Communicating Physics to the Public is a Valuable Skill
By Ruth Howes
Panel after distinguished panel recommends improving the communications skills of physics students. We in the physics community heartily endorse their recommendations. Unfortunately, neither the physics community nor the assembled experts describe exactly what "communications skills" we need to improve. Research results are judged by publication and presentation to critical peers. Current teaching techniques include having students write up lab reports for Physical Review Letters, or using class for 10-minute physics papers, or even requiring proposals for senior projects. But today the survival of physics research depends on constituencies outside physics and science itself.
For years, industrial physicists have pointed out that they interact regularly with engineers, mathematicians, chemists, and even biologists. Today's corporations are moving away from central labs dedicated to basic research towards research tied closely to specific product development. Certainly small start-up companies tie research activities to production. In these arenas, physicists must work closely with business types trained in marketing and management.
Recent budget debates demonstrate that the general public (including politicians) does not understand science in general and physics in particular. The images of physics and physicists on popular television programs are problematic to say the least. Consider the recent commercials for tires, soft drinks and tennis shoes that claim to voilate the laws of physics, use physics jargon to repel unwanted sexual advances and mangle the principles of physics to win games. Dare to ask a casual passerby what physics is or what physicists can do. The results can be startling.
We physicists can no longer afford the luxury of talking mainly to ourselves. We must learn to appreciate the skills of the journalist, and yes, the public relations guru. Physicists must involve the media and the public they serve with physics and its exciting results.
Our students should practice writing press releases on their research projects, as well as Physical Review Letters. Physics students should explain their work not only to classmates, but also to groups from other disciplines and members of the public, such as middle school students. We must recognize that communication includes receiving as well as broadcasting. Attending seminars in other disciplines, our students should analyze them as physicists. Real-world problems present themselves in ordinary language. Therefore students must learn to recast them in physics terms - and, of course, explain their physics results in ordinary language.
Finally, we must recognize that those who communicate physics to the public and to students possess a unique talent and a practiced skill. Not all of us can push the envelope of physical understanding. Nevertheless, all physicists should have a solid understanding of the major ideas of physics and the fundamentals of physics research. Not all of us can explain frontier research results to the person on the street. But all physicists must learn to do this adequately, see that our students' skills exceed our own, and value those among us who can communicate.
Ruth Howes is a professor of physics at Ball State University and chair of the APS Forum on Education. This article originally appeared in the Forum on Education newsletter.
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