Sabine Hossenfelder recently wrote a blog post about physics outreach. In it, she identifies two goals: inspiration, and education.
Inspiration outreach is all about making science seem cool. It’s the IFLScience side of things, stoking the science fandom and getting people excited.
Education outreach, by contrast, is about making sure peoples’ beliefs are accurate. It teaches the audience something about the world around them, giving them a better understanding of how the world works.
In both cases, though, Sabine finds it hard to convince other scientists that outreach is valuable. Maybe inspiration helps increase grant funding, maybe education makes people vote better on scientific issues like climate change…but there isn’t a lot of research that shows that outreach really accomplishes either.
Sabine has a number of good suggestions in her post for how to make outreach more effective, but I’d like to take a step back and suggest that maybe we as a community are thinking about outreach in the wrong way. And in order to do that, I’m going to do a little outreach myself, and talk about black holes.
Black holes are collapsed stars, crushed in on themselves by their own gravity so much that one you get close enough (past the event horizon) not even light can escape. This means that if you sent an astronaut past the event horizon, there would be no way for them to communicate with you: any way they might try to get information to you would travel, at most, at the speed of light.
Einstein’s equations keep working fine past the event horizon, but despite that there are some people who view any prediction of what happens inside to be outside the scope of science. If there’s no way to report back, then how could we ever test our predictions? And if we can’t test our predictions, aren’t we missing the cornerstone of science itself?
In a rather entertaining textbook, physicists
If something seems unsatisfying about this, congratulations: you now understand the purpose of outreach.
As long as scientific advances never get beyond a small community, we’re like Taylor and Wheeler’s astronauts inside the black hole. We can test our predictions among each other, verify them to our heart’s content…but if they never reach the wider mass of humanity, then what have we really accomplished? Have we really created knowledge, when only a few people will ever know it?
In my Who Am I? post, I express the hope that one day the science I blog about will be as well known as electrons and protons. That might sound farfetched, but I really do think it’s possible. In one hundred years, electrons and protons went from esoteric discoveries of a few specialists to something children learn about in grade school. If science is going to live up to its purpose, if we’re going to escape the black hole of our discipline, then in another hundred years quantum field theory needs to do the same. And by doing outreach work, each of us is taking steps in that direction.