A couple of weeks ago the Wall Street Journal featured an article titled “The Perils of Romanticizing Physics“, from Dr Ira Rothstein, professor of theoretical physics at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburg.
I had the chance to meet Ira in my past life as a researcher, when I was working toward my PhD at the University of Geneva, in Switzerland. He agreed to let me visit him in Pittsburg for a few weeks right before Christmas 2009, in order to interact about one of his many an expertise: effective field theory. This is a very powerful and elegant tool that helps physicists discern the intricacies of a problem and work them a set at a time. So far Ira has adopted this calculation technique with success in at least three fields: particle physics, black hole encounters and molecular interactions. I indulged a bit in this technical bit of information in order to stress how much I revere Ira’s work: I think he’s a cool, smart scientist and I especially like the multi-disciplinary character of his research.
This said I’m afraid I cannot spend similarly appreciative words for his op-ed on the Wall Street Journal, which was inspired by the public success of the movies “Interstellar” and “The Theory of Everything”. The main point of his article is kind of spelt out in the title: if scientists concede that the object of their life’s work is mistreated by Hollywood, the future of science is bleak. Still according to Ira, it would seem that everything else than a seminar is misleading about science, thus undermining its value and reputation. I think Ira’s hidden conclusion is that there should not be any opening to the public about science that is not guaranteed to be a ceremony conducted by the proper priests, the researchers who worked on that topic, who would guide a few chosen disciples to knowledge.
Ira’s words are more nuanced than what I’ve just said but I do not think I twisted their meaning: I wanted to bring these words to their consequences because it is big time the scientific community say explicitly what they think about the problem of public awareness and appreciation of science and research. For the sake of having this conversation with all my former colleagues I chose to take Ira as a representative of the community and his words as voicing their attitude toward the problem.
As you’ll understand from reading on, my point is completely opposite to Ira’s: we do need to romanticize physics! Beside saying why I will also provide a possible solution; this feature is probably the greatest difference between me and many of my former colleagues: they seem to have a problem with research funds being cut but they do not take the time to say what they intend to do about it and how.
I haven’t yet been able to watch the movie “The Theory of Everything” but I could watch “Interstellar” and I loved it! I’ve compared notes about it with some friends and we often found ourselves on opposite sides. I have no problem with that: a movie is a work of art and as such you are entitled to appreciate it or not according to your personal taste. What I really can’t understand is why scientists have to evaluate the movie as if it were a seminar on the subjects of gravity and black holes: they want scientific rigor and absolute completeness. This attitude is made more explicit in other online posts than Ira’s, which I found completely missing the point of the movie.
Interstellar is the brainchild of Dr Kip Thorne, Emeritus “Richard Feynman Professor” of Theoretical Physics at Caltech. He’s recently published a book about The Science of Interstellar, which I’ve just started reading. In the introduction of the book Professor Thorne lets us in on his motivations: I report them here for you to know what drives a scientist who’s able to make bets with Stephen Hawking and to win them.
<< As a child and later as a teenager, I was motivated to become a scientist by reading science fiction by Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and others, and popular science books by Asimov and the physicist George Gamow.
To them I owe so much. I’ve long wanted to repay that debt by passing their message on to the next generation; by enthusing youth and adults alike into the world of science, real science; by explaining to nonscientists how science works, and what great power it brings to us as individuals, to our civilization, and to the human race.
I hope that at least once you find yourself, in the dead of night, half asleep, puzzling over something I have written, as I puzzled at night over questions that Christopher Nolan asked me when he was perfecting his screenplay. And I especially hope that, at least once in the dead of night, as you puzzle, you experience a Eureka moment, as I often did with Nolan’s questions. >>
I believe this is the preferred way out of a bleak future where laymen cannot appreciate science because they simply ignore what it is and what its benefits are for us as a species.
Since I left research I’ve probably gone back to the pool of normal or simple people, so it won’t surprise my former colleagues to hear what I say next. Up until last Summer I vaguely knew what the Manhattan Project was about; then the tv series Manhattan was released and I fell in love with it. All of a sudden I found myself to want to know more about the whole Manhattan Project because I could see the human side of characters and their struggles. I am perfectly aware that most of them are fictitious but they are very relatable as humans and they tell a story I am eager to follow. This has only become possible for me after I’ve been able to interact with the Manhattan Project in a non-rigorous way. I don’t think my brain is peculiar from this point of view. Mankind’s brain is hard-wired like that. Ever since before we invented writing thousands of years ago, we’ve loved telling stories: they made part of our culture in the past and contributed to shape our present the way it is now.
Only by enthusing people, especially youth, by the means of a good story can we hope to have them feel the thirst for more good and sound science: the same thirst that keeps scientists like Ira up and running toward producing beautiful results.
It is not enough for scientists to preach to the converted. For this very reason I elaborated a holistic strategy to overcome the issue at stake. A trademark of my strategy is to look at science communications as something that concerns a whole university instead of just a single scientific group or department. Notably, by building collaborations among them, university departments will be able to take full advantage of the multi-disciplinary nature of an education institution. Numerous, ready-to-use examples are presented in my white paper that do not necessarily cost more money than the existing budget available to departments. Initiatives range from a dance show about black holes to rapping about science and scientific comics. In so doing a university turns the necessity of reaching out into an investment for itself: such a new paradigm could establish a university as unique in the education panorama, providing its students with a diverse portfolio of work experiences and educating them toward creativity.
Within this context and mindset finest scientists like Ira and science communicators like me will find themselves working together toward a common goal, the same goal professed by Kip Thorne: “how do I share my deepest love for science to everyone who’d listen”? coz that’s what you want to do when you’re in love: tell everyone. Just as a shy lover who’s lost for words turns to a poet to seduce his loved one, someone like Ira, whose work deserves to be properly supported and advertised, will benefit from interaction with a scientific poet such as myself.
I speak these words not in the hope of attracting more researchers to science: far from me to contribute to academic unemployment! What I’m aiming at is to have scientists on board with the mission of engaging the masses and involving them in the process of creating well-being for society, first and foremost through science. A few current job categories where I can see a career being positively inspired and uniquely impacted by science are:
– molecular gastronomy chefs and bartenders;
– programmers and tech entrepreneurs;
– radiography and oncology technicians;
– designers of special graphical effects for movies and video-games;
– musicians, dancers, stylists and other artists working at the interface of their domain and science;
– last but not least, future science and math teachers.
Lunar dress: you can’t possibly have such a beautiful idea for a dress if you don’t love science.
More than a single academic seminar, opening the scientific discourse to a Hollywood-type of conversation with the masses is poised to impact society. That’s why I say we do need to romanticize physics (as well as other sciences). I hope this discourse will move out misunderstandings about the aims of reaching out: physicists like Ira and science communicators such as myself have to get our hands dirty to change things for good and improve society, one outreach event at a time.
– On the Science of Interstellar
– An infographic about the Science of Interstellar
As soon as I published this article I sent an email to Ira to inform him I felt like answering his op-ed and, because I referred to him in person, I wanted to make him aware. In the spirit of my post I was hoping for a reply by him and I haven’t been disappointed. Truth be told I am not surprised he has gotten back to me: Ira’s a cool person, as I said in the introduction. His answer is:
I understand your note, but I think you exaggerated my conclusions.
I emphasized the importance of communication several times in the article and I also (multiple times in the article) talk about how wonderful it is that the public is entranced by modern physics. My point was more that we should not take the metaphors too literally, which I’m sure you agree with.
I also don’t think Hollywood mistreats science, as I note how great a job Interstellar did with the physics (at least till the end).
Perhaps the article was not clear enough on this point, and I certainly don’t think that EVERYTHING beyond a seminar is misleading.
I am thankful to Ira for taking the time to acknowledge my very long post. His op-ed article was much more synthetic than mine, which is probably why I haven’t been able to completely discern his main and only point: “that we should not take the metaphors too literally”.
What set me off in the direction I took is two-fold. I had honestly thought that his point on the proper imagery to convey science was more fundamental like, as I say in my article, “no imagery at all, coz that’s where problems come”. On this basis I thought I had recognized the repeated denial I’ve heard time and again by many of my former colleagues: “there should not be any opening to the public about science that is not guaranteed to be a ceremony conducted by the proper priests, the researchers who worked on that topic, who would guide a few chosen disciples to knowledge.”
Though I have had this feedback more than once by my former colleagues I cannot say I have had it from Ira, too. Being aware of this possibly risky generalization I specified that “For the sake of having this conversation with all my former colleagues I chose to take Ira as a representative of the community and his words as voicing their attitude toward the problem.” Let me stress once again that the negative feedback I got in the past from my former colleagues is real and, because it had not been explicitly justified, I felt an op-ed such as the one I thought Ira had written represented a timely occasion to have a deeper and more productive exchange of ideas.
Now that we’ve moved out misunderstandings about respective motivations we can deepen the conversation toward the solution of the problem I care the most: what shall we do about the lack of appreciation by the general public toward science in general and physics in particular? shall we adopt CERN’s strategy with Angels and Demons and take advantage of waves of public notoriety of physical concepts/figures to establish a dialogue with laymen? if not, what else and how/why?
These last 24 hours or so I’ve received interesting feedback about my article: some comments were against my interpretation of Ira’s op-ed on the Wall Street Journal, others in support. I have to conclude that it was indeed possible to read between the lines of Ira’s article and interpret them as farther reaching than what their author later told me.
As I said in my update, the hidden message I saw in the op-ed resonated with many previous instances of negative feedback against romanticizing physics that I had got in the past. It would seem I’m not the only one who’s had to listen to dry no’s in the face of viable and concrete avenues to be taken toward actually doing something about the lack of public appreciation of science, instead of just complaining. These avenues share something with movies of the like of Interstellar: they are light ways of enticing people toward wanting to get quantitative and deep about the physical sciences. Light avenues, not false ones. Such a delicate courting is unique in seducing toward science the unchosen ones, those who will not get to it no matter what, because they haven’t always had the penchant for math and physics. These are what I call the masses. These are the unconverted that scientists should preach to. Why? Because these are tax-payers, voters, parents or youth. These people might never fall in love with science unless we go look for them, instead of waiting for them to show up at the door of the Ivory Tower. In the case of youth this need is especially urgent: they might need science as a decisive turn in their lives, either to find a job or to fall in love with something and thus give meaning to their whole existence. This is why I care so much about having an honest and quantitative conversation about outreach with practicing scientists and people working in formal education: it is a matter for the future of a country, what’s more urgent than that?