Tag Archives: ars technica

Pics or It Didn’t Happen

I got a tumblr recently.

One thing I’ve noticed is that tumblr is a very visual medium. While some people can get away with massive text-dumps, they’re usually part of specialized communities. The content that’s most popular with a wide audience is, almost always, images. And that’s especially true for science-related content.

This isn’t limited to tumblr either. Most of my most successful posts have images. Most successful science posts in general involve images. Think of the most interesting science you’ve seen on the internet: chances are, it was something visual that made it memorable.

The problem is, I’m a theoretical physicist. I can’t show you pictures of nebulae in colorized glory, or images showing the behavior of individual atoms. I work with words, equations, and, when I’m lucky, diagrams.

Diagrams tend to work best, when they’re an option. I have no doubt that part of the Amplituhedron‘s popularity with the press owes to Andy Gilmore’s beautiful illustration, as printed in Quanta Magazine’s piece:

Gotta get me an artist.

The problem is, the nicer one of these illustrations is, the less it actually means. For most people, the above is just a pretty picture. Sometimes it’s possible to do something more accurate, like a 3d model of one of string theory’s six-dimensional Calabi-Yau manifolds:

What, you expected a six-dimensional intrusion into our world *not* to look like Yog-Sothoth?

A lot of the time, though, we don’t even have a diagram!

In those sorts of situations, it’s tempting to show an equation. After all, equations are the real deal, the stuff we theorists are actually manipulating.

Unless you’ve got an especially obvious equation, though, there’s basically only one thing the general public will get out of it. Either the equation is surprisingly simple,

Isn’t it cute?

Or it’s unreasonably complicated,

Why yes, this is one equation that covers seventeen pages. You're lucky I didn't post the eight-hundred page one.

Why yes, this is one equation that covers seventeen pages. You’re lucky I didn’t post the eight-hundred page one.

This is great for first impressions, but it’s not very repeatable. Show people one giant equation, and they’ll be impressed. Show them two, and they won’t have any idea what the difference is supposed to be.

If you’re not showing diagrams or equations, what else can you show?

The final option is, essentially, to draw a cartoon. Forget about showing what’s “really going on”, physically or mathematically. That’s what the article is for. For an image, just pick something cute and memorable that references the topic.

When I did an article for Ars Technica back in 2013, I didn’t have any diagrams to show, or any interesting equations. Their artist, undeterred, came up with a cute picture of sushi with an N=4 on it.

That sort of thing really helps! It doesn’t tell you anything technical, it doesn’t explain what’s going on…but it does mean that every time I think of the article, that image pops into my head. And in a world where nothing lasts without a picture to document it, that’s a job well done.

Sound Bite Management; or the Merits of Shock and Awe

First off, for the small demographic who haven’t seen it already (and aren’t reading this because of it), I wrote an article for Ars Technica. Go read it.

After the article went up, a professor from my department told me that he and several others were concerned about the title.

Now before I go on, I’d like to clarify that this isn’t going to be a story about the department trying to “shut me down” or anything paranoid like that. The professor in question was expressing a valid concern in a friendly way, and it deserves some thought.

The concern was the following: isn’t a title like Earning a PhD by studying a theory that we know is wrong” bad publicity for the field? Regardless of whether the article rebuts the idea that “wrong” is a meaningful descriptor for this sort of theory, doesn’t a title like that give fuel to the fire, sharpening the cleavers of the field’s detractors as one commenter put it? In other words, even if it’s a good article, isn’t it a bad sound bite?

It’s worryingly easy for a catchy sound bite to eclipse everything else about a piece. As one commenter pointed out, that’s roughly what happened with Palin’s fruit fly comment itself. And with that in mind, the claim that people are earning PhDs based on “false” theories definitely sounds like the sort of sound bite that could get out of hand in a hurry if the wrong community picked it up.

There is, at least, one major difference between my sound bite and Palin’s. In the political climate of 2008 it was easy to believe that Sarah Palin didn’t understand the concept of fruit fly research. On the other hand, it’s quite a bit less plausible that Ars would air a piece calling most work in theoretical physics useless.

In operation here is the old, powerful technique of using a shocking, dissonant headline to lure people in. A sufficiently out-of-character statement won’t be taken at face value; rather, it will inspire readers to dig in to the full article to figure out what they’re missing. This is the principle behind provocateurs in many fields, and while there are always risks, often this is the only way to get people to think about complex issues (Peter Singer often seems to exemplify the risks and rewards of this tactic, just to give an example).

What’s the alternative here? In referring to the theory I study as “wrong”, I’m attempting to bring readers face to face with a common misconception: the idea that every theory in physics is designed to approximate some part of the real world. For the physicists in the audience, this is the public perception that everything in theoretical physics is phenomenology. If we don’t bring this perception to light and challenge it, then we’re sweeping a substantial amount of theoretical physics under the rug for the sake of a simpler message. And that’s risky, because if people don’t understand what physics really is then they’re likely to balk when they glimpse what they think is “illegitimate” physics.

In my view, shocking people by describing my type of physics as not “true” is the best way to teach people about what physicists actually do. But it is risky, and it could easily give people the wrong impression. Only time will tell.