Physics, Blogs and Dogs

Chad Orzel considers how scientists communicate with everyone who isn't a scientist.

January 11, 2010

When I started my blog in 2002, I had no idea it would lead me to talking to my dog about physics. Let alone to writing a book about explaining physics to my dog.

I thought of the blog as a way to talk a bit about politics, pop culture, and academic science, and a place to let off a little steam as I went through the tenure process (I started the blog at the end of my first year as an assistant professor). Over the last seven and a half years, it's evolved into something much more, and I've begun to see it as an essential part of my responsibilities as a scientist.

A statement like that obviously presupposes some definition of the responsibilities of a scientist. Without getting too deeply into the many complex philosophical debates about the nature of science, my own view is that science is a four-step process for generating useful knowledge: the first step is to identify an interesting phenomenon in the natural world, the second to develop a model that might explain the phenomenon, the third to test the model by experiment or further observation, and the fourth to tell everyone the results of those tests.

The fourth step was the last one to become general practice -- as late as 1676, Robert Hooke published what we now know as "Hooke's Law" for elastic materials as a Latin cryptogram ("ceiinossttu," which unscrambles to "ut tensio, sic vis" for “as the stretch, so the force,” indicating that the force exerted by a spring is proportional to the amount it is stretched), so as to hide his results from his competitors while still claiming credit for the work. But it is not until wide and open dissemination of scientific results became the norm that we saw the tremendous explosion of scientific knowledge that has shaped the modern world. Broad publication of results is critical for the success of science, as it allows large numbers of scientists to build off the same body of knowledge, and to try many different approaches in parallel.

As essential as this step is, it is in many ways the weakest link in the scientific process today. While there are more scientific papers published today than ever before, a combination of technical sophistication and scientific specialization means that as far as the general public is concerned, modern scientific papers might as well be Latin cryptograms.

This is the famous "Two Cultures" problem pointed out by C.P. Snow a half century ago, and in many ways, the problems have only gotten worse since Snow's day. This is especially troubling given that the biggest problems facing human civilization today -- global climate change, pandemic disease, dwindling natural resources -- demand scientific solutions. Public understanding of science remains dangerously low, however, to the point where slick and cynical lobbyists can easily sow doubt about the state of global climate, or the safety of vaccines. When a shameless huckster like Glenn Beck can convince people not to vaccinate themselves or their children, in the face of decades of scientific evidence of the safety and efficacy of vaccines, something is dangerously wrong.

The only solution to this problem is to reinforce the fourth step of the scientific process, by disseminating scientific knowledge as widely as possible. We need to communicate science not only to other scientists, but also to the average voter, so they can have the knowledge base and critical faculties needed to distinguish solid science from cynical manipulations. This is a daunting task, though, both because all the professional incentives for academic scientists reward technical publication above all else -- you get tenure by publishing in Science, not Scientific American -- and also because modern science is a highly technical and mathematical enterprise, and even highly educated and intelligent people have a sort of learned helplessness when confronted with mathematics. Communicating science to the general public requires scientists to find a way to make science less intimidating, to find a voice that will make complex science seem more approachable to people who aren't comfortable with the mathematical language of modern science.

This is where blogs can play a role. Blogging gives scientists a platform from which they can reach a huge audience. On a fairly typical weekday, my blog is read by nearly 3,000 people, which is more than the entire enrollment at Union College, where I teach. When I write something about physics on the blog, it gets read by more people than I could ever hope to teach in my classes. Other science blogs have many times more daily visitors than I do, allowing the scientists who write them to share their results with thousands of people all around the world.

Blogging also gives scientists who are interested in communicating with the general public a chance to hone their communications skills. There are numerous feedback mechanisms available -- site traffic, comments, links from other blogs and social media platforms -- that allow blogging scientists to figure out what works, and practice communication to a broad audience. Through trial and error, they can find a voice that works for them, that will let them speak directly to people who wouldn't be interested in the technical details of a scientific journal article.

What voice will work is different for every scientist, and can be surprising. The voice might not even be human -- the voice that has been most successful for me is that of my dog, Emmy. In 2007, I wrote a couple of blog posts featuring imaginary conversations with my dog about aspects of quantum physics (Bunnies Made of Cheese and Many Worlds, Many Treats). These were read by tens of thousands of people, and led directly to a general audience physics book, How to Teach Physics to Your Dog. Strange as the concept may seem, I've found explaining physics via my dog to be extremely effective. She provides a way to keep even very abstract concepts grounded, and to break up dense and potentially intimidating discussions with an element of humor, making the science more approachable.

Writing as the dog is not something that ever would've occurred to me without the blog. Because I had the blog as a forum to try new things, even things that seemed kind of silly, I was able to experiment with different approaches to presenting physics, and stumble across something that worked exceptionally well for me. Any scientist with an interest in public communication of science should jump at the opportunities offered by running or writing for a blog.

Of course, no one book or individual blogging scientist will be enough to fix the problems science faces. We need many scientists willing to speak to the public, making use of the tools that the Internet offers. Not every scientist needs to be a public communicator -- some people will not have the inclination or the skills needed to convey complex technical ideas to a general audience, and that's fine -- but those scientists with an interest in public communication should have the opportunity to explore that, for the good of the scientific community, and the larger society.

Internet technologies remove most of the technical obstacles to scientists speaking directly to the public, but there are still significant roadblocks due to academic culture. Public communication is not highly regarded in academic science, and many junior faculty are explicitly warned against outreach programming and other public communication activities that "distract" them from producing technical publications. The only sure path to academic success is through publishing for a narrow audience of other scientists, not for a broad general audience.

Given the urgent threats that we now face, and the need for sensible decision making based on solid scientific evidence, though, we need to encourage faculty with an interest in communicating with the public to do just that. The consequences of a continued disconnect between voters and the scientific community are too great. We need to encourage and reward people who can help increase the public's understanding of science, and recognize public communication as a valid and even essential part of the scientific enterprise. We should ensure that scientists with an interest in public communication have the tools they need, and an opportunity to find a voice that works for them.

Even if that leads them to talk to their pets.


Chad Orzel is an associate professor of physics at Union College. His blog is Uncertain Principles. And his new book, How to Teach Physics to Your Dog, has just been released by Scribner.


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