Thursday, May 17, 2012

Physics's PR problem: Moving beyond string theory and multiple universes

 I was reminded of this by a timely post by MJ at "Interfacial Digressions". As everyone knows, chemistry has a PR problem. Fear of "chemicals" runs rampant without context or qualification. In addition, unlike physics and biology, chemistry is not considered to be the science that answers profound questions about the origins of life or the future of the universe. Of course there's evidence to the contrary for each one of these thoughts - modern life would be impossible without chemistry and the origin of life can claim to be the ultimate grand chemical question - but it's been hard to convince the public of this truth. The acute PR problem for chemistry is illustrated by the fact that popular literature on chemistry does not sell half as well as that on physics; just count the number of chemistry versus physics books in your Barnes & Noble the next time you visit (if you are still obsessed with paper that is).

But I think physics also has a PR problem, and it's of a different kind than chemistry's. This statement should elicit gasps of indignation, since the Greenes, Hawkings and Kakus seem to be doing quite well; they are household names and every one of their books instantly gathers hundreds of positive reviews on Amazon. But there's still a problem and it's not one that is acknowledged by many of these leading popular expositors, at least partly because doing so would rob them of their next big NewYork Times bestseller and the accompanying profits. Look at the physics section in your B&N next time and you will understand what I am talking about.

The problem is that most of the popular physics that the public enjoys constitutes perhaps 10% of the research that physicists worldwide are engaged in. Again, count the number of physics books in your local bookstore, and you will notice that about 90% of them cover quantum mechanics, cosmology, particle physics and "theories of everything". You would be hard-pressed to find volumes on condensed matter physics, biophysics, the physics of "soft" matter like liquids and non-linear dynamics. And yes, these are bonafide fields of physics that have engaged physics's best minds for decades and which are as exciting as any other field of science. Yet if you ask physics-friendly laymen what cutting-edge physics is about, the answers will typically span the Big Bang, Higgs boson, black holes, dark matter, string theory and even time-travel. There will be scant mention if any of say spectroscopy, optics, polymers, magnetic resonance, lasers or even superconductivity.

Whether physicists admit it or not, this is a PR problem. Laymen are being exposed to what is an undoubtedly exciting but tiny fraction of the universe of physics research. For eager readers of the popular physics literature, the most exciting advances in physics are encapsulated between the Higgs boson and the Big Bang and that's all they think exists in heaven and earth. In my opinion this does a great disservice to the majority of physicists around the world who work on other, equally exciting topics. Just consider one major academic physics department, say Stanford, and you get an idea of the sheer variety of projects physicists work on. Physics books may still sell, but the physics they describe is something which most of the world's physicists don't do. I cannot see how this cannot be called a PR problem.

So who is responsible for this situation? Well, in one sense, nobody. The fact is that the public has always shown a taste for "big picture" topics like cosmology and quantum mechanics and physicists have been indulging this taste for quite a while now. And who can blame the public for being attracted to relativity with its time paradoxes or quantum mechanics with its cats and famous personal rivalries. Even in the 1920s, the popular physics literature sported the likes of Arthur Eddington and James Jeans who were pitching nuclear physics and relativity to packed audiences. The mantle was passed on in the postwar era to scientists like George Gamow and Isaac Asimov who spread the gospel with gusto. And the trend continues to the present day, with even a mind-numbingly well-trodden topic like the history of quantum theory finding eager expositors like Louisa Gilder, Manjit Kumar and David Lindley. All their books are highly engaging, but they are not doing a favor to other equally interesting branches of physics.

The popular physics literature also has started turning quasi-religious, and writers like Brian Greene and Michio Kaku are unfortunately responsible for this development. Greene in particular is a remarkably charismatic and clear writer and lecturer who has achieved almost rock-status. Sadly, his popular expositions are seeming more like rock concerts rather than serious physics lectures. Part of the problem is his almost evangelic espousal of highly speculative, experimentally unverified (and perhaps even unverifiable) but deliciously tantalizing topics like string theory and multiple universe. Greene's books seem to indicate that the more speculative the topic, the more eagerly it will be assimilated by lay audiences. This cannot but be a disturbing trend, especially for those thousands of physicists whose research may sound pedestrian but which is also more solidly grounded in experiment and as interesting as perpetually splitting universes. One suspects that even the famous popular physics writers of lore like George Gamow would have been hesitant in pitching highly speculative topics merely for their "Wow" factor. If the biggest selling point of a popular physics book is its dependence on experimentally unverified ideas that sound more like science fiction, popular physics is in trouble indeed. 

In addition, whatever lacks the "Wow" factor seems to evidence the "Yawn" factor. By this I am referring to books describing the same old ideas which nonetheless keep on finding new audiences. A good example is Lisa Randall's latest book. It's an extremely well-written and spirited volume but it mostly treads the same tired ground of quantum mechanics, relativity and the Large Hadron Collider. The bottom line is that the popular physics literature seems to have reached a point of diminishing marginal returns. It's become very difficult to write anything on the subject that's either not well-trodden or highly speculative.

There is another unintentional effect of this literature which is more serious. Today's popular physics gives people the impression that the only questions worth addressing in physics are those that deal with unified theories or the birth and death of the cosmos. Everything else is either not worth doing or is at best done by second-rate minds or graduate students (take your pick). Not only does this paint a skewed picture of what's important and difficult in the field, it also inflates the importance and intellectual abilities of physicists working on fundamental problems at the expense of those working on more applied ones. This again does a great disservice to very many challenging problems in physics and the people addressing them. Building a room-temperature superconductor, understanding turbulence, designing new materials for capturing solar energy, keeping atoms stable at cold temperatures, kicking DNA around with lasers and of course, beating nuclear fusion at its own thermodynamic game are still long-unsolved problems that promise to engage the finest minds in the field. Yet the myth that the greatest problem in physics is finding the theory describing "everything" persists. This constant emphasis on "big" questions provides a biased view not just of physics but in fact of all of science, most of which involves solving interesting but modest problems. As MJ says in his/her post, most physicists he/she knows aren't really after 3 laws that describe 99% of the universe but would be content finding 99 laws that describe 3%. 

So what's the solution? As with other problems, the first step would be to acknowledge that there is indeed a problem. Sadly this would mean somewhat blunting the public's starry-eyed impression of cutting-edge physics, which the leading expositors of physics would perhaps be unwilling to do. At least some physicists might be basking in the public's mistaken grand impression that cosmology and quantum theory are all that physicist work on. If I were a soft condensed matter physicist and if I told someone at a cocktail party that I do physics, the images that response would evoke would most likely include long-haired professors, black holes, supernovae, nuclear weapons and time-travel. I may be excused for sounding hesitant to dispel this illusion and emphasize that I actually work on understanding the exact shape of coffee stains.

Nonetheless, this harsh assessment of reality might be necessary to cut the public's umbilical cord to the Hawkings, Greenes and Randalls. But this would have to be done by someone else and not by Brian Greene. Now let me make it clear that as speculative as I might find some of his proclamations, I don't blame Greene at all for doing what he does. You cannot fault him for not reminding the public about the wonders of graphene since that's not his business. His business is string theory, that's what he is passionate about, and nobody can doubt that he is exceedingly good at practicing his trade. Personally I have enjoyed his books, and in an age where ignorance of science seems to reach new lows, Greene's books provide at least some solace. But other physicists would have to tread into territory that he does not venture into if they want to solve physicists' PR problem. 

Gratifyingly some physicists have already started staking their claims in this territory, although until now their efforts have sounded more like tiptoeing and less like confident leaps. Nevertheless, James Gleick proved in the 1990s with his "Chaos" that one can indeed grab the public's attention and introduce them to an entirely new branch of science very successfully. In recent years this tradition has been carried on with varying degrees of success by other scientists, and they provide very promising examples of how the PR problem could be addressed. Let me offer a few suggestions. Robert Laughlin has talked about emergence and condensed matter in his "A Different Universe". David Deutsch has laid out some very deep thoughts in his two books, most recently in "The Beginning of Infinity". Philip Anderson expounds on a variety of interesting topics in his recent collection of essays. And while not entirely about physics, Stuart Kauffman's books have done a great job at dismantling the strong reductionist ethic endemic in physics and suggesting new directions for inquiry.

Sadly most of these books, while exceedingly interesting, are not as engagingly written as those by Greene or Randall. But the modest success they have enjoyed seems to indicate that the public does have a taste for other areas of physics as long as they are described with verve, passion and clarity. Maybe someday someone will do the same for turbulence, DNA dynamics, non-Newtonian liquids and single-molecule spectroscopy. Then physics will finally be complete, at least in a popular sense.

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