Science and the Common Good: A College Visit

Yesterday I gave a public talk at Ursinus College, a liberal arts college in aptly named Collegeville, Pennsylvania. [For those outside the U.S.; a `college’ in the U.S. is a university whose students are all undergraduates, mainly 18-22 years old; and a “liberal arts college”  aims to give students a broad education in the arts and sciences, along with more focused training in their chosen discipline.] My visit was sponsored by the college’s Center for Science and the Common Good, an impressive little program funded by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (kudos to them!).  Its goal is to assure that the Center’s `fellows’ — the students in the program — are not only trained in their scientific fields but also become versed in thinking broadly about the role of science in our culture and society, and about how science is communicated to the public.

These wider issues are ones I think about a lot — I myself was educated at a liberal arts college — and are what motivated me to start this website and blog.  So I was honored that the Center invited me to visit. And they kept me (pleasantly) busy! In addition to the public talk, I spoke at length with the fellows of the Center about the role of science and scientists in society, as well as about the Center’s program and their career plans, and I also gave the undergraduate physics majors a slightly more technical tour of modern particle physics.

Since the Center was my host, my public talk was somewhat different from ones I’ve given previously.  Rather than focus entirely on the science behind the Higgs particle and field, I included some comments concerning the role of scientists in communicating science to the public. Among the meta-scientific questions I touched on were these:

  • What role should and can be played by blogs and websites run by scientists?
  • Can (or should) anything be done about the wildly inaccurate science reporting that one so often sees in the media?
  • Is it really that important that the public be informed about scientific research — given that public knowledge of the details of law, medicine, construction, accounting, plumbing, and other technical fields is also very limited?

I’ve got my own (tentative) answers to these questions, but if you’d like to weigh in, I’d be interested in your opinions. (If you do decide to make a comment, please feel free to include a parenthetic remark describing how much science you yourself know, and whether you learned it, say, in college, from magazines or popular books, etc.  This will give us all some perspective on what might shape your views.)

Thanks again to Ursinus College for the invitation and a very interesting visit!

65 responses to “Science and the Common Good: A College Visit

  1. a) Blogs and websites run by scientists can and must play in important role to better inform citizens about major societal issues that are related to, or influenced by science (e.g., laws and other decisions affected by public policy regarding governmental investments on basic research, on global warming, etc.).

    b) Citizens need to be properly informed (“get the right facts”) about any scientific discovery or announcement, so, if any scientific popularizer is making preposterous comments about any scientific announcement, it is of paramount importance that responsible scientists make the proper statements to correct the inaccurate comments, and even to ask for a formal retraction (through public media is necessary) of the false / inaccurate comments.

    c) For citizens to make informed decisions (when voting for a certain politician, when petitioning to their representative or senator about a certain law) that are related or influenced by science, it is very important that they can count on having the right facts: otherwise, democracy is just a joke, as ignorant citizens can be easily manipuled.

    I am an both industrial engineer and chemical engineer by training (6 years of formal college education for both careers). This formal education includes math, Newtonian mechanics and its generalizations (Lagrange, Hermite, Hamilton), special relativity, basic general relativity, quantum mechanics (not including QED, QCD, etc.), thermodynamics, fluid mechanics, chemistry (both inorganic and organic chemistry), microbiology, recombinant DNA.

    After college, I have studied on my own some more science through books (e.g., some QED from Volume 4 of Theoretical Physics by Landau & Lifshitz and some General Relativity from the Misner, Thorne & Wheeler book, Gravitation).

  2. Hi Prof. Strassler,

    You raised some great meta-scientific questions at Ursinus College in your public talk yesterday. Although I have not given these questions a great deal of thought, the following answers I give represents my initial thoughts on these important meta-scientific questions.

    – What role should and can be played by blogs and websites run by scientists?

    I follow quite a few blogs written/hosted by scientists, especially in physics and chemistry, as well as some in mathematics. In general, the role of blogs run by scientists, at least for me, is to provide interesting new developments in their field and/or what they find interesting outside of their field of research. Sometimes, the style of the blog could be more academic, and provide insights into topics that perhaps were glossed over in an academic setting at a university, and the reader can learn some concept or how to perform a calculation from the content provided by the blogger.

    So, the role of blogs and/or websites is to inform the public of new developments in a particular field(s) and to look at concepts/ideas that could be of benefit for anyone to understand/know because he/she can apply it in their everyday experience.

    – Can (or should) anything be done about the wildly inaccurate science reporting that one so often sees in the media?

    Well, what could be done about this perhaps is to incorporate/implement more rigorous standards in high school and in university when it comes to science journalism programs. Perhaps, a person who goes into scientific journalism should become acquainted/well-versed with a fundamental through an intermediate understanding of all branches of science–chemistry, physics, biology, medicine, geology, and astronomy. Moreover, a scientific journalist probably should attain an advanced understanding on the scientific discipline of interest to him/her that will be his/her focus for a career, if known at the time of partaking in a scientific journalism program.

    Another alternative could be encourage more scientists to take up careers in journalism, at least for a little while, so that closer collaborations can be forged with scientific journalists, who may not be scientists by training. Another thought would be to have scientific journalists be given time to spend in a scientist’s lab or field work through an internship of sorts. Increasing communication would help in better understanding what scientists and journalists and scientists do on a daily basis. And, so it could go both ways, such that scientists are given an opportunity through an internship of sorts to find out what a journalist does at his/her office/studio for work in gathering facts/ideas for articles made available to the public.

    – Is it really that important that the public be informed about scientific research — given that public knowledge of the details of law, medicine, construction, accounting, plumbing, and other technical fields is also very limited?

    I think it is important to have public access to scientific research, most especially when said research is funded by a public organization, such as the National Science Foundation (NSF) or the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the US. It does not make any sense to have a hard time to access scientific research articles that are publicly funded through taxpayer money from hard-working people around the nation, a portion of whom would like to know the finer details of publicly-funded research.

    Yes, the public knowledge of the details of law, medicine, construction, accounting, plumbing, and other technical fields is also very limited as you accurately point out, Prof. Strassler. However, there are only so many hours in a day in which people have to work, eat, sleep, and take care of errands and time for hobbies, so it is very difficult if not impossible to be well-informed on so many technical subjects these days. It is even hard to be well-informed within a certain scientific discipline such as physics of all the new developments going on, because of the rapid pace of advancements/innovations.

    But, I think it is important for people to be informed and understand scientific research better because it has become increasingly the case that public policy is correlated/linked with advances in scientific knowledge. So, if people in the voting public are more well-informed of scientific research, perhaps they can vote in a manner that reflects more closely a better handle of the topics under consideration with the best of scientific knowledge to-date to steer a person into deciding one way or another for an issue.

    One way for public understanding of scientific research to increase could be through more popularizers of science, like the late Carl Sagan did for astronomy, cosmology, and physics, or the late Isaac Asimov did for physics, astronomy, and science in general. I think a great advocate for popularization of science today is Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist who heads the Hayden Planetarium at the Museum of Natural History in New York.

    My name is Christian Luca. I studied chemistry (B.S.) at Stony Brook University, and am currently studying for a professional M.S. in health physics online through IIT.

  3. Prof. Strassler,

    I am an Ursinus Alum who now lives and works close to the college and I attended your lecture last evening along with my wife (also an Ursinus grad) and my Dad. I was a politics major at Ursinus (now an attorney), but was required to take coursework in a variety of disciplines (including physics, which I very much enjoyed). In fact, obtaining a liberal arts education was a major factor in my decision to attend Ursinus in the first place. I wanted to know about disciplines outside my field. Without the requirement that a student obtain an understanding of a wide range of disciplines, it can often become an education in name only.

    I was entirely engaged by the lecture and felt I understood the material reasonably well (aided greatly by subsequent heavy doses of your blog and articles to help make your points stick, so to speak). So, coming from a background very much removed from any in science (much less theoretical physics and QFT), I have a few comments on the importance of your roll in communicating science to the public.

    I take it that in the wider pool of scientific talent, there will usually be a small group of scientists capable not only of working at the highest levels within a given field, but also of communicating that work to interested lay-people (such as myself). I regard such individuals as bearing a certain responsibility for ensuring that the public is informed on their area of expertise. While I learned a great deal about science in college, I learned almost as much from watching Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, for example. Figures like Carl Sagan, and many others, like Neil deGrasse Tyson, Richard Dawkins, Stephen Jay Gould, and certainly yourself, are critical to fostering the public understanding of science.

    But, and here is where I might be a bit controversial, they are not critical merely because they satisfy the natural curiosity of engaged citizens (of which I try to be one as much as possible). Science without advocacy can be made to serve dubious masters, or sometimes be cut out of public life altogether. I think, for example, of politically-driven Soviet assumptions about genetics crippling the study of life sciences in the Eastern Block for decades. I recall our own national apathy about the construction of a superconducting supercollider killing off its funding and perhaps denying the US a larger role in the discovery of the Higgs field and particle. Scientists must take upon themselves the role of advocate on behalf of their research. That burden falls most heavily on those best at communicating effectively with the public. If that burden is not taken, and taken with a certain amount of relish and pride, it will fall on less qualified individuals in the press, and worse, often to politicians and the clergy, who will happily exploit it for their own ends.

    Who but scientists are capable of ensuring that their research is accurately discussed and explained in the public forum? Few outside the sciences have the knowledge to know the differences between misguided sensationalism (statements about “the God particle,” for example) and reality. I can’t be a discerning consumer of science information: most often I simply don’t know enough to know when I am being lied to. I harbor deep cynicism with respect to reporting largely because I know when the press reports in subjects I do know about, they are usually wrong on many things. But while that cynicism might allow me to dismiss reporting on “the God particle” as hyperbolic and likely inaccurate, it doesn’t impart any knowledge of why it is so, or what the truth about the Higgs boson actually is.

    Thus, inaccurate science reporting not only breeds pernicious misconceptions, but often a cynical rejection of all such reporting. Neither helps either the public, nor the scientific community. The only solution, as I see it, is a kind of peer review similar to what occurs within scientific research. When Michio Kaku speaks on CNN about the Higgs boson, if his peers are unwilling to review his statements, no one else is capable of doing so, and such statements ossify and become accepted, regardless of their veracity or accuracy. Worse, the slow accretion of misconceptions about science are much harder to break through years later. And these misconceptions not only harm public understanding of specific scientific principles, but also of the credibility of science itself. One need no greater example of this than in the science of climate change, an area so fraught with misconceptions not only about the actual data presented, but the process by which such data was collected and interpreted, that the public often rejects sound scientific research only because less-credible and entirely self-interested parties use the public’s lack of knowledge to foment non-existent controversies or present false dichotomies. Eventually, the practical implications of climate science will be without dispute. It would be nice however if such a time was not concurrent with an extinction level event, not to put too fine a point on it.

    Of course, there are many factors and forces regarding the public understanding of science that scientists can do nothing about (religious opposition climate change and the Theory of Evolution spring readily to mind). At the end of the day, however, the scientific community as a whole must take on the role of being its own advocate as a matter of necessity. Even those scientists who may abhor talking to the press or the public must at least play a role in reviewing the public statements of those scientists who do take a leading role in communicating with the public. Allowing misconceptions to remain unchallenged is a sin of omission as dangerous as the statement that fostered the misconception in the first place.

    Sorry for the longwinded response! Thanks for taking a leading role in communicating science to the public. I hope you not only are supported by the scientific community in your endeavors, but also appreciated for them. Thanks so much for taking the time to speak with us. And please keep up the great work.


  4. Ronaldo Ortez

    Let me first say that my perspective comes from a physics point of view and as a recent university graduate in physics, my perspective is perhaps highly idealistic. Also, I didn’t break things up quite the way you did with your questions, but what I wrote is instead a bit of a mixture. I also assume the importance of the scientific work.

    I believe with a little thought it shouldn’t be difficult to see that a reporter or journalist isn’t much of an extension to what it means to be a physicist. As a collection, physicists spend their careers investigating nature and the many ways she manifests herself, and also, (importantly) reporting on their findings. However, they do work inside a paradigm (or set of paradigms) which allows a more efficient and precise means of communicating and uncovering work. Let us ask the question: If the physicists don’t take the time and put forth the effort to properly communicate the goings on of nature absent the typical medium, who will? Journalists? Let us consider the task of accurately and precisely communicating outside of the framework. It is almost always the case that ideas are much better understood within the context of the scientific framework, so to best learn the idea (concept) one must also learn the framework. Can (or should) a journalist be expected to do this? Well, after one has with sufficient labor uncovered the concept, the task then becomes to identify what can be called the details (what is a detail is rather relative) and then escort the central concept to the masses with suitable vocabulary that is (necessarily) void of many of the details. This task of separating central concept from its details alone is not always easy and in fact can be very difficult, which allows one to partly see why the media (non-experts) messes things up so often. Without beginning with the proper picture of the central concept and all of its tributaries and connecting sources (details if you will) and without the tools to be able to effectively navigate this conceptual landscape how can one then be asked to report with both accuracy and precision on such a topic. The problem is in fact even more fundamental. Let me remind you that nature is very subtle (not that you need it), in fact subtle in such a way that is rather alien to people as a whole (even to physicist upon first encounter). As someone who began as an outsider to the physics community, I believe I see evidence to the adaption the scientific community has made to nature’s subtleties by the demand for accuracy and precision in what is deemed “true” within the community, which to me was very alien and I dare say is true of most of society (and in fact the principal reason for its attractiveness to me). So again, if physicist aren’t up to the task who should be? Journalists?

  5. I have an undergraduate degree in molecular biology and was a PhD candidate in molecular biology and biochemistry. I minored in philosophy of science.

    The most important reason that the public should be well informed about all aspects of science and technology is because science and technology have a direct impact upon their lives. Some of those impacts are positive and some deleterious. Some scientific discoveries have been converted to practical uses that the general public had absolutely no control or say over; with others the public has been very engaged. In the case of nuclear fission being used to create atomic weapons, the general public had little or no say. There are many discoveries that are now being debated as to whether or not they should be converted to practical uses, e.g. the creation of synthetic life, the cloning of human beings and harvesting of stem cells from embryos. Then there are the yet to be discovered practical uses of basic research that will raise ethical and moral questions. In a purely speculative vein, perhaps the verification of the HIgg’s field through the discovery of the Higg’s boson will lead to our ability to manipulate spacetime. A future discovery in particle physics might lead to the ability to produce unlimited supplies of energy thus upsetting the current world order leading to another world war.

    My point in bringing up all of these possibilities is to illustrate that there are very significant consequences to humanity as a whole derived from basic scientific research and therefore it is the responsibility of each individual to become as well informed as possible. Despite the short comings of the media, we do have the benefit of stellar educational institution, the Internet (its faults and limitations notwithstanding), blogs such as this one and others, and when all else fails the scientific journals, which are open to all; and people can always read the original papers. Our future as a civilized people is just as dependent on a highly informed and educated populous as it is on basic scientific research (I just completed a novel, EPOCH, based on this premise). Unfortunately you can’t force people to educate themselves to the level necessary, however we should do everything within our power to make sure that accurate and timely information is available to all.

  6. Mike Anthis

    I have a B.S. Computer Science, and 33+ years’ experience in IT. I have read Singh, Green, Calder, and of course, Prof. Strassler. I retired a year ago and I’m presently reclaiming my math education, plus reading some semi-advanced topics at Wikipedia University. My next goal is to understand tensors and related subjects, and so I’m solidifying my linear algebra before launching into mechanics and advanced algebra.

    I think it’s important to help young students get as much education as they desire. Give kids attractive learning opportunities in science. I spent Saturdays in the library in the ’70s and got two solid years of computer science on my own, but it was a smaller subject then. 😉 However, to learn electronics, I greatly benefitted from an oscilloscope, VTVM, and a tube tester (which made a lovely adjustable power supply). I inherited these at the age of eleven, but I would have hung out at school if that’s what it took to get my hands on real equipment.

    Regarding popular science news, I’d like to draw an analogy with my faith studies. I have a distaste for church jargon, but I do have friends that discuss deeply nuanced religious topics with me. I once asked my pastor why we sing of “streets of gold.” She explained that, “First you have to get them in the door.” Plus, you need to know the language even to read the maps.

    I do find it satisfying to find that some of my non-science-loving friends know that the electron doesn’t “orbit” the nucleus. But that’s about how much I expect from anyone who isn’t a fan boy like me.

    Thanks for an opportunity to share these comments.

  7. As a young graduate student in astrophysics I have great hope for the power of (accuratly written) science-blogs, since I have seen their impact in other areas and what they have done to spread information, for better of for worse. Therefor I think it is important that if we are to communicate science to the public, we should do so in a way that could lead to as few misunderstandings as possible, since internet and blogs can spread information very fast, and in many cases it comes out wrong to the readers in the farther end of the chain.

    However this is not a reason for us to stop trying, since everyone who is interested should be able to take part in research results in these areas, whether they will understand them or not. I do believe you have to change your approach when writing to people with no scientific background, but not at the cost of compromising the facts. I also believe that blogs is a very good tool for this, since they are free, available and continuously updated. And they can be set at different levels, from “Average Joe” to others working in the same field.

    best regards

  8. Hi Matt,

    I read your blog frequently but rarely comment. I am a grad student in theoretical particle physics/cosmology. I find these issues of public communication of science very interesting, I’ve done volunteering at science museums in the past but I would eventually like to do more if I end up staying in science (as you have pointed out here recently, times are tough).

    Typing up a response I’ve found there’s a lot to say about the first question, and it also ties into the other two questions you posed, so I’m only going to respond to the first one:

    What role should and can be played by blogs and websites run by scientists?

    There are several roles that can be played:
    (i) Report and give commentary on “current events” in research [ie, new results, interesting papers]
    (ii) Report and give commentary on “current events” about research [ie, funding, sociological issues]
    (iii) Provide background information to better understand modern (or classical) science
    (iv) Provide an “insider view” to how a scientist thinks or what a scientist does day to day
    (v) Give career advice to young scientists

    As to what roles “should” be played: No one blog or website needs to focus on just one of course (yours does all of these for example), and all are valuable in different contexts. I think the blogging community is healthiest when there are many blogs with many different combinations of the above criteria (and I’m sure there are other criteria I haven’t thought of), so readers can choose what they like.

    However obviously there will be ideal combinations which will appeal to specific audiences. For example I think there is a market (at this point not fully developed) for websites that allow researchers and students to connect with each other and share views and opinions. As a grad student I fit into that audience and find i, ii, and v most interesting.

    For blogs that want to communicate science to the interested general public, in my opinion the most important issues to communicate are iii and v. To get people having real conversations about science (and ultimately to convince people that science is valuable and worth funding), I think as a community we need to do a better job with iii and iv. [As an aside, I think youtube is a great starting point for web science education: channels like vhart, minute physics, and sixty symbols are relatively popular and tend to focus on teaching known physics instead of cutting edge research]

    The reason why I think iii is important is that in my experience as a student, I’ve found at every stage of learning the things I found the most engaging and interesting were the concepts at my level. I’ve frequently found that things I thought were boring or incomprehensible were actually extremely interesting once someone connected it to solving a problem I understood (for example, I found hydrogen atoms boring until I learned they could be used to experimentally test quantum mechanics). So I think people will understand science better if it can be made more relevant to things people know about. I think people need context to understand discoveries and to understand how much science has already done for us, not just what it is currently doing.

    The reason why I think iv is important is that I think the scientific perspective is often missing from public discussions. When I read articles in the press cite scientists, I often get a feeling that scientists are considered “other.” I think a big part of this is that science is considered intimidating and scientists are not very visible (since we tend to be media shy), so I think it’s important for scientists to be more visible and for the public to see that scientists are also people.

    I think one danger with current science communication that bloggers should be aware of is that sometimes scientists overemphasize cutting edge results relative to background context. I think this is ultimately harmful because it depreciates the value of all the knowledge we do have. I recently had a friend who is interested in physics but not pursuing it as a career ask me if quantum mechanics was actually useful for anything, and was surprised to learn that transistors and lasers and a lot of materials science and engineering relied on it. Although I have no data to support this, I don’t think that is an uncommon issue: I personally would guess if you asked non-scientists/engineers who were interested enough in science to know about quantum mechanics whether or not quantum mechanics was useful in daily life, most would say no. I see this as a symptom of the way that science tends to be communicated, which is to talk about things like ‘the weirdness of quantum mechanics’ but not to clearly tie it in with all of the enormous amount of data we have supporting it, or the technology that relies on it. Another symptom is that I think there are a lot of people that are unaware of levels of abstractness separating the different theories we have. For example, Quantum mechanics applied to atoms is completely established, QFT applied to the standard model is established, String Theory is really completely speculative. I think a lot of the general public finds these concepts so abstract that they don’t realize exactly how different these levels are from one another, and I think public communication overemphasizes things like String Theory at the expense of making particle physics and quantum mechanics seem more removed from reality. (After all if you have a string theorist telling you about the weirdness of quantum mechanics, without tying it into established technology, and then also going off to tell you about what you know is an unproven speculative idea, you might think that quantum mechanics is also a speculative idea). I can’t firmly establish the things I’m claiming, and also not every blog falls into this trap, but I do think that bloggers intending to target the general public should be aware that they need to provide context and discuss established science and not focus solely on speculative or cutting edge science.

    This is also a difference between blogs/websites and what scientists say in the press–the only people who will seek out the blogs/websites are already people who have some interest in science and doing some work to understand what is going on. So blogs/websites can take advantage of this by providing more context. Another role of blogs/websites is to give journalists more in depth context for stories they are writing, and so ideally there can be a trickle down effect from increased context on blogs/websites.

    By the way this is one reason I really like your website, that you have so many background articles for people to look at (that are always referenced when you talk about the cutting edge topics), so people have the tools to educate themselves on the background. Susskind’s recent ‘pop classical mechanics’ book is another refreshing counterexample to what I am saying.

    Finally the reader of these blogs has a big responsibility, which is to decide which blogs are reliable. That is not an easy question to answer for a layperson. I therefore think scientists who write blogs aimed at the general public should make that point explicitly: encourage people to seek different viewpoints and to seek out background information. It should be a warning to people if a scientist doesn’t encourage you to do that, and that should also be explicitly stated. This is another reason why iii and iv are so important–teaching people how to think about science is ultimately about teaching people how to have a good bullshit detector. This is extremely useful when reading science blogs, but also in my opinion a useful skill in life outside of science.

  9. I will comment on only two points because I’ve learned at liberty that the less spoken the more is said.

    I was a liberal arts student at an Engineering University; as such my bread and butter of conversation was acquired via medians that had seldom held my interest. After changing my major three times from liberal arts to Biochemistry and then CE I dropped out of college with a 4.00 due to boredom. Most of my knowledge of mathematics and physics is acquired via self-study. ( As is most of my knowledge – like my six languages. Public education taught me nothing other than that most teachers should not be teaching anything. ) Many hours have been spent at university libraries or pouring through textbooks generous lent to me by friends working at the Redstone Arsenal or at Los Alamos.

    I) Reasonably speaking the effort at communicating should be done in an effort to build rapport. I know a lot of ‘scientists’ who say Christians oppress them; I know a great many Christians who say ‘scientists’ are repressing them. ( Which I elaborate on. ) To my own experience and knowledge there is a significant amount of bias and ignorance in the research field. Many a job is denied to you on the grounds of having a faith. The fact that centers of knowledge and research taut and purport such an abominable practice as discrimination makes me question the integrity pursuant of science as a worthwhile endeavor. Any effort at social media: blogging, facebook, and so on – should be done to the end of mending the rift that has developed between it and society as a whole.

    In fairness, it is not entirely the scientific community’s fault – but also fault of the lay. I am reminded here of Oppenheimer and Fermi’s failures as brilliant minds, who failed to grasp the context of the irresponsibility of normal men as proponents of research. It wasn’t until after Hiroshima and Nagasaki that both knew they had done something terrible in context of the development of human history. Most people don’t understand.

    Ultimately to summarize: Facilitate communication and dispose of irrelevant biases.

    II – V) Given the context of my own education and hobbies ( I identify myself as a musician or poet; but I may readily discuss Hydrogen Lines; Godel; Differential Equations; or Phosphorylation ) I think the most important element of an UNDERGRADUATE collegiate education is one of breadth – exposing the mind to a wide degree of stimuli. Honestly? Poetry is as important to a Physicist as it is to a Librarian – not because of how it is presented, but rather how it forces the mind to utilize or conceive different methods or actions. ‘Out of context education’ teaches the one thing no single teacher can: critical thinking. Necessarily, the opposite is true as well. While I don’t use Black Body Radiation principles while writing poetry, I’m thankful for the way it has forced me to approach the problem from a different angle.

  10. Professor Strassler,
    I’m a simple car mechanic by trade and, except for 10 years in school in a then communist country and an apprenticeship, I never received any formal education. Pure curiosity and the desire to understand nature as a whole has, over the years, made me “eat” everything science in general and physics in particular.
    Blogs like yours are absolutely crucial for people like me (especially after having exhausted the capacity of the Northern Ontario library service that is at my disposal) although it becomes more and more difficult to sort the information on the web into true and not so true content.
    I think the general public should always be informed about the course of science even if sometimes somewhat “tweeked” by the media. That is as long as the web/media remains free and uncensored of course.
    Keep up the good work and thanks.

  11. Carl 'SAI' Mitchell

    Websites and blogs run by scientists should strive to be accurate and understandable. I think it’s better to sacrifice understandability than accuracy. If needed one can note an inaccuracy and link to a more technical and correct explanation. Failure to note the inaccuracies is harmful. Scientists writing directly for the public are better placed to inform people of what actually goes on in science than most journalists.

    I’m not sure much can be done about the inaccuracies in the general media, any changes would likely need to take place in journalism schools. Ideally journalists would give a simple version of a statement with a note that it’s not fully accurate and a reference to a better source, but most people would perceive that as being poor wishy-washy writing and just ignore or discredit the entire thing. Our normal modes of communication are very rarely as precise as scientific or mathematical discourse, so attempts to be precise are seen as underconfidence.

    It’s certainly important for the public to be informed about science, since large amounts of the funding for science is voted for by the public. Given that basic research is important the public needs to understand basic research to decide accurately what to vote for. Even more important than that is having a scientific mindset: being skeptical of extraordinary claims but accepting them when sufficient good evidence is presented. Being able to tell good evidence from bad, and good experimental processes from bad. People who can do this will be less likely to get roped into any number of scams (homeopathy, etc) and may make more thoughtful decisions in other areas.

    I am studying to be a computer engineer. Some of my science knowledge is from my course work, some from blogs, some from books, and some from arXiv and other sources of journal articles.

  12. themodernidiot

    Dear Science,
    Please do not ever stop talking. Many of us are still listening.
    Ps. Now that you’ve built something as awesome as the collider, can we have a vacuum that is silent?
    Thank you,
    The curious and informed

  13. Your lectures have the same value as the lectures of illuminated high priests in Inquisition times, who explained to their students the occurrences in the sky through illuminated interpretations of the God’s Will, which moved the heavenly-bodies along their mathematically modeled helical paths.
    The paths were accurately modeled, and the bodies were driven with God’s Will.
    It is the same in “modern physics”: you have precise mathematical descriptions of the things which are driven by uncertainty and spontaneity. These mathematical models have the same scientific value as the helical paths. Your interpretations are as good as “the God’s will”. Uncertainty and spontaneity are the surrogates of the God’s will.
    You surely do know much, but everything you know is the wrong apprehension of the things you investigate. You, and your fellows “the grand theoretical physicists” are not the scientists, you are the grand masters of mathematical mysticism.
    And you all behave like the cardinal whom Galileo offered to see the mountains and valleys on the Moon through his telescope – the cardinal looked, and said “I do not see any mountains, nor valleys”.
    Arrogance is one of the most deviant forms of stupidity. I tried to warn you, the grand masters of mathematical mysticism, silently first, in order to think out the fair way out – fair to the big efforts you made during the last century, and to see how to avoid the enormous scandal (which exactly is the following: But you choose the arrogance-way. You will be choked by your arrogance. The truth is good to those who respect Her, but it appears to be severe to those who respect themselves more than they respect the truth. Actually, those who respect themselves more cause their own suffer, by confronting, denying, neglecting, misinterpreting the truth. And, if you want it that way, it is your choice, but the problem is that fine young minds are wasted for the whole century already, and that must stop. Do you learn and use the Inquisition-Ptolemy “science”? Well, that is the destiny of the 20th century fundamental physics. For no other reason, but for being of the same scientific value.

    • “I command thee cease physicists in your arrogant quest for truth, for I have found her already and she likes me best!” exclaimed the self-appointed prophet of Truth with great humility.

      • Let me paraphrase Sir Isaac Newton:
        If I have ever made any valuable discoveries, it has been due to patient attention, and due to simple, clear, rational thinking.

    • High priests of Inquisition times never developed a single technology. And Ptolemy did not launch rockets to the outer planets. Leaving aside whatever arrogance individual scientists may display, what we do as a collective enterprise has direct practical value. To compare modern science to the past thinkers to whom you refer is to completely ignore this vast difference: everything from rockets to airplanes to nylon to lasers to computers to radios and televisions to microwave ovens to polarized sunglasses to LED lights and on and on and on is dependent upon modern science, and much of it depends specifically on quantum mechanics and even relativity, the fundamental physics of the 20th century.

      So say what you please; I don’t worry even for a second that your predictions are correct… because an established technology is not going to stop working even if we were arrogant about how we obtained it. Meanwhile, if you truly believe what you say, I suggest you immediately stop using all forms of modern technology, because it is all based on “arrogance”, “uncertainty” and “spontaneity”.

      • Actually, what I did all my life, was implementing, making, and improving the modern technology. The latest modern technology. Very successful problem solving and problem preventing are the hallmarks of my life. Many times I had to clean-up the “intellectual mess” of “intelligent fools, very capable to make things bigger, more complicated and more violent”. In order to be successful in that, one has to be knoledgeable, his knowledge has to be logically perfectly organized (on the cause-effect basis), and one has to be completely reasonable. Reason, common sense, are the most important things, if one wants to do things properly. The reason and common sense which I mean here, are not “the personal bias”, as modern physics declares them. If something is reasonable, and based on common sense, it can be exactly expressed, and it is comprehensible to everyone who is capable for true reason and common sense. For example, Pythagoras’ theorem, Thales’ theorem, are the examples of the reason and the common sense I am talking about. Also, higher-reason, higher level contemplation, are the things which the distinguished, arrogant elite ascribes to itself in order to distinguish itself. Actually, it is the result of frustration, caused by inability to understand, despite being very knowledgeable and intelligent.
        I have found the fundamental omissions, made at early stages of the “modern physics”. And I was simply amazed that these omissions were not revealed yet. But I figured out the reason for that, too. The fundamental causes for these omissions, and of the fact that they were not noticed till today, were and are: arrogance, greed, snobbism, that is, the most deviant forms of stupidity.
        I do not want to promote myself, but the truth, and only the truth. I did put, in your previous blog, the link to one thread at forum. All there is to do is to read it. And to think about it. Why? Well, because of the much better reason than is the reason that we today use Newtonian celestial mechanics instead of Ptolemy’s helicoids: to know exactly what, how and why happens that what happens in our universe, from the fundamental level and up to the accelerated universe expansion. To know that there is nothing uncertain, nor spontaneous. To know that the reason and common sense are the very core, and the ultimate emanations of existence.
        Basically, me and you fight against the same problem: the misinterpretation of science.
        But there is a huge diference: you are totally unaware that you and your coleagues – the mathematical mysticists – are the origin of confusion. The journalists are just the “peak of the ice-berg”. You are no better than those that you call crackpots and quacks. You are just the mainstream crackpots and quacks.

        • OK Zoren, while I should probably step out of the way and let Professor Strassler dispose of your comment (such as he even regards it worth disposing of), I’m afraid your sloppy reasoning offends me too greatly to pass without comment. Had Newtonian mechanics been sufficient to describe the physical world and make verifiable predictions within it, it would still be in use. It does not and therefore is not. How’s that for some “common sense?”

          You reject modern physics because it cannot be “expressed…to everyone who is capable of common sense.” In other words, because the concept of a zero-spin field is not easily relatable via “common sense,” it is the work of “crackpots” and “quacks?” “Common sense” is just that — common. It is a aggregation of highly subjective normative assumptions about what seems reasonable; not an objective measure of the validity of scientific theory. One does not build the scientific edifice upon the shifting sands of “common sense.” Reason, on the other hand, forms the basis for the scientific method, the method that has produced these remarkable discoveries.

          And who’s common sense should be used as a measuring stick here? Eastern philosophy seems far more comfortable with the uncertain nature of modern physics than you do. Consider, for example, the Buddhist Theory of Two Truths; which suggests the existence of two realities: a relative or “common sense” one, and an ultimate one. In fact, much philosophic inquiry, Eastern and Western, has suggested conclusions about the nature of the universe that touch upon concepts similar to those of theoretical physics (the philosophical writings of Daniel Dennett come to mind).

          That you “implemented,” “made” and “improved” modern technology and yet reject a great deal of the science on which it is based does not strengthen your argument. Instead it reveals the real reason for your rejection of modern physics as being highly personal. Your “common sense” rejection of modern physics appears to have an “n” of 1. It doesn’t sit with you, Ptomelaic and Newtonian physics do, so you reject modern physics. You seem bent on forcing scientific inquiry to hew to a narrow conception of common sense you’ve created by selectively sheering away ideas you find distasteful.

          You said that “higher-reason, higher level contemplation, are the things which the distinguished, arrogant elite ascribes to itself in order to distinguish itself” when “[a]ctually, it is the result of frustration, caused by inability to understand….” A little silent self-reflection might go a long way for you, my friend. A long way.

          Start with the silent part.

          • I should have said Newtonian mechanics alone does is not sufficient to describe the physical world.

          • That what you should/could be offended by, is definitely not my comment.
            I did not write anything here to offend anybody. I have clear arguments, undeniable scientific arguments to support everything what I said here.
            Professor Strassler, and you, and everybody are welcome to read them. I know both what I am talking about and what you are talking about. In order to make us even, you should know what I am talking about. In order to be so, there is no other way but to read the http.
            And it is not enough to read it – it has to be read slowly, carefully and thoughtfully. But, of course, neither you, nor professor Strassler, will not do that. You think that you have more important things to do. And I know that what you think is wrong. And I can’t prevent you to do what is wrong, but at least I can tell you that. I have to. Not because of me. Imagine that you somehow knew all what Newton discovered, but before it was widely known. And you see many young eager minds learning the Catholic-Ptolemy world description. One of them is your son, who never wanted to listen to you. He becomes an illuminated expert for interpreting the God’s will from the movement of celestial bodies. And some super-nova explosion he interprets as the sign to go to war against Buddhists, in order to avoid the end of the world. Many people dies, but it was worth – the world is safe. And no Buddhists any more. And now, imagine the US accuses Iran, that its new nuclear program includes some experiments which could cause creation of several small black holes, which could merge and grow enough to swallow the Earth. And the nuclear war starts. Because of black holes, which are something that is simply not possible. Do I talk fairy tales? No. The modern physics is a fairy tale. Alice in Wonderland. Never ending story. Actually, the most deviant mysticism in the history of mankind. The only black hole which really exists, and which attracts and wastes the most brilliant minds. Before you classify my personality, read the FEMME, and think about it. Have a nice day.

        • Given we’ve wandered way off point here and I’ve no interest in testing Goodwin’s Law, I will merely note Zordin that I did in fact read your entire post on the link provided, as well as the many responses it received; most of which I must note came from physicists criticizing your theory for making demonstrably false predictions. You repeatedly defended your theory as being more reasonable than modern physics, but if it fails to track with observable phenomena or make accurate predictions, then it necessarily must fail. Nonetheless I appreciate the discussion. I’ve already posted far more on a site about particle physics than anyone of my modest scientific talents should, so I will leave it there.

          • Sorry — Zordim.

          • I would not reply here any more, but I have to. Because you wrote “You repeatedly defended your theory as being more reasonable than modern physics, but if it fails to track with observable phenomena or make accurate predictions, then it necessarily must fail. ”

            Well, I appreciate that you did read my entire post on the link which I provided, and which is removed. No problem, I respect the right of professor Strassler to do that, and he should do that. You saw yourself on the’s ATM section (Against The Mainstream section, that is, the crack-pot section) how many people come up with all sorts of “ideas”. Imagine that all of them start to put the links to their ideas everywhere.
            And I respect and appreciate very much that professor Strassler did not remove my comments here. I can actually say: I am nicely surprised.

            There is an obvious difference between what I wrote in ATM, and what others write there: my thread does not contain a single scientifically invalid statement/equation/claim.
            And, you did read the thread, but you did not read it as it should be read. As I already said in my previous post here: it should be read slowly, carefully, thoughtfully. Also the comments of others, and my replies. For someone who had different perspective, it is necessary to read it more than once. And to think rationally.
            Then you could yourself come to conclusion that it does not fail to track with observable phenomena, and that it does make only accurate predictions.
            And, along the way, it reveals the fallacies in that what was tried to be used to discredit the FEMME.
            Actual physics postulates the charge as relativistically invariant. My theory clearly and reasonably predicts that it is not possible to be relativistically invariant. Energy/mass, time, space, these essential, fundamental properties of existence are all relativistically dependent, and the charge is some super-existance property? And I have provided links to official scientific papers which were meant to prove that the charge is relativistically independent, but they failed. They say that it is detected that the variations exist, but they try to present that as the measurement inacuracies. And the last such experiment was conducted and reported 30 years ago.
            In experiments, nobody measures the change of charge, nobody checks if that happens at all.
            So, Kaufmann-Bucherer-Neuman experiments, the cyclotron experiment, and also the contemporary accelerator experiments, assume – without the check – that charge is relativistically independent. If one uses Einstein’s equation for mass-relativistic-increase, the one calculates the bigger mass increase than that which actually occurs, and, unfortunately, it fits with measured data. But, if one uses my equation for mass increase – simply and accurately derived, on the basis of energy-conservation principle – and my equation for charge dependence of velocity q = q0*exp(-0.5*v2/c2), one would get perfect accordance with measurements, too. And, it reveals the big mistake which the scientists do, being totally unaware of it.
            Further, actual physics postulates the life-time of a particle as something which has to have the same value regardless of that if it moves through vacuum, or through some material. If one takes that the muon life time is slightly longer in vacuum/air than the life-time measured in scintilator material – precisely, if one takes the value of 2.4microsec instead of 2.2) (and which produces the decay curve which fits better than the one shown in the experiment-paper), and if one takes that the muon-velocity is slightly higher, within the measurement error range in the experiment, my equation for time dilation yields the result which shows that the muons are produced at the heights between 10 and 13 km. The experiment result claims that the height is 15km. And I have clearly explained how the experiment is sophisticatedly framed, in advance, to fit the Einstein’s time-dilation exactly. My result fits better with measurements (for muon flux intensities at heights between 7 and 14 km) which Shaula pointed me to before I calculated my value, in order to prove me wrong. And she knows that my result fits better, but nevertheless, she continues to claim, repeatedly, that “my theory fails”. And that is done because of people like you – who come and read, and when they see that the “physicist” says to a “crack-pot” so directly “your theory fails” (and you also did see how many such – completely ungrounded – claims repeatedly occur after each of my detailed replies) you will rest assured that another “crack-pot” hit and was broken against the “steady and firm wall of science”. And if the thread administrator and moderator deliberatly, not only neglect all evidence and logical reasoning, but present them in a completely twisted way, with their comments, than you are definitely sure that the crack-pot is cracked definitely.
            And, I have no joice but to stop to respond any more, because it is obvious that there the goal is not the true science, the truth, but “defending of the faith, even with the blatant lies”. Especially after the last comment there – I have the whole section where I explain the two-photons-whirl concept, and the last commenter blatantly says “you did not address this issue”.
            In the meantime, I have also nicely and easily derived the precession for orbits (that was one of the demands in the discussion), but the thread was closed.
            Well, I already wrote too much. Best regards to all of you.

  14. I am not looking at the other comments on purpose so as to give you my un-influenced thoughts on your meta-scientific questions.

    First of all, I find your blog and most likely would find others by other scientists with very good credentials to be extremely important in expanding my knowledge of Physics. I’ve done some graduate work in Physics years ago and find that Wikipedia, for the most part, is too technical for me. Of Particular Significance is perfect (also good pun) . And the range of people who can read your articles is wide. Also a definite plus. [And you are so clear!]

    I fear that not much can be done about the inaccurate reporting in the media. Most people who get their information there are totally uninformed. Although, before I found your blog, I was relying on them more than I liked.
    When I was relying on public reporting, I found it frustrating that questions to scientific news writers, either qualified or unqualified to answer them, went unanswered.

    The public should be informed about scientific research, even if they are not always qualified to understand the contents of the articles. For the most part, tax payer dollars are funding scientific research in this country, and the public should know what it is they are funding (see argument about the public having access to technical articles they have funded). If they are at all curious, they can probably find ways to learn more about current research in all fields.

    if there are no public articles on scientific research how in the world are young people going to have a clue as to what’s going on today.

  15. John Duffield

    Q: What role should and can be played by blogs and websites run by scientists?

    A: They should inform and interest the public, motivating them to be supportive of science, and moreover they should inform other scientists.

    Q: Can (or should) anything be done about the wildly inaccurate science reporting that one so often sees in the media?

    A: Yes and yes, by scientists telling it how it is and pointing out hype and mistruth which is not always the fault of reporters. Scientists might feel inclined to silence “for the good of physics”, but for the good of physics, must not be. This is crucially important. Without a safety valve, the result could be an explosive disaster.

    Q: Is it really that important that the public be informed about scientific research — given that public knowledge of the details of law, medicine, construction, accounting, plumbing, and other technical fields is also very limited?

    A: Yes it really is. The alternative is irrelevance and funding cuts.

    I have a Computer Science degree and a deep interest in fundamental physics along with concerns for its well-being.

  16. When reading the New York Times today I came across this article whose link I thought to leave to those who might want to read it – re: broad changes proposed for science education in this country:

  17. For an article on a call for broad changes in the way science is taught in this country, people might want to look at:

    • At first glance, it seems to be a very interesting initiative and a very encouraging change of events that may help to boost the amount of students that will choose to pursue a STEM career in the future. It is my understanding that many diverse conservative groups will coalesce around this “threat in common” and put up a real fight against this initiative.

  18. I am a law academic near retirement age and have not done science since school. My maths is basic. Having made that point I am happy to endorse the more thoughtful comments above. The real point I would make is that I suspect I am not untypical of many who are fascinated by science, get seriously annoyed by bad journalism even I can see through, and have an immense gratitude for blogs such as yours that take non-experts seriously and provide a lucid account of developments in your field.

  19. What ZORAN/ZORDIM said might include a seed of truth , or otherwise how respected scientists would say that the unphysical BIANCHI-type universe is more consistent with CMB-PS than SMoC !!this simply means that cosmology IS built on quick sand what else ??? ……….reflect.

  20. P.S. :
    By the way what is the Bianchi- type universe , then WHERE COSMOLOGY IS GOING ??

  21. Scientific truth do not emerge from “common sense”, or from “rational reasoning”, or from “understandability”, or from “being coherent”, or from “consistency”, or from any other “good” quality of human behaviour. No man would admit not to use them, obviously.
    Scientific truth emerges from “reading”, from “observing”, from “comparing” (best of all!), from “exchanging”, from “debating”, from “regarding”, from “waiting”, from “not thinking to be alone in a mountain top or better than others”.
    It does not exist a “time absolute frame of reference” for judging science value: when it was simple as Pithagoras, it’s good… now that it’s hard to understand, it’s bad…
    I admit in science even the sometimes strange statement on scientific methodology from Paul Feyerabend: I don’t like his science anarchism, but it doesn’t scare me if I read it and compare it with my colleagues’ ideas on them.
    I want to repeat: science is comparing. That’ why I read Matt Strassler Blog.

  22. I’ll focus on 2 and 3.

    2) I write science articles for children’s magazines (a dying breed, both me and the magazines). When I talk to other journalists they are shocked (shocked!) that I regularly send my finished articles to my scientist subjects to review. They would never do such a thing; it violates their editorial integrity or some such nonsense. When I interview a scientist, I want to know that I got the science right. I believe other journalists should get over themselves and follow this practice. This would fix most of the problem, and it’s ridiculously simple.

    3) When Bill Moyers asked Joseph Campbell, “Why myth? What does it have to do with my life?” Campbell gave the best answer I’ve ever heard. He said, “Well, my first answer would be, go on, live your life, it’s a good life, you don’t need this. I don’t believe in being interested in a subject because it’s said to be important or interesting. I believe in being caught by it in some way or another. But,” Campbell went on, “I believe with a proper introduction this subject may catch you.”

    This is what I feel about science. You’ll never convince someone to be interested in science because it’s so very, very important. Instead, you must catch them, in the way I was caught by Isaac Asimov, Carl Sagan, and Stephen Jay Gould.

    As far as my background, I was trained as a high school math and physics teacher, but for 20 years I’ve been in the science museum field, interacting with the public every day, trying my darnedest to catch them.

    Professor Strassler’s blog is a godsend for me, giving me the ability to understand a little better this subject that so fascinates me and then hopefully transfer a little of that understanding to the public. So I guess that answers 1, as well.

    • People can be attracted to a subject like science from many different perspectives.

      Even though I was attracted to science and technology at a very young age, first and foremost through reading all sorts of interesting books, what really captured my attention to science were two funny effects about gravity and the rotation of the Earth that I was able to experience first hand around when I was 15 years old.

      I was born and raised in Argentina, which is in the southern hemisphere. A few months before my 15th birthday, my family and me went to live in Venezuela, which is in the northern hemisphere, that is, on the other side of the Equator.

      The first funny effect that I witnessed first hand was that water drains spinning in opposite directions on both hemispheres.

      As the “sign” of the projection of rotation (of the earth) changes at the Equator, it is simple to realize that “the zero” is at the Equator, so, it can be figured out that at the Equator, water drains with no spin, it just flushes down the drain without spinning. It is not as obvious to realize that the maximum spinning will be experienced at the poles, on each pole the maximum rotation for a given sign or sense of rotation.

      The same weird thing with the sign or sense of the projection of rotation affects marine currents and wind currents on both hemispheres, as well as the sign of the rotation of the spin of hurricanes and tornados (on a given hemisphere, tornados and hurricanes spin in the same direction, which is the opposite direction of spin for tornados and hurricanes on the other hemisphere).

      The second funny effect that I experienced first hand was just a few weeks before my 16th birthday, at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. (a part of the Smithsonian): the swinging of Foucault’s Pendulum.

      Simple as these two effects may seem, they really captured my attention deeper towards science.

      Kind regards, GEN

  23. The basis of the scientific method and scientific thinking in general is a principle commonly known as Ockham’s Razor. It simply states that the theory that is able to explain all the known facts (evidence) with the least amount of assumptions is the preferred one.

    In a more convoluted way, we could argue that this principle also states that a theory has to be presented in such a way that it can be falsified, it has to be presented in a way that it can be proven wrong.

    So, Ockham’s Razor is all about being able to constrast theory with evidence, both evidence from previous experiments and evidence gathered at an experiment (a new one) designed to prove or disprove a given theory.

    Because this last element I have mentioned, it also implies that theoretical science has to go hand in hand with experimental science.

    Let’s consider Galilei’s experiments with gravity.

    He never described doing an actual experiment of throwing different types of objects (some more dense and heavier, others less dense and less heavy) from a high place, even though he did mentioned more like a gedanken, a thought experiment.

    His thought experiment was designed wich such brilliance that it proved with the use of an absurd situation that Aristotles was wrong when he thought that lighter objects fell slower that heavier objects.

    He did describe actual experiments he did with inclined planes and heavy balls rolling down the plane a previously determined distance, measuring the time taken by the ball to run that distance down the incline, and then figuring out a if there was a consistent numerical relationship between the extent of the distance run by the ball and the time it took to run that distance.

    The point is that he did find a consistent numerical relationship between the measurements, that the distance is proportional to the square of the ellapsed time. His empirical discovery would be validated by Newton’s theory some 40 years after the experiments where done.

    Others at the same time proclamed that after certain experiments very similar to Galilei’s thought experiment of throwing different objects from a high place were able to prove that they did fall at the same time independent of the type of object, whether light or heavy.

    It might be plausible that Galilei did such an experiment, but he realized that any objects that he could use fell so fast that he could not measure such a short interval of time with a reasonable accuracy when considering the crude systems to measure time that existed at that moment.

    That obstacle helped him have an epiphany, when he came up with the idea of “slowing down” the rate of fall of the objects to such a pace slow enough for him to measure the ellapsed time with enough accuracy.

    That is how he though about an inclined plane to slow down the rate of fall.

    He used different types of materials for the balls, some lighter, some heavier, and under the same other conditions (same degree of inclination, same distance on the inclined plane to run), the balls made out of different materials took the same time to cover the same distance.

    Even though these experiments were fundamental and important, it was Kepler’s Laws based on Tycho Brahe’s tables of detailed measurements of the movements of planets and the Moon that served as empirical evidence for Newton to use as base for his theory, but Newton did take into account Galilei’s empirical formula.

    In a similar fashion, Michael Faraday was to James Clerk Maxwell what Kepler was to Newton.

    Maxwell’s theory was robust and sound, and he had a ton of evidence gathered by very meticulous experiments designed and conducted by Faraday.

    But it always is the theory that best complies with Ockham’s Razor that wins the lottery.

    By 1900, almost 20 years after the first experiment down by Michelson, both Lorentz and Poincaré did figure out just about all of the “right” equations of special relativity, they had the physics all wrong, from doing just about everything to keep the ether alive, up to using all sorts of weird definitions (“local time”, for instance) just to keep absolute time as king of physics.

    By 1905, Lorentz and Poincaré were big honchos of the scientific establishment. It took just two papers by Einstein to debunk their theories, and he was a nobody at the time. But his theory was robust and sound with both the physics and the math that supported, while Lorentz’s and Poincaré’s theories were not able to stand the critical scrutiny presented by Einstein in his papers.

    Kind regards, GEN

  24. Great discussion Matt. I’m so glad I stumbled upon your blog.

    I have noticed that artists and scientists have a lot in common, including the expectation of support for amazing work, coupled with an extreme distaste for marketing it. It is as if the work speaks for itself, and anyone with half a brain should recognize that fact and kick in a few bucks so it can continue. I think scientists should take a hint from successful artists. They should find an expert to market their work to their target audience. I don’t think it’s necessarily their obligation to raise the world’s awareness and appreciation for what they do. Besides, they’re going to do it anyway because they can’t help themselves. But if they want to make a living at it, including having access to the equipment that will allow them to do it, they must somehow convince those who can support their efforts that their work is valuable and relevant and should be supported. Artists do this by having a team of experts at their disposal who are very good at identifying their target audience and reaching out to that audience with compelling reasons to buy the art. Scientists, at least from my limited perspective, make compelling arguments to other scientists (preaching to the choir) or to politicians (who can’t explain the science to their constituents) or to a poorly educated public, and end up with relatively little support for their efforts. Popular books and television helps to raise public interest and raise some money, but as you point out, the material has to be simplified and sensationalized in order for the public to pay attention–sort of like feeding a baby. I would like to see more of the scientific community, or the institutions that employ them, dedicate a portion of their resources to the acquisition of professionals that know how to get results when it comes to influencing the public and finding financial resources–marketing, public relations, talent agencies, and sales consultants are all good examples of these. This way, scientists can continue to do the things they are good at while their communications/fund raising team can do what they are good at. In the end, I think everyone, especially the public, would benefit.

    I dropped out of high school, had some technical training in the military, and have been an amateur scientist for most of my life.

    • This is a really interesting take, but I wonder about the differences more than the similarities. Art is individual, can be purchased and hung on a wall or installed somewhere, even if that somewhere is a public venue. When installed in public the benefactor’s name is slapped on the work.

      Science, by contrast, doesn’t necessarily result in any product other than knowledge. So who is the “target audience”? Who will “buy” scientific truth so that research can continue?

      • Well, the target audience will depend on the scientific truth discovered, and these professionals will know how to find that target audience. They do it every day. As to who will pay for knowledge, just about anyone if they can use that knowledge to make money. Science is done by many people, but real (read game-changing) science which overcomes a road block or solves a mystery is usually the result of one person’s inspiration.

  25. Hi! I attended your physics lecture at Ursinus. I am 11 years old and love physics. I have a few questions that I hope you can answer about your presentation at Ursinus.

    1. Does the Higgs Boson give particles mass or is it the Higgs field?
    2. If 1 quantum is the smallest possible wave in a field, what would larger waves be considered?


  26. Great questions Owen. I would also like to know if gravity and the Higgs have something in common, or is gravity just the result of particles interacting with the Higgs field.

  27. Pingback: Northern Lights Tonight? | Of Particular Significance

  28. So I can see how scientists must find it frustrating that their ideas are so often inaccurately reported by the media, and poorly understood by the public.

    I wonder what the public want.

    Following this blog, I get the impression that many of the public want to actively engage in the ideas of science rather than just simply be passive listeners being lectured by scientists.

  29. “Science and the Common Good…” is appropriate title, makes me think of “We the people.. and posterity..”. Blog and website hosted by scientists are essential supplements to schools in grooming the next generation of scientists that are expected to carry on solving our persistent problems. I wish, most if not all are as good as your of particular significance. We really have problems that could be solved by science and it depends on your time frame.. conservation of global resources, health and survival which includes the inevitable diaspora in longer time frame considering our sun will be a super red giant in less than a billion years.. or otherwise let science accelerate evolution of life to adapt in fiery environment if ever evolution is true. Yes, we must groom the next generation of scientists making sure that they will be efficient and effective in solving our problems, blog and websites hosted by scientists are useful in that regards.

  30. I believe in continuous learning, and real students will remain students long after they left the school. We discuss lectures in the canteen and other unlikely places, we seek second opinion from other professors.. blog and website hosted by scientists are nifty in satisfying our need in manifesting our curious student attitude since some of us are no longer in schools nor canteen 🙂

    • Continuous learning is essential, at the pace of progress I could see I think we must run faster lest obsolescence might overtook us. It’s not cool to be laid off from employment due to redundancy.. or was replaced by a silicon chip 😀

  31. Imo, nothing could be done about the inaccurate science reports in the media except express our own opinion about it whenever we could, stressing the cardinal rule of science never to take anything at face value. The science community could police its own for ethical and professional reasons. But how about science ignorance coming from the congress? coming from showbiz? coming from prestigious individuals? they are overwhelming and they are hilarious, you’ll wonder where they learn their science.

    • “I don’t know what’s the matter with people: they don’t learn by understanding, they learn by some other way — by rote or something. Their knowledge is so fragile!” said Feyman… and I don’t think he was joking.

      Considering that, perhaps the question must be how much science I understand. I’m not sure if I understood correctly the sciences that I read in the internet, thus I’m pouring out my bucket for examination expecting that my irresponsible conjectures are just a few. Regarding some perspectives that shaped my views..

      ( =’;’)= unlike the schrodinger’s cat
      (,,)(,,) which is a thought superposition of states, I am truly in a superposition… a B.S. Mechanical Engineering student that prematurely left school, a Logistic manager, a hydraulic and heavy equipment mechanic, an electrician, a daddy, a husband, a catholic, and other states that I considered irrelevant at this moment. 😀

  32. The public pay for science, they deserve to know even if they’re not interested. ” Hey average taxpayer! you launched that satellite with a price of half a jelly bean! isn’t it great! it beam us report!” 😀

  33. A couple of points:
    1. Does anyone remember a scientist named William Thomson? AKA Lord Kelvin, he was one of the leading scientists of his day, knighted for his work on the transatlantic telegraph cable. A leading figure in the development of thermodynamics, it was he who first determined the correct value of absolute zero temperature. The Kelvin scale is named after him. But we don’t hear much about him any more. Why? Because much of what he said and wrote has turned out to be totally incorrect, including arguments about the age of the Earth and the Sun, a theoretical argument that it was impossible for airplanes to fly, and the statement attributed to him that physics was nearing its completion in the late 1800s with nothing else of significance left to discover. He also helped develop a sophisticated mathematical theory that matter consisted of “vortices” in the aether. All carefully reasoned and based on then-current understanding and knowledge. All from a leading and respected scientist. All dead wrong.

    My point is not that “physicists can’t be trusted to get things right”, or even that “mathematical rigor and elegance alone are not good indicators of how nature works”, but rather the more uncomfortable statement that “gaining knowledge is, and almost surely always will be, an incremental iterative process, wherein previous assumptions and models and explanations can and will be proven limited and even incorrect”. This is one of the cornerstones of modern science. The history of 20th century science emphasizes the point.

    That’s not something that non-scientists want to hear. And neither do some scientists who have invested their lives in developing techniques and viewpoints for analyzing and describing theories and experimental results. Especially in the Western world, we want to have things tied up in nice neat bundles. We want our scientists, the science they report and the way they describe it, to be “Right”. We don’t want to hear that it’s still a work in progress. We don’t like thinking that, although our current understanding is the best we can possibly, humanly make it, it is at best incomplete and at worst completely wrong headed. We want the Truth with a capital T, and don’t want to waste our time with wishy-washy scientists who can’t find it.

    In some sense this serves us well. We tend to “out” people who are not accurate in their descriptions of scientific results, whether theoretical or experimental. We look for uncontrolled and confounding variables in experimental work, require confirmation of experimental results, check each other’s’ mathematical derivations and computations. Scientists tend to believe that precision and rigor is vital to making progress. Yet they often push ahead based on some Ansatz that they know can’t be quite right, but they can use it to make progress (e.g., they know how to write and/or solve the equations), and will fill in the blanks later. They know that, even given all that we have learned, our knowledge is still tentative. But this conundrum is very difficult for the general public to understand, and those that do understand it often tend to view science and scientists with skepticism. The rigor with which most scientists must approach their subjects, in order to distinguish appearances from underlying hard information, is lost on most of us. Into this void, it’s very easy for “popularizers” of science to use hyperbole and downright misinformation, whether for their own personal aggrandizement, to achieve funding or staffing of their pet projects, to push political points of view, or even to generate “enthusiasm” for study of science and technology. Making things seem to be “The Truth” can help such endeavors. When “The Truth” turns out to be not quite true, non-scientists scoff. This is unlikely to change.

    The only antidote is to have some voices of careful, judicious consideration speaking out about science and scientific results in the various scientific fields. Matt’s blog is one of those voices.

    2. Whether we like it or not, one of the main jobs of any editor of any publication is to ensure readership. Popular science magazines and web sites are no exception. If you can generate some “buzz” by including articles about speculative theories, and don’t want people to think they are wasting their time by reading speculations in a supposedly “scientific” magazine, then just describe them as if they are established facts. Just as you do for other less speculative topics, without describing their limitations or inconsistencies either. Make people believe these scientist savants really are discovering, or are on the verge of discovering, Truth with a capital T. That’s just how the game is played. That’s what generates readership and sales.

    Multiverses? String theory? Hidden dimensions? Superluminal neutrinos? It’s one thing to describe just how speculative or tentative these ideas are; it’s another to talk about their consequences as if they were accepted reality. You don’t understand this stuff? Doesn’t matter; you probably don’t understand much of science anyway. The question to ask is, “Which approach will get readers to read this month’s issue, and then to come back to read the next installment?” Not “What’s the most scientifically accurate way to describe these ideas, and what basis do they have given our current knowledge?”

    That’s the difference between “a story” in a magazine or blog and “a scientific report”. Many people can get involved in a story. No one but a specialist wants to read a report. And that’s the dilemma with popularizing science: trying to make objective information into a “story” that people will want to pay money for and/or to spend time reading — people who normally don’t want to even think about science or how science works or what it means in terms of human understanding or their own belief system. “God particle”? Great! That’ll get their attention! Or, if it takes some ice-skating physicist spouting weird sounding euphemisms about the creation of the universe, then Wow! — if that keeps someone from changing the channel or clicking away from this web site, who cares if it’s 100% “accurate”? Fact checking? This guy’s a physicist isn’t he? We’ve got a deadline.

    That’s journalism today, whether of science or any other kind. And it’s the dichotomy every professional science writer and editor has to face, no matter how dedicated they are to accurate reporting. In this world of “instant journalism”, where 5 minutes (or 140 characters) can be the difference between being the source of news or an also ran, this also is unlikely to change.

    We need the rigor and careful, precise explanation of scientific inquiry. We need to know when large numbers of medical and psychological studies are brought into question. But just as importantly, we need to know why: Why many studies, by governments and corporations and think tanks, are bogus, conflating cause and correlation, drawing conclusions from improperly used statistics. We need the careful dissection of logical arguments about the data we use to justify our theories and models, as well as about those theories and models themselves. That is how science has made the progress it has, despite the egos of people with the hubris to think that they are intelligent enough to divine the intricate details of the universe’s workings. And despite the fact that they have almost always been wrong. That it has taken us as a species over 100,000 years to get as far as we have is surely evidence that most of us lack the critical and intellectual facilities required, that such talents and capabilities are very rare things. And yet, we all need some understanding of what we and our universe are made of, where we fit, what is happening around and in and to us. (Including an understanding of just how “weird” quantum mechanics and relativity really are because, despite the unresolved internal logical inconsistencies in both of those current theories and how foreign they are to our everyday thinking, that seems to be the reality of the universe we inhabit.) Plus we need an idea of the limits of our current knowledge of these subjects: some idea of what remains to be known and understood, some idea of how skeptical to be of new claims and proposals. Perhaps most of all, we need to understand the logical processes that got science to its current state – and that are almost never discussed. And that is why science needs to be “popularized” – not to make it “popular”, not even to advance our technologies, but to give us all an accurate sense of our place in what lies around us, and how to go about thinking about it.

    Because that’s what we need to help us decide where we go from here, and how to get there.

  34. John Duffield

    Wlm: Good post. You know how you said that Kelvin “also helped develop a sophisticated mathematical theory that matter consisted of ‘vortices’ in the aether” and then said “dead wrong”. That one wasn’t dead wrong. What was wrong was the idea that atoms related to the knot table. Electron magnetic moment, the Einstein-de Haas effect, and the word “spinor” should be enough to tell you that the electron isn’t entirely unlike a vortex. And pair production and electron diffraction should be enough to tell you that the electron isn’t really “fundamental”, and isn’t pointlike, especially since QFT is all about field, and the electron’s field is part of what it is. Especially when we have TQFT. Find a knot table, look at the second entry, note that it’s a trefoil. Find a better picture of a trefoil, like this one: . Trace round it with your finger clockwise and call out the crossing-over directions. Up, up down. Familiar? There’s things in physics that are dead wrong, but they aren’t always the things you think.

  35. We can argue that the electron behaves like a point-like particle, since all experimental attempts so far to measure the size of the electron have failed.

    • GEN, electron is point-like if you will measure its position, but does it matter? the sun consisting 99.86% of all the mass in our solar system is also just a point when we calculate as well as all the planets. Anyways whatever the electron like to behave is not important, most calculations just care how much energy an electron has . Btw, vortex connotes classical spin while spin 1/2 has no equivalent in classical physics.. ah yes, this is very important considering Pauli principle.. our existence depended on this! 😀

      • The progress in technology is really amazing. I still don’t understand the electron spin well and yet there are spintronics devices in the market that harness the energy of electron spin instead of its charge.

        And more! Researchers at the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science have taken an important step toward harnessing the heat from electronic devices and converting it for practical use via spintronics. The advance could lead to more energy-efficient appliances and information processing devices. I’m looking forward to a cooler laptop and get rid my noisy and bothersome laptop cooling fan 😀

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