Popularization as News, Popularization as Signpost

Lubos Motl has responded to my post from last week about the recent Caltech short, Quantum is Calling. His response is pretty much exactly what you’d expect, including the cameos by Salma Hayek and Kaley Cuoco.

The only surprise was his lack of concern for accuracy. Quantum is Calling got the conjecture it was trying to popularize almost precisely backwards. I was expecting that to bother him, at least a little.

Should it bother you?

That depends on what you think Quantum is Calling is trying to do.

Science popularization, even good science popularization, tends to get things wrong. Some of that is inevitable, a result of translating complex concepts to a wider audience.

Sometimes, though, you can’t really chalk it up to translation. Interstellar had some extremely accurate visualizations of black holes, but it also had an extremely silly love-powered tesseract. That wasn’t their attempt to convey some subtle scientific truth, it was just meant to sound cool.

And the thing is, that’s not a bad thing to do. For a certain kind of piece, sounding cool really is the point.

Imagine being an explorer. You travel out into the wilderness and find a beautiful waterfall.

south_falls_silver_falls_state_park

Example:

How do you tell people about it?

One option is the press. The news can cover your travels, so people can stay up to date with the latest in waterfall discoveries. In general, you’d prefer this sort of thing to be fairly accurate: the goal here is to inform people, to give them a better idea of the world around them.

Alternatively, you can advertise. You put signposts up around town pointing toward the waterfall, complete with vivid pictures. Here, accuracy matters a lot less: you’re trying to get people excited, knowing that as they get closer they can get more detailed information.

In science popularization, the “news” here isn’t just news. It’s also blog posts, press releases, and public lectures. It’s the part of science popularization that’s supposed to keep people informed, and it’s one that we hope is mostly accurate, at least as far as possible.

The “signposts”, meanwhile, are things like Interstellar. Their audience is as wide as it can possibly be, and we don’t expect them to get things right. They’re meant to excite people, to get them interested in science. The expectation is that a few students will find the imagery interesting enough to go further, at which point they can learn the full story and clear up any remaining misconceptions.

Quantum is Calling is pretty clearly meant to be a signpost. The inaccuracy is one way to tell, but it should be clear just from the context. We’re talking about a piece with Hollywood stars here. The relative star-dom of Zoe Saldana and Keanu Reeves doesn’t matter, the presence of any mainstream film stars whatsoever means they’re going for the broadest possible audience.

(Of course, the fact that it’s set up to look like an official tie-in to the Star Trek films doesn’t hurt matters either.)

They’re also quite explicit about their goals. The piece’s predecessor has Keanu Reeves send a message back in time, with the goal of inspiring a generation of young scientists to build a future paradise. They’re not subtle about this.

Ok, so what’s the problem? Signposts are allowed to be inaccurate, so the inaccuracy shouldn’t matter. Eventually people will climb up to the waterfall and see it for themselves, right?

What if the waterfall isn’t there?

wonder_mountain_dry_backside_waterfall

Like so:

The evidence for ER=EPR (the conjecture that Quantum is Calling is popularizing) isn’t like seeing a waterfall. It’s more like finding it via surveying. By looking at the slope of nearby terrain and following the rivers, you can get fairly confident that there should be a waterfall there, even if you can’t yet see it over the next ridge. You can then start sending scouts, laying in supplies, and getting ready for a push to the waterfall. You can alert the news, telling journalists of the magnificent waterfall you expect to find, so the public can appreciate the majesty of your achievement.

What you probably shouldn’t do is put up a sign for tourists.

As I hope I made clear in my last post, ER=EPR has some decent evidence. It hasn’t shown that it can handle “foot traffic”, though. The number of researchers working on it is still small. (For a fun but not especially rigorous exercise, try typing “ER=EPR” and “AdS/CFT” into physics database INSPIRE.) Conjectures at this stage are frequently successful, but they often fail, and ER=EPR still has a decent chance of doing so. Tying your inspiring signpost to something that may well not be there risks sending tourists up to an empty waterfall. They won’t come down happy.

As such, I’m fine with “news-style” popularizations of ER=EPR. And I’m fine with “signposts” for conjectures that have shown they can handle some foot traffic. (A piece that sends Zoe Saldana to the holodeck to learn about holography could be fun, for example.) But making this sort of high-profile signpost for ER=EPR feels irresponsible and premature. There will be plenty of time for a Star Trek tie-in to ER=EPR once it’s clear the idea is here to stay.

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7 thoughts on “Popularization as News, Popularization as Signpost

  1. Lubos Motl

    Hi, physicists – and e.g. two of us – may have (at least sometimes, to some extent) meaningful discussions about validity of ER=EPR and similar problems. I agree with your description of Interstellar but I am confident that you understate the evidence in favor of ER=EPR.

    But some relatively minor differences in our opinions about ER=EPR aren’t the main issue that divides us here.

    The main issue is that Zoe Saldana, Keanu Reeves, and the laymen viewers of that film don’t have a chance to rationally decide whether ER=EPR is right or not. They don’t really see the waterfall with their own eyes and brains. They are told that there are ER=EPR waterfalls by authoritative – and Hollywood-peppered – people and that’s why many of them may adopt the concept. They won’t return upset that there’s no waterfall because none of them can prove that there’s none even if there’s none. At most, everyone will return somewhat dissatisfied because none of them can prove it – and see why it’s there – with their own eyes and brains, either.

    And in this case, it’s simply a good thing that the film was made (although it’s far less influential than the Quantum Chess one) because ER=EPR is one of the most important, deep, scientifically persuasive conceptual insights about the nature of quantum information in recent 5 years. The film is inaccurate, I found it rather incoherent, and it uses all the usual silly codewords including cats in boxes. But the message that ER=EPR is something that the laymen should be interested in or talk about is right and it’s right that it’s supported by Hollywood actors.

    It’s a vastly better case than a majority of similar things linked to science that similar celebrities often support by their fame. But this is not the first time when I have the feeling that you deliberately refuse to look at things in the context and compare them fairly with very analogous situations. Last time, you told me that it would be “politics” for you that you want to avoid. It may be “politics” but avoiding these vital comparisons is called “dishonesty”.

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  2. Giotis

    Let’s take one step back from ER=EPR.

    Would you be comfortable advertising in the same manner the Gravity/Entanglement correspondence revolution that followed Ryu-Takayanagi work?

    I mean this is basically AdS/CFT if you think about it, it follows from Maldacena’s proposal for the eternal AdS black hole.

    But if you accept that I don’t see why it is so dramatic to continue grosso modo in the same spirit and advertise ER=EPR.

    OK, it’s not the same thing but still…

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    1. 4gravitonsandagradstudent Post author

      Ryu-Takayanagi is a good border-case. I’d put it on the “yes” side, but only just.

      One thing to remember here is that the main point of these “signposts” is to inspire young students. So the operative question is the following: suppose a high school student sees “Quantum is Calling” and goes into physics. What’s the chance that, when they’re a grad student, there are still people working on this? That it’s still an important part of our understanding of the world?

      In the case of AdS/CFT, I’m pretty certain it’s still going to be around and important, so it passes with flying colors.

      For Ryu-Takayanagi, I’d still be fairly confident. It’s grown into a substantial research program, with a lot of people working on different consequences. That sort of thing is going to survive in some form.

      For ER=EPR, I’m more optimistic than this post makes me sound. I think it’s got a good chance of sticking around. But, as I say in the post, it hasn’t really handled much “foot traffic” yet: it hasn’t yet become ubiquitous on the level of Ryu-Takayanagi. Because of that, there’s a decent risk it doesn’t survive, that a high school student watching Quantum is Calling will end up in grad school and ER=EPR will be just a historical blip in the publication record. I don’t think it’s a large chance, but it’s large enough that this sort of piece sends the wrong message.

      Now, it’s entirely possible I’m just underestimating the scientific robustness of ER=EPR. I looked over a few abstracts to get a sense of the field, but I should have a chat with some of the entanglement entropy-focused folks here to see if I got an accurate impression.

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      1. Lubos Motl

        Ryu-Takayanagi is a much more “technical” formula that is not ready for popularization because it can’t be translated to an easy relationship of words in plain English, like “wormholes” and “entanglement”. But when it comes to what the viewers are learning, Ryu-Takayanagi is basically equivalent to ER=EPR, anyway. No one without the needed training understands the concepts sufficiently finely to correctly distinguish these “spacetime is glue” claims, and those who learn the details won’t really find the popular movies helpful for the “real” understanding, anyway.

        So this movie is a “signpost” indeed and its positive role may be to create or strengthen an environment in which the broader public tends to acknowledge the legitimacy of the ER=EPR and similar research which is only done by a tiny group of experts. None of the details matters. But a movie about ER=EPR still supports genuine top science, unlike a movie promoting self-propelling EM drives, to pick an example of pseudoscience that I expect you not to consider controversial.

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  3. ohwilleke

    Some theoretical techniques seem to be named with press releases in mind, not that I can fault someone for that – naming things after two or three otherwise obscure physicists is hardly optimal. Imagine how hard it would be to remember Amazon.com if it was named after the last names of three or four of its founders?

    One of the really catchy ones I came across today is “Alien Calculus”!

    Like the short videos with Hollywood stars, the name serves as a “signpost” that makes nerds like me want to read more. This, in turn, leads to a question for some future post. Hell, “Alien Calculus” has me thinking I need to option the movie rights immediately.

    Is “Alien Calculus” discussed at https://arxiv.org/abs/1701.02294 anywhere nearly as cool as the name suggests?

    “In many domains of physics, methods are needed to deal with non-perturbative aspects. I want here to argue that a good approach is to work on the Borel transforms of the quantities of interest, the singularities of which give non-perturbative contributions. These singularities in many cases can be largely determined by using the alien calculus developed by Jean Ecalle. My main example will be the two point function of a massless theory given as a solution of a renormalization group equation.”

    Marc P. Bellon, “Alien Calculus and non perturbative effects in Quantum Field Theory” (January 9, 2017).

    The precis of the technique in the linked paper seems to make the case that it belongs up there with another technique with a catchy name, the “Amplituhedron”, as a way to do non-perturbative physics without using lattice methods, and perhaps even short cutting tedious many loop renormalization calculations in some cases.

    I vaguely remember Borel transforms from my math major days as interesting tools, but not quite as handy as A-list tricks like the Fourier Transforms, the Riemann Zeta function, and Euler’s formula. But, maybe with this new twist, they are moving up in the world.

    I’d love to hear an expert evaluation about whether Alien Calculus deserves the hype.

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    1. 4gravitonsandagradstudent Post author

      Interesting. Just skimming the paper, I’m not sure how much of this is novel. There’s an ongoing research program in a phenomenon called resurgence, and they make extensive use of techniques developed by Ecalle. I haven’t heard the term Alien Calculus in that context, so maybe this is a new development on the math side. In the past, people studying resurgence have had a lot of success for simple examples but a hard time generalizing to more useful cases. If Alien Calculus is a new development here, it’s not obvious how (or if) it addresses that issue.

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