Pressures to Explain

Evelyn the Skepchick, whom I met a few times before she left the Boston crowd for the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, recently wrote about what it’s like to be a geologist in interesting times:

I am a hard rock geologist and a geochemist. As a geologist, I know about compasses, maps, GPS units, minerals, and hammers. As a geochemist, I know about acids, being paranoid about contamination, mass spectrometers, the periodic table, and the table of the nuclides. I know very little about ocean water and oil, and I know even less about deep-sea drilling rigs. Yet, over the past 101 days since the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill began, I have been asked numerous times about the oil spill and its implications. As soon as people know I work at WHOI, they presume I am an expert about everything related to the oil spill.

I suppose that I should count myself lucky. Most of the people who know that I was trained in science also know that I studied theoretical physics, so I have nothing to say about anything important, ever, including the major disasters of our day.

I have sometimes been asked questions like, “So, what do you think of that surfer dude’s Theory of Everything?” This is where oceanographic eschatologists have a bit of an advantage: their subject is (all too) tangible. The difficulties with their work, or at least some of them, admit comparably easy explanations, such as, It’s hard to tell how much oil got spilled, because the gunk that spewed out is a mix of different stuff, and a lot of it is still beneath the surface. By comparison, when something hits the news which sounds like I would know about it, the issues have been . . . what’s the word? . . . esoteric. (Not to belittle the complexities of anybody else’s scientific field — the issue here is what questions get asked from outside, not what an individual scientist does on any working day.) By the time a story gets from the arXiv, through the physics blogs and into a newspaper, the juice can be sucked right out of it. When there’s nothing left but vague analogies for metaphors for speculations, when the residuals are more metaphysical than physical, what’s there to talk about?

Sometimes, I’ve tried to play Asimov: “Well, the mathematical structure the guy tried to use to fit all the different subatomic particles into a pattern didn’t have enough room to hold them all. And, when you try and squeeze the pattern to make them fit, it gets even worse: your mathematics says that new kinds of particles must show up, which don’t exist in the real world.” I always have a little paranoia about doing this, since invariably, the physics making the headlines hails from a subfield which I’ve never specialized in. So, while I might know more about it than the vast majority of the human population does, and I might be moderately well-equipped to learn more should the need arise, I can smack awfully hard into my limitations.

I’ve also tried to go for general background principles. “Most new ideas on the frontier turn out to be wrong. That’s only natural. If science were easy, we’d be done by now.” Or, getting into a bit more depth, I’ve tried to explain what physicists mean by symmetry, or by some other concept lurking behind the controversy du jour, on the logic that understanding a “basic concept” — that which one must know in order to know lots of other things — is a more lasting and valuable achievement than being able to repeat a soundbyte which will date itself in six months’ time.