A few days ago my friend Mr B. C. of Swindon, for it is he, let me erupt onto his blog concerning the scientific illiteracy one finds in the desert that is televisual emission. Today I return the compliment, and below he opines on a related, indeed complementary theme. As I am sure you are both aware, Brian is an author of popular science books including A Brief History of Infinity, Inflight Science, Build Your Own Time Machine and Dice World, all of which you can find in the proverbial All Good Bookshops while you are trying and failing to locate a copy of my own Shameless Plug. He has also written for a range of magazines and newspapers from The Observer to Playboy.
There’s nothing scientists like better than moaning about science writers and science TV. And there is an element of truth in their complaints about dumbing down (particularly in TV science), exaggeration, and twisting the truth to make a good story. But I think that science writers do a vital job and that perhaps scientists should give us a little more leeway. There are two prime reasons for this.
One is that, to be honest, half the time the problem comes from the scientist (or the university PR person), rather than the science writer. There was a great example recently when the news media was flooded with reports that scientists had developed a Star Wars-style light saber. We saw headlines like ‘Scientists finally invent real, working lightsabers’ from Time, and ‘MIT, Harvard scientists accidentally create real-life lightsaber’ from Fox News. Even the Guardian, which I hold in higher respect than does Dr Gee [ach, it's not so bad - Ed.], came up with ‘Star Wars lightsabers finally invented.’
The reality was very different. The research was very interesting, but in fact what the scientists had done is create a photonic analogue of the Cooper pairs of electrons that cause superconductivity. In a superconductor, interaction with vibrations (phonons) in the lattice of the material causes pairs of electrons to act as if they were a single entity. The Harvard and MIT scientists have found an effect with that most enigmatic of materials, a Bose-Einstein condensate, in which interactions between excited atoms (given the exotic name a Rydberg blockade) cause a pair of photons to move together through the medium, effectively interacting, which is very interesting because photons generally ignore each other.
Frankly, the connection with light sabers is tenuous at best, and I can’t see that any of the journalists would have made it. So why did we get those extravagant headlines? Because one of the researchers, Professor Mikhail Lukin of Harvard, remarked
‘It’s not an in-apt analogy to compare this to light sabers. When these photons interact with each other, they’re pushing against and deflect each other. The physics of what’s happening in these [optical] molecules is similar to what we see in the movies.’
Well, no it isn’t. Okay, the newspapers went over the top by turning the linking of a pair of photons into a ‘real working light saber’, but it’s hard not to put some of the blame on Prof Lukin’s attempt at being down with the kids and coming up with a pop culture reference.
The other reason I’d say we should lighten up on the writers a bit is that often that ‘over-simplification’ is hard to avoid if you want to get people interested in science by talking about it in a way that they can grasp reasonably quickly. A while ago I complained in a review of the book Quantum Divide by Christopher C. Gerry and Kimberley M. Bruno that the authors had been a little prissy in their attack on science writers when they said
‘Quantum theory does not predict that an object can be in two or more places at once. The false notion to the contrary often appears in the popular press, but is due to a naïve interpretation of quantum mechanics.’
The problem with this attitude is that it entirely misses the point. All descriptive models of something as counter-intuitive as quantum theory are inevitably approximations – what they are really doing here is not liking someone else’s language, even though it gets the basic point across better than their version. I don’t think this is any more a problem than when physicists speak of the big bang or dark matter as if it they are facts, rather than our current best accepted theories.
As a result I’ve had an interesting (and friendly) correspondence with Chris Gerry. I pointed out, for instance, that Brian Cox, who as a particle physicist has a more than passing familiarity with quantum theory has been heard on the radio saying without qualification that quantum theory meant a particle could be in two places at once, an assertion that is also used in his quite meaty book with Jeff Forshaw, The Quantum Universe. Chris Gerry responded:
‘I’m not at all surprised that they, along with so many others, push the notion that a particle can be in two places at once. It’s a hard thing to resist. No doubt I’ve done it myself, but I always immediately back away from it to assert that quantum mechanics doesn’t really say that a particle can be in two places at once. I try to say things like “one is tempted to say a particle can be in two places at once but….” The “two places at once” phrase has become a cliché, unfortunately, and at best it’s really only a metaphor for the superposition principle in quantum mechanics. And now people think the metaphor is the real thing, and it isn’t. The idea that some attributes of a particle, such as its location, can be objectively indefinite if even weirder than saying it can be into places at once.’
Now since this discussion I always try to qualify that ‘two places at once’ statement, but I certainly still use it for the same reason, I’m sure, that Brian Cox did. If you are on a radio show, as I sometimes am, and have maybe 30 seconds to explain why quantum physics is so interesting, there just isn’t time to say it accurately, and that ‘two places at once’ cliché comes to you as naturally as replying ‘Absolutely!’ to an interviewer. (Just listen. Interviewees can’t resist doing this. Once you listen out for it, the airwaves are full of it.)
I would defend myself (and Coxy) by saying that I think it is much better to have brought quantum physics to the public’s attention, even if the exact wording wasn’t perfect, with the hope they will then pick up an excellent book about it, than not mentioning it all because you can’t get the accurate description in the time. Even if a popular science book or Horizon doesn’t avoid the cliché I still think it is better to get people engaged with an approximation than to put them off with clinical detail.
Also we always have to bear in mind that almost all science is simply about developing a model that is good at matching the observed data. It isn’t about creating a ‘true’ description of reality. Most physicists are using metaphors all the time, they just don’t necessarily think enough about what they are doing to realize it.
So, yes, journalists get it wrong. And, yes, TV science can dumb things down. But don’t be too heavy on science writers. They do an important job in getting the public interested and engaged in science. Which means that public is more likely to support money going to science budgets. Think before you moan, scientists. Don’t shoot the messenger and at the same time yourselves in the feet.