Copyright, Bill Watterson
This is just a collection of thoughts…not necessarily well-connected.
Communicating cutting edge Physics research to the public is something that is very tough. Very few physicists even try..and even fewer end up making an impact. Every time a physicist meets people who are not trained in the Physics jargon, she/he could have a very tough time in communicating with them. A prime difficulty is the kind of words that Physicists have used to name new theories and discoveries. Most names are taken from every-day experience but represent very deep physical insights and mathematical constructs.
“Relativity” is a wonderful example. People who have learnt about relativity from places other than good phy texts tend to have all sorts of notions. I had a lesson on Einstein (kinda biography) in my high school English curriculum. At one point of time, my English teacher ended up saying
“Everything is relative..isn’t that obvious?? It took this Einstein so much effort to discover ‘this’! After all, what I think about others is different from what others think about me.”
For heavens sake, this isn’t relativity!. That my teacher got it wrong is not surprising… But I wonder why people feel so confident when they talk about stuff they know very little about. Feynman has a fabulous write-up on “tea-party philosophers” in the chapter on Special Relativity in his Lectures on Physics. More recently, Rajesh Gopakumar (in a frontline article) said,
“Everything is Relative” is often the profoundly misleading conclusion …… Everything is not relative.”
I have left out a lot of stuff in between..but that does not matter. And some time, scientists themselves end up adding to the confusion. This quote of Einstein:
“Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute, and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour, and it seems like a minute. THAT’S relativity.”
is the most misused one. This proliferates all these English text books and leads to “philosophical” debates amongst people who haven’t understood the stuff in the first place. I guess Einstein must have been pissed off with the American media and gave them something juicy(and incorrect) to feed on. But all these complaints about laymen mis-understanding physics does not help.. as long as we don’t have people who can communicate effectively to the public in a way that leads to minimum confusion. Worse, this perceived ambiguity in Physics nomenclature is often used by people to propose their own stupid theories and sell it to the public.(ex. Quantum Healing)
Now, if Einstein was this made-for-media guy.. giving away catchy phrases, Dirac must have been the total opposite. There are fascinating stories of how supremely silent Dirac used to be. He is known to be miserly when it comes to words. Look at this interview.. it is a stunning one. I still roar with laughter when I imagine how the journo must have felt. Not a single question got an answer which had more than one word! These wonderful personalities surely go a long way in make Physics very interesting….
Back to physicists and words.. it may not be uncommon see Physicists use the word “God” in various circumstances. Many of them do it deliberately to connect with the larger population. Some(like Hawking/Sagan) are careful..while some may be more adventurous. I came across the video of an interview with Steven Wienberg, a highly respected Particle Physicist. (He won the Nobel in 79) Here, Weinberg expresses displeasure at the way “God” is used in Physics circles.
It is this interview that prompted this post!.. hope u found it interesting 🙂