The Problems of Making Physics Popular
There was a quite interesting kerfuffle among some physics bloggers recently in regards to something Prof. Brian Cox said in a lecture that was aired on the BBC a TV show last week. Tom Swanson at Swans on Tea came out firing with a post entitled “Brian Cox is full of **it” (and the follow-up), and bloggers at Cosmic Variance and Skulls in the Stars also weighed in.
I’d recommend reading those articles, they are very interesting and informative, if a little long!
This all raises some interesting questions! Science is a very difficult thing to communicate to a lay-audience, and complex physical principles which look nice when they’re mathematical equations on the page are often the worst. But there is a delicate balance to be made between making physics accessible and interesting and communicating it accurately.
When I was in my first year of University, my hall of residence was full of Med School wannabes. As a group, they annoyed me for a whole host of reasons, but one of the things that really stood out to me was how hooked a lot of them were on TV shows such as Grey’s Anatomy, House, E.R. and others that centered around a hospital. It really frustrated me how their aspirations seemed to be based on a romanticisation of a profession, rather than passion and interest in the field. Needless to say, many of these Med-hopefuls dropped it after their first semester when they found it wasn’t all they expected and their grades weren’t quite up to scratch (they all then proceeded to switch to *just* a science degree, which annoyed me no end!).
So why am I saying this? Well, science communication ought to be first and foremost about giving people who aren’t scientists a good understanding of what science is, how it works, and why it is important. There is obviously a bit of a disconnect here if the explanations of certain principles are getting obscured or misrepresented and making them seem too overly mystical. If making it ‘cool’ is coming at this price, then that is a bit of a problem. Further to this, giving prospective students an unrealistically romantic view of physics is problematic because it can lead to them becoming frustrated and disillusioned and thus prone to dropping out of the major (and physics is officially hard!). It also leads to students not really understanding the important role physics plays in our everyday lives. After all, most physics grads aren’t going to be heading into the sexier fields, they’re often going to be heading into less glamorous industries that nonetheless have a massive impact on society.
The esoteric side of physics is certainly fascinating, but it should not be the only side of physics that the public hears about.
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