FEd August 1995 Newsletter - Comments

August 1995



Previous Newsletters

Current Issue

Contact the Editor

Comments From the Chair
Can We Communicate?

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 results 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) do 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 violate 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 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. Thus it is timely that this Forum on Education Newsletter is dedicated to physics and the media. 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 Phys. Rev. Letters. Physics students should explain their work not only to classmates, but also to groups from other disciplines and members of the public -- middle school students, perhaps? 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.