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Science. Communication. Community.

What makes a science story interesting? (Part 1 of 2)

Some fields of science are notoriously theoretical, making them difficult for non-scientists to grasp.  However, explaining applied science is just as important, and it may even dissolve a few barriers.

by Kerstin Nordstrom

The Large Hadron Collider helped physicists confirm the existence of the Higgs particle.  However, non-scientists should know that there is more to physics than smashing atoms.

The Large Hadron Collider helped physicists confirm the existence of the Higgs particle. However, the diverse field of physics is more than bosons and particle accelerators. (Image credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Whenever I am at a social event meeting new people in the real world, I will inevitably get this line, “Oh physics, you must be really smart.”

I cringe every time I hear this. It’s flattering to have someone think I’m smart, but the pain outweighs the pleasure. I cringe because they have shut down the conversation. The burden is always on me to try to revive it and the burden never gets lighter.

The truth is, I’m good at math and got interested in physics. I’m smart enough. Many people are smart enough, they just don’t realize it, or get bored by their physics class.

So often in these conversations, it’s hard for me to discuss “what I do” if my conversation partner lacks even the basic knowledge of physics. I’ve gotten really good at my elevator speech, but every once in awhile it would be nice to dig deeper. This is also why it was hard to write physics news stories for a regional paper last summer.

And yet the most watched episodes of NOVA are about string theory, something even most PhDs in physics don’t really understand. In addition, words like quantum physics are thrown around as woo-woo pseudoscience to justify snake oil like crystal healing. It seems like a false equivalence to me: if you don’t understand something heavy and complicated, it is not automatically mystical.

While some physicists do fancy things like string theory, some look at the stars, and some even smash atoms together, the majority are looking at stuff you can see in an ordinary lab. Sometimes it’s “quantum” stuff that might be useful for your next-next generation fancy device. (Engineers work on the next generation.) Sometimes it’s ordinary stuff that we don’t understand yet, like how do fruit flies fly? It seems we have a failure to communicate what physicists actually do. Chemistry has a bit of the same problem. When was the last you heard of a really exciting chemistry story in the press? Chemistry doesn’t even have a God particle to fall back on.

I’ll be exploring this topic further with a physics professor next time.

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3 comments on “What makes a science story interesting? (Part 1 of 2)

  1. Rachel Bernstein
    May 17, 2013

    My background is in chemistry, and I get the “you must be really smart” thing all the time too. I totally agree that this supposed compliment is incredibly frustrating and alienating, and share your hopes that better communication about the “hard” sciences can start to break down some of these misconceptions and false barriers.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Rachel! Like, I said I will be exploring this more in the next post, so I hope you will read that as well.

  3. Pingback: What makes a science story interesting? (Part 2 of 2) | Figure One

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This entry was posted on May 16, 2013 by in Science Journalism.
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