Category Archives: Science Communication

Outreach Talk on Math’s Role in Physics

Tonight is “Culture Night” in Copenhagen, the night when the city throws open its doors and lets the public in. Museums and hospitals, government buildings and even the Freemasons, all have public events. The Niels Bohr Institute does too, of course: an evening of physics exhibits and demos, capped off with a public lecture by Denmark’s favorite bow-tie wearing weirder-than-usual string theorist, Holger Bech Nielsen. In between, there are a number of short talks by various folks at the institute, including yours truly.

In my talk, I’m going to try and motivate the audience to care about math. Math is dry of course, and difficult for some, but we physicists need it to do our jobs. If you want to be precise about a claim in physics, you need math simply to say what you want clearly enough.

Since you guys likely don’t overlap with my audience tonight, it should be safe to give a little preview. I’ll be using a few examples, but this one is the most complicated:

I’ll be telling a story I stole from chapter seven of the web serial Almost Nowhere. (That link is to the first chapter, by the way, in case you want to read the series without spoilers. It’s very strange, very unique, and at least in my view quite worth reading.) You follow a warrior carrying a spear around a globe in two different paths. The warrior tries to always point in the same direction, but finds that the two different paths result in different spears when they meet. The story illustrates that such a simple concept as “what direction you are pointing” isn’t actually so simple: if you want to think about directions in curved space (like the surface of the Earth, but also, like curved space-time in general relativity) then you need more sophisticated mathematics (a notion called parallel transport) to make sense of it.

It’s kind of an advanced concept for a public talk. But seeing it show up in Almost Nowhere inspired me to try to get it across. I’ll let you know how it goes!

By the way, if you are interested in learning the kinds of mathematics you need for theoretical physics, and you happen to be a Bachelor’s student planning to pursue a PhD, then consider the Perimeter Scholars International Master’s Program! It’s a one-year intensive at the Perimeter Institute in Waterloo, Ontario, in Canada. In a year it gives you a crash course in theoretical physics, giving you tools that will set you ahead of other beginning PhD students. I’ve witnessed it in action, and it’s really remarkable how much the students learn in a year, and what they go on to do with it. Their early registration deadline is on November 15, just a month away, so if you’re interested you may want to start thinking about it.

The Winding Path of a Physics Conversation

In my line of work, I spend a lot of time explaining physics. I write posts here of course, and give the occasional public lecture. I also explain physics when I supervise Master’s students, and in a broader sense whenever I chat with my collaborators or write papers. I’ll explain physics even more when I start teaching. But of all the ways to explain physics, there’s one that has always been my favorite: the one-on-one conversation.

Talking science one-on-one is validating in a uniquely satisfying way. You get instant feedback, questions when you’re unclear and comprehension when you’re close. There’s a kind of puzzle to it, discovering what you need to fill in the gaps in one particular person’s understanding. As a kid, I’d chase this feeling with imaginary conversations: I’d plot out a chat with Democritus or Newton, trying to explain physics or evolution or democracy. It was a game, seeing how I could ground our modern understanding in concepts someone from history already knew.

Way better than Parcheesi

I’ll never get a chance in real life to explain physics to a Democritus or a Newton, to bridge a gap quite that large. But, as I’ve discovered over the years, everyone has bits and pieces they don’t yet understand. Even focused on the most popular topics, like black holes or elementary particles, everyone has gaps in what they’ve managed to pick up. I do too! So any conversation can be its own kind of adventure, discovering what that one person knows, what they don’t, and how to connect the two.

Of course, there’s fun in writing and public speaking too (not to mention, of course, research). Still, I sometimes wonder if there’s a career out there in just the part I like best: just one conversation after another, delving deep into one person’s understanding, making real progress, then moving on to the next. It wouldn’t be efficient by any means, but it sure sounds fun.

Is Outreach for Everyone?

Betteridge’s law applies here: the answer is “no”. It’s a subtle “no”, though.

As a scientist, you will always need to be able to communicate your work. Most of the time you can get away with papers and talks aimed at your peers. But the longer you mean to stick around, the more often you will have to justify yourself to others: to departments, to universities, and to grant agencies. A scientist cannot survive on scientific ability alone: to get jobs, to get funding, to survive, you need to be able to promote yourself, at least a little.

Self-promotion isn’t outreach, though. Talking to the public, or to journalists, is a different skill from talking to other academics or writing grants. And it’s entirely possible to go through an entire scientific career without exercising that skill.

That’s a reassuring message for some. I’ve met people for whom science is a refuge from the mess of human interaction, people horrified by the thought of fame or even being mentioned in a newspaper. When I meet these people, they sometimes seem to worry that I’m silently judging them, thinking that they’re ignoring their responsibilities by avoiding outreach. They think this in part because the field seems to be going in that direction. Grants that used to focus just on science have added outreach as a requirement, demanding that each application come with a plan for some outreach project.

I can’t guarantee that more grants won’t add outreach requirements. But I can say at least that I’m on your side here: I don’t think you should have to do outreach if you don’t want to. I don’t think you have to, just yet. And I think if grant agencies are sensible, they’ll find a way to encourage outreach without making it mandatory.

I think that overall, collectively, we have a responsibility to do outreach. Beyond the old arguments about justifying ourselves to taxpayers, we also just ought to be open about what we do. In a world where people are actively curious about us, we ought to encourage and nurture that curiosity. I don’t think this is unique to science, I think it’s something every industry, every hobby, and every community should foster. But in each case, I think that communication should be done by people who want to do it, not forced on every member.

I also think that, potentially, anyone can do outreach. Outreach can take different forms for different people, anything from speaking to high school students to talking to journalists to writing answers for Stack Exchange. I don’t think anyone should feel afraid of outreach because they think they won’t be good enough. Chances are, you know something other people don’t: I guarantee if you want to, you will have something worth saying.

“Inreach”

This is, first and foremost, an outreach blog. I try to make my writing as accessible as possible, so that anyone from high school students to my grandparents can learn something. My goal is to get the general public to know a bit more about physics, and about the people who do it, both to better understand the world and to view us in a better light.

However, as I am occasionally reminded, my readers aren’t exactly the general public. I’ve done polls, and over 60% of you either have a PhD in physics, or are on your way to one. The rest include people with what one might call an unusually strong interest in physics: engineers with a fondness for the (2,0) theory, or retired lawyers who like to debate dark matter.

With that in mind, am I really doing outreach? Or am I doing some sort of “inreach” instead?

First, it’s important to remember that just because someone is a physicist doesn’t mean they’re an expert in everything. This is especially relevant when I talk about my own sub-field, but it matters for other topics too: experts in one part of physics can still find something to learn, and it’s still worth getting on their good side. Still, if that was my main audience, I’d probably want to strike a different tone, more like the colloquium talks we give for our fellow physicists.

Second, I like to think that outreach “trickles down”. I write for a general audience, and get read by “physics fans”, but they will go on to talk about physics to anyone who will listen: to parents who want to understand what they do, to people they’re trying to impress at parties, to friends they share articles with. If I write good metaphors and clear analogies, they will get passed on to those friends and parents, and the “inreach” will become outreach. I know that’s why I read other physicists’ outreach blogs: I’m looking for new tricks to make ideas clearer.

Third, active readers are not all readers. The people who answer a poll are more likely to be regulars, people who come back to the blog again and again, and those people are pretty obviously interested in physics. (Interested doesn’t mean expert, of course…but in practice, far more non-experts read blogs on, say, military history, than on physics.) But I suspect most of my readers aren’t regulars. My most popular post, “The Way You Think Everything Is Connected Isn’t the Way Everything Is Connected”, gets a trickle of new views every day. WordPress lets me see some of the search terms people use to find it, and there are people who literally google “is everything connected?” These aren’t physics PhDs looking for content, these are members of the general public who hear something strange and confusing and want to check it out. Being that check, the source someone googles to clear things up, that’s an honor. Knowing I’m serving that role, I know I’m not doing “just inreach”: I’m reaching out too.

This Week, at Scattering-Amplitudes.com

I did a guest post this week, on an outreach site for the Max Planck Institute for Physics. The new Director of their Quantum Field Theory Department, Johannes Henn, has been behind a lot of major developments in scattering amplitudes. He was one of the first to notice just how symmetric N=4 super Yang-Mills is, as well as the first to build the “hexagon functions” that would become my stock-in-trade. He’s also done what we all strive to do, and applied what he learned to the real world, coming up with an approach to differential equations that has become the gold standard for many different amplitudes calculations.

Now in his new position, he has a swanky new outreach site, reached at the conveniently memorable scattering-amplitudes.com and managed by outreach-ologist Sorana Scholtes. They started a fun series recently called “Talking Terms” as a kind of glossary, explaining words that physicists use over and over again. My guest post for them is part of that series. It hearkens all the way back to one of my first posts, defining what “theory” means to a theoretical physicist. It covers something new as well, a phrase I don’t think I’ve ever explained on this blog: “working in a theory”. You can check it out on their site!

Truth Doesn’t Have to Break the (Word) Budget

Imagine you saw this headline:

Scientists Say They’ve Found the Missing 40 Percent of the Universe’s Matter

It probably sounds like they’re talking about dark matter, right? And if scientists found dark matter, that could be a huge discovery: figuring out what dark matter is made of is one of the biggest outstanding mysteries in physics. Still, maybe that 40% number makes you a bit suspicious…

Now, read this headline instead:

Astronomers Have Finally Found Most of The Universe’s Missing Visible Matter

Visible matter! Ah, what a difference a single word makes!

These are two articles, the first from this year and the second from 2017, talking about the same thing. Leave out dark matter and dark energy, and the rest of the universe is made of ordinary protons, neutrons, and electrons. We sometimes call that “visible matter”, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to spot. Much of it lingers in threads of gas and dust between galaxies, making it difficult to detect. These two articles are about astronomers who managed to detect this matter in different ways. But while the articles cover the same sort of matter, one headline is a lot more misleading.

Now, I know science writing is hard work. You can’t avoid misleading your readers, if only a little, because you can never include every detail. Introduce too many new words and you’ll use up your “vocabulary budget” and lose your audience. I also know that headlines get tweaked by editors at the last minute to maximize “clicks”, and that news that doesn’t get enough “clicks” dies out, replaced by news that does.

But that second headline? It’s shorter than the first. They were able to fit that crucial word “visible” in, without breaking the budget. And while I don’t have the data, I doubt the first headline was that much more viral. They could have afforded to get this right, if they wanted to.

Read each article further, and you see the same pattern. The 2020 article does mention visible matter in the first sentence at least, so they don’t screw that one up completely. But another important detail never gets mentioned.

See, you might be wondering, if one of these articles is from 2017 and the other is from 2020, how are they talking about the same thing? If astronomers found this matter already in 2017, how did they find it again in 2020?

There’s a key detail that the 2017 article mentions and the 2020 article leaves out. Here’s a quote from the 2017 article, emphasis mine:

We now have our first solid piece of evidence that this matter has been hiding in the delicate threads of cosmic webbing bridging neighbouring galaxies, right where the models predicted.

This “missing” matter was expected to exist, was predicted by models to exist. It just hadn’t been observed yet. In 2017, astronomers detected some of this matter indirectly, through its effect on the Cosmic Microwave Background. In 2020, they found it more directly, through X-rays shot out from the gases themselves.

Once again, the difference is just a short phrase. By saying “right where the models predicted”, the 2017 article clears up an important point, that this matter wasn’t a surprise. And all it took was five words.

These little words and phrases make a big difference. If you’re writing about science, you will always face misunderstandings. But if you’re careful and clever, you can clear up the most obvious ones. With just a few well-chosen words, you can have a much better piece.

Socratic Grilling, Crackpots, and Trolls

The blog Slate Star Codex had an interesting post last month, titled Socratic Grilling. The post started with a dialogue, a student arguing with a teacher about germ theory.

Student: Hey, wait. If germs are spread from person to person on touch, why doesn’t the government just mandate one week when nobody is allowed to touch anyone else? Then all the germs will die and we’ll never have to worry about germs again.

Out of context, the student looks like a crackpot. But in context, the student is just trying to learn, practicing a more aggressive version of Socratic questioning which the post dubbed “Socratic grilling”.

The post argued that Socratic grilling is normal and unavoidable, and that experts treat it with far more hostility than they should. Experts often reject this kind of questioning as arrogant, unless the non-expert doing the grilling is hilariously deferential. (The post’s example: “I know I am but a mere student, and nowhere near smart enough to actually challenge you, so I’m sure I’m just misunderstanding this, but the thing you just said seems really confusing to me, and I’m not saying it’s not true, but I can’t figure out how it possibly could be true, which is my fault and not yours, but could you please try to explain it differently?”)

The post made me think a bit about my own relationship with crackpots. I’d like to say that when a non-expert challenges me I listen to them regardless of their tone, that you don’t need to be so deferential around me. In practice, though…well, it certainly helps.

What I want (or at least what I want to want) is not humility, but intellectual humility. You shouldn’t have to talk about how inexperienced you are to get me to listen to you. But you should make clear what you know, how you know it, and what the limits of that evidence are. If I’m right, it helps me understand what you’re misunderstanding. If you’re right, it helps me get why your argument works.

I’ve referred to both non-experts and crackpots in this post. To be clear, I think of one as a subgroup of the other. When I refer to crackpots, I’m thinking of a specific sort of non-expert: one with a very detailed idea they have invested a lot of time and passion into, which the mainstream considers impossible. If you’re just skeptical of general relativity or quantum mechanics, you’re not a crackpot. But if you’ve come up with your own replacement to general relativity or quantum mechanics, you probably are. Note also that, no matter how dumb their ideas, I don’t think of experts in a topic as crackpots on that topic. Garrett Lisi is silly, and probably wrong, but he’s not a crackpot.

A result of this is that crackpots (as I define them) rarely do actual Socratic grilling. For a non-expert who hasn’t developed their own theory, Socratic grilling can be a good way to figure out what the heck those experts are thinking. But for a crackpot, the work they have invested in their ideas means they’re often much less interested in what the experts have to say.

This isn’t always the case. I’ve had some perfectly nice conversations with crackpots. I remember an email exchange with a guy who had drawn what he thought were Feynman diagrams without really knowing what they were, and wanted me to calculate them. While I quit that conversation out of frustration, it was my fault, not his.

Sometimes, though, it’s clear from the tactics that someone isn’t trying to learn. There’s a guy who has tried to post variations of the same comment on this blog sixteen times. He picks a post that mentions math, and uses that as an excuse to bring up his formula for the Hubble constant (“you think you’re so good at math, then explain this!”). He says absolutely nothing about the actual post, and concludes by mentioning that his book is available on Kindle.

It’s pretty clear that spammers like that aren’t trying to learn. They aren’t doing Socratic grilling, they’re just trying (and failing) to get people to buy their book.

It’s less clear how to distinguish Socratic grilling from trolling. Sometimes, someone asks an aggressive series of questions because they think you’re wrong, and want to clarify why. Sometimes, though, someone asks an aggressive series of questions because they want to annoy you.

How can you tell if someone is just trolling? Inconsistency is one way. A Socratic grill-er will have a specific position in mind, even if you can’t quite tell what it is. A troll will say whatever they need to to keep arguing. If it becomes clear that there isn’t any consistent picture behind what the other person is saying, they’re probably just a troll.

In the end, no-one is a perfect teacher. If you aren’t making headway explaining something, if an argument just keeps going in circles, then you probably shouldn’t continue. You may be dealing with a troll, or it might just be honest Socratic grilling, but either way it doesn’t matter: if you’re stuck, you’re stuck, and it’s more productive to back off than to get in a screaming match.

That’s been my philosophy anyway. I engage with Socratic grilling as long as it’s productive, whether or not you’re a crackpot. But if you spam, I’ll block your comments, while if I think you’re trolling or not listening I’ll just stop responding. It’s not worth my time at that point, and it’s not worth yours either.

Communicating the Continuum Hypothesis

I have a friend who is shall we say, pessimistic, about science communication. He thinks it’s too much risk for too little gain, too many misunderstandings while the most important stuff is so abstract the public will never understand it anyway. When I asked him for an example, he started telling me about a professor who works on the continuum hypothesis.

The continuum hypothesis is about different types of infinity. You might have thought there was only one type of infinity, but in the nineteenth century the mathematician Georg Cantor showed there were more, the most familiar of which are countable and uncountable. If you have a countably infinite number of things, then you can “count” them, “one, two, three…”, assigning a number to each one (even if, since they’re still infinite, you never actually finish). To imagine something uncountably infinite, think of a continuum, like distance on a meter stick, where you can always look at smaller and smaller distances. Cantor proved, using various ingenious arguments, that these two types of infinity are different: the continuum is “bigger” than a mere countable infinity.

Cantor wondered if there could be something in between, a type of infinity bigger than countable and smaller than uncountable. His hypothesis (now called the continuum hypothesis) was that there wasn’t: he thought there was no type of infinite between countable and uncountable.

(If you think you have an easy counterexample, you’re wrong. In particular, fractions are countable.)

Kurt Gödel didn’t prove the continuum hypothesis, but in 1940 he showed that at least it couldn’t be disproved, which you’d think would be good enough. In 1964, though, another mathematician named Paul Cohen showed that the continuum hypothesis also can’t be proved, at least with mathematicians’ usual axioms.

In science, if something can’t be proved or disproved, then we shrug our shoulders and say we don’t know. Math is different. In math, we choose the axioms. All we have to do is make sure they’re consistent.

What Cohen and Gödel really showed is that mathematics is consistent either way: if the continuum hypothesis is true or false, the rest of mathematics still works just as well. You can add it as an extra axiom, and add-on that gives you different types of infinity but doesn’t change everyday arithmetic.

You might think that this, finally, would be the end of the story. Instead, it was the beginning of a lively debate that continues to this day. It’s a debate that touches on what mathematics is for, whether infinity is merely a concept or something out there in the world, whether some axioms are right or wrong and what happens when you change them. It involves attempts to codify intuition, arguments about which rules “make sense” that blur the boundary between philosophy and mathematics. It also involves the professor my friend mentioned, W. H. Woodin.

Now, can I explain Woodin’s research to you?

No. I don’t understand it myself, it’s far more abstract and weird than any mathematics I’ve ever touched.

Despite that, I can tell you something about it. I can tell you about the quest he’s on, its history and its relevance, what is and is not at stake. I can get you excited, for the same reasons that I’m excited, I can show you it’s important for the same reasons I think it’s important. I can give you the “flavor” of the topic, and broaden your view of the world you live in, one containing a hundred-year conversation about the nature of infinity.

My friend is right that the public will never understand everything. I’ll never understand everything either. But what we can do, what I strive to do, is to appreciate this wide weird world in all its glory. That, more than anything, is why I communicate science.

Reader Background Poll Reflections

A few weeks back I posted a poll, asking you guys what sort of physics background you have. The idea was to follow up on a poll I did back in 2015, to see how this blog’s audience has changed.

One thing that immediately leaped out of the data was how many of you are physicists. As of writing this, 66% of readers say they either have a PhD in physics or a related field, or are currently in grad school. This includes 7% specifically from my sub-field, “amplitudeology” (though this number may be higher than usual since we just had our yearly conference, and more amplitudeologists were reminded my blog exists).

I didn’t use the same categories in 2015, so the numbers can’t be easily compared. In 2015 only 2.5% of readers described themselves as amplitudeologists. Adding these up with the physics PhDs and grad students gives 59%, which goes up to 64.5% if I include the mathematicians (who this year might have put either “PhD in a related field” or “Other Academic”). So overall the percentages are pretty similar, though now it looks like more of my readers are grad students.

Despite the small difference, I am a bit worried: it looks like I’m losing non-physicist readers. I could flatter myself and think that I inspired those non-physicists to go to grad school, but more realistically I should admit that fewer of my posts have been interesting to a non-physics audience. In 2015 I worked at the Perimeter Institute, and helped out with their public lectures. Now I’m at the Niels Bohr Institute, and I get fewer opportunities to hear questions from non-physicists. I get fewer ideas for interesting questions to answer.

I want to keep this blog’s language accessible and its audience general. I appreciate that physicists like this blog and view it as a resource, but I don’t want it to turn into a blog for physicists only. I’d like to encourage the non-physicists in the audience: ask questions! Don’t worry if it sounds naive, or if the question seems easy: if you’re confused, likely others are too.

Why I Wasn’t Bothered by the “Science” in Avengers: Endgame

Avengers: Endgame has been out for a while, so I don’t have to worry about spoilers right? Right?

Right?

Anyway, time travel. The spoiler is time travel. They bring back everyone who was eliminated in the previous movie, using time travel.

They also attempt to justify the time travel, using Ant Man-flavored quantum mechanics. This works about as plausibly as you’d expect for a superhero whose shrinking powers not only let him talk to ants, but also go to a “place” called “The Quantum Realm”. Along the way, they manage to throw in splintered references to a half-dozen almost-relevant scientific concepts. It’s the kind of thing that makes some physicists squirm.

And I enjoyed it.

Movies tend to treat time travel in one of two ways. The most reckless, and most common, let their characters rewrite history as they go, like Marty McFly almost erasing himself from existence in Back to the Future. This never makes much sense, and the characters in Avengers: Endgame make fun of it, listing a series of movies that do time travel this way (inexplicably including Wrinkle In Time, which has no time travel at all).

In the other common model, time travel has to happen in self-consistent loops: you can’t change the past, but you can go back and be part of it. This is the model used, for example, in Harry Potter, where Potter is saved by a mysterious spell only to travel back in time and cast it himself. This at least makes logical sense, whether it’s possible physically is an open question.

Avengers: Endgame uses the model of self-consistent loops, but with a twist: if you don’t manage to make your loop self-consistent you instead spawn a parallel universe, doomed to suffer the consequences of your mistakes. This is a rarer setup, but not a unique one, though the only other example I can think of at the moment is Homestuck.

Is there any physics justification for the Avengers: Endgame model? Maybe not. But you can at least guess what they were thinking.

The key clue is a quote from Tony Stark, rattling off a stream of movie-grade scientific gibberish:

“ Quantum fluctuation messes with the Planck scale, which then triggers the Deutsch Proposition. Can we agree on that? ”

From this quote, one can guess not only what scientific results inspired the writers of Avengers: Endgame, but possibly also which Wikipedia entry. David Deutsch is a physicist, and an advocate for the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics. In 1991 he wrote a paper discussing what happens to quantum mechanics in the environment of a wormhole. In it he pointed out that you can make a self-consistent time travel loop, not just in classical physics, but out of a quantum superposition. This offers a weird solution to the classic grandfather paradox of time travel: instead of causing a paradox, you can form a superposition. As Scott Aaronson explains here, “you’re born with probability 1/2, therefore you kill your grandfather with probability 1/2, therefore you’re born with probability 1/2, and so on—everything is consistent.” If you believe in the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, a time traveler in this picture is traveling between two different branches of the wave-function of the universe: you start out in the branch where you were born, kill your grandfather, and end up in the branch where you weren’t born. This isn’t exactly how Avengers: Endgame handles time travel, but it’s close enough that it seems like a likely explanation.

David Deutsch’s argument uses a wormhole, but how do the Avengers make a wormhole in the first place? There we have less information, just vague references to quantum fluctuations at the Planck scale, the scale at which quantum gravity becomes important. There are a few things they could have had in mind, but one of them might have been physicists Leonard Susskind and Juan Maldacena’s conjecture that quantum entanglement is related to wormholes, a conjecture known as ER=EPR.

Long-time readers of the blog might remember I got annoyed a while back, when Caltech promoted ER=EPR using a different Disney franchise. The key difference here is that Avengers: Endgame isn’t pretending to be educational. Unlike Caltech’s ER=EPR piece, or even the movie Interstellar, Avengers: Endgame isn’t really about physics. It’s a superhero story, one that pairs the occasional scientific term with a character goofily bouncing around from childhood to old age while another character exclaims “you’re supposed to send him through time, not time through him!” The audience isn’t there to learn science, so they won’t come away with any incorrect assumptions.

The a movie like Avengers: Endgame doesn’t teach science, or even advertise it. It does celebrate it though.

That’s why, despite the silly half-correct science, I enjoyed Avengers: Endgame. It’s also why I don’t think it’s inappropriate, as some people do, to classify movies like Star Wars as science fiction. Star Wars and Avengers aren’t really about exploring the consequences of science or technology, they aren’t science fiction in that sense. But they do build off science’s role in the wider culture. They take our world and look at the advances on the horizon, robots and space travel and quantum speculations, and they let their optimism inform their storytelling. That’s not going to be scientifically accurate, and it doesn’t need to be, any more than the comic Abstruse Goose really believes Witten is from Mars. It’s about noticing we live in a scientific world, and having fun with it.