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Scicomm

Why scientists should read more

The amount of communicative effort to describe the fact of a ball being thrown is vanishingly low. It’s as simple as saying, “X threw the ball.” It takes a bit more effort to describe how an internal combustion engine works – especially if you’re writing for readers who have no idea how thermodynamics works. However, if you spend enough time, you can still completely describe it without compromising on any details.

Things start to get more difficult when you try to explain, for example, how webpages are loaded in your browser: because the technology is more complicated and you often need to talk about electric signals and logical computations – entities that you can’t directly see. You really start to max out when you try to describe everything that goes into launching a probe from Earth and landing it on a comet because, among other reasons, it brings together advanced ideas in a large number of fields.

At this point, you feel ambitious and you turn your attention to quantum technologies – only to realise you’ve crossed a threshold into a completely different realm of communication, a realm in which you need to pick between telling the whole story and risk being (wildly) misunderstood OR swallowing some details and making sure you’re entirely understood.

Last year, a friend and I spent dozens of hours writing a 1,800-word article explaining the Aharonov-Bohm quantum interference effect. We struggled so much because understanding this effect – in which electrons are affected by electromagnetic fields that aren’t there – required us to understand the wave-function, a purely mathematical object that describes real-world phenomena, like the behaviour of some subatomic particles, and mathematical-physical processes like non-Abelian transformations. Thankfully my friend was a physicist, a string theorist for added measure; but while this meant that I could understand what was going on, we spent a considerable amount of time negotiating the right combination of metaphors to communicate what we wanted to communicate.

However, I’m even more grateful in hindsight that my friend was a physicist who understood the need to not exhaustively include details. This need manifests in two important ways. The first is the simpler, grammatical way, in which we construct increasingly involved meanings using a combination of subjects, objects, referrers, referents, verbs, adverbs, prepositions, gerunds, etc. The second way is more specific to science communication: in which the communicator actively selects a level of preexisting knowledge on the reader’s part – say, high-school education at an English-medium institution – and simplifies the slightly more complicated stuff while using approximations, metaphors and allusions to reach for the mind-boggling.

Think of it like building an F1 racecar. It’s kinda difficult if you already have the engine, some components to transfer kinetic energy through the car and a can of petrol. It’s just ridiculous if you need to start with mining iron ore, extracting oil and preparing a business case to conduct televisable racing sports. In the second case, you’re better off describing what you’re trying to do to the caveman next to you using science fiction, maybe poetry. The problem is that to really help an undergraduate student of mechanical engineering make sense of, say, the Casimir effect, I’d rather say:

According to quantum mechanics, a vacuum isn’t completely empty; rather, it’s filled with quantum fluctuations. For example, if you take two uncharged plates and bring them together in a vacuum, only quantum fluctuations with wavelengths shorter than the distance between the plates can squeeze between them. Outside the plates, however, fluctuations of all wavelengths can fit. The energy outside will be greater than inside, resulting in a net force that pushes the plates together.

‘Quantum Atmospheres’ May Reveal Secrets of Matter, Quanta, September 2018

I wouldn’t say the following even though it’s much less wrong:

The Casimir effect can be understood by the idea that the presence of conducting metals and dielectrics alters the vacuum expectation value of the energy of the second-quantised electromagnetic field. Since the value of this energy depends on the shapes and positions of the conductors and dielectrics, the Casimir effect manifests itself as a force between such objects.

Casimir effect, Wikipedia

Put differently, the purpose of communication is to be understood – not learnt. And as I’m learning these days, while helping virologists compose articles on the novel coronavirus and convincing physicists that comparing the Higgs field to molasses isn’t wrong, this difference isn’t common knowledge at all. More importantly, I’m starting to think that my physicist-friend who really got this difference did so because he reads a lot. He’s a veritable devourer of texts. So he knows it’s okay – and crucially why it’s okay – to skip some details.

I’m half-enraged when really smart scientists just don’t get this, and accuse editors (like me) of trying instead to misrepresent their work. (A group that’s slightly less frustrating consists of authors who list their arguments in one paragraph after another, without any thought for the article’s structure and – more broadly – recognising the importance of telling a story. Even if you’re reviewing a book or critiquing a play, it’s important to tell a story about the thing you’re writing about, and not simply enumerate your points.)

To them – which is all of them because those who think they know the difference but really don’t aren’t going to acknowledge the need to bridge the difference, and those who really know the difference are going to continue reading anyway – I say: I acknowledge that imploring people to communicate science more without reading more is fallacious, so read more, especially novels and creative non-fiction, and stories that don’t just tell stories but show you how we make and remember meaning, how we memorialise human agency, how memory works (or doesn’t), and where knowledge ends and wisdom begins.

There’s a similar problem I’ve faced when working with people for whom English isn’t the first language. Recently, a person used to reading and composing articles in the passive voice was livid after I’d changed numerous sentences in the article they’d submitted to the active voice. They really didn’t know why writing, and reading, in the active voice is better because they hadn’t ever had to use English for anything other than writing and reading scientific papers, where the passive voice is par for the course.

I had a bigger falling out with another author because I hadn’t been able to perfectly understand the point they were trying to make, in sentences of broken English, and used what I could infer to patch them up – except I was told I’d got most of them wrong. And they couldn’t implement my suggestions either because they couldn’t understand my broken Hindi.

These are people that I can’t ask to read more. The Wire and The Wire Science publish in English but, despite my (admittedly inflated) view of how good these publications are, I’ve no reason to expect anyone to learn a new language because they wish to communicate their ideas to a large audience. That’s a bigger beast of a problem, with tentacles snaking through colonialism, linguistic chauvinism, regional identities, even ideologies (like mine – to make no attempts to act on instructions, requests, etc. issued in Hindi even if I understand the statement). But at the same time there’s often too much lost in translation – so much so that (speaking from my experience in the last five years) 50% of all submissions written by authors for whom English isn’t the first language don’t go on to get published, even if it was possible for either party to glimpse during the editing process that they had a fascinating idea on their hands.

And to me, this is quite disappointing because one of my goals is to publish a more diverse group of writers, especially from parts of the country underrepresented thus far in the national media landscape. Then again, I acknowledge that this status quo axiomatically charges us to ensure there are independent media outlets with science sections and publishing in as many languages as we need. A monumental task as things currently stand, yes, but nonetheless, we remain charged.

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Life notes Op-eds Scicomm

Discussing some motivations behind a particle physics FAQ

First, there is information. From information, people distill knowledge, and from knowledge, wisdom. Information is available on a lot of topics and in varying levels of detail. Knowledge on topics is harder to find – and even more hard is wisdom. This is because knowledge and wisdom require work (to fact-check and interpret) on information and knowledge, respectively. And people can be selective on what they choose to work on. One popular consequence of such choices is that most people are more aware of business information, business knowledge and business wisdom than they are of scientific information, scientific knowledge and scientific wisdom. This graduated topical awareness reflects in how we produce and consume the news.

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News articles written on business issues rarely see fit to delve into historical motivations or explainer-style elucidations because the audience is understood to be better aware of what business is about. Business information and knowledge are widespread and so is, to some extent, business wisdom, and articles can take advantage of conclusions made in each sphere, jumping between them to tease out more information, knowledge and wisdom. On the other hand, articles written on some topics of science – such as particle physics – have to start from the informational level before wisdom can be presented. This places strong limits on how the article can be structured or even styled.

There are numerous reasons for why this is so, especially for topics like particle physics, which I regularly (try to) write on. I’m drawn toward three of them in particular: legacy, complexity and pacing. Legacy is the size of the body of work that is directly related to the latest developments in that work. So, the legacy of the LHC stretches back to include the invention of the cyclotron in 1932 – and the legacy of the Higgs boson stretches back to 1961. Complexity is just that but becomes more meaningful in the context of pacing.

A consequence of business developments being reported on fervently is that there is at least some (understandable) information in the public domain about all stages of the epistemological evolution. In other words, the news reports are apace of new information, new knowledge, new wisdom. With particle physics, they aren’t – they can’t be. The reports are separated by some time, according to when the bigger developments occurred, and in the intervening span of time, new information/knowledge/wisdom would’ve arisen that the reports will have to accommodate. And how much has to be accommodated can be exacerbated by the complexity of what has come before.

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But there is a catch here – at least as far as particle physics is concerned because it is in a quandary these days. The field is wide open because physicists have realised two things: first, that their theoretical understanding of physics is far, far ahead of what their experiments are capable of (since the 1970s and 1980s); second, that there are inconsistencies within the theories themselves (since the late 1990s). Resolving these issues is going to take a bit of time – a decade or so at least (although we’re likely in the middle of such a decade) – and presents a fortunate upside to communicators: it’s a break. Let’s use it to catch up on all that we’ve missed.

The break (or a rupture?) can also be utilised for what it signifies: a gap in information/knowledge. All the information/knowledge/wisdom that has come before is abruptly discontinued at this point, allowing communicators to collect them in one place, compose them and disseminate them in preparation for whatever particle physics will unearth next. And this is exactly what motivated me to write a ‘particle physics FAQ’, published on The Wire, as something anyone who’s graduated from high-school can understand. I can’t say if it will equip them to read scientific papers – but it will definitely (and hopefully) set them on the road to asking more questions on the topic.

Categories
Science

Slideshow: Mission Mars

The NASA MAVEN spacecraft entered orbit around Mars on Sunday September 21 evening (EST), less than a day ago. A little more than a day from now, on Tuesday September 23 evening (EST), the ISRO MOM spacecraft will attempt the same manoeuvre and lock itself in orbit around the red planet.

When ISRO launched the mission on November 5, 2013, the geopolitical implications of the launch itself were blatantly built up and strutted. This was indeed a technology demonstrator. However, in the 11 months since, the fact that here was a science-driven mission to Mars that had escaped public attention earlier began to sink in. With less than two days to go for orbit insertion, there is a noticeable palpitation among those who’ve been following its journey.

The Americans had the skycrane and their seven minutes of hell. This is India’s ultimate so-near-yet-so-far moment. I’m really hoping this works out.

Building up to this moment, ISRO had released a series of images in an effort to personalize the mission, to get people talking about what MOM would do once it got there, and all that had to be done to get there. Considering how reclusive it’s been in the past, these images (and status updates and tweets) showed the space agency at its most communicative. The images were released periodically, coinciding with each milestone that MOM breached in its 600+ million km journey.

I’ve compiled them into one slideshow below to make visualizing the short history of this mission feel more continuous and immediate instead of as updates we consumed over a year (and from two separate albums on Facebook). They all belong to ISRO; if you wish to reuse them for commercial purposes, please ask them first.