If I have a mini-passion inspired by my life experiences, its that scientists need to learn to communicate more effectively. We learn all these amazing things about the world around us: in just the past week, scientists have made discoveries as large as ancient ice on Pluto and as small as the existence of pentaquarks.
While images of Pluto are breathtaking and inspirational, a significant amount of discussion has been had in recent days regarding how to justify to the public the importance of visiting the outer edges of our solar system. An entire generation of scientists – the generation of scientists who are making these incredible discoveries today – were inspired to be where they are now by the Apollo explorations of yesteryear. And yet, they have no idea how to convince the general public that the next generation of scientists are being created today by the very same thing: inspirational trips to discover the unknown.
For someone like me, who already knows and loves physics, the announcement of the pentaquarks is even cooler. We know protons and neutrons, which combine to form the nucleus of every atom of every element, consist of three quarks. Scientists have discovered two different particles composed of five quarks each, and though we don’t know what they create, we know they contribute to explaining the Standard Model. Beyond that, who knows what this discovery will mean? Perhaps the next generation of scientists, the kids in classrooms who watched the images New Horizons sent home last week, will figure it out for us.
And herein lies the problem: the current generation of scientists doesn’t know how to talk to the next generation of scientists (or their parents). We barely even know how to talk to ourselves. Regardless of what I decide to study when I move to the next phase of my schooling, I’m absolutely not going to be studying anywhere unless they have courses in science communication. I want to learn how to speak to other scientists, especially scientists in other fields, and explain what I’ve learned. But most importantly, I want to be able to speak to non-scientists. Scientists need to be able to speak to non-scientists.
We can’t just assume that science journalists will do our job for us, because the journalists are easily duped by false science (case in point: the chocolate is good for you study) and the reality is that you can only truly explain what you understand. So if a journalist can understand 50% of the significance of a discovery, then the public will, at best, get 50% of its importance. But if scientists could learn to express the significance themselves, then the public has a better chance of understanding the fundamental beauty of whatever has just been added to the body of human knowledge.
Unfortunately, it isn’t just that scientists don’t know what to say, they also don’t know how to say it. The number of times I’ve bitten my tongue to not correct “fewer” or “less” over the past five weeks is innumerable. And its not just to my fellow students; professors, lecturers, and lab techs have all said “less data points support this conclusion than that” or “something has fewer probability.” (Don’t remember which to use? Just remember: your grocery store is probably wrong.)
We have a 1,500 word research report due in a few days, and everyone is stressing because they don’t know how to put their thoughts and understanding down on paper. They’re more worried about the paper than the presentation that will require standing in front of ~20 people, not because they’re comfortable speaking in front of groups, but because they’re terrified of writing a paper. (For reference, this post in total is 704 words; I wrote it in about 20 minutes.) Now, I’m not saying that I am always grammatically correct, or that I have perfect English. But scientists are the people who have discovered the world, and so many have no way to express it. How many incredible discoveries have been lost to history because the report manuscript was rejected for poor clarity? How many were lost because the research proposal was indecipherable? How much time and energy is wasted because nobody bothered to teach the scientist how to teach the world?
Admittedly, this week is a bit more stressful than the last couple of weeks have been, what with lab report due dates stacking up and a professor who has four days of four hour-long lectures and plans to teach four chapters. But based on the last 18 hours, I thought it might be fun to throw together a daily “schedule” so there isn’t any confusion – this isn’t actually a nuclear summer camp.
6:30am: Wake up. Shower. Eat Breakfast. Pack bag.
7:45am: Leave the dorm. Bike to the classroom (about a 7 min bike ride, so just over a mile, probably). Try to finish reading the chapter you’re about to be taught. (Fail)
8:30am: Lecture starts. (Chapter 11)
12:15pm: Lecture ends. Lunch starts. Homework is assigned. (Due tomorrow, of course.)
12:45pm: Return from eating lunch to work on the homework. (Complete 5 of 7 problems)
2:00pm: Seminar begins.
5:00pm: Seminar ends. Return to dorm.
*Note that approximately 2 days each week, we have a seminar in the afternoon. The remaining 3 afternoons are spent either in lab or touring various facilities on BNL’s campus.
5:30pm: Continue working on lab report. (Started over the weekend, due tomorrow)
6:30pm: Make dinner. Discuss report and associated discussion questions with classmates over dinner.
7:30pm: Return to room. Continue working on lab report.
8:30pm: Finish lab report. Continue research for paper/presentation (due next week).
9:30pm: Stop researching. Return to homework set.
9:55pm: Complete homework. Begin lab prep for tomorrow.
11:00pm: Finish lab prep for tomorrow. Begin reading Chapter 12 (32 pages).
11:45pm: Give up on reading. Brush teeth. Go to bed. Set alarm for 7:00am so chapter 12 can be completed in the morning. (Write blog post…)
Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy to be here and I’m ecstatic that I’m learning so much and making connections between previous chemistry classes and my physics classes. I really enjoy the labs because apparently chem lab is just like riding a bike – the techniques might be a bit rusty, but I do in fact remember the basics of pipetting and running a column and even proper acid disposal. But hoooooo boy! is it exhausting. I’ve got two more weeks of using every brain cell in my big head, and then I am taking a well-deserved week off before I go right back to using my brain again. Is this what the real world is like? ‘Cuz if it is, I love it and I hate it at the same time.
This week marks the second week of December, which college students around the country know affectionately as the week before they get to go home, or less affectionately as the dreaded finals week. My finals this semester have been both easy and impossibly difficult – I started finals before finals started, courtesy of a professor who decided to have his final during the last class period. (They think this is helpful, since we have fewer finals during the four days that is the legitimate finals period. Plus, they then can also go home earlier. But when you have a final, two problem sets, an essay, and a presentation in the last three days of classes, said professor appears to be a bit of an ass…)
Anyways, courtesy of that early final, I only had two tests during finals week (and a project and accompanying paper). Only two tests. In Chemistry and Physics. On the same day. THE SAME DAY. People, if you’ve never taken two or more math/science classes in one semester, you do not understand the struggle that it represents. Problem sets due? They’re probably on the same day. Chances are high you have a unit test in both during the same week. But two finals on the same day is horrendous. I strongly encourage everyone to never, ever, ever do that.
Sometimes, however, these circumstances cannot be helped. And so, here we go! Study for approximately three straight days without ever leaving the house, and you need something to keep you going. Some people love silence, but I need noise in the background to work effectively, but I don’t need the stress of being around other people freaking out. So I usually loop something on my computer. In the past years, I’ve had a constant stream of Gilmore Girls going (as a show I know so well that I don’t need to watch or even listen to more than 3 seconds every 10 minutes to know exactly what is going on). But this semester, for whatever reason, GG wasn’t appealing to me. So I started with my Pandora Wicked playlist, and then quickly decided I just wanted to listen to Idina Menzel forever and ever, which is difficult when the majority of her popularity on the internet is her singing “Let it Go” from Frozen. (You may also know her as Elphaba in Wicked or Maureen in RENT…) But then I found If/Then.
A musical currently on Broadway that I swear was written for her, If/Then has a beautiful score, and one that is perfect for studying to. It has enough variety in the music to not be boring, but enough consistency to not be distracting. I started with the Youtube channel that consists of the recordings; after three or four loops I broke down and bought the original cast album. And then proceeded to listen to it 27 times. 27 times. For reference, the soundtrack is 75 minutes long, so I listened to at least 33 hours of Idina Menzel over Tuesday/Wednesday/Thursday… Needless to say, Idina Menzel’s wonderful, fabulous, phenomenal voice got me through these past few days. And will continue to be my motivating factor as I finish my project and paper before I go home on Monday!!
Anyway, I just wanted to share my most recent obsession and also make a public statement thanking Ms. Menzel for her amazing voice (and her parents for a. creating her and b. paying for all those voice lessons for all those years…).
In addition, you can’t deny that she is amazing just as she is. She starred on Broadway, won a Tony, took a decade for herself, got married and had a kid, and then went back to Broadway and is starring again. Plus, she’s funny (really funny!) and seems so down to earth and I would LOVE it if Idina Menzel became an idol for the current generation!
Walter Lewin. How much I love you. Your crazy hair, your crazy stunts, the fact that you clearly love nothing in the world as much as you love physics. Since, as you say, physics explains the world, that makes a lot of sense. And I totally agree with you. We both know, however, that lots of people don’t. To lots of people, there is nothing more boring than a blackboard covered in equations. As much as I love physics, I love teaching people about physics (and science in general) even more. I love telling kids something fun, about bubbles, or trees, or their own skin, and watching their eyes light up as they process their new knowledge. I love showing my friends cool random things about the world around us.
Like this silly putty with magnetic flecks “eating” a magnet: