The Hardest Audience Knows Just Enough to Be Dangerous

You’d think that it would be hard to explain physics to people who know absolutely nothing about physics.

And you might be right, if there was anyone these days who knew absolutely nothing about physics. If someone didn’t know what atoms were, or didn’t know what a physicist was, then yes it would take quite a while to explain anything more than the basics. But most people know what atoms are, and know what physicists are, and at least have a basic idea that there are things called protons and neutrons and electrons.

And that’s often enough. Starting with a basis like that, I can talk people through the Large Hadron Collider, I can get them to picture Feynman Diagrams, I can explain, roughly, what it is I do.

On the other end, it’s not all that hard to explain what I do to people in my sub-field. Working on the same type of physics is like sharing a language, we have all sorts of terms to make explaining easier. While it’s still possible to trip up and explain too much or too little (a recent talk I gave left out the one part that one member of the audience needed…because everyone else would have gotten nothing out of it), you’re protected by a buffer of mutual understanding.

The hardest talks aren’t for the public, and they aren’t for fellow amplitudes-researchers. They’re for a general physics audience.

If you’re talking to physicists, you can’t start with protons and neutrons. Do that, and your audience is going to get annoyed with you rather quickly. You can’t rely on the common understanding everyone has of physics. In addition to making your audience feel like they’re being talked down to, you won’t manage to say anything substantial. You need to start at a higher level so that when you do describe what you do, it’s in enough detail that your audience feels like they really understand it.

At the same time, you can’t start with the jargon of your sub-field. If you want to really explain something (and not just have fifteen minutes of background before everyone tunes out) you need to build off of a common understanding.

The tricky part is, that “common understanding” is more elusive than you might think. For example, pretty much every physicist has some familiarity with Quantum Field Theory…but that can mean anything from “uses it every day” to “saw it a couple times back in grad school”. Too much background, and half your audience is bored. Too little, and half your audience is lost. You have to strike the proper balance, trying to show everyone enough to feel satisfied.

There are tricks to make this easier. I’ve noticed that some of the best speakers begin with a clever and unique take on something everyone understands. That way, people in very different fields will still have something they recognize, while people in the same field will still be seeing something new. Of course, the tricky part is coming up with a new example in the first place!

In general, I need to get better at estimating where my audience is. Talking to you guys is fun, but I ought to also practice a “physics voice” for discussions with physicists (as well as grants and applications), and an “amplitudes voice” for fellow specialists. The key to communication, as always, is knowing your audience.

1 thought on “The Hardest Audience Knows Just Enough to Be Dangerous

  1. Wyrd Smythe

    I fall pretty squarely in the “general public” audience, but I enjoy chewing at blogs and articles that go over my head… slowly, slowly, slowly it begins to make sense, pieces fall into place, and I begin to — however dimly — understand.

    So I look forward to your “physics voice” articles! I measure my own progress by how much doesn’t fly completely over my head. 🙂



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