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Doing Research with Mass Appeal Can Be a Double-edged Sword

By Nadia Ramlagan

Physics has always had a tenuous relationship with the mainstream media—but do physicists who engage in research with popular appeal pay a price when it comes to their academic careers? Garnering media attention for one’s research is a sure path towards achieving celebrity as a scientist. Scientists such as Carl Sagan, however, whose wholehearted involvement in the popularization of science resulted in fame and fortune, have often received a much more negative reaction from their colleagues.

Research with popular appeal provides an opportunity for general audiences to hear physicists discuss their work not only in non-technical terms, but in ways that show how physics is both exciting and relevant to society. The physics community certainly agrees this is important. Yet when the media are gobbling up a colleague’s research, there may be a sense of bemusement or envy among some, especially in academia.  

“Scientists appreciate that there’s a need to ‘sell’ science to the public. But when one of their own focuses on these more accessible fields, and especially when that person spends a big part of their career doing books or TV shows directed at the general public, there is a sense of mystification. They wonder whether the scientist lacks the talent or ambition to do ‘real’ research,” says William Poundstone, author of Carl Sagan: A life in the Cosmos (1999).

“I have certainly seen evidence of the ‘you aren’t doing real physics’ attitude,” says Katherine Jones-Smith of Case Western Reserve University, whose research exposing the shortfalls of fractal analysis in determining authentic Jackson Pollock paintings received much media attention.

“However, I have also seen a lot of evidence to the contrary. Physicists are generally way more impressed and interested in my research than I expect them to be. It really depends on what the particular topic is, and who is doing the publicity,” she adds.  

There may even be a reverse phenomenon; a propensity to accept appealing results because they are glamorous. “It seems there is a certain amount of romanticism in the idea of interdisciplinary science… we found that in Pollock’s case, the purported physics behind Richard Taylor’s [fractal analysis] technique was a sexy idea that turned out to not hold up under scrutiny,” says Jones-Smith.

On a more conciliatory note, there are certain areas of physics that have managed to garner lots of public attention and retain respect within the community, for example string theory. “String theorists are certainly very employable and influential within physics academia,” notes Jones-Smith.

Nonetheless, physicists who engage in popular research face a unique set of challenges. “To a large degree, the ‘celebrity scientist’ phenomenon is an instance of the 80/20 rule. About 20 percent of the scientific research gets about 80 percent of the attention. So a very few people in a few accessible fields get disproportionate attention. You can say they’re shameless attention-grabbers, and some are, but really, most people like attention. In fact, that’s the problem,” says Poundstone.  

An article in The New York Times or coverage in Science or Nature can catapult a scientist into media stardom overnight, providing the fuel that boosts his or her career. It’s no wonder that colleagues, who wouldn’t mind a few calls from The New York Times themselves, are left grumbling. Poundstone offers this advice: “The high-profile scientist needs good people skills to smooth over the hurt feelings and to keep the lines of communication and collaboration open”.

That’s not to say scientists are incapable of being supportive when one of their own makes the front page. “I’ve been invited to present to audiences that are either mostly physicists, or the general public; but it’s gotten me a lot of positive attention, and compliments from a large number of senior faculty who probably wouldn’t otherwise have any idea who I am. So to the physics community, I’m certainly grateful,” says a postdoc who presented at March Meeting.

Another challenge, ironically, is “Getting people to talk or listen to you about anything but your most popular result,” says Jones-Smith. An audience may miss the entire point of a lecture because they are so enamored with one tiny aspect of the research only marginally related to the topic.

Young physicists or students interested in studying an unconventional or interdisciplinary topic can keep a few things in mind that may make the path less traveled a bit smoother. “Frank Drake [the radio astronomer and author of the ‘Drake Equation’ predicting the probability of civilizations elsewhere in our galaxy] always told students that it’s important to make your mark in a field where you can show solid results. Then you can try something more speculative,” says Poundstone.

“In a sense, scientific research is always a gamble. Some lines of research would have a big, dramatic payoff, but they’re long shots. Other lines are less ambitious and have better odds,” he continues.

Jones-Smith warns, “It is important to uphold the same standards of rigor in one’s publicly appealing work as one upholds in one’s not-so-appealing work. You don’t get to throw the scientific method out just because you think you might be on to something sexy”.  

It isn’t just the print and broadcast media spotlight that can cause internal skirmishes. These days, extensive blogging and active internet forums contribute to research dissemination and drive media hype. There will always be those who don’t agree with the scientist-as-celebrity status, but the physics community can at least acknowledge the ideas and accomplishments of its more “famous” colleagues.  

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