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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.

It is undeniable the effect Prof. Brian Cox and the TV show Big Bang Theory have had on the popularity of physics. This is great news of course, but there are a few problematic aspects to it.

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.

Featured Image Credit: Google Images

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Lauren is a Maths and Physics student from somewhere in the southern hemisphere. She has an affinity for reality, and you can find her on twitter @lolrj, or Google+.


  1. February 27, 2012 at 9:23 pm —

    Seriously, what was Cox thinking? I only took one class in quantum mechanics (along with relativity), and even I know that isn’t what the Pauli’s exclusion principle says.

    Also, yeah, physics is hard. Intro to Electricity and magnetism is the hardest class that I have ever taken. Unexpectedly, it was harder than introductory quantum mechanics!

    • March 1, 2012 at 8:31 am —

      As some of Dr. Swanson’s readers have pointed out, he should perhaps err on the side of caution when attacking other scientists, and make sure his own understanding is not at fault. If he were to let go of this picture of atomic/quantum physics hotglued onto special relativity, and see it as a mere simplification of Quantum Field Theory (the most powerful theory developed by humans, outside of mathematics), then Cox’s statement would not upset him in the least.

      To be clear, an single electron is an idealization of what is better described as the electron quantum field being in an excited state, and two electrons as that field being in a doubly excited state. This quantum field is not the same as a wave function (probability, and all that). Because electrons can interact, annihilate, etc., it means that these many-electron states aren’t the best way to describe the system (as one might in atomic physics), and are themselves idealizations.

      When one electron is disturbed, that disturbance propagates at the speed of light and indeed the entire universe will eventually know about it, whether or not the electrons are somehow in contact (whatever that means). Quantum field theorists spend much of their days calculating correlation functions that describe exactly that.

      I suppose the only issue is Cox’s inclusion of the word “instantaneously”. I am going to be cautious here and give him the benefit of the doubt, and say that he spoke imprecisely. There are frames of reference in which this is true (lightcone frames), but by the time one gets into the nitty gritty of this, the whole issue becomes a tempest in Mr. Swanson’s Tea.

      “I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics.” ~ Richard Feynman

      • March 5, 2012 at 8:00 pm —

        The problem is that he said that no two electrons could hold the same energy in the entire universe and that is clearly wrong. The rest is semantics and language.

        There is nothing that annoys me more in discussions of quantum physics than people who take that Feynman quote out of context and use it like you have.

  2. March 5, 2012 at 8:07 pm —

    The problem in my field is similar, I work in radiation (in private industry). I occasionally have to design and run education courses for engineers and production people and 90% of it ends up being correcting misconceptions people have. They are hearing a lot about radiation physics just none of it from anyone with real knowledge and much of it inaccurate or misunderstood.

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