Monday, August 25, 2014

Why do science?

While preparing for the Intuit TedX conference (see my last post), the organizers also asked one other hard question: why should we (i.e. nonscientists) care about neutrinos or astrophysics.  Scientists do not like to hear these questions, but we ignore them at our peril - especially funding peril.   The people of the United States are paying for much of our research through their taxes, and they have both a right and a good reason to ask these questions.    Unfortunately, they are not easy to answer, at least for me.   When asked, I usually reply along one of two lines, neither of them completely satisfying.

1) We don't know what this is useful for now, but it will likely be (or could be) useful one day.   This is easily backed up by many examples of physical phenomena that were long considered totally irrelevant to everyday live, but are now part of everyday technology.   Quantum mechanics and electromagnetism are two good examples, but perhaps the best is general relativity.  General relativity was long considered only applicable to abstruse  astrophysical phenomena, such as gravity near a black hole, but it is now an important correction for GPS receivers to produce accurate results.   This is a strong argument for research that has a clear connection to modern technology.  For IceCube and ARIANNA, whose main  purpose is to track down astrophysical cosmic-ray particle accelerators, one can argue that understanding these cosmic accelerators may teach us how to make better (plasma powered?) accelerators here on Earth.  There are many more examples of esoteric phenomena that remain just that, esoteric phenomena. 

2) Science is interesting and important for its own sake.  I believe this, and would venture to say that most scientists believe it.  Many non-scientists also believe it.  However, many do not, and, for the people who don't, I know of no good argument to make them change their mind.  This view was nicely put forth by former Fermilab director Robert Wilson, who testified before congress in 1969.  He gave the value of science as

"It only has to do with the respect with which we regard one another, the dignity of men, our love of culture. It has to do with those things.

It has nothing to do with the military. I am sorry."

When pressed about military or economic benefits (i.e. competing with the Russians), he continued:

"Only from a long-range point of view, of a developing technology. Otherwise, it has to do with: Are we good painters, good sculptors, great poets? I mean all the things that we really venerate and honor in our country and are patriotic about.

In that sense, this new knowledge has all to do with honor and country but it has nothing to do directly with defending our country except to help make it worth defending."

This argument puts science on an equal footing with the arts,  music or poetry, endeavors that are largely supported by the public, whereas science is largely government funded.

Unfortunately, it is difficult to put these two arguments together in a way that they do not interfere with each other.     I wish that these arguments were stronger, either individually or together.     In short, I wrestle with this question a lot, and would welcome comments from scientists or nonscientists who have thought about how to answer this question.


Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Christmas in Antarctica: Presenting science to the general public

I recently had a very interesting, but sobering experience - giving a TedX talk in Mountain View, at a conference sponsored by Intuit (yes, the TurboTax people; they also make accounting software).   The audience was mostly Intuit employees, from diverse backgrounds - sofware engineers, accountants,  HR people, PR people, etc.  There were 15 speakers  (+4 videos of previously presented TedX talks) - me, a geologist, and 13 non-scientists.   Most were excellent, and it was interesting to watch the diverse presentation styles.  I was upstaged by the following speaker - a 10 year old.  She was the world champion in Brazilian ju-jitsu, and spoke eloquently about being a warrior.  Other presenters included a magician, an ex-CNN anchor speaking on money management, a pianist, and a capoeira group.

In discussing my talk, the organizers emphasized a couple of things: tell a good story, and engage with the audience.   These are two basics, but are way too rarely found in scientific presentations.  Our material is important and interesting to us, so we automatically assume that the audience will feel the same way.  This is not true!   I'm as guilty as any other scientist here, and really appreciated being reminded of these basics, both by the organizers beforehand, and while listening to the other speakers.     

Over the past few years, my kids have been studying 5-paragraph essays.  I learned this too: an introduction with hypothesis, 3 arguments (1 paragraph each) and a concluding paragraph.   My kids learned it a bit differently.  The first paragraph must start with a 'grabber:' a sentence to grab the readers attention.    Likewise, the organizers encouraged me to start with a grabber, to engage the audience, by asking about going someplace cold for the holidays.  This led naturally to me to being in Antarctica for the winter holidays, and thence into ARIANNA and neutrino astronomy.   This may be the back door into the science, but times have changed, and it seemed to work well. 

As scientists, we need to remember these lessons when we talk to non-scientists.  Why should the audience care?  Are we speaking to them or at them?  Do we have an engaging presentation, with a good, clear  story line?  Is it at a level that they can follow?

These principles also apply to scientific presentations.  How often have we sat through a seminar without any idea why the material is important to anybody?   Or one filled with incomprehensible jargon or page-long equations relating variables that are not clearly defined?   These are clear ways to avoid having to deal with job offers, etc.  We need to do better. 

So, ... thanks to Intuit, and Kara de Frias and Kimchi Tyler Chen (the lead organizers) for arranging a very interesting and educational day