yikes, right?  So the biggest difference between the audiences for my two writing pieces is that one audience will recognize various quantum mechanics concepts, and another may not.  Now, plenty of people, especially those browsing science news websites, will have heard of certain ideas before, but they will not have been in the context of a class.

In the absence of formal knowledge of the advanced concepts, I find I fall back on analogies a lot.  No, none of them are perfect, but they’re a good way to give the rough idea of a concept without getting into “well, the math works out that….”  And analogies work regardless of the type of audience, as long as you have an idea what will be familiar and resonant with them.  For example, today I explained bosons and fermions in terms of dogs and cats.  Bosons and fermions aren’t specific elementary particles, but instead a way of classifying them.  So maybe a proton is a Persian cat and an electron is a tabby.  But they’re both cats (fermions).  This analogy has the fun quality of being extended because cats are solitary (Fermi exclusion) and dogs travel in packs (Bose condensation).  You can use more technical analogies for more technical audiences, but the concept is the same.  Compare an unfamiliar thing to something that the audience finds familiar and non-threatening.

Finally, when I’m writing for or talking to a general audience, one whose background I don’t necessarily know, I like to think about something David Kestenbaum said in a talk he gave at my university.  He said that someone once told him to think of the audience as that weird uncle who corners you at Christmas.  He isn’t stupid, but he probably hasn’t had higher than high school physics and he might be a little drunk.  In general, people like to hear things they already know, so if you underestimate the level of your audience, you probably won’t be chastised for aiming less technical rather than more.

Explaining Your Research

One of these days, I’d like to write a book called Explaining Your Research: A practical field guide.  It would include chapters on the various situations in which a scientist might find him- or herself where he or she might be required to explain about his or her research.  Since I am a physicist, I would likely focus on explaining physics concepts, and trying to communicate physics research in such situations.  Then, I would probably share anecdotes.

Of course, the bulk of the book would come from the fact that different situations require different explanations.  I mean, sure, you can corner a relative at a family holiday and bore them to tears for hours trying to explain the nuances of quantum mechanics, for example, but what about the well-meaning casual acquaintance?  Or the person who sets up his mat next to yours in yoga class?  How do you give an “elevator pitch” style summary of a subject that requires years of introductory coursework to even understand?

No, I haven’t actually answered all these questions myself, although I have learned a lot of it.  For example, avoid the word “quantum” in conversations at yoga studios.  Trust me.  Also, know your audience.  I happen to know that my mother loves to Google and has basically done her own online research of every topic I’ve mentioned in relation to my work, so I can get into some pretty deep topics with her.  She may not understand all of it, but she enjoys learning what she can.  Other relatives, even if they have more formal education, haven’t brushed up on as much of the current events or jargon of my field, so I start with the basics and hone down to a level that seems slightly uncomfortable.  That way, they feel exposed to something new, without feeling completely agape.

It also helps to admit that a lot of physics, especially experimental physics, is kind of an art.  I mean, I can explain the theoretical mechanism behind how a laser works, but when thinking about how my laser actually works, I tend to resort to voodoo and magic.  People who work with computers or cars understand this because computers and cars have some of the same idiosyncrasies.  Or cooking.  One person making a recipe can have a completely different result than another.  It’s about finesse.

Speaking of “finesse,” another thing to remember is that certain words mean something different in science than they do to the general public.  This gets scientists in trouble when they try to interact with politicians or the media because words like “uncertainty” or “error” mean something specific and not “we got it wrong,” which is what non-scientists tend to understand from them [this has a good table of other examples].  By recognizing this, scientists should try to use words in the way the layperson will understand them, rather than trying to make that person understand it the scientific way.  That way, semantics won’t hold back a conversation that is already difficult to understand.

Jenn Does…

Hi!  I’m Jenn, and I’m a scientist.  A physicist to be exact.  I’ve blogged about a lot of things, but till now, science has been a footnote in my blogging.  I’ve created this space to write about science when the fancy strikes me.  Look forward to new things being added soon.

Young Minds, Alan Alda, and “The Flame Challenge”

My first published piece of writing about science and society will always be my Editor’s Query contribution to The Washington Post.  I wrote about the young man I met when I was a drama-camp counselor and how he opened my eyes to the desperate puzzlement of quantum mechanics, perhaps planting the first seeds that led to my current path.  He has definitely inspired my fascination with how the general public perceives science, and physics in particular.  And the incident taught me that relating to children is about relating to them as small people, with developed minds, who may not have the breadth of education and experience, but who inquire just the same.

It seems that I share this fascination with none other than Alan Alda.  I’m not going to pretend to be some huge connoisseur of his work, although I always find his acting enjoyable, but I am a huge fan of his recent Science magazine editorial.  There, he writes about a frustrating experience he had as a child and how it shaped his efforts to expand the awareness of the importance of communication in the field of science. In my personal blog, I’ve written about my issues with the various ways in which popular culture embraces the stereotypes of science and the scientists, most notably in the popular CBS show The Big Bang Theory.

I think the problem of explaining science to children hits on the key issue facing the perception of science today: Science is seen as apart from everyday life, when in fact it is everyday life.  By brushing off a child’s question, Alda’s teacher told him that it wasn’t worth her time to explain a scientific phenomenon to him.  It smacks of “you wouldn’t understand” along with “maybe when you’re older,” both phrases that have much less place in explaining science than people seem to think.  Sitting down and trying to explain science to a child shows the child that you value his intelligence.  He may not catch everything in your explanation, but he’ll appreciate that you consider him smart enough to try.  The very fact that Alda feels the need to issue “The Flame Challenge” should make 11-year-olds everywhere feel like the real winners of the challenge.

As a scientist with an expertise in something that most people could go their lives without encountering, I live my own version of the flame challenge, whenever anyone outside of my field asks what I do.  And my answer has to vary, based on what I know about my audience’s experiences and areas of interest.  I wouldn’t explain my research the same way to my dentist that I would to my engineer uncle.  But the idea is the same: I have to make an effort to make my research understandable to someone without a strong physics background, or else why should they care what I do?  And if I can’t make my own family care about what I do, how could someone like make a politician, who might be responsible for funding, care about it?