Popularizing Science

While it’s not one of my main goals in life, I’m all in favor of the idea of popularizing science and making it as accessible as possible to as many people as possible. But sometimes I do wonder about the kind of things scientists get involved with when they try and do this. Just this morning I ran into these stories about science that make me ask myself:

  • Is it a good idea for physicists to appear on a radio show discussing what happened before the big bang, or does the lack of any evidence about this or of a convincing model mean that this is just inherently too speculative a topic to be sold as serious science to a wide audience? Should one perhaps leave this topic to the Bogdanovs?
  • Is it a good idea for physicists to promote to the public their work on time travel? Or might this also give the public some misleading ideas about science? (via i postdoc, therefore I am, but there seems to be a whole genre of “time travel” books written by theoretical physicists).
  • Is it a good idea for physicists to appear on a TV show explaining the forces involved in crushing beer cans, as part of a segment on whether women can crush beer cans with their breasts? Especially physicist bloggers known for attacking other physicist bloggers for their sexism and media-inflated nonsense? (via here and here)
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    70 Responses to Popularizing Science

    1. Zathras says:

      Wow, 50 posts so far on popularizing science and not yet one word on Carl Sagan. His Cosmos was my first exposure to science beyond picture books. I think Cosmos has a good mix of proven and speculative science, just enough to inflame many an imagination, and every popular science book since has tried to reach the same balance, with some mixed results.

    2. milkshake says:

      LM position has been that Bogdanovs papers were a serious attempt but a mediocre contribution and that’s why these papers went under the radar for some time – nobody was interested.

      The Emperor’s New Clothes: It’s impossible to accept that his field could be ridiculed like this – hence the articles cannot be a gibberish.

    3. Aaron Bergman says:

      They do get carried away with explosions.

      Not possible.

    4. vn says:

      Strugatsky brothers (see
      wikipedia;
      their slogan, Thinking is not entertainment but an obligation!)
      are also worthy SF writers, e.g., their Ugly Swans/Rain Time;
      this novel looks a bit like a kind of stylization on good old
      Bulgarian spy novel (What could be better than the bad weather:).

    5. Steve Myers says:

      I don’t know if there’s any easy answer to whether pop science is good or not. Clearly it depends on the quality of the work (book, TV, etc.). Yes, I’ve known guys inspired by Asimov, and others — but I wasn’t interested in that SF (for me math is real science fiction — the logical analysis of possibile functions, spaces, worlds.) But I have noticed that very often the interest in science is fed by a concerned adult — a teacher, father, uncles, so on. Feynmann traces his inspiration to his father; Einstein to his father’s gift of a magnet. I showed by sons & their friends how to measure the mass of the earth with a pendulum. My 6 yearold granddaughter thinks photosynthesis is “awesome.”

    6. LDM says:

      Feynman’s enthusiasm for physics was infectious, and was based on a deep understanding of physical law. Transmitting that understanding so the non-scientist realized that they too could understand and appreciate the beauty of physical law is all that is really required.

      People who attempt to popularize science by discussing speculative theories or use salacious examples have missed the point. Science is sufficiently interesting on its own to not need embellishment. IF somebody feels they must resort to such methods, then I would suggest it is because they don’t really understand their topic deeply enough where they can present it in an interesting way. The solution is to get a deeper knowledge that can be conveyed to the audience, NOT to get more superficial by discussing speculative ideas.

    7. liverpool says:

      check this out: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/earth/main.jhtml?xml=/earth/2007/11/14/scisurf114.xml&CMP=ILC-mostviewedbox
      looks like the British press didn’t have the same objections to garret lisi’s paper as some others…

    8. Mike says:

      In my country, in the way Russia numerous studies, but they spend in the USSR upbringing elderly who could not understand that young people are not very interested in science, such as physics. At this point, all the young people thought would earn as much money and maintain a business.

      Sorry for my English

    9. anon. says:

      I agree with drukpa, but case of Dr Garrett Lisi is difficult because it is in a preliminary stage. The most fundamental things to popularise more are empirical facts behind the models used for electromagnetic, weak and strong interactions which are summarised in the standard model, and also the few facts empirically confirmed about gravity from successful tests of general relativity (cosmological dark matter and dark energy are not exactly successful predictions of general relativity, but more a case of epicycles which may indicate problems). Too many people think lump this experimentally confirmed stuff with stringy speculations, and can’t see the distinction between facts and fantasies in physics.

      If publicity gets Dr Lisi a research position, and he uses the opportunity to follow up physical facts and is prepared to abandon (or put on the back burner) ideas that fail, then it is fine.

      What would perhaps be less good is if his ideas were to just replace mainstream string theory as the next groupthink hep-th subject, make no progress for the next 25 years – just like string – and end up creating a narcissistic pseudoscientific religion which can only defend itself by launching ad hominem attacks on the presumed low-IQs of those working on other ideas.

    10. Tom Whicker says:

      Funny how the mis-information about string theory slowly expands into the public relm. The November issue of National Geographic has a nice artice on Hubble images (“New Visions From Hubble”), but near the end of the text, the author is discussing so-called Dark Energy and he states: “….for all we know there are multitudes of as yet undetected particles, each with its own field, implying still more dimensions…….are these dimensions real or..just a handy way of calculating? Increasingly, physicists suspect they are real.”

    11. Yatima says:

      “The case of Dr Garrett Lisi is difficult because it is in a preliminary stage.”

      I will say. It’s a sad testament to my mental capabilities that I do not understand anything of it, so I shall keep an eye open for the appearance of “Lisi Bobbing Head” figurines at EntertainmentEarth. That should be a good criterium indicating that a successful new approach to ToE is indeed taking hold – even if it’s only (Hegelian) phenomenology (isn’t everything?). In 5 years or so.

    12. Assaf says:

      People will be people, and some will do anything to grab attention. The things you describe are of course completely irresponsible. What’s even sadder is that there are so many genuinely interesting and well established physics notions and concepts that one has to wonder why some physicists choose to promote such pseudo science.

    13. I think its fine to use tricks to promote science. In this day and age you gotta grab them kids attention!

    14. Anders R says:

      the kids who have any potential are drawn into it anyway. i really think people are overestimating the use of this popularisation. you’re probably not going to be able to come up with anything decent until you’re 19-20 anyway so why shove half baked theories down the throats of teenagers and kids.

    15. Mathieu Bautista says:

      Hi Mr Woit,

      I am a young french engineer passioned for mathematical and physical theories and I recently bought and read your book (in French, “Même pas fausse”). Unfortunately I am not able to do any work neither in string theory or any other physical or mathematical theory because I don’t have the technical level to do so.

      To use the same form you did, I have three points in response of your post “Popularizing science” :

      - Pedagogy is unfortunately considered as the low degree of making science. Scientists don’t want to make TV shows because people like you would later use this as an argument to bash their theory (chapter 15 of your book, about “the Bogdanov affair”, this is the french sentence : “De nombreux détails croustillants émergèrent sur les frères Bogdanov et leur façon d’obtenir leur thèse. Ils étaient cinquantenaires, avaient été responsables d’une émission de science fiction à la télévision [...] et présentaient actuellement une émission composée de courts fragments destinés à apporter des réponses à des questions scientifiques[...]“. I will try to traduce it for non french speakers (sorry the this poor traduction) “Numerous crumbling details appeared about the Bogdanov [...] they had presented a science fiction show [...] and actually a show that tries to provide answers on scientific questions”…So the Bogdanov can only “try” to provide scientific answers…

      - That’s my second point ; why such a hatred about the Bogdanov, their TV shows and their theory ? In this chapter (the 15) you focus on the form and don’t even try to present the content of this theory (you only give a short extract of their thesis deliberation). Have you read their books ? Have you attended just one of their TV shows ? The fact is that their theory IS undoubtedly a scientific theory (or else, it wouldn’t be discussed whether it’s true or false). I won’t discuss this theory here, but after reading some string theory books for non specialists (like “Supercordes et autres ficelles”, by Carlos Calle) and the book of the Bogdanov (“Avant le big bang”) I can’t tell whether the string theory is “more serious”. The fact is that they are more people trusting and working on the string theory. But that doesn’t prove anything, think about Albert Einstein : “If i was wrong, only one [scientist] would have made it” (sorry if this sentence is not exact, i only got the french version in mind)

      - And the last point; you are a teacher in mathematics, specialized in quantum theory. But you say in your book that you are not an expert in quantic algebra (which i suppose involves the quantic groups theory) The problem is Grishka’s thesis is based on these tools and it is the justification of the “Bogdanov theory” (I think about the 3.3.2 theorem). Of course, I don’t have the pretention to understand this thesis better than you, but if you are so convinced this is all a fake, you should be able to demonstrate it, shouldn’t you ? If that’s not the case, then you shouldn’t pretend that this theory is “laughable” (“risible” in french), this is not a scientific behaviour. Remember what happened to the “Big bang” of Fred Hoyle not sixty years ago ?

      I have not read your book entirely yet, but i will very soon. I have a deep respect and admiration for people like you who popularize science. That’s why I defended the Bogdanov a little, because they popularize science in France since 1980 (not only science fiction) and – like you – that doesn’t mean they can’t have great ideas and theories about cosmology or whatever.

    16. woit says:

      Hi Mathieu,

      About the discussion of the Bogdanov’s TV show. What I actually wrote is that “they now have a new show of short segments in which they answer questions about science”. No “try” there. I think you’re reading something into the French translation which is not there. I had no intention of criticizing their TV show, partly because I hadn’t seen it, just descriptions of it, and the descriptions I had seen were not critical of it.

      In general I should warn people that I didn’t see the French translation before it was published (and I’m actually slightly annoyed about this, since I do read French perfectly well and had asked for a chance to look over the translation). But as far as I know the translation is fine, I wouldn’t have noticed anything remarkable about the part you quote.

      As for the problems with the Bogdanov’s research work, that topic has been rehashed many times by me and others. No, I am not an expert on quantum groups, although I know something about them. The technical mathematical material on these groups in Grishka’s thesis is not the problem, the problem is the way this is used to claim to have a model of before the big bang based on topological quantum field theory, and topological quantum field theory is something I know quite a lot about.

      To say something positive about the Bogdanovs, the nonsense level among mainstream theoretical physicists in this area has increased significantly in the 5 years since all this happened, so that the difference between their nonsense and the nonsense of other people is not as dramatic as it was back then. Maybe they were just ahead of their time….

    17. YBM says:

      Here is the “promotional” abstact of Motl’s book :

      L’EQUATION BOGDANOV, Le secret de l’origine de l’Univers ?
      Un chercheur de Harvard, le Pr Lubos Motl, répond à cette question.
      Est-ce que deux personnalités de la télévision peuvent prétendre résoudre l’une des questions les plus ardues de la physique moderne ? Est-il raisonnable de penser qu’elles puissent trouver des solutions aux problèmes effroyablement compliqués qui concernent l’origine de l’Univers et sur lesquels, depuis des décennies, échouent les savants du monde entier ?

      Tel est le surprenant défi de cet ouvrage : montrer que la recherche et ses extraordinaires découvertes empruntent, parfois, les chemins les plus inattendus. Et surtout de nous apprendre qu’Igor et Grichka Bogdanov ont peut-être réussi, à force d’acharnement et de passion, à lever un coin du voile qui entoure l’une des questions les plus fascinantes de la cosmologie moderne :
      celle du commencement du temps, de l’espace et de la matière. Tout le monde sait que les deux jumeaux sont des passionnés de l’espace et de l’Univers. Mais sait-on qu’en 2002 ils ont déclenché une tempête dans le monde de la recherche en publiant six articles sur l’origine de l’Univers ?
      Des articles parus dans les meilleures revues de physique théorique, notamment la prestigieuse Annals of Physics dont les experts ont conclu que les Bogdanov avaient apporté des solutions nouvelles aux problèmes de l’origine du temps et de l’espace en dessous de l’échelle de Planck,
      avant le big bang.

      Dans les laboratoires, les discussions s’enflamment. Les Bogdanov sont-ils de véritables chercheurs ou bien s’agit-il d’un canular ? Pour la première fois un expert, ancien professeur à l’Université de Harvard, analyse en profondeur leurs travaux. Et il répond à cette question : Quel est le contenu des recherches des Bogdanov ? Après avoir lu attentivement leurs travaux, le Pr Motl a fini par conclure que les Bogdanov proposent rien de moins qu’une théorie alternative à la gravité quantique.

      Google Translation :

      THE EQUATION BOGDANOV, The secret of the origin of the universe?
      Un chercheur de Harvard, le Pr Lubos Motl, répond à cette question. A researcher from Harvard, Professor Lubos Motl, responded to the question.
      Est-ce que deux personnalités de la télévision peuvent prétendre résoudre l’une des questions les plus ardues de la physique moderne ? Are two television personalities can pretend to solve one of the toughest issues of modern physics? Est-il raisonnable de penser qu’elles puissent trouver des solutions aux problèmes effroyablement compliqués qui concernent l’origine de l’Univers et sur lesquels, depuis des décennies, échouent les savants du monde entier ? Is it reasonable to assume that they can find solutions to problems frighteningly complicated concerning the origin of the universe and where, for decades, scientists fail the world?

      Tel est le surprenant défi de cet ouvrage : montrer que la recherche et ses extraordinaires découvertes empruntent, parfois, les chemins les plus inattendus. That is the surprising challenge of this book: to show that research and its extraordinary discoveries borrow, sometimes, the most unexpected ways. Et surtout de nous apprendre qu’Igor et Grichka Bogdanov ont peut-être réussi, à force d’acharnement et de passion, à lever un coin du voile qui entoure l’une des questions les plus fascinantes de la cosmologie moderne : And above all we learn qu’Igor and Grichka Bogdanov may have succeeded, by dint of hard work and passion, to raise a corner of the veil that surrounds one of the most fascinating questions of modern cosmology:
      celle du commencement du temps, de l’espace et de la matière. As the beginning of time, space and matter. Tout le monde sait que les deux jumeaux sont des passionnés de l’espace et de l’Univers. Everyone knows that the twins have a passion for space and the universe. Mais sait-on qu’en 2002 ils ont déclenché une tempête dans le monde de la recherche en publiant six articles sur l’origine de l’Univers ? But do we know that in 2002 they triggered a storm in the research world by publishing six articles on the origin of the universe?
      Des articles parus dans les meilleures revues de physique théorique, notamment la prestigieuse Annals of Physics dont les experts ont conclu que les Bogdanov avaient apporté des solutions nouvelles aux problèmes de l’origine du temps et de l’espace en dessous de l’échelle de Planck, Articles published in the best journals of theoretical physics, especially the prestigious Annals of Physics, which the experts concluded that Bogdanov had provided new solutions to the problems of the origin of time and space below the level Planck,
      avant le big bang. Before the big bang.

      Dans les laboratoires, les discussions s’enflamment. In laboratories, ignite discussions. Les Bogdanov sont-ils de véritables chercheurs ou bien s’agit-il d’un canular ? Bogdanov The researchers are real or is it a hoax? Pour la première fois un expert, ancien professeur à l’Université de Harvard, analyse en profondeur leurs travaux. For the first time an expert, former professor at Harvard University, an in depth analysis of their work. Et il répond à cette question : Quel est le contenu des recherches des Bogdanov ? And he answered this question: What do the research Bogdanov? Après avoir lu attentivement leurs travaux, le Pr Motl a fini par conclure que les Bogdanov proposent rien de moins qu’une théorie alternative à la gravité quantique. After carefully read their work, Professor Motl eventually conclude that Bogdanov offer nothing less than alternative theory to quantum gravity.

    18. How Can We Turn The Tide? says:

      Peter,

      Other than Garrett’s non-theory receiving far more media coverage from the press, what is the difference between the Bogdonav affair and the Garrett Lisi affair?

      Are not-even-wrong theories endorsed by Smolin et al what we have to look forward to for the next thirty years?

    19. Peter Woit says:

      How can we…

      The Bogdanov’s papers are gibberish, they don’t make any sensible, comprehensible claims that can be accurately stated. Garrett’s paper is straightforward, conventional theoretical work. His claims are clearly made, so clearly that some people have been able to identify specific problems with them, which Garrett has acknowledged.

    20. Tim May says:

      And even “New Scientist” could not find anything in the Bogdanov paper(s) to put on the cover. Which suggests the Bogdanov kind of gibberish was in a different league…

      To defend “New Scientist” a little bit–since I’ve dumped on them as several others here have as well–I recollect other cover stories that were just about as “out there” as the recent examples. For example, I recollect at least several covers having to do with “the universe as a hologram.”

      Now I know that the hologram model (or conjecture) is not gibberish in the same way the Bogdanov papers appear to be, and that ‘t Hooft, Susskind, Maldecina, and the others are respected theorists. The hologram model probably sells magazines, too.

      (And anything with a bizarre name, or a picture of a guy with a goofy grin on a bicycle or in a wheelchair or cracking safes at Los Alamos, this kind of “human interest” angle has been making cultural icons out of physicists for a long time. Snowboarding hippies just goes with the territory.)

      So, cover stories for the holographic universe conjecture. Is it “not even wrong”? Does it have testable predictions? (My guess is no, at least not for things we’ll be able to see in the next few centuries, but maybe I’m wrong.)

      Is “New Scientist” wrong in putting these kinds of “wild conjectures” on the cover? (I could add a bunch of others, including theories of how all mathematical structures exist (Max Tegmark), how algorithmic information theory underlies all of physics (Greg Chaitin, though I’m oversimplifying his point here), how the universe may have just “fluctuated” into existence (too many names to list here), or even how vibrating strings and branes and whatnot may underly reality (!).

      I think it’s not so wrong for a popularly-oriented magazine to put things on the cover that hook some readers, even that generate some controversy. Provided the science is not truly bad, like the French brothers, or something like “New Support for Flat Earth Theory” or “Darwin Refuted!,” which would be a whole different kettle of fish.

      But stuff about possible imprints of other universes is, while very speculative, not actually misleading anyone. I recall having the same reaction to the idea that the microwave background map (WMAP) might have its bumpy structure determined by quantum-mechanical fluctuations in the first handful of Planck time periods to be pretty darned bizarre…but now it seems the accepted model. I don’t know if NS ever had a cover story with a picture of the WMAP sky with a catchy title like “Did the Uncertainty Principle Shape our Universe?,” but that would be unsurprising to me. Was it hype? Was it “Not Even Wrong”?

      It seems to me that if people approach “New Scientist” and similar magazines (even “Scientific America” puts this kind of stuff into cover articles these days) with a certain amount of skepticism and views the conjectures as just speculative approaches, not too much harm is done. I even think kids (teens) who get exposed to this stuff may actually become interested in science, and will learn pretty quickly how to move beyond the hype and speculation….I know it worked for me in the 1960s, when I was able to get beyond reading about, as one example, tachyons (Feinberg, a popular cover story back in the 60s, in places like “Science Digest”) and read what the underlying physics was about. (Feinberg, by the way, was no crackpot….but science journalists sure did hype up his work. Some foreshadowing of today, I think, but the faster speed of the Internet, blogs, SlashDot, etc., makes things move at _tachyonic_ speeds.

      It might be nice if “New Scientist” were to have sidebars that suggest healthy skepticism, sort of like the guys who stood behind conquering Roman heroes and emperors and whispered to them that they are not gods.

      But for now I guess I’m prepared to cut NS a lot of slack. We live in a time of a lot of hype, a lot of selling of stories, and way too many thousands of magazines.

      Too long a comment here…sorry. But I think that what Peter Woit and Lee Smolin and others have been doing is to inject some healthy skepticism back into the mix. And part of this healthy skepticism may involve some wild speculations of other kinds, things which help to “deconstruct” the idea that string theory is the only game in town.

      –Tim

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