Tag Archives: science communication

Book Review: Thirty Years That Shook Physics and Mr Tompkins in Paperback

George Gamow was one of the “quantum kids” who got their start at the Niels Bohr Institute in the 30’s. He’s probably best known for the Alpher, Bethe, Gamow paper, which managed to combine one of the best sources of evidence we have for the Big Bang with a gratuitous Greek alphabet pun. He was the group jester in a lot of ways: the historians here have archives full of his cartoons and in-jokes.

Naturally, he also did science popularization.

I recently read two of Gamow’s science popularization books, “Mr Tompkins” and “Thirty Years That Shook Physics”. Reading them was a trip back in time, to when people thought about physics in surprisingly different ways.

“Mr. Tompkins” started as a series of articles in Discovery, a popular science magazine. They were published as a book in 1940, with a sequel in 1945 and an update in 1965. Apparently they were quite popular among a certain generation: the edition I’m reading has a foreword by Roger Penrose.

(As an aside: Gamow mentions that the editor of Discovery was C. P. Snow…that C. P. Snow?)

Mr Tompkins himself is a bank clerk who decides on a whim to go to a lecture on relativity. Unable to keep up, he falls asleep, and dreams of a world in which the speed of light is much slower than it is in our world. Bicyclists visibly redshift, and travelers lead much longer lives than those who stay at home. As the book goes on he meets the same professor again and again (eventually marrying his daughter) and sits through frequent lectures on physics, inevitably falling asleep and experiencing it first-hand: jungles where Planck’s constant is so large that tigers appear as probability clouds, micro-universes that expand and collapse in minutes, and electron societies kept strictly monogamous by “Father Paulini”.

The structure definitely feels dated, and not just because these days people don’t often go to physics lectures for fun. Gamow actually includes the full text of the lectures that send Mr Tompkins to sleep, and while they’re not quite boring enough to send the reader to sleep they are written on a higher level than the rest of the text, with more technical terms assumed. In the later additions to the book the “lecture” aspect grows: the last two chapters involve a dream of Dirac explaining antiparticles to a dolphin in basically the same way he would explain them to a human, and a discussion of mesons in a Japanese restaurant where the only fantastical element is a trio of geishas acting out pion exchange.

Some aspects of the physics will also feel strange to a modern audience. Gamow presents quantum mechanics in a way that I don’t think I’ve seen in a modern text: while modern treatments start with uncertainty and think of quantization as a consequence, Gamow starts with the idea that there is a minimum unit of action, and derives uncertainty from that. Some of the rest is simply limited by timing: quarks weren’t fully understood even by the 1965 printing, in 1945 they weren’t even a gleam in a theorist’s eye. Thus Tompkins’ professor says that protons and neutrons are really two states of the same particle and goes on to claim that “in my opinion, it is quite safe to bet your last dollar that the elementary particles of modern physics [electrons, protons/neutrons, and neutrinos] will live up to their name.” Neutrinos also have an amusing status: they hadn’t been detected when the earlier chapters were written, and they come across rather like some people write about dark matter today, as a silly theorist hypothesis that is all-too-conveniently impossible to observe.

“Thirty Years That Shook Physics”, published in 1966, is a more usual sort of popular science book, describing the history of the quantum revolution. While mostly focused on the scientific concepts, Gamow does spend some time on anecdotes about the people involved. If you’ve read much about the time period, you’ll probably recognize many of the anecdotes (for example, the Pauli Principle that a theorist can break experimental equipment just by walking in to the room, or Dirac’s “discovery” of purling), even the ones specific to Gamow have by now been spread far and wide.

Like Mr Tompkins, the level in this book is not particularly uniform. Gamow will spend a paragraph carefully defining an average, and then drop the word “electroscope” as if everyone should know what it is. The historical perspective taught me a few things I perhaps should have already known, but found surprising anyway. (The plum-pudding model was an actual mathematical model, and people calculated its consequences! Muons were originally thought to be mesons!)

Both books are filled with Gamow’s whimsical illustrations, something he was very much known for. Apparently he liked to imitate other art styles as well, which is visible in the portraits of physicists at the front of each chapter.

Pictured: the electromagnetic spectrum as an infinite piano

1966 was late enough that this book doesn’t have the complacency of the earlier chapters in Mr Tompkins: Gamow knew that there were more particles than just electrons, nucleons, and neutrinos. It was still early enough, though, that the new particles were not fully understood. It’s interesting seeing how Gamow reacts to this: his expectation was that physics was on the cusp of another massive change, a new theory built on new fundamental principles. He speculates that there might be a minimum length scale (although oddly enough he didn’t expect it to be related to gravity).

It’s only natural that someone who lived through the dawn of quantum mechanics should expect a similar revolution to follow. Instead, the revolution of the late 60’s and early 70’s was in our understanding: not new laws of nature so much as new comprehension of just how much quantum field theory can actually do. I wonder if the generation who lived through that later revolution left it with the reverse expectation: that the next crisis should be solved in a similar way, that the world is quantum field theory (or close cousins, like string theory) all the way down and our goal should be to understand the capabilities of these theories as well as possible.

The final section of the book is well worth waiting for. In 1932, Gamow directed Bohr’s students in staging a play, the “Blegdamsvej Faust”. A parody of Faust, it features Bohr as god, Pauli as Mephistopheles, and Ehrenfest as the “erring Faust” (Gamow’s pun, not mine) that he tempts to sin with the promise of the neutrino, Gretchen. The piece, translated to English by Gamow’s wife Barbara, is filled with in-jokes on topics as obscure as Bohr’s habitual mistakes when speaking German. It’s gloriously weird and well worth a read. If you’ve ever seen someone do a revival performance, let me know!

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A Newtonmas Present of Internet Content

I’m lazy this Newtonmas, so instead of writing a post of my own I’m going to recommend a few other people who do excellent work.

Quantum Frontiers is a shared blog updated by researchers connected to Caltech’s Institute for Quantum Information and Matter. While the whole blog is good, I’m going to be more specific and recommend the posts by Nicole Yunger Halpern. Nicole is really a great writer, and her posts are full of vivid imagery and fun analogies. If she’s not as well-known, it’s only because she lacks the attention-grabbing habit of getting into stupid arguments with other bloggers. Definitely worth a follow.

Recommending Slate Star Codex feels a bit strange, because it seems like everyone I’ve met who would enjoy the blog already reads it. It’s not a physics blog by any stretch, so it’s also an unusual recommendation to give here. Slate Star Codex writes about a wide variety of topics, and while the author isn’t an expert in most of them he does a lot more research than you or I would. If you’re interested in up-to-date meta-analyses on psychology, social science, and policy, pored over by someone with scrupulous intellectual honesty and an inexplicably large amount of time to indulge it, then Slate Star Codex is the blog for you.

I mentioned Piled Higher and Deeper a few weeks back, when I reviewed the author’s popular science book We Have No Idea. Piled Higher and Deeper is a webcomic about life in grad school. Humor is all about exaggeration, and it’s true that Piled Higher and Deeper exaggerates just how miserable and dysfunctional grad school can be…but not by as much as you’d think. I recommend that anyone considering grad school read Piled Higher and Deeper, and take it seriously. Grad school can really be like that, and if you don’t think you can deal with spending five or six years in the world of that comic you should take that into account.

This Week, at Scientific American

I’ve written an article for Scientific American! It went up online this week, the print versions go out on the 25th. The online version is titled “Loopy Particle Math”, the print one is “The Particle Code”, but they’re the same article.

For those who don’t subscribe to Scientific American, sorry about the paywall!

“The Particle Code” covers what will be familiar material to regulars on this blog. I introduce Feynman diagrams, and talk about the “amplitudeologists” who try to find ways around them. I focus on my corner of the amplitudes field, how the work of Goncharov, Spradlin, Vergu, and Volovich introduced us to “symbology”, a set of tricks for taking apart more complicated integrals (or “periods”) into simple logarithmic building blocks. I talk about how my collaborators and I use symbology, using these building blocks to compute amplitudes that would have been impossible with other techniques. Finally, I talk about the frontier of the field, the still-mysterious “elliptic polylogarithms” that are becoming increasingly well-understood.

(I don’t talk about the even more mysterious “Calabi-Yau polylogarithms“…another time for those!)

Working with Scientific American was a fun experience. I got to see how the professionals do things. They got me to clarify and explain, pointing out terms I needed to define and places I should pause to summarize. They took my rough gel-pen drawings and turned them into polished graphics. While I’m still a little miffed about them removing all the contractions, overall I learned a lot, and I think they did a great job of bringing the article to the printed page.

Book Review: We Have No Idea

I have no idea how I’m going to review this book.

Ok fine, I have some idea.

Jorge Cham writes Piled Higher and Deeper, a webcomic with possibly the most accurate depiction of grad school available. Daniel Whiteson is a professor at the University of California, Irvine, and a member of the ATLAS collaboration (one of the two big groups that make measurements at the Large Hadron Collider). Together, they’ve written a popular science book covering everything we don’t know about fundamental physics.

Writing a book about what we don’t know is an unusual choice, and there was a real risk it would end up as just a superficial gimmick. The pie chart on the cover presents the most famous “things physicists don’t know”, dark matter and dark energy. If they had just stuck to those this would have been a pretty ordinary popular physics book.

Refreshingly, they don’t do that. After blazing through dark matter and dark energy in the first three chapters, the rest of the book focuses on a variety of other scientific mysteries.

The book contains a mix of problems that get serious research attention (matter-antimatter asymmetry, high-energy cosmic rays) and more blue-sky “what if” questions (does matter have to be made out of particles?). As a theorist, I’m not sure that all of these questions are actually mysterious (we do have some explanation of the weird “1/3” charges of quarks, and I’d like to think we understand why mass includes binding energy), but even in these cases what we really know is that they follow from “sensible assumptions”, and one could just as easily ask “what if” about those assumptions instead. Overall, these “what if” questions make the book unique, and it would be a much weaker book without them.

“We Have No Idea” is strongest when the authors actually have some idea, i.e. when Whiteson is discussing experimental particle physics. It gets weaker on other topics, where the authors seem to rely more on others’ popular treatments (their discussion of “pixels of space-time” motivated me to write this post). Still, they at least seem to have asked the right people, and their accounts are on the more accurate end of typical pop science. (Closer to Quanta than IFLScience.)

The book’s humor really ties it together, often in surprisingly subtle ways. Each chapter has its own running joke, initially a throwaway line that grows into metaphors for everything the chapter discusses. It’s a great way to help the audience visualize without introducing too many new concepts at once. If there’s one thing cartoonists can teach science communicators, it’s the value of repetition.

I liked “We Have No Idea”. It could have been more daring, or more thorough, but it was still charming and honest and fun. If you’re looking for a Christmas present to explain physics to your relatives, you won’t go wrong with this book.

Pan Narrans Scientificus

As scientists, we want to describe the world as objectively as possible. We try to focus on what we can establish conclusively, to leave out excessive speculation and stick to cold, hard facts.

Then we have to write application letters.

Stick to the raw, un-embellished facts, and an application letter would just be a list: these papers in these journals, these talks and awards. Though we may sometimes wish applications worked that way, we don’t live in that kind of world. To apply for a job or a grant, we can’t just stick to the most easily measured facts. We have to tell a story.

The author Terry Pratchett called humans Pan Narrans, the Storytelling Ape. Stories aren’t just for fun, they’re how we see the world, how we organize our perceptions and actions. Without a story, the world doesn’t make sense. And that applies even to scientists.

Applications work best when they tell a story: how did you get here, and where are you going? Scientific papers, similarly, require some sort of narrative: what did you do, and why did you do it? When teaching or writing about science, we almost never just present the facts. We try to fit it into a story, one that presents the facts but also makes sense, in that deliciously human way. A story, more than mere facts, lets us project to the future, anticipating what you’ll do with that grant money or how others will take your research in new directions.

It’s important to remember, though, that stories aren’t actually facts. You can’t get too attached to one story, you have to be willing to shift as new facts come in. Those facts can be scientific measurements, but they can also be steps in your career. You aren’t going to tell the same story when applying to grad school as when you’re trying for tenure, and that’s not just because you’ll have more to tell. The facts of your life will be organized in new ways, rearranging in importance as the story shifts.

Keep your stories in mind as you write or do science. Think about your narrative, the story you’re using to understand the world. Think about what it predicts, how the next step in the story should go. And be ready to start a new story when you need to.

Underdetermination of Theory by Metaphor

Sometimes I explain science in unconventional ways. I’ll talk about quantum mechanics without ever using the word “measurement”, or write the action of the Standard Model in legos.

Whenever I do this, someone asks me why. Why use a weird, unfamiliar explanation? Why not just stick to the tried and true, metaphors that have been tested and honed in generations of popular science books?

It’s not that I have a problem with the popular explanations, most of the time. It’s that, even when the popular explanation does a fine job, there can be good reason to invent a new metaphor. To demonstrate my point, here’s a new metaphor to explain why:

In science, we sometimes talk about underdetermination of a theory by the data. We want to find a theory whose math matches the experimental results, but sometimes the experiments just don’t tell us enough. If multiple theories match the data, we say that the theory is underdetermined, and we go looking for more data to resolve the problem.

What if you’re not a scientist, though? Often, that means you hear about theories secondhand, from some science popularizer. You’re not hearing the full math of the theory, you’re not seeing the data. You’re hearing metaphors and putting together your own picture of the theory. Metaphors are your data, in some sense. And just as scientists can find their theories underdetermined by the experimental data, you can find them underdetermined by the metaphors.

This can happen if a metaphor is consistent with two very different interpretations. If you hear that time runs faster in lower gravity, maybe you picture space and time as curved…or maybe you think low gravity makes you skip ahead, so you end up in the “wrong timeline”. Even if the popularizer you heard it from was perfectly careful, you base your understanding of the theory on the metaphor, and you can end up with the wrong understanding.

In science, the only way out of underdetermination of a theory is new, independent data. In science popularization, it’s new, independent metaphors. New metaphors shake you out of your comfort zone. If you misunderstood the old metaphor, now you’ll try to fit that misunderstanding with the new metaphor too. Often, that won’t work: different metaphors lead to different misunderstandings. With enough different metaphors, your picture of the theory won’t be underdetermined anymore: there will be only one picture, one understanding, that’s consistent with every metaphor.

That’s why I experiment with metaphors, why I try new, weird explanations. I want to wake you up, to make sure you aren’t sticking to the wrong understanding. I want to give you more data to determine your theory.

Journalists Need to Adapt to Preprints, Not Ignore Them

Nature has an article making the rounds this week, decrying the dangers of preprints.

On the surface, this is a bit like an article by foxes decrying the dangers of henhouses. There’s a pretty big conflict of interest when a journal like Nature, that makes huge amounts of money out of research scientists would be happy to publish for free, gets snippy about scientists sharing their work elsewhere. I was expecting an article about how “important” the peer review process is, how we can’t just “let anyone” publish, and the like.

Instead, I was pleasantly surprised. The article is about a real challenge, the weakening of journalistic embargoes. While this is still a problem I think journalists can think their way around, it’s a bit subtler than the usual argument.

For the record, peer review is usually presented as much more important than it actually is. When a scientific article gets submitted to a journal, it gets sent to two or three experts in the field for comment. In the best cases, these experts read the paper carefully and send criticism back. They don’t replicate the experiments, they don’t even (except for a few heroic souls) reproduce the calculations. That kind of careful reading is important, but it’s hardly unique: it’s something scientists do on their own when they want to build off of someone else’s paper, and it’s what good journalists get when they send a paper to experts for comments before writing an article. If peer review in a journal is important, it’s to ensure that this careful reading happens at least once, a sort of minimal evidence that the paper is good enough to appear on a scientist’s CV.

The Nature article points out that peer review serves another purpose, specifically one of delay. While a journal is preparing to publish an article they can send it out to journalists, after making them sign an agreement (an embargo) that they won’t tell the public until the journal publishes. This gives the journalists a bit of lead time, so the more responsible ones can research and fact-check before publishing.

Open-access preprints cut out the lead time. If the paper just appears online with no warning and no embargoes, journalists can write about it immediately. The unethical journalists can skip fact-checking and publish first, and the ethical ones have to follow soon after, or risk publishing “old news”. Nobody gets the time to properly vet, or understand, a new paper.

There’s a simple solution I’ve seen from a few folks on Twitter: “Don’t be an unethical journalist!” That doesn’t actually solve the problem though. The question is, if you’re an ethical journalist, but other people are unethical journalists, what do you do?

Apparently, what some ethical journalists do is to carry on as if preprints didn’t exist. The Nature article describes journalists who, after a preprint has been covered extensively by others, wait until a journal publishes it and then cover it as if nothing had happened. The article frames this as virtuous, but doomed: journalists sticking to their ethics even if it means publishing “old news”.

To be 100% clear here, this is not virtuous. If you present a paper’s publication in a journal as news, when it was already released as a preprint, you are actively misleading the public. I can’t count the number of times I’ve gotten messages from readers, confused because they saw a scientific result covered again months later and thought it was new. It leads to a sort of mental “double-counting”, where the public assumes that the scientific result was found twice, and therefore that it’s more solid. Unless the publication itself is unexpected (something that wasn’t expected to pass peer review, or something controversial like Mochizuki’s proof of the ABC conjecture) mere publication in a journal of an already-public result is not news.

What science journalists need to do here is to step back, and think about how their colleagues cover stories. Current events these days don’t have embargoes, they aren’t fed through carefully managed press releases. There’s a flurry of initial coverage, and it gets things wrong and misses details and misleads people, because science isn’t the only field that’s complicated, real life is complicated. Journalists have adapted to this schedule, mostly, by specializing. Some journalists and news outlets cover breaking news as it happens, others cover it later with more in-depth analysis. Crucially, the latter journalists don’t present the topic as new. They write explicitly in the light of previous news, as a response to existing discussion. That way, the public isn’t misled, and their existing misunderstandings can be corrected.

The Nature article brings up public health, and other topics where misunderstandings can do lasting damage, as areas where embargoes are useful. While I agree, I would hope many of these areas would figure out embargoes on their own. My field certainly does: the big results of scientific collaborations aren’t just put online as preprints, they’re released only after the collaboration sets up its own journalistic embargoes, and prepares its own press releases. In a world of preprints, this sort of practice needs to happen for important controversial public health and environmental results as well. Unethical scientists might still release too fast, to keep journalists from fact-checking, but they could do that anyway, without preprints. You don’t need a preprint to call a journalist on the phone and claim you cured cancer.

As open-access preprints become the norm, journalists will have to adapt. I’m confident they will be able to, but only if they stop treating science journalism as unique, and start treating it as news. Science journalism isn’t teaching, you’re not just passing down facts someone else has vetted. You’re asking the same questions as any other journalist: who did what? And what really happened? If you can do that, preprints shouldn’t be scary.