Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Can physics blogs reach the general public?

The Higgs boson, apparently considered to be a musician or athlete of a sort, was nominated as the Time Magazine person of the year 2012, among 39 other candidates:
Who Should Be TIME's Person of the Year 2012? (Higgs boson)
It's fun that particle physics has some impact on the mass culture; everything else that will be said about the nomination is going to be mostly negative.

Jeffrey Kluger wrote five sentences. Amusingly enough, Matt Strassler wanted to correct all the flagrant mistakes in these five sentences so he wrote something like a book (a somewhat angry book):
TIME for a Little Soul-Searching
See also Particles Are People Too.

Of course, I agree with Matt Strassler, well, almost entirely, but this particular thing just doesn't drive me up the wall as intensely as it annoys himself because it's been many, many years when I abandoned the idea that ordinary people – and ordinary journalists who are really just average people – could understand the meaning of cutting-edge fundamental physics. Since that time, I have only been angry about the ignorance of people whom I still expected to know better – but of course, my expectations are gradually decreasing with the people's knowledge, too.

The inkspiller in the magazine was confused about various issues, for example:
  1. whether the Higgs mechanism is performed by the particle or the field
  2. whether you would still have "mass" without the Higgs mechanism
  3. whether the mass of the Universe could abruptly shift if the Higgs vev were set to zero
  4. whether Peter Higgs is an English physicist or a Scottish one
  5. whether Peter Higgs was the only man who contributed to these insights
  6. what is the difference between energy, mass, and matter
  7. whether the LHC experiments are made just by 3 political puppets, the so-called spokespersons
  8. whether the Higgs mechanism is the culmination of general relativity
  9. whether all particles are unstable
  10. whether the decay products are "more fundamental particles" than the initial ones
  11. whether physicists dream about the boson's getting awards designed for the people
You may predict what the Time Magazine writer wrote about these eleven questions if you have a bit creativity and if I tell you that he is about as ignorant as a Joe Sixpack on the street. Well, I exaggerate: I do believe that Joe Sixpack knows even less about the Higgs issues than the writer.
Unrelated but interesting: The DNA of the European Gypsies, especially the male Y chromosome, was found to match the lowest "untouchable" (Dalit) caste in Northwestern India by an Estonian-UK_Cambridge-Stanford team.
In some cases, I would argue that the mistake wasn't "too bad". Let me offer you some apologies – while you should understand that I could offer you many additional critiques but Matt Strassler has done it pretty well.

So, whether the Higgs mechanism is realized by the field or the particle depends on the formalism a bit. Everything that may be described by fields may also be reformulated in terms of particles. The Higgs condensate may be viewed as a coherent state with many zero-momentum Higgs bosons – actual excitations of the Higgs field – and the extra mass terms may be viewed as vertices with external legs connected to the Higgs bosons in this condensate. So while it's unusual, it's plausible you could turn the statement "the Higgs mechanism is caused by the Higgs boson" to a mathematically convincing picture.

Also, I have some understanding for the layman's way to distinguish "mass" and "energy". They're the same thing due to \(E=mc^2\). However, it makes sense to emphasize the word "mass" when the mass/energy is stored in particles with a significant/corresponding rest mass which can't be reduced further; and the mass/energy carried by massless particles ("radiation" in the cosmological jargon) may be called "energy". Of course, I don't have any excuse for those who confuse mass (a quantity, with a number) and matter (an object) – perhaps except that "hmota" is used in the Czech language for both (although the right modern word for "mass" is "hmotnost" and "hmota" for the mass is archaic and obsolete).

The contribution that protons and neutrons get from QCD – and what would happen in various worlds in which the Higgs mechanism and/or QCD is turned off – is a rather advanced stuff. I know very well that non-physicists, including some non-physicists who have been trying to understand physics for many and many years, just aren't capable of "getting" these basic things. Their resolution ends with "one physics" or perhaps "one particle physics".

But to distinguish the four forces and what they're responsible for, it's already too much to ask for. Almost all laymen I know confuse gravity which makes the mass important by allowing it to curve the space with the Higgs mechanism where the rest mass is produced by interactions with the Higgs field. What they "know" about both of these things is that they're fundamental new insights about the "mass". At this resolution, what they know about both is the same thing so the two physics mechanisms must be the same, they (totally incorrectly) conclude, too. But the conclusion is almost unavoidable if you just don't know enough.

All the filmmakers and movie people behind the Impact TV miniseries, for example (which I watched again a week ago or so), are routinely confusing electromagnetism with gravity. Everything they say about each of these two most well-known long-range forces is a confusing statement about some non-existent hybrid of electromagnetism and gravity. This comment actually applies to almost all catastrophic movies of this type. Distinguishing the weak nuclear force and the strong nuclear force is pretty much impossible for a non-physicist. I have some doubts whether one may actively distinguish all these things without realizing the mathematical meaning of the underlying formulae – which almost no layman can achieve.

There must be a moment at which one gives up certain pedagogical ambitions that are utterly unrealistic. While I think that the image of the world as painted by theoretical physics is a major part of the culture of our epoch (and knowing nothing about the W-boson or the genes is as bad as knowing nothing about Shakespeare), I find it obvious that an overwhelming majority of the mankind just can't understand its basics. The reason is an insufficient intelligence, insufficient motivation to follow these things, or both.

Journalists don't have any significant advantage. The average IQ of undergraduate students of communication/journalism is around 112 (compare with physics with 130 at the top). Among the college students, only education (109) and public administration (106) are closer to the average IQ (100). You simply can't expect too visible differences between journalists and average people on the street. They're not elite in any sense. In fact, this "mediocrity" of the writers is imposed upon us because if the journalists were too much smarter than the readers, the readers wouldn't be capable of reading the articles or they wouldn't be willing to do so.

In my family background, the discussions that start to reveal the limitations (or, politically correctly, the "differences") are discussions on whether the behavior of the human body (or other things of this kind) may be uncovered by biology (or other natural sciences) or by witches with tarot cards (or anyone else with self-described parapsychopathological "abilities"). If you were treated as a narrow-minded heretic for knowing (PC: thinking) that science is the right approach to learn reliable insights about all the observations, or even for daring to suggest that these scientific insights ultimately boil down to the laws of physics that you've mastered, you would surely forget about explaining subtleties of the chiral symmetry breaking to the general laymen. It's just utterly impossible.

In fact, even if I restrict my attention to people who have dedicated a significant part of decades of their lives to studying physics at home and following events in modern physical sciences, the results are pretty weak. I would say that if most of these people were forced to learn a 2-hour introductory physics lecture in the same way they had to learn at school (otherwise they would be spanked), they would know much more than they know after 20 years of "being interested" in physics. In spite of that, many people are very proud about their "unusual extra knowledge of physics" – something that may be worth $50 if converted to tuition in some sensible way. Of course, the extra pride often arises from the individual folks' "different knowledge" – they know something that others don't and they're proud about it even if it's unusually wrong (well, unusually when it comes to the precise type of the wrong knowledge; the very fact that the knowledge is wrong is usual).

A major reason behind this unreasonable ineffectiveness of the "home learning" of physics is that almost all these people pick sources that are full of garbage and myths spread by similarly confused and deluded average people. So this community of "not quite physicists" is keeping itself in the mud by cohesion. And of course that they teach each other to use the word "physics" and the best compliments for this mud. Authors of popular books usually contribute to this situation, too – even if they're good experts in their fields.

It's because for a book to sell well, it must apparently contain a significant fraction either of some widely popular garbage or idiosyncratic garbage. There's pretty much just one way to answer physics questions – and the truth is just one possibility among millions of others, the book market tells you, so if you repeated all the time, it would be boring or otherwise wrong. So most of the stuff written in popular physics books has to be wrong. There's just almost no natural selection that would prefer "true" books to be sold to the general public. And maybe the selection is flipped upside down, too.

A decade ago, I considered Brian Greene's The Elegant Universe to be an unbelievable counterexample. It became a bestseller despite the fact that it was indeed presenting the proper science that the best experts would endorse. The book explained what was important and only a modest fraction was dedicated to Brian's personal contributions – although there had been many – and his idiosyncrasies. Brian's later books stayed close to this description although much of The Fabric of the Cosmos was more elementary and much of The Hidden Reality was dedicated to speculations, usually twisted in the misled way that's dominant in the popular literature (the anti-Copenhagen propaganda on quantum mechanics is the most irritating example of that).
Related: The Guardian says that Brian Greene will compete against Steve Pinker and others for some Royal Society popular science book award. Someone else won but they debated what good popularization meant. Via Chimp.
But most other popular books that (just several) millions of people in the world use as "sources to learn physics" are much worse when it comes to the validity of the statements. Most of these books try to make profit with the perfect knowledge that most potential readers aren't really interested in real physics – and its sometimes modest and unsurprising implications for our observations, implications that still require hard work, attention, and precision to be derived – at all. Most people are only interested in the applications when they're useful – and they don't even want to know how they work.

The minority that declares some interest in "physics" for the sake of its knowledge is interested in "physics" as some kind of a buzzword that makes them feel special in the same sense as religious people are feeling special. I would even say that the largest group of readers of self-described "popular physics books" (some of the worst ones even try to pretend that they're not just popular books) are people who think that they have been harassed because of their lower intelligence and science skills but they want to be proved they were always right. So what they're eagerly waiting for are some revolutions that show that all the smart folks were wrong and vice versa. This is my best explanation why self-evident toxic junk written by dishonest scumbags and crackpots such as Woit and Smolin (and many other authors I don't want to enumerate) has been bought by many people (and is still being sold as you are reading this paragraph). Needless to say, this bias and desire to destroy physics as it exists isn't a good starting point to doing physics research – and it's a bad starting point to learning physics, too. Famous (or, using a different rule, the most typical) scientists may be wrong and they are often wrong but constantly betting that they must be wrong about everything isn't a viable strategy to make progress – it's probably even worse than assuming that they're always right although the two strategies are "comparably bad". Even when scientific revolutions take place, the previous wisdom is given a convenient armchair to spend the retirement age in. If you didn't understand the science before the revolution, chances are that your position will be even weaker after the revolution. True "counter-revolution" can't really occur in science because the acquired knowledge about the invalidity of obsolete theories is irreversible. If something has been ruled out, there's just no way to return to that defunct theory; a newer, usually more abstract or sophisticated theory, has become a "must".

So physics is interesting as a source of potential miracles, magic, telepathy, superluminal warp drives, and so on. But what about a solid proof that some of these things can't exist? Those insights just don't sell well. People are not interested in genuine physics; they are not interested in the truth whatever it is. They are interested in statements that pander to their prejudices and their special role among their peers. Either this sad fact or the reduced intelligence – or some superposition; it's often hard to disentangle what is at the very beginning – is the primary reason why we don't see any positive progress in the public's understanding of science. The public just doesn't want to understand those things well.

I believe that Matt Strassler still holds totally unrealistic ambitions. It's great to struggle for a better understanding of physics in the general public but if you want too much, you will be fighting the windmills. Various more or less inclusive parts of the public only have a chance to understand physics up to various levels of depth and sensible explanations of physics are likely to be a waste of time if they completely deny this distribution. That's why various types of simplifications (and various degrees of tolerance for certain misconceptions) have to be designed for variously inclusive target groups.

After all, the number of people in the general public who read (close to fundamental/particle/cosmology) physics blogs at least once a week – and redistribute tweets etc. going to physics blogs – is just totally tiny. It's really at most tens of thousands of people in the world. Even if we talk just about "interested laymen", it is just a few parts per million! The genuinely interested laymen aren't too much more widespread than the actual scientists. A larger group follows (and retweets!) science in the "mainstream media" and the distortions of science inevitably follow from this fact because the journalists usually don't know much more than the readers (and can't really know much more, for the communication to work efficiently).

We should think whether the public's belief in the "authority of the mainstream media" is inevitable, whether it brings more advantages or disadvantages, and whether we should struggle to undermine it in some way or not. Of course that there are many events after which I am tempted to think that the answer is a resounding Yes. But when I see what kind of much worse junk may be written in – and read from – some totally non-mainstream sources, I often change my mind again. In most cases, one has to choose between the bad, worse, and worst. ;-)



    Well, here's a "physics blog" ...

    Let me try to explain better why carbon dioxide has no effect ...

    The process of diffusion in the vertical direction in a gravitational field effectively turns a "level base" into a "sloping base" like a concrete driveway running down a hillside.

    This diffusion process ensures that the sum of the PE and KE of individual molecules has a propensity towards equality in all molecules at all altitudes. Those lower down (with less PE) thus have higher KE, leading to higher temperature in the lower regions.

    There will be some absorption of Solar insolation at all levels in the Venus atmosphere, because we know at least some gets through to the surface. Think of this absorption as being like lots of different size loads of sand dumped on that sloping driveway. In general, the piles will be smaller as you go towards the top. So there's no real propensity for convection rising in the atmosphere (sand from higher piles flowing down through the bigger piles further down the slope) so what happens is simply that the amount of radiation varies at different levels to get rid of the sand. But it stops when it gets down to the concrete driveway. The mean amount of radiation has to equate with the incident radiation, so this requirement (long ago) set the level of the driveway, but not its gradient - gravity and the specific heat of the gas set the gradient.

    Now I know that some radiation (roughly half) is directed towards the hotter surface, but those who understand what Prof Johnson proved, will realise that the electro-magnetic energy in such radiation is never converted to thermal energy in a hotter region than that from whence it came. Instead it is immediately re-emitted, just as if "pseudo scattered." Hence the energy in all radiation from the atmosphere always ends up eventually getting to space, even if it strikes the surface, or gets partly absorbed by cooler gas and subsequently re-emitted.

    So the diffusion process in a gravitational field sets the gradient of the temperature plot in the atmosphere, with some small variation depending on the specific heat of the gases. The incident Solar radiative flux sets the overall level. These combine to produce a sloping, near linear temperature plot which of course intercepts the surface at a temperature which is determined by the input factors just mentioned, and nothing else.

    Any additional absorption of either incident or upwelling radiation merely adds temporary energy which will be quickly radiated away and, even though such radiation is in all directions, it will eventually transfer energy out of the planetary system and back to space.

    Venus is a good example, because it is so much more obvious that the surface is not heated to the temperature it reaches by the direct Solar radiation it absorbs. Instead, an interplay of conduction (diffusion) and radiation at the surface/atmosphere interface keeps the surface at a temperature close to that of the base of the atmosphere.

    Which came first - the chicken or the egg? The temperature of the base of the atmosphere must have come first because otherwise it would be just too much of a coincidence that the same formula "works" on all planets with sufficient atmospheres.

    So, if you don't accept the above, then please explain in a similar level of detail, exactly what you think explains the surface temperature, being sure to keep within the confines of the laws of thermodynamics and atmospheric physics, as I have.

    Doug Cotton

  2. Dear Lumo,

    I unfortunately agree with what you say :-/ ...

    For my purpose I think I have found a quite reliable criteria to choose my bedtime story books (which I can read lying flat on my back, whereas for my demystified books and similar resources I have to sit upright at my desk):

    If the book is appreciated by on the backside of its cover by large newspapers, famous journalists, etc:


    If it is appreciated and approved by cool physicists (such as Prof. Witten for example) on the backsied of its cover:

    -> Good one, is most probably very interesting and educational and fun :-)))

    Slightly off topic:

    See how I'm having fun with some spambots, launched by a well known spamserver at Columbia at Jester's blog :-D


  3. Darn,

    now Jester has banned ME since he obviously likes and prefers to have his blog full of spambots and trolls :-(

    So may it be, he is no longer my friend

  4. That's annoying news! I didn't even know that Jester's blog platform allowed to ban users.

  5. Dear Doug, do you at least realize that this comment of yours is totally off-topic?

  6. Dear Lumo,

    all is well again with me and Jester :-)
    My comment (thanking him for preventing insulting off topic comments hereafter) just had to wait but is through now ...
    So we are friends again :-)


  7. I kind of liked it. But it's off topic. Wide right.

    And the turkey came first before the chicken and the egg.

    Doug, now that you've wet your appetite for planets, how about moons?

    Titan and Hyperion. One has a thick ghg atmosphere. The other has nothing.
    Why are they both the same temperature?

  8. i think that if physicists understood free markets better they would do a better job with blogs. too many of them want to be isolated and then they complain about physics being isolated. also too many of them make easy things hard in physics to show off. physicists also need more political power to push physics more to the public.

  9. you also have a link for an oxford website that happens to be pretty bad even for people that know physics. things can be written in a more simple way.

  10. Hi Luboš,

    could you please recommend any good honest literature about physics for laymens (like me, with IT university education), perhaps mainly quantum mechanics, even better in czech if exists any. I recently saw book from Chad Orzel about QM - if you could say something about this.
    Also, didn't you think about any series rather for laymens ?
    I hope don't disturb you much.

    Thank you.

  11. Dear Lubos, I think many educated layman are capable of appreciating Feynman's lecture on the two slit experiment. That has to be worth something.

  12. I don't think there's a snowflake's chance in hell that the general public can appreciate physics, and I think this should be obvious, but perhaps this does not eliminate all interesting questions about physics and the general public. Here's one that may be interesting.

    Many newspaper and magazine articles and TV shows have said that QM permits FTL communication. I'm sure countless people believe it. (In this sense, the general public is being "reached.") The question is: How long can people go on believing it, and what happens when they stop? This is not like the belief in Aristotelian physics, whose abandonment has no adverse consequences for science. If people stopped believing that QM permits FTL, this might involve believing that science had failed: "It's 2150 already. Why do we still not have FTL communications?"

  13. Dilaton... In Lumo's prose, I felt this post speaking directly to me. It was beautiful :)

    BTW... I think I know who you are from other blogs as well. The excessive use of ellipsis... and "finger quotes" is a give away :)

    Not case closed though. I could be purfectly wrong :)

  14. The Reference Frame comes closest to successfully communicating the flavor of the frontiers to theoretical physics for seriously interested laymen, even if they can only follow ten percent of the discussion. Leonard Susskind's video lecture courses are accessible to laymen and provide maybe the best preparation

  15. I mostly agree. I however think that it is not so important for the layman to get it wrong at some point. It is unavoidable. People want to believe in FTL communication more than they believe in it. Nuance. The layman is on the receiving end, he just processes the info. I don't think he judges severely any failure from science. I believe that the layman is humble, has a high respect for physicists and wants the truth.

  16. It may depend on whether it matters what the layman thinks. In the U.S. many laymen ridiculed Einstein, but this didn't stop anything. So you'd expect the same to happen. Probably it will, but maybe not. Many people have expressed a fear that the global warmists are setting up a discrediting of science.

  17. So it appears that Gypsies' ancestors may have originated in what is now Northwestern India. DNA can be a very helpful tool for anthropologists.

    Luboš, I want to compliment you on your usage of the English language, it is exemplary.

    I am one of those "interested laymen" you mentioned who possess little knowledge of physics, and as a consequence, I rely on statements from scientists who apperar to "make sense", so it seems, to utilize a parallel, that we are members of a jury who must render a decision based on completing experts. Such is the case in the current climate/CO2 debate.