At APS Meetings
Attending an APS meeting can be hard on your brain, so just imagine how the handful of undergraduate students at the meetings feels. They are genuinely excited to be at such a prestigious physics conference, yet they have a hard time understanding the talks. They probably don’t realize that the PhD’s don’t understand a lot of what they hear, either. To help both groups, I invited four excellent communicators to speak at the APS April meeting in Denver in a Forum on Education session on presenting research at the undergrad level (http://www.aps.org/meet/APR04/baps/tocJ.html#SessJ14). I plan to organize a similar session for the March meeting in Los Angeles (and would welcome suggestions for good speakers.)
The speakers discussed complex systems in nature, ultrafast lasers, “taming” francium, and “asymptotic slavery” in high-temperature superconductors. Each speaker had had his or her work highlighted on the Focus web site or on AIP’s Physics News Update (http://www.aip.org/pnu). The students present learned about some fascinating areas of physics, and the PhD’s probably learned more than they would have at a typical colloquium-style talk aimed at physicists. During the Q&A, I asked the speakers about the challenges of speaking at such a low level, and it was clear that to do it well is a lot harder than it looks. It means avoiding almost all the math, but more importantly, paring down the topics to a sometimes painful minimum of information.
Rules for Presenting Science to Students and Others
My rules for communicating science apply to teaching physics, telling a physicist friend about your latest results, or even explaining your work to your next-door neighbor.
Rule 1: No one knows as much as you think. You can never talk “too low” to your audience. In fact, most people are flattered when you say things they already know.
Rule 2: No one has the attention span you expect. The most common mistake in speaking to non-scientists is not using too much jargon but saying too much. Usually half of what you want to say is enough, as anyone who has accidentally bored a non-scientist with a long answer to an innocent science question knows.
Rule 3: No one cares about as many details as you do. There is always a temptation to go on to what you consider the “most interesting” part of an explanation, even though the background up to that point is often enough for your audience. Think of those colloquia where the first or second slide was enough for you, or papers where the abstract was all you needed to know.
I hope you will see these rules in action on the Focus web site and at the March meeting session next year.
David Ehrenstein is the Editor of Physical Review Focus (http://focus.aps.org/).