Speaking of Physics: The Art of Science Communication

Stephanie Chasteen

“If you want to understand the weird nature of neutrinos, do this experiment at home. Try to walk through a wall”

[Thump] “Ow!”

“Eh, maybe it’s not such a good experiment. The reason that you can’t walk through a wall is not that you’re too big. …The reason you can’t walk through a wall is because your atoms, and the atoms of the wall, interact with each other. They speak the same language. They push on each other because they have electric charge. Neutrinos have almost none of the usual atomic qualities. …So neutrinos have kind of a sad life. Once a neutrino has popped into existence it has almost no way to touch the physical world again.”

That’s David Kestenbaum’s one-minute synopsis of particle physics, setting the stage to talk about a new experiment to try to detect the ghostly little particles. He snags us with wit, a conversational tone, and something that we can relate to (the solidity of wood paneling) to bring us to an understanding of something quite foreign. It’s a delightful piece of radio – give it a listen at the link in the reference [1]. This is science communication at its best. It’s stuff like this that got me hooked.

What is this article about?

As a young physicist, I’ve had the immense good fortune to work with several expert communicators, like David Kestenbaum, to learn the best ways to bring science to diverse audiences. I realized in graduate school that I was more interested in helping people understand and appreciate physics, than in creating more physics myself. Those were back in the days of early global warming skepticism, and I was appalled at the general lack of trust and understanding of science. I wanted to do my part to change that. This article will tell you a bit about how I was able to get involved in science outreach, and the best practices that I’ve taken away from those experiences.

What have I done with my life?

There are many opportunities to be involved in science outreach. Even if it’s not a career goal, it is so important to be able to communicate clearly with people outside your discipline -- because of the growing emphasis on interdisciplinary research, and the NSF Broader Impacts criteria. But me, I knew I wanted to create a career in outreach. Here’s how I did it:

  1. Science journalism. I took a journalism course, attended science writing conferences, and wrote for the local newspaper, websites, and other venues.
  2. NPR’s Science Desk. On the basis of my journalism clips, I was accepted into the AAAS Mass Media Fellowship, which places graduate students in the sciences into mass media outlets to learn to talk like normal folk.
  3. Other opportunities. I networked like mad, and one opportunity led to another. I presented at a science book club, and volunteered at science fairs. I did research for a public television program on cosmology. I did project management for a scientist/museum collaboration team.
  4. Postdoc 1: Exploratorium Museum of Science. After my PhD, my first postdoc was at the Exploratorium, a world-famous museum of inquiry and hands-on learning. I learned to create and teach workshops for high school physics teachers, and created two podcast series.
  5. Postdoc 2: University of Colorado at Boulder. Wanting more information about how people learn, I joined the physics education research group at Boulder. I focus on improving student learning and helping teachers use instructional technology more effectively.
  6. The center of my own universe. I’m now a part-time consultant, doing a broad range of science education and communication projects. It’s the best of all worlds – interesting projects that can have a real impact on people’s understanding and appreciation of science. I also blog, at http://blog.sciencegeekgirl.com.

So what?

Certain themes keep coming up, in all these diverse venues. How to get your message across? Here is a smattering of what I’ve learned.

Hook people in

One of our Exploratorium teachers begins a unit thusly. He tells a kid, “You have an assignment. Fill this cup with water, and put an index card over the mouth of the cup. Invert the cup, holding the card with your hand. Put the cup over my head. Then let go of the card.” Now, the whole class is rapt (and the student in question is a bit stressed out). This provocación or “hook” gets the kids interested – much more so than starting with “today we’ll be talking about pressure” (yawn). I began this paragraph with a hook. David Kestenbaum snagged us with the weirdness of neutrinos, and a bit of humor. In college classrooms, an interesting question could begin the class period. A clearly organized class session or public lecture often falls flat because the teacher or speaker failed to be a good salesperson. The education literature supports this – motivation is key to learning. Why should I bother to learn something that I don’t care about? We wouldn’t have survived as a species long enough to even talk about learning science if we habitually wasted time on things that didn’t matter. Make it matter.

Help people relate

Kestenbaum began talking about neutrinos (very unfamiliar) by talking about our bodies, and how they interact with plasterboard. It’s important to explain new things in terms of something known. That’s why we take undergraduate mechanics before we take graduate mechanics: a good instructor will guide us in learning ever-more complicated ideas by tying them first to what we can already do pretty well (that’s called “scaffolding”). The same applies in public lectures, talking to school groups, or writing for the public. Ground it in the familiar. This is why it’s key to have a sense of your audience – what do they know, where are they starting? Analogies and metaphors, or connection to the real world, can help bridge this gap in understanding.

Get people actively involved

The activity where a student holds a water glass over his teacher’s head is brilliant – it not only creates that hook, but it gets the student engaged in the lesson through activity. At the Exploratorium, we focused on hands-on activities – exploring the shadows cast by colored light bulbs, or shocking our fingers with charged pie plates. Not all “active” learning has to be physical however – in the college classroom we use interactive computer simulations (such as those at phet.colorado.edu) or devices that prompt students to articulate and debate ideas in class (“clickers”). All the research shows that – for the most part -- people don’t learn by passively listening to a lecture or watching a demonstration. That does not prompt the kind of brain activity required for the neuronal rewiring that constitutes learning. You have to ask them to debate, articulate, create, answer, explore, ponder, predict, and explain.

Language is colorful

…so use it that way. “Neutrinos have kind of a sad life,” wrote Kestenbaum. We’ve all heard the mantra to “avoid jargon,” but sometimes it’s harder to do than it sounds. To some audiences, “conductor” is jargon. Using colloquial, conversational language is key – like you’d talk to your aunt, as long as she’s not a particle theorist.

It’s more complicated than that!

In public communication, we are generally aiming for a sense of understanding, rather than the type of rigor we are used to in scientific communications. It’s almost physically painful, at first, to let go of the caveats and details that we are used to including when discussing science. My mentor at the Exploratorium had a tag phrase, a verbal footnote – “It’s more complicated than that.” This allowed him to give the simple explanation, but maintain the integrity of what he was saying. We know that people can only process so many new pieces of information at once – this is called “cognitive load.” When your brain feels full in lecture, that’s why. So, keep it simple. If you’re going to lose your audience by giving extra detail, leave it out.

It’s fascinating to me, as I write this article, how the four disparate forms of science outreach that I’ve engaged in – science journalism, public outreach, classroom education, and education research – share these common themes. The brain works in a certain way to process information, and best practices from all these arenas bear out that message. People (usually) don’t fail to understand something because they’re lazy – rather, they need you to present your ideas in a digestible form. The impacts of doing this right can be important to the world at large – and immensely satisfying to you as a professional.


[1] David Kestenbaum, “Neutrinos: A Cursed Subatomic Particle?” NPR’s Morning Edition, May 3 (2006).

Stephanie Chasteen is a science education and communication consultant, and blogs at http://blog.sciencegeekgirl.com. She has a PhD in physics from the University of Santa Cruz, and is a part-time fellow in the Science Education Initiative in the physics department at the University o
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