Nobel Prize winner Steven Weinberg recently wrote a piece in the Guardian which talks about the history of science and science communication. The post elicited a sharp response from Philip Ball on his blog. The two bring up an important point that is becoming increasingly relevant today : who communicates science better, scientists or writers?
The increased relevance, which presumably both would agree on, comes from the fact that it is unhealthy for a society if the general public becomes too divorced from the knowledge of the current state of science. After all, science and technology is a crucial driver of progress of society and a populace that does not understand why it is important cannot devote it resources appropriately.
I have been interested in science communication for a long time. This blog is mostly practice for just that. To that end, I follow many popular science writers (usually journalists or writers, who have a passion for understanding and popularizing science) and scientist writers ( scientists who at some point in their career devote more time to communicating science).
Even though both these groups have a common objective, scientists are often quite critical of writers. And I can see why. I have clicked many a sensational headline that fizzled into an article that either did not justify the heading or just seemed like a new and misleading spin on an old idea. However, I also know a few writers who do a decent job of bringing science news in popular media such as Twitter, where scientists lack presence.
I don’t understand how Philip can disagree with Weinberg when he says “mathematics is the main obstacle in explaining cutting edge science to the general public”. I think it is because when Weinberg says science, he really means physics. Though that is definitely misleading and maybe incorrect, it is hardly unexpected since physics is Weinberg’s area of expertise. He might assume that his frustrations with respect to science communication in physics is something that experts in other fields might feel as well. Perhaps it is not felt as acutely by, say, biology since biology is not as abstractly mathematical as physics. Words can do a lot of justice to concepts in biology.
However, I think abstract math, be it string theory or wave-functions, is harder to explain in English. I personally think quantum physics cannot be explained without mathematics. If I say in English that objects walk through walls, that is as meaningless as saying I am the King of England. Only with the mathematics can I explain that objects can walk through walls in a manner that doesn’t require the listener to ad hoc trust me. “Explain” rather than just “tell”.
Philip however says that science writers can explain anything without math. Perhaps he is right, perhaps that is why we need science writers. The few times I have tried, I did Crash and burn. 😛