Category Archives: Popularization

“This Room Smells of Mathematics!”

I reposted the previous entry from the depths of the Sunclipse archives because I found the whole “giggling over stuff you don’t understand” theme to be of a piece with this self-indulgently moronic article from New York magazine. The article in question appears to be written by those who, as Greg Egan sez, “have convinced themselves that the particular set of half-digested factoids in their possession perfectly delineates the proper amount of science that can be known by a truly civilised person and discussed in polite company”. Or, as C. P. Snow would have been too quintessentially British to say, we have this Two Cultures nonsense because people are #@!$%ing lazy. I was tempted to rant at some length about it.

But, as it happens, Zeno has done my work for me.

Woo hoo! Now I can get on with more serious matters (and procrastinate in a way which is safer for my blood pressure).

EDIT TO ADD: Stick around for the comments after Zeno’s post. Turns out, the description for the #1 most “ridiculous” mathematics class is a clumsily-concealed quote mine.

Know Thy Audience?

D. W. Logan et al. have an editorial in PLoS Computational Biology giving advice for scientists who want to become active Wikipedia contributors. I was one, for a couple years (cue the “I got better”); judging from my personal experience, most of their advice is pretty good, save for item four:

Wikipedia is not primarily aimed at experts; therefore, the level of technical detail in its articles must be balanced against the ability of non-experts to understand those details. When contributing scientific content, imagine you have been tasked with writing a comprehensive scientific review for a high school audience. It can be surprisingly challenging explaining complex ideas in an accessible, jargon-free manner. But it is worth the perseverance. You will reap the benefits when it comes to writing your next manuscript or teaching an undergraduate class.

Come again?

Whether Wikipedia as a whole is “primarily aimed at experts” or not is irrelevant for the scientist wishing to edit the article on a particular technical subject. Plenty of articles — e.g., Kerr/CFT correspondence or Zamolodchikov c-theorem — have vanishingly little relevance to a “high school audience.” Even advanced-placement high-school physics doesn’t introduce quantum field theory, let alone renormalization-group methods, centrally extended Virasoro algebras and the current frontiers of gauge/gravity duality research. Popularizing these topics may be possible, although even the basic ideas like critical points and universality have been surprisingly poorly served in that department so far. While it’s pretty darn evident for these examples, the same problem holds true more generally. If you do try to set about that task, the sheer amount of new invention necessary — the cooking-up of new analogies and metaphors, the construction of new simplifications and toy examples, etc. — will run you slap-bang into Wikipedia’s No Original Research policy.

Even reducing a topic from the graduate to the undergraduate level can be a highly nontrivial task. (I was a beta-tester for Zwiebach’s First Course in String Theory, so I would know.) And, writing for undergrads who already have Maxwell and Schrödinger Equations under their belts is not at all the same as writing for high-school juniors (or for your poor, long-suffering parents who’ve long since given up asking what you learned in school today). Why not try that sort of thing out on another platform first, like a personal blog, and then port it over to Wikipedia after receiving feedback? Citing your own work in the third person, or better yet recruiting other editors to help you adapt your content, is much more in accord with the letter and with the spirit of Wikipedia policy, than is inventing de novo great globs of pop science.

Popularization is hard. When you make a serious effort at it, let yourself get some credit.

Know Thy Audience, indeed: sometimes, your reader won’t be a high-school sophomore looking for homework help, but is much more likely to be a fellow researcher checking to see where the minus signs go in a particular equation, or a graduate student looking to catch up on the historical highlights of their lab group’s research topic. Vulgarized vagueness helps the latter readers not at all, and gives the former only a gentle illusion of learning. Precalculus students would benefit more if we professional science people worked on making articles like Trigonometric functions truly excellent than if we puttered around making up borderline Original Research about our own abstruse pet projects.

ARTICLE COMMENTED UPON

  • Logan DW, Sandal M, Gardner PP, Manske M, Bateman A, 2010 Ten Simple Rules for Editing Wikipedia. PLoS Comput Biol 6(9): e1000941. doi:10.1371/journal.pcbi.1000941

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.

All the Physics Stories We’ll Ever Need

“ZOMG! The Higgs field is actually an entropic force due to holographic degrees of freedom whose gauge group is embedded in a noncompact real form of E8! (No, we don’t know what that means, either, but we found two scientists with three amusing hobbies among them to pretend to explain it to you, and we’ll preface their interviews with a video clip or written blurb crafted by a high-school intern who will never take a math class again after getting that C in trigonometry! And after reading our story or seeing our clip, you too will know everything you need in order to complain about string theorists getting taxpayer money!) But we’ll never know if it’s true, because if we do an experiment to find out, hydrinos will travel back in time and cause seagulls to drop baguettes into our apparatus!

“On his Huffington Post blog, Deepak Chopra explained how this research proves the quantum nature of bodacious sitar riffs.

“Now this.”

Because the World Needs Nightmares

You know what the Scientifick Blogohedron needs more of? Well, besides introductions to basic subjects, so that we can be more than chatterbots reacting to whatever news story incenses us the most?

Gosh, you people are demanding.

No, I’m talking about nightmare fuel!

And as only children’s television can deliver. You remember Square One TV, right? It came on PBS in the afternoons, after Reading Rainbow and before Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?. Like every other aspect of my generation’s formative years, it can be relived via the video tubes. Our lives have already been uploaded: the Singularity came and went, and we were all too busy arguing to notice.

Looking back, Reimy the Estimator Girl was fairly cute, and the “Angle Dance” is somewhat frightening in that in-1983-this-was-the-future way, but one bit of sheer irrational terror stands out. I refer, of course, to the mask which Reg E. Cathey wears in the title role of “Archimedes”:

LYRICS WITH LINKY GOODNESS:

Archimedes!
Archimedes!
A mathematician and scientist
Born in 287 BC
He lived in the city of Syracuse
On the island of Sicily

He said he could move the world
If he only had a place to stand
A fulcrum and a lever long
And the strength of an average man

He solved the problems of his days
Using math in amazing ways
His great work lives on today
Archimedes!
Archimedes!
Continue reading Because the World Needs Nightmares

Squaring Numbers Near Fifty

And now, a brief break from non-blogging:

Today, I’d like to start with a specific example and move on to a general point. The specific example is a way to approximate the squares of numbers and then refine those approximations to get exact answers, and the general point concerns the place such techniques should have in mathematics education.

My last calculator broke years ago, so when I have to do a spot of ciphering, I have to work the answer out in my head or push a pencil. (If the calculation involves more numbers than can fit on the back of an envelope, then it’s probably a data-analysis job which is being done on a computer anyway.) Every once in a while, the numbers teach you a lesson, in their own sneaky way.

It’s easy to square a smallish multiple of 10. We all learned our times tables, so squaring a number from 1 to 9 is a doddle, and the two factors of 10 just shift the decimal point over twice. Thus, 502 is 2500, no thinking needed.

Now, what if we want to square an integer which is near 50? We have a trick for this, a stunt which first yields an answer “close enough for government work,” and upon refinement gives the exact value. (I use the “close enough for government” line advisedly, as this was a trick Richard Feynman learned from Hans Bethe while they were calculating the explosive power of the first atomic bomb, at Los Alamos.) To get your first approximation, find the difference between your number and 50, and add that many hundreds to 2500. The correction, if you need it, is to add the difference squared. Thus, 482 is roughly 2300 and exactly 2304, while 532 is roughly 2800 and exactly 2809.

I wouldn’t advise teaching this as “the way to multiply,” first because its applicability is limited and second because it’s, well, arcane. What a goofy sequence of steps! Surely, if we’re drilling our children on an algorithm, it should be one which works on any numbers you give it. The situation changes, though, after you’ve seen a little algebra, and you realize where this trick comes from. It’s just squaring a binomial:
Continue reading Squaring Numbers Near Fifty

Pretentious Document Format

I Love the Blogosphere!I love the Interblagotubes.

Where else could you dump thousands of grumpy and disaffected words on unsuspecting readers and have them come back asking for more, and in a more easily printable format? Seriously: if you know a better venue for long-winded, gloomy rambles, I’ll go there instead.

Recently, Scott Hatfield asked me if I could convert one of my lengthier essays into a PDF or some other such format. In the spirit of excessive and unwanted generosity, I did a quick-and-dirty conversion job on not one, but two posts. Here they are:

The next time I need to procrastinate on something dreadfully important, I might try this again.

What Science Blogs Can’t Do

No cosmic law says that when you gaze into your navel, you have to like what you find.

My thesis is that it’s not yet possible to get a science education from reading science blogs, and a major reason for this is because bloggers don’t have the incentive to write the kinds of posts which are necessary. Furthermore, when we think in terms of incentive and motivation, the limitations upon the effects of online science writing become disquietingly clear. The problem, phrased without too much exaggeration, is that science blogs cannot teach science, nor can they change the world.

INTRODUCTION

Notice how short the “basic concepts in science” list is, compared to the “basic concepts” which we know are the foundation of our fields? It has eleven entries — count them — for all of physics. Translated into lectures, that might be a couple weeks of class time. Chemistry is even worse off, and while the biology section is big, it’s also remarkably scatter-shot. Such introductory lessons as get written don’t get catalogued, and thus become damnably difficult to find again.

And, the problem hardly stops there. As the magician Andrew Mayne recently pointed out,

People only know what they can understand. There’s a lot of great information out there, but not enough is being doing to make it widely accessible to the masses. Most science entries in Wikipedia read like they’re written by graduate students for other graduate students. Even the basic science stuff is written that way.

We need to put ourselves into the perspective of someone who hasn’t had the science exposure that we’ve had and find ways to help make this information more accessible.

Why is introductory material so poorly represented?

Well, what do we science bloggers write about, anyway? This is how I caricature what I see:

0. Fun posts about random non-science stuff — entertaining, humanizing, but not the subject I’m focusing on right now.

1. Reactions to creationists and other pseudo-scientists.

2. Reactions to stories in the mainstream media, often in the “My God, how did they screw up so badly” genre.

3. Reports on peer-reviewed research.
Continue reading What Science Blogs Can’t Do

Woe

Las Vegas is a town of bottled water, not just because they’re hawking it on the street corners, but on general principles: the city takes things which should not be encapsulated — risk, chance, sex, scenery — packages them and sells them at exorbitant prices. I’m glad I’m out of it, except that on the way home, I was caught in a monsoon downpour which lasted almost exactly the duration of the walk from the T station to my front door. The next day, my trusty laptop developed an interesting new behavior: when I turned it on, it turned itself off. I suspect the containment around it failed, to use a Star Trek-ism, and its power supply had a delayed allergic reaction to the rainwater. It remains to be seen whether I can extract the data from its hard drive.

Fortunately, the so-called social circle in which I move is a giant geek support system.

While I try to get my act together, Maria Brumm has a couple good posts on the troubles mathphobia causes in a geology education. To an aspiring high-school science teacher, she writes,
Continue reading Woe

The Necessity of Mathematics

Today, everything from international finance to teenage sexuality flows on a global computer network which depends upon semiconductor technology which, in turn, could not have been developed without knowledge of the quantum principles of solid-state physics. Today, we are damaging our environment in ways which require all our fortitude and ingenuity just to comprehend, let alone resolve. More and more people are becoming convinced that our civilization requires wisdom in order to survive, the sort of wisdom which can only come from scientific literacy; thus, an increasing number of observers are trying to figure out why science has been taught so poorly and how to fix that state of affairs. Charles Simonyi draws a distinction between those who merely “popularize” a science and those who promote the public understanding of it. We might more generously speak of bad popularizers and good ones, but the distinction between superficiality and depth is a real one, and we would do well to consider what criteria separate the two.

Opinions on how to communicate science are as diverse as the communicators. In this Network age, anyone with a Web browser and a little free time can join the conversation and become part of the problem — or part of the solution, if you take an optimistic view of these newfangled media. Certain themes recur, and tend to drive people into one or another loose camp of like-minded fellows: what do you do when scientific discoveries clash with someone’s religious beliefs? Why do news stories sensationalize or distort scientific findings, and what can we do about it? What can we do when the truth, as best we can discern it, is simply not politic?

Rather than trying to find a new and juicy angle on these oft-repeated questions, this essay will attempt to explore another direction, one which I believe has received insufficient attention. We might grandiosely call this a foray into the philosophy of science popularization. The topic I wish to explore is the role mathematics plays in understanding and doing science, and how we disable ourselves if our “explanations” of science do not include mathematics. The fact that too many people don’t know statistics has already been mourned, but the problem runs deeper than that. To make my point clear, I’d like to focus on a specific example, one drawn from classical physics. Once we’ve explored the idea in question, extensions to other fields of inquiry will be easier to make. To make life as easy as possible, we’re going to step back a few centuries and look at a development which occurred when the modern approach to natural science was in its infancy.

Our thesis will be the following: that if one does not understand or refuses to deal with mathematics, one has fatally impaired one’s ability to follow the physics, because not only are the ideas of the physics expressed in mathematical form, but also the relationships among those ideas are established with mathematical reasoning.

This is a strong assertion, and a rather pessimistic one, so we turn to a concrete example to investigate what it means. Our example comes from the study of planetary motion and begins with Kepler’s Three Laws.

KEPLER’S THREE LAWS

Johannes Kepler (1571–1630) discovered three rules which described the motions of the planets. He distilled them from the years’ worth of data collected by his contemporary, the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe (1546–1601). The story of their professional relationship is one of clashing personalities, set against a backdrop of aristocracy, ruin and war. From that drama, we boil away the biography and extract some items of geometry:
Continue reading The Necessity of Mathematics

Help, Help, I’m Being Oppressed!

I just noticed a post at Michael White’s Adaptive Complexity entitled, “Bad Science Journalism and the Myth of the Oppressed Underdog” (9 March 2008). It’s good. Go read it.

[I]n our culture we love the underdog, who sticks to his or her guns, in spite of heavy opposition. In this narrative, we have heroes, villains, and a famous, brilliant scientist proven wrong.

I’m sure you could pick out instances in science history where this story is true, but more often it is not. You wouldn’t know this from the pages of our major news media though; in fact you’d probably get the impression that the underdog narrative is the way science works. And many journalists may think that too; after all, most of them read (or misread) Thomas Kuhn when they were in college, and Kuhn brought this kind of narrative to a new high.

This is the narrative which I called the “David vs. Goliath of Scientific Establishment” story. White gives a specific example, concerning the public presentation of evolutionary biology; in physics, the problem can be even more fun, since the actual relationship between David’s revolutionary idea and Goliath’s orthodoxy often requires a hefty dose of mathematical reasoning to understand. When a typical statement by a physicist trying to sort the mess out might read, “Any embedding of your gauge group in either noncompact real form of E8 will always give you a nonchiral fermion spectrum,” well. . . the temptation will always be to plump for the “social” angle and emphasize the personalities of the physicists involved. The “oppressed underdog” story emerges quite naturally.

To be fair, or at least spread the misery around, biology can suffer from Popularizer Mathophobia, too. White’s example comes from sexual selection theory and relates to the role game theory might play in understanding the dynamics of a population. Oooh! Math! Scary!

(My “typical statement” is a paraphrase of Jacques Distler, who pointed out this problem almost six years ago.)

Brain Damage and Journalism

Dan Hurley writes of Katherine P. Rankin’s neurological research on sarcasm,

To her surprise, though, the magnetic resonance scans revealed that the part of the brain lost among those who failed to perceive sarcasm was not in the left hemisphere of the brain, which specializes in language and social interactions, but in a part of the right hemisphere previously identified as important only to detecting contextual background changes in visual tests.

That’s from a New York Times piece, “The Science of Sarcasm (Not That You Care),” 3 June 2008. The abstract for Rankin et al.‘s presentation says, in part,

This study provides lesion data suggesting that the right posterior temporal lobe and dorsomedial frontal cortex are associated with recognizing and interpreting sarcastic irony using paralinguistic vocal and facial cues, consistent with functional imaging research examining neural correlates of voice prosody, facial emotion recognition, and perspective taking.

Trust the alchemy of science journalism to turn a result consistent with prior research into a great surprise. As Vaughan Bell points out, by the early 1980s people had already found out that damage to the brain’s right hemisphere can cause “disorders of affective language,” i.e., problems with recognizing emotion in speech. More recently, Shamay-Tsoory et al. (2005) found that lesions in the ventromedial section of the right prefrontal cortex impaired test subjects’ abilities to handle tasks which required understanding sarcasm.

This is the sort of gaffe which makes neurocurmudgeons file a story under “chaff” instead of “wheat.” I wonder: can fMRI detect a cortical lesion which makes all interesting and worthwhile research be perceived as revolutionary? The problem is not just restricted to neuro-journalism, of course — revolution disease is a general trope, right up there with “Think of the children!” and “David vs. the Scientific Goliath.” One begins to appreciate why Eric Roston, author of The Carbon Age (2008), said of his research practices, “I wanted to avoid secondary literature, media,” even though this meant a masochistic journey through peer-reviewed articles.

As for the research itself. . . . To my knowledge (and that of the Neurocritic), Rankin et al.‘s results have not yet appeared in a journal, only at an American Academy of Neurology conference, so pickings are as yet rather thin. No doubt more details will be available anon.