Science. Communication. Community.
It’s hard to talk about technical topics in an engaging way. Yet some extremely technical fields, like string theory, seem to have no problem attracting an audience. I interviewed condensed matter physicist Itai Cohen about how more “run of the mill” physics can engage the public.
In my last post, I posed the simple question: Why doesn’t the public know what most physicists do?
Condensed matter physics is the largest field of physics today. About a third of all physicists self-identify this way. Throw in the collaborators, the chemical/mechanical/biological engineers and the materials scientists, and the field gets even larger.
Condensed matter means exactly that. It is the study of matter, or stuff if you prefer. This matter is condensed; its constituent atoms/particles/building blocks are close together. So basically anything that’s not a gas! Some study this stuff because our iPhones and face creams rely on our understanding. Some study this stuff because of its inherent interest – since the particles are close, they interact a lot, and this constant interaction gives rise to rich, sometimes unexpected, collective behavior.
One example of such collective behavior was described by Jesse Silverberg, a graduate student in Itai Cohen’s lab at Cornell. Instead of looking at particles, Silverberg analyzed the motions of people in a mosh pit, and found analogies to how liquids behave. (For example, the mosh pit cools down over time.)
“The mosh pit went viral,” said Cohen. “But I do the same thing everyday when describing colloids dancing around.”
And indeed when you look at the results, the behavior of a clump of colloids (read: very small grains) is as complicated and interesting as the mosh pit, so why don’t these stories work? I interviewed Cohen to see what his thoughts were.
(Interview edited for length and clarity.)
KN: So what’s your take on condensed matter physics and the public?
IC: Well compared to how big a footprint in the department, the media footprint is meager. I’m trying to understand why. For one thing it’s hard to make people care. It’s intellectually interesting – the physics is amazing – but to tell a story you have to have an emotional connection. So the task is harder for us. Most scientists in our field are pretty good explainers, but you have to make [the audience] CARE.
KN: So why do you think the public is into string theory and cosmology?
IC: There is certainly the idea of the starkness of being alone in the universe. String theory is almost religious, people are hungry for meaning.
KN: Well the mosh pit story was technically condensed matter. Why did that work?
IC: The moshers are people, something they connect to.
But the [other] things we do [as condensed matter physicists] enable people to have iPhones. But [these systems] are in some ways dead. They’re not pursuing, reproducing, eating. Think of any nature documentary on the most arbitrary creature. People will find it interesting. And yet technology’s impact dwarfs that creature’s impact.
KN: So is it a worthy goal to get the public interested? What can be done?
IC: I wouldn’t hold my breath as far as having the public come to us. It’s generally understood, if we don’t get funding, they don’t get gadgets. But we can’t get them interested in how it works, and that’s what kills me… The physics is amazing! I feel like I’m sitting on top of secrets I want to share with the world and I’m trying to figure out how to share them. How do you reach people? I’ve been trying to figure it out.
Cohen has been trying to figure it out in the way he knows best: by experiment. He collaborated to develop a dance performance, entitled “Dance of Scales,” in which the dancers mimic the motion of particles in a fluid, for instance. “People identify with dance,” said Cohen.
He also collaborated to develop a play called Emergence, which relies on the story of an agoraphobic physicist (as well as some audience participation), to communicate scientific ideas, like how neural circuits work.
How were the projects received? “Ithaca’s an easy crowd,” chuckled Cohen, a compliment to the intellect of the population.
Joking aside, Cohen does think these ideas could be a path to effective communication with the public. When you hit a wall, sometimes you have to get creative.