Outreach as the End Product of Science

Sabine Hossenfelder recently wrote a blog post about physics outreach. In it, she identifies two goals: inspiration, and education.

Inspiration outreach is all about making science seem cool. It’s the IFLScience side of things, stoking the science fandom and getting people excited.

Education outreach, by contrast, is about making sure peoples’ beliefs are accurate. It teaches the audience something about the world around them, giving them a better understanding of how the world works.

In both cases, though, Sabine finds it hard to convince other scientists that outreach is valuable. Maybe inspiration helps increase grant funding, maybe education makes people vote better on scientific issues like climate change…but there isn’t a lot of research that shows that outreach really accomplishes either.

Sabine has a number of good suggestions in her post for how to make outreach more effective, but I’d like to take a step back and suggest that maybe we as a community are thinking about outreach in the wrong way. And in order to do that, I’m going to do a little outreach myself, and talk about black holes.

The black hole of physics outreach.

Black holes are collapsed stars, crushed in on themselves by their own gravity so much that one you get close enough (past the event horizon) not even light can escape. This means that if you sent an astronaut past the event horizon, there would be no way for them to communicate with you: any way they might try to get information to you would travel, at most, at the speed of light.

Einstein’s equations keep working fine past the event horizon, but despite that there are some people who view any prediction of what happens inside to be outside the scope of science. If there’s no way to report back, then how could we ever test our predictions? And if we can’t test our predictions, aren’t we missing the cornerstone of science itself?

In a rather entertaining textbook, physicists Edwin F. Taylor and John Archibald Wheeler suggest a way around this: instead of sending just one astronaut, send multiple! Send a whole community! That way, while we might not be able to test our predictions about the inside of the event horizon, the scientific community that falls in certainly can. For them, those predictions aren’t just meaningless speculation, but testable science.

If something seems unsatisfying about this, congratulations: you now understand the purpose of outreach.

As long as scientific advances never get beyond a small community, we’re like Taylor and Wheeler’s astronauts inside the black hole. We can test our predictions among each other, verify them to our heart’s content…but if they never reach the wider mass of humanity, then what have we really accomplished? Have we really created knowledge, when only a few people will ever know it?

In my Who Am I? post, I express the hope that one day the science I blog about will be as well known as electrons and protons. That might sound farfetched, but I really do think it’s possible. In one hundred years, electrons and protons went from esoteric discoveries of a few specialists to something children learn about in grade school. If science is going to live up to its purpose, if we’re going to escape the black hole of our discipline, then in another hundred years quantum field theory needs to do the same. And by doing outreach work, each of us is taking steps in that direction.

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3 thoughts on “Outreach as the End Product of Science

  1. Shea Levy

    This is an aside from the main thrust of your post, but in one of the few things I liked in Tegmark’s Our Mathematical Universe was his point that a theory being falsifiable is different from a prediction being falsifiable, i.e. you can have a theory that is as a whole falsifiable that makes some predictions that aren’t. Since GR is a nice proper scientific theory, falsifiability and all, it’s a bit odd to call a prediction that follows directly from the principles of GR “unscientific”.

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    1. 4gravitonsandagradstudent Post author

      I tend to agree, but that’s mostly because I agree that falsifiable theories can have nonfalsifiable consequences. There are people who would say that, just because GR works in every situation we can test, doesn’t mean it will work in situations we can’t. But in my mind once you let that sort of thing in you have problems applying inductive logic at all…you get grues and bleens and the like.

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  2. Tienzen (Jeh-Tween) Gong

    “As long as scientific advances never get beyond a small community, we’re like Taylor and Wheeler’s astronauts inside the black hole. We can test our predictions among each other, verify them to our heart’s content…but if they never reach the wider mass of humanity, then what have we really accomplished? Have we really created knowledge, when only a few people will ever know it?”

    Amen!

    Sabine Hossenfelder: “Since the readers are never exposed to any technical terms or equations, they are doomed to forever remain in the shallow waters.”

    This might be the fact but is not the necessary consequence. I thus totally disagree with her. Today, physics community has a trinity of superstitions.
    S1, long-live the empirical DATA
    S2, you Majesty, the equation
    S3, the Supreme Justices, the falsifiability

    The empirical data is forever fallible. The falsifiability is now viewed as silly by the papabear {Steven Weinberg said: ” First of all, this business of falsifiability is a silly criterion imposed on physical science by Karl Popper, who was looking for some way of discrediting Marxism and psychoanalysis. Our most important theories, like Newtonian mechanics and quantum mechanics, are not falsifiable, because they do not make predictions by themselves, but provide general frameworks for more specific theories, which do make predictions. Further, if we find some future theory that does make successful predictions about a lot of things, which turn out to be true rather than false, and if that theory also predicts the existence of a multiverse, then we should take that prediction seriously even though it can’t be tested directly.” See http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/cross-check/2015/05/01/nobel-laureate-steven-weinberg-still-dreams-of-final-theory/ }.

    Yet, Peter Woit wrote: “The string theory landscape ‘prediction’ of a multiverse is exactly the opposite sort of thing, not a corollary of successful predictions, but something being invoked as an excuse for failure to make predictions about anything at all. (See http://www.math.columbia.edu/~woit/wordpress/?p=7688 )”.

    Physics is all about ‘concepts’, not data nor equation. The multiverse is based on two notions:
    N1, most of the nature constants of ‘this’ universe is not derivable in Standard Model, and their values must be fine-tuned for allowing the rising of life.

    N2, with multiverse, there are zillions of different nature constants, and ours are just a happenstance.

    Indeed, there is no way to refute the multiverse with DATA, but it can be ruled out by simply showing that its base is wrong.
    One, the constants of ‘this’ universe can be derived.
    Two, the derivations of these constants are not bubble dependent.

    If we can do these two, then multiverse can be refuted and ruled out, no need of any data. That is, the concept first, the equation second.

    That is, even the multiverse debate can be explained to the lay public, and your blog has done a great job on this goal.

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