On Science Communication

In a parallel universe I might work as a science communicator.

Having completed my PhD in applied physics I wrote a bunch of job applications, one of them being a bit eccentric: I applied at the Austrian national public service broadcaster. (According to Wikipedia Austria was the last country in continental Europe after Albania to allow nationwide private television broadcasting).

I deleted all those applications that would me make me blush today. In my application letters I referred to the physicist’s infamous skills in analytical thinking, mathematical modeling and optimization of technical processes. Skills that could be applied to basically anything – from inventing novel tractor beam generators for space ships to automatically analyzing emoticons in Facebook messages.

If I would have been required to add a social-media-style tagline in these dark ages of letters on paper and snail mail I probably would have tagged myself as combining anything, in particular experimental and theoretical physics and, above all, communicating science to different audiences. If memory serves I used the latter argument in my pitch to the broadcaster.

I do remember the last sentence of that pivotal application letter:

I could also imagine working in front of a camera.

Yes, I really did write that – based on a ‘media exposure’ of having appeared on local TV for some seconds.

This story was open-ended: I did not receive a reply until three months later, and at that time I was already employed as a materials scientist in R&D.

In case job-seeking graduate students are reading this: It was imperative that I added some more substantial arguments to my letters, that is: hands-on experience – maintaining UV excimer lasers, knowing how to handle liquid helium, decoding the output of X-ray diffractometers, explaining accounting errors to auditors of research grant managing agencies. Don’t rely on the analytical skills pitch for heaven’s sake.

I pushed that anecdote deep down into the netherworlds of my subconsciousness. Together with some colleagues I ritually burnt items reminiscent of university research and of that gruelling job hunt, such as my laboratory journals and print-outs of job applications. This spiritual event was eventually featured on a German proto-blog website and made the German equivalent of ritual burning the top search term for quite a while.

However, today I believe that the cheeky pitch to the broadcaster had anticipated my working as a covert science communicator:

Fast-forward about 20 years and I am designing and implementing Public Key Infrastructures at corporations. (Probably in vain, according to the recent reports about NSA activities). In such projects I covered anything from giving the first concise summary to the CIO (Could you explain what PKI is – in just two Powerpoint slides?) to spending nights in the data center – migrating to the new system together with other security nerds, fueled by pizza and caffeine.

The part I enjoyed most in these projects was the lecture-style introduction (the deep dive in IT training lingo) to the fundamentals of cryptography. Actually these workshops were the nucleus of a lecture I gave at a university later. I aimed at combining anything: Mathematical algorithms and anecdotes (notes from the field) about IT departments who locked themselves out of the high-security systems, stunning history of cryptography and boring  EU legislation, vendor-agnostic standards and the very details of specific products.

Usually the feedback was quite good though once the comment in the student survey read:

Her lectures are like a formula one race without pitstops.

This was a lecture given in English, so it is most likely worse when I talk in German. I guess, Austrian Broadcasting would have forced me to take a training in professional speaking.

As a Subversive Element I indulged in throwing in some slides about quantum cryptography – often this was considered the most interesting part of the presentation, second to my quantum physics stand-up edutainment in coffee breaks. The downside of that said edutainment were questions like: And … you turned down *that* for designing PKIs?

I guess I am obsessed with combining consulting and education. Note that I am referring to consulting in terms of working hands-on with a client, for example troubleshooting why 1000 users can’t logon to their computers. I did not want to be a stereotypical management consultant’s churning out sleek Powerpoint slides and leaving silently before you need to get your hands dirty (Paraphrasing clients’ judgements of ‘predecessors’ in projects I had to fix).

It is easy to spot educational aspects in consulting related to IT security or renewable energy. There are people who want to know how stuff really works, in particular if that helps to make yourself less dependent on utilities or on Russian gas pipelines, or to avoid being stalked by the NSA.

But now I have just started a new series of posts on Quantum Field Theory. Why on earth do I believe that this is useful or entertaining? Considering in particular that I don’t plan to cover leading edge research: I will not comment on hot new articles in Nature about stringy Theories of Everything.

I stubbornly focus on that part of science I have really grasped myself in depth – as an applied physicist slowly (re-)learning theory now. I will never reach the frontier of knowledge in contemporary physics in my lifetime. But, yes, I am guilty of sharing sensationalist physics nuggets on social media at times – and I jumped on the Negative Temperature Train last year.

My heart is in reading old text books, and in researching old patents describing inventions of the pre-digital era. If you asked me what I would save if my house is on fire I’d probably say I’d snatch the six volumes of text books in theoretical physics my former physics professor, Wilhelm Macke, has written in the 1960s. He had been the last graduate student supervised by Werner Heisenberg. Although I picked experimental physics eventually I still consider his lectures the most exceptional learning experience I ever had in life.

I have enjoyed wading through mathematical derivations ever since. Mathy physics has helped me to save money on life coaches or other therapists when I was a renowned, but nearly burnt-out ‘travelling knowledge worker’ AKA project nomad. However, I understand that advanced calculus is not everybody’s taste – you need to invest quite some time and efforts until you feel these therapeutic effects.

Yet, I aim at conveying that spirit, although I had been told repeatedly by curriculum strategists in higher education that if anything scares people off pursuing a tech or science degree – in particular, as a post-graduate degree – it is too much math, including reference to mathy terms in plain English.

However, I am motivated by a charming book:

The Calculus Diaries: How Math Can Help You Lose Weight, Win in Vegas, and Survive a Zombie Apocalypse

by science writer Jennifer Ouellette. According to her website, she is a recovering English major who stumbled into science writing as a struggling freelance writer… and who has been avidly exploring her inner geek ever since. How could you not love her books? Jennifer is the living proof that you can overcome math anxiety or reluctance, or even turn that into inspiration.

Richard Feynman has given a series of lectures in 1964 targeted to a lay audience, titled The Character of Physical Law.

Starting from an example in the first lecture, the gravitational field, Feynman expounds how physics relates to mathematics in the second lecture – by the way also introducing the principle of least action as an alternative to tackle planetary motions, as discussed in the previous post.

It is also a test of your dedication as a Feynman fan as the quality of this video is low. Microsoft Research has originally brought these lectures to the internet – presenting them blended with additional background material (*) and a transcript.

You ought to wath the video now!

You may or may not agree with Feynman’s conclusion about mathematics as the language spoken by nature:

It seems to me that it’s like: all the intellectual arguments that you can make would not in any way – or very, very little – communicate to deaf ears what the experience of music really is.

[People like] me, who’s trying to describe it to you (but is not getting it across, because it’s impossible), we’re talking to deaf ears.

This is ironic on two levels, as first of all, if anybody could get it across – it was probably Feynman. Second, I agree to him. But I will still stick to my plan and continue writing about physics, trying to indulge in the mathy aspects, but not showing off the equations in posts. Did I mention this series is an experiment?


(*) Technical note: You had to use Internet Explorer and install Microsoft Silverlight when this was launched in 2009 – now it seems to work with Firefox as well. Don’t hold me liable if it crashes your computer though!

9 Comments Add yours

  1. “I have enjoyed wading through mathematical derivations ever since.” said just one person that I know :-)

    But, seriously, you did get a rise out of me and here it is: I wish people would stop pandering to students by encouraging more to do science because they make it easy. In the end, that does no good as those people are probably not competent anyway. What, exactly, do they do with their watered down science degrees–watered down science???

    Look, I am not advocating for ‘back to basics’ because it never did work. Yes, many good people came out of that system but they likely succeeded in spite of it, not because of it. I am saying, though, that while we spend considerable effort in ensuring that struggling students get to succeed we should be prepared to the same for all students. A modern education should be able to bring excellence out of everyone.

    Not excellence in the same things, mind you–to each his/her own. That said, we need excellent scientists and we should not be shy in continuing to promote programs that will give us those too.

    Oh, and one more thing. Have you noticed that on movies and TV it’s cool and desirable to say “I’m no good at math/science” They should knock it off–it is exactly the same as when I say that I suck at softball. It’s not “cool”, just a modest admission of something that I do have a weakness in and wish I could do better.

    1. elkement says:

      Thanks, teacher :-)
      As I replied to Dave, I am really not sure if I will be able to get my message across here – ‘pop-sci-style’, not using math. Probably one thing I try to achieve is to paint a big picture and show what math ‘is really like’. It seems that math if often equated with ‘crunching numbers’, and other mind-numbing rote. People sometimes believe math is for you if you are ‘good at numbers’ in a way an accountant is.

      I would call it a success if people doing math, and doing ‘technical details’ in general, would just be more appreciated. I had always freaked out when so-called ‘generalists’ (‘managing’ things by sending our e-mails, asking the ‘detailed persons’ for the ‘status updates’) considered the ‘detailed work’ something lesser – even though they don’t get it!! Don’t get me started ranting about the alleged importance of teaching ‘soft skills’, ‘project management’, ‘conflict management’ etc. at the university – at the expense of teaching more hard science. I don’t object to such subjects, but I tend to say – these are the skills you need to pick up later as you go in your career anyway, and that should be better taught in professional post-graduate courses. But hardly anybody would return to math and fundamentals later, so I strongly advocate teaching no-nonsense science in science programs.
      (And if something goes badly wrong, also the fluffy generalists prefer to call the technicians to fix it – some things do work or they don’t – 0 versus 1 style, no negotiation skills can change that).

      And, yes, I cringe when I hear celebrities say they ‘have never been good at math’ – after all I live in a country of music and culture. It is a shame if you cannot name, say, three dramas by Grillparzer, but you can be ignorant of the relationship between velocity and acceleration.
      In her refreshing account, Jennifer Ouellette does admit that scientists have a point in saying that calculus is as much an important part of human culture as poetry is.

      As I said to Dave, I was astonished to learn that calculus doesn’t seem to be a mandatory part of the high school curriculum – is this true? Anyway, our local politicians always belaber the point that after World War II the ‘intellecutual center of physics’ moved from Europe to the US and we produce less ground-breaking papers, patents and noble-prize winners – so teaching calculus early does not give us a competitive advantage.

      1. Very nicely put, Elke. I especially appreciate the comment about how people are unlikely to ‘go back’ to further their math skills. The conclusion is valid–with so many generalists out there, who is left to do the real work?

  2. I am ready and eager for the challenge … bring it on Elke. Both physics and calculus were courses which I did not look forward to in college and were seen as hurdles that I had to overcome for my relatively ‘descriptive’ major in Biology. I have always regretted not internalizing the calculus especially. I suppose I never gave it time or opportunity to ‘click.’ It’s funny to think that I have, on several occasions over the last few years, thought it would be fun (as a tenured professor of the Biological Sciences) to sign up for Calculus once more and see if (1) I could pass, (2) I could do better now than I did in college, and (3) whether I could really understand it rather than working to simply get the answers. So, with that, you see my reason for happily anticipating the fruits of your experiment. Let’s go. D

    1. elkement says:

      Thanks, Dave! I think I have to thank my physics and math teachers in high school – who managed to explain calculus in a way that instilled that feeling of awe and who made my mind click.
      They taught Feynman-style, but this also included the downsides: Feynman was said to have lost most of the freshmen students in his legendary lectures and that the lecture hall was finally populated by his peers who wanted to get a fresh perspective on physics (There are accounts though that do deny this). Anyway, those school teachers I am referring managed to captivate the, say, 10% of students who would study something science-y later and lost the rest. I hope I can do ‘better’, but I am really not sure if it is doable.

      BTW reading Ouellette’s account I was baffled that it is possible to avoid calculus if you managed to graduate high school. I really should do more research on comparing curricula. I was taught calculus first in high school in what translates to 10th grade (I think – we have 4 years of elementary school and 8 years of grammar school / high school. This was in ‘6th grade of high school’).

  3. Mike Howe says:

    I love your writing about physics and maths even though I have no talent for understanding. I’m trying very hard to keep up! I instinctively love Feynman, Sagan, Hawking, De Grasse Tyson and Tara Shears and all the others but I don’t really understand what they are trying to teach me most of the time, and even though I don’t understand everything that you are trying to teach us I love it anyway and hope to understand better over time :)

    1. elkement says:

      Thanks, Mike!! I’ll do my best not to scare off readers like you too much :-)
      Since I have just listened to your music and since you mention Sagan I cannot help but imagining your music used in educational science programs on TV.
      I absolutely loved Carl Sagan’s Cosmos as a teenager even though is was rather ‘epic’. But that music… ! I will forever associate Vangelis’ music with revolving planets, gas clouds on Jupiter, and the evolution of humankind in a time lapse!

  4. M. Hatzel says:

    I deciphered your agenda long ago… I think it has helped inspire me to begin doing the writing I really want to do, despite having been told that I can’t! I am intrigued with the Calculus Diaries, of course. :)

    1. elkement says:

      Thanks, Michelle! Looking forward to that writing you mention :-) Your writing has definitely inspired me, too – making me dare to entangle my personal narratives with something sciencey. Dan once called me a ‘dilettante essayist’ which I take as a batch of honor. However, I am not sure yet if the readers of ‘more normal’ science writing would appreciate that. As I said, it is an experiment.

      I stumbled upon Jennifer Ouellette’s books by accident when I researched for an older post (on the ‘Einstein refrigerator’ – she had blogged about it.) I admit I was thinking of you in particular when I added this link – making a mental connection between 1) ‘English major’ 2) ‘geek’ and 3) ‘zombies’:-)

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