Illustration for article titled What do you really need to know about the universe?

I've spent the last three years writing the "Ask a Physicist" column in which you folks have sent me some great questions about black holes and warp drives and so on, (and please keep 'em coming). But why? How much do you really need to know about the universe?


Image of the massive hurricane at Saturn's North Pole via NASA/JPL

I'm not just trolling here. Why bother with Nova, or my column or books, or any of the science reporting in the New York Times? There's not going to be a test, and nobody will judge you if you can't name all 6 quarks or the various laws of thermodynamics. For that matter, how does it really help you to know about supersymmetry or string theory, when either or both might have nothing to do with our universe?


Not long ago, I had a dialogue with Sean Carroll about the roles we play in communicating science. In it, I noted that physicists, in particular, often times have a great deal of difficulty justifying what we do, let alone why we talk about it. We often find ourselves referring back to Michael Faraday, who, in the 19th century was justifying his work on electromagnetism by saying:

One day, sir, you may tax it.

This is a terrible reason for doing science, and an even worse reason for talking about it. What's more, in popular descriptions of current science, we often find ourselves defending our beliefs rather than simply explaining them. I don't envy climate change scientists or evolutionary biologists – fields that are constantly under attack – but even as a cosmologist, I find the response to ideas like dark matter surprisingly hostile.


Writing about science shouldn't be about debating the theories in a public forum. For that, we'd want to bring out all of the data, make sure everyone is well-versed in the background material, and so on. It's simply not practical for whole "life is short" reason I started with.


So the real question is, what do you want to get out of this? This isn't just a rhetorical question. I'd very much like to know what – in the broad sense – you feel science popularizers have a duty to tell you about, and why.

Before that, though, I have a few ideas of my own (with hat-tips to those kind readers who gave me feedback via twitter and facebook).


It’s an insurance policy against bullshit

Every discipline has their cross to bear, but physics is especially burdened by quantum mechanics. Self-help and mysticism books are chocked full of the misstatements about how quantum mechanics works, and how human beings can alter their reality simply by observing them.


But the universe, I'm afraid, isn't a quantum Choose Your Own Adventure where we get to control how the universe behaves just by thinking about it. I won't enumerate the (extremely long) list of popular books built on this false premise, but I'll be perfectly happy for you to do so in the comments section.


The upshot is that it's all very well for "Science" to say this or that about the universe, but unless you, the public, has an idea of what "Science" really says, you won't have any idea of whether those who purport to speak for science are really just full of it.

It’s a Status Report on the Progress of Humanity

We're all busy. We have our day jobs writing TPS reports or mining for bitcoins or whathaveyou, and then all of a sudden – bam! – physicists have discovered the Higgs Boson. You don't need to keep track of this on a day-to-day basis but as tweeter J Train put it:

I just want scientists to tell me at 6-sigma confidence that the formerly unattainable is now or nearly attainable.


This isn't just true for physics, of course. There are breakthroughs happening every day, some big, some small, some revolutionary. Popularizers need to make sure we tell you which is which, which are certain, and what happens next.

Otherwise, what’s the point of basic science?

I mentioned Faraday above, and in a lot of ways, his view of science was vindicated. After all, electromagnetism did produce almost unheard-of technologies. But for most of basic science, we're trying to learn about the universe for the sake of learning. However, it doesn't count if we keep it to ourselves. We’re not a priesthood.


This sort of thing keeps us honest. If we’re doing the popularization right, you guys should be able to see what we know, and where the holes are in our theories. There’s something of an implied contract here, however. After all, simply admitting that we don’t know everything doesn’t give you license to jump down our throats and accuse us of not knowing anything.

Because it’s awesome

The best questions I've gotten from you folks have all been about giant stars or the beginning of time or subatomic particles. These are things that boggle the mind and are fun to think about whether or not you know the equations. They also, as facebook commenter Jeff Wallace pointed out, "Connect us to a larger existence."


In other words, the public wants to learn about science for much the same reason that we scientists study the universe in the first place.

I am an atheist, and while I strongly object to science being treated as the same as religion, there’s no denying the fact that for many (including me), trying to understand the universe plays much the same role that god does for those who believe. There's no reason that that detailed knowledge should be restricted to a privileged few.


Of course, I'd love to hear your thoughts on the role of science popularization as well: what the public can gain, what science can gain, and what is still missing.

Dave Goldberg is a Physics Professor at Drexel University, and writes a regular "Ask a Physicist" column. He is author, most recently and awesomely, of The Universe in the Rearview Mirror.


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