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By Judy Jackson
Everyone agrees that scientists need to do a better job of communicating what they do and why it matters. It is a rare science policy speech that fails to exhort scientists to communicate more often and effectively. "The scientists have done badly in terms of communicating with Congress and keeping Congress and the public informed-in an explainable way-about what they're doing and why it is important," said Congressman Vern Ehlers (R-MI) recently. Ehlers is a member of the House Science Committee and one of two physicists in Congress.
Physicists above all others, say those both outside and within the field, are failing to get their message across. The clear implication is that the physical sciences would not be experiencing their current funding troubles if they would simply improve at explaining what they're up to. Many cite the Superconducting Super Collider as a case in point. Never mind the gazillion-dollar cost overruns, this line of thinking goes, if physicists had only done a better job of talking up the SSC, we would be smashing protons under Waxahachie today.
Biology is easy to sell. Putting aside the benefits of medical research, it seems obvious that it's a good idea to study living things: we're alive, aren't we? Cosmology and astrophysics have a similar advantage: perhaps it's in human genes, a relic of our nomadic hunter-gatherer days of gazing heavenward for guidance while we wandered in the wild, but for some reason, everybody loves to look at the stars. The geologists have dinosaurs, one of the branding success stories of all time. Chemistry's image has a certain down side, but the chemists surely have one of the great tag lines of the ages. "Better living through quantum mechanics" just doesn't have the same ring to it.
Physics, by contrast, is a hard sell, because from the point of view of general comprehension, when physics left the realm of the visible at the end of the 19th century, it entered the world of the abstract. For all practical purposes, to those outside its own rarefied precincts, physics left reality behind and became an abstraction.
Of course, quantum mechanics and relativity have as much to do with solid reality around us as does the structure of DNA or the fossil of a dinosaur. And quarks are every bit as real as viruses or stars. Nevertheless, to the average bystander they don't seem as real. They seem less like things you can touch and see, and more like... math. And as anyone who has tried will tell you, if science is a tough sell, math is impossible.
So physicists did what they had to do when faced with the problem of communicating the abstract to a math-challenged world: they turned to metaphor. From the "football field with the nuclear pea at the 50-yard line and the electrons in the stands" to the bowling ball top quark and Campbell's Cream of Primordial Soup, the search was on for the metaphors that would bring physics back from incomprehensible equations to understandable-and fundable-life.
It's a never-ending search. A recent spate of news stories prompted by the CERN-Fermilab rivalry for discovery of the Higgs Boson turned up many old favorites, as well as some interesting new examples. Predictably, a particle accelerator, or "atom smasher," is compared to "a giant racetrack," or "the world's largest microscope" or a "time machine" reproducing the Big Bang. The Higgs is "molasses-like goo," "cold molasses," or "subatomic molasses." Particle detectors look like "spaceships" or "rockets on their sides," or in one memorable case, "a shopping mall." Particle collisions produce a "spray like shrapnel" yielding "a zoo of particles," or a "smashed watch" that physicists must reassemble from the scrambled springs and gears.
A recent Chicago Tribune story yielded this delectable home-grown image of how physicists detect what comes out of a high-energy particle collision: "It's like standing on the corner of Waveland Avenue and watching a Sammy Sosa home run ball come sailing out of Wrigley Field." The particles then "fall back into their low-energy state and become invisible again, just as Sosa's ball is quickly whisked away by a souvenir hunter."
One story compared physicists to wild geese, migrating to the high-energy physics lab with the highest energy. Another evoked CERN scientists as hungry souls with their noses pressed to the restaurant window while Fermilab experimenters sit down to dinner inside, presumably to a feast of roast boson under glass. And "a basic prejudice of the universe for matter over anti-matter" does as good a job as any of explaining that peskily difficult concept, CP violation.
Feelings run high on the subject of just which metaphors work best for conveying the essence of frontier physics. For example, among particle physicists, partisans of the accelerator-as-giant-microscope school froth at the mere mention of accelerator-as-recreator-of-Big Bang, while Big Bang adherents smile patronizingly at the microscopists. At times, it can feel like metaphor warfare. Maybe it's a physicist's need to reduce the complex world to a set of mathematical laws that makes it hard to accept that both of these metaphors work sometimes, neither works every time, and that occasionally they even work together.
My 9th grade English teacher used an example of metaphor that has stuck with me for 40 years: "The truth is a hard deer to hunt." Physics is all about the hard hunt for truth, and the search for words and images to convey the excitement of the chase, and why it matters to us and to society, is almost as hard. We're never going to find the single perfect formula for explaining it. But with a glorious mix of metaphors-stars, home runs, microscopes, or shopping malls-we'll all die trying. Metaphorically, of course.
Judy Jackson is director of Fermilab's Office of Public Affairs. This article is reprinted from the Forum on Education newsletter.
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