Most of the time the attention paid here to efforts to popularize physics is restricted to grumpy complaints about the hype surrounding string theory as well as the more general dubious phenomenon of scientists promoting things that are more science fiction than science. Today I’m in a much more positive mood, and thought I’d take the opportunity to make some unusually sunny comments for a change.
One reason for this is that I attended the opening party for my colleague Brian Greene’s World Science Festival Wednesday night at the American Museum of Natural History, and several people have told me about the enthusiastic reception the festival events have been getting. I was hoping to attend one of the events, but it was already sold out.
Things started off during the day Thursday with a World Science Summit here at Columbia featuring a speech by Mayor Bloomberg, and award of the new Kavli prizes. That evening, at the museum event, Brian, Fred Kavli and Senator Schumer all spoke, and the crowd was entertained by the choir of the Abyssinian Baptist Church.
Among the people I got a chance to talk to at the event were several string theorists. One of these was Jim Gates, who I had the pleasure of first meeting last year down in Orlando. He was there with his wife, just back from South Africa where he is involved with the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences.
Gates told me that his collection of video lectures with impressive graphics explaining quantum mechanics, general relativity and superstring theory called Superstring Theory: The DNA of Reality has been selling well, generating over a million dollars in sales, despite not being able to get it reviewed in major publications. Strong evidence of its popularity comes from the fact that if you google “The DNA of Reality” you get an impressive variety of sources for pirated versions. Evidently he has done an excellent job of reaching a wide audience with this material. From conversations with him I know that we’re in closer agreement than you would guess, sharing an interest in the mathematics behind supersymmetry and a skepticism about extra dimensions.
I have mixed feelings about the highly enthusiastic promotion of certain speculative ideas about physics involved both here and in some of the World Science Festival events, but it’s undeniable that these are reaching a lot of people and getting them excited about science. Perhaps I can convince Jim to market what could be the ideal package: his videos to get people excited and enthusiastic about the open problems in physics, and my book to give them some skepticism about the solutions now being promoted…
Update: For an article describing what happened at the World Science Festival program about unification and string theory, see here.