The travails of science communication

Nov 17, 2012

There’s an interesting phenomenon in the world of science communication, at least so far as I’ve noticed. Every once in a while, there comes along a concept that is gaining in research traction worldwide but is quite tricky to explain in simple terms to the layman.

Earlier this year, one such concept was the Higgs mechanism. Between December 13, 2011, when the first spotting of the Higgs boson was announced, and July 4, 2012, when the spotting was confirmed as being the piquingly-named “God particle”, the use of the phrase “cosmic molasses” was prevalent enough to prompt an annoyed (and struggling-to-make-sense) Daniel Sarewitz to hit back on Nature. While the article had a lot to say, and a lot more waiting there to just to be rebutted, it did include this remark:

If you find the idea of a cosmic molasses that imparts mass to invisible elementary particles more convincing than a sea of milk that imparts immortality to the Hindu gods, then surely it’s not because one image is inherently more credible and more ‘scientific’ than the other. Both images sound a bit ridiculous. But people raised to believe that physicists are more reliable than Hindu priests will prefer molasses to milk. For those who cannot follow the mathematics, belief in the Higgs is an act of faith, not of rationality.

Sarewitz is not wrong in remarking of the problem as such, but in attempting to use it to define the case of religion’s existence. Anyway: In bridging the gap between advanced physics, which is well-poised to “unlock the future”, and public understanding, which is well-poised to fund the future, there is good journalism. But does it have to come with the twisting and turning of complex theory, maintaining only a tenuous relationship between what the metaphor implies and what reality is?

The notion of a “cosmic molasses” isn’t that bad; it does get close to the original idea of a pervading field of energy whose forces are encapsulated under certain circumstances to impart mass to trespassing particles in the form of the Higgs boson. Even this is a “corruption”, I’m sure. But what I choose to include or leave out makes all the difference.

The significance of experimental physicists having probably found the Higgs boson is best conveyed in terms of what it means to the layman in terms of his daily life and such activities more so than trying continuously to get him interested in the Large Hadron Collider. Common, underlying curiosities will suffice to to get one thinking about the nature of God, or the origins of the universe, and where the mass came from that bounced off Sir Isaac’s head. Shrouding it in a cloud of unrelated concepts is only bound to make the physicists themselves sound defensive, as if they’re struggling to explain something that only they will ever understand.

In the process, if the communicator has left out things such as electroweak symmetry-breaking and Nambu-Goldstone bosons, it’s OK. They’re not part of what makes the find significant for the layman. If, however, you feel that you need to explain everything, then change the question that your post is answering, or merge it with your original idea, etc. Do not indulge in the subject, and make sure to explain your concepts as a proper fiction-story: Your knowledge of the plot shouldn’t interfere with the reader’s process of discovery.

Another complex theory that’s doing the rounds these days is that of quantum entanglement. Those publications that cover news in the field regularly, such as R&D mag, don’t even do as much justice as did SciAm to the Higgs mechanism (through the “cosmic molasses” metaphor). Consider, for instance, this explanation from a story that appeared on November 16.

Electrons have a property called “spin”: Just as a bar magnet can point up or down, so too can the spin of an electron. When electrons become entangled, their spins mirror each other.

The causal link has been omitted! If the story has set out to explain an application of quantum entanglement, which I think it has, then it has done a fairly good job. But what about entanglement-the-concept itself? Yes, it does stand to lose a lot because many communicators seem to be divesting of its intricacies and spending more time explaining why it’s increasing in relevance in modern electronics and computation. If relevance is to mean anything, then debate has to exist – even if it seems antithetical to the deployment of the technology as in the case of nuclear power.

Without understanding what entanglement means, there can be no informed recognition of its wonderful capabilities, there can be no public dialog as to its optimum use to further public interests. When when scientific research stops contributing to the latter, it will definitely face collapse, and that’s the function, rather the purpose, that sensible science communication serves.

Great! You've successfully subscribed.
Great! Next, complete checkout for full access.
Welcome back! You've successfully signed in.
Success! Your account is fully activated, you now have access to all content.