Why Do Outreach?

By James Kakalios

Reprinted with permission from APS Forum on Society and the Public Newsletter

The March 1962 episode “Little Girl Lost” of the television anthology program The Twilight Zone added some speculative inter-dimensional physics to a suspenseful science fiction tale.[1] In this story a small child rolls out of her bed in the middle of the night and disappears. Her parents become frantic when they can hear her calls for help, but cannot see or touch her. Fortunately they know what to do in just such an emergency — they call for their neighbor Bill, who is a physicist. He determines that the girl has accidentally fallen through a portal into another dimension. With his aid, and the help of the family dog, they manage to retrieve their daughter. Whether this portal was to one of the extra dimensions predicted by String Theory is open to interpretation, but the show clearly demonstrated the utility of a friendly neighborhood physicist.

Indeed, in the early 1960’s, the U.S. Government had similarly concluded that it was worthwhile to have physicists and other scientists on call. Following the Manhattan Project; the development of radar; and the proximity fuse in World War II the value of scientists and engineers to national security was accepted by the general public. In 1942 West Virginia Senator Harley Kilgore had proposed legislation calling for federal support of scientific research and in 1945 Vannevar Bush’s report Science, The Endless Frontier,[2] forcefully argued that it was in the nation’s best interest to develop and maintain strength in what we now would refer to as STEM fields. In 1950 Congress responded with the establishment of the National Science Foundation.

James Kakalios speaking

The situation today is very different. There is no longer broad agreement among the public of the value of scientific research.[3] Which is ironic, for this same public has enthusiastically embraced personal electronics and technology that is enabled, in part, through federally funded research. As expressed a few years ago by a Dean at M.I.T., never before in human history have so many become so wealthy solely through education.[4]

It is clear that in the 21st century, physicists can no longer rely on the good will engendered during the middle of the 20th century. Rather than simply curse the darkness, some have taken to lighting candles, devoting time and effort to communicating the fruits of scientific research to the general public. I would argue that it is in the best interests of the physics community to support and encourage science outreach and engagement with the public, many of whom are voters and taxpayers.

Though sometimes conflated, outreach is not the same as education. Improving science education, particularly at the K-12 level, is of course vitally important. But as noted by Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson: “The problem is adults not knowing science. They outnumber kids 5 to one, they wield power, they write legislation.”[5] We’re familiar with the concept of an elevator pitch, where you find yourself on an elevator with a powerful person, such as a captain of industry, and have only eleven distraction-free seconds to make a proposal. Do you use your time to teach this individual some aspect of physics, or to try to convince them of the value of scientific research? There are many demands on the attention of the general public, and windows of opportunity for engagement are rare. Of course I would like everyone to know some physics and indeed most outreach involves relating some aspect of physics or a recent discovery to a general audience. But in communicating science, I would argue that an important goal is to instill a positive attitude toward science and scientific research. After all, everyone loves their smart phones, even though few know (or care) what goes on ‘under the hood.’

There already exist excellent channels for science communication, from NOVA on public broadcasting to popular science magazines on the newsstand to exhibits and events at science museums. These are all necessary, but not sufficient. Those who are reached via these means typically already have a positive attitude toward science. While it is important to preach to the choir, we must also find ways to grow the congregation. One method of outreach involves mining topics of entertainment, such as NASCAR, professional sports, Hollywood blockbusters, television sitcoms or superheroes, and using these subjects as springboards for discussions of science. Another method involves embedding the science directly into the source of recreation, an effort championed by the National Academy of Science’s Science & Entertainment Exchange[6] which connects academics with television and movie creators, with the goal of improving both the science content and representation of scientists in popular entertainment. Other approaches involve the creation of content that can then be broadly disseminated via the internet. But just as we are driven to innovate in our research, creative new methods for outreach are needed, particularly to reach underserved low-income and minority populations.[7]

While improvements in engagement with the public will, in my opinion, benefit all of us in physics, I am not arguing that everyone in physics should be active in outreach. Every member of a professional baseball team is a highly trained and skilled athlete, but rarely would a centerfielder do well if called upon to pitch, or even play shortstop. We all have our strengths and weaknesses, and just as not every physicist is best suited for research in String Theory or for working in a femtosecond laser spectroscopy lab (though sometimes it does seem as if every physicist is working on graphene), not everyone need be involved in outreach.

Years ago my wife (who is not a physicist — it’s a mixed marriage) and I attended a general audience public talk by a distinguished physicist. I was able to follow his talk, though with effort. As we left the auditorium after the presentation, my wife commented: “Well, I learned one thing tonight. He belongs to a club that does not want me as a member.” It takes considerable effort and practice to communicate effectively to a nonscientifically trained audience. A few years ago I was fortunate to see first hand the training and devotion that a group of young physicists put into short presentations of their research for a general audience as part of a Physics Slam event associated with a Particle Physics conference held in Minneapolis. During this event the physicists would have ten minutes to convey their complex fields of study. In preparation they received guidance and instruction from professors in theater studies, and the attention to craft paid off in their presentations, rewarded by an enthusiastic response from the audience.

Often I will hear physicists lament the public’s lack of appreciation of the value of their research, typically followed by a related complaint concerning the dearth of research funding. As a community we should support (and not just tolerate) those who make an effort to do the hard work of engaging with the public, and at least not make their jobs harder.

After all, you never know the next time that someone’s daughter will fall through a breach in the spacetime continuum.

James Kakalios is the Taylor Distinguished Professor in the School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Minnesota, and the author of The Physics of Superheroes (Avery, 2009) and The Amazing Story of Quantum Mechanics (Avery, 2010). His efforts at outreach have been recognized by the American Institute of Physics’ 2016 Andrew Gemant Award for Significant Contributions to the Cultural, Artistic or Humanistic Dimension of Physics and the 2014 American Association for the Advancement of Science Award for Public Engagement with Science.

You can learn more about James at his website: www.kakalios.com


[1] “Little Girl Lost,” directed by Paul Stewart and written by Richard Matheson, The Twilight Zone, originally aired Mar. 16, 1962.

[2] Science, The Endless Frontier, A Report to the President by Vannevar Bush, Director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, July 1945.

[3] Shawn Otto, The War on Science: Who’s Waging It, Why It Matters, What We Can Do About It (Milkweed, 2016).

[4] Marc Kastner, private communication.

[5] While the original youtube video from which this quote is obtained is no longer available, Dr. Tyson expresses similar views in “Children Are Not the Problem”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vDFgLS3sdpU

[6] Erich Schwartzel, “Scientists Help Movie Writers Make Films ‘Plausible-ish,’” Wall Street Journal, Jan. 10, 2016. Information about the National Academy of Sciences’ Science & Entertainment Exchange can be found at http://www.scienceandentertainmentexchange.org

[7] Emily Dawson, “”Not Designed for Us”: How Science Museums and Science Centers Socially Exclude Low-Income, Minority Ethnic Groups,” Science Education 98 981 (2014).