Redux: Scientists’ Slippage


This post is a re-run from 7/15/2010.  The situation hasn’t improved.

I get this look a lot

I grew up noticing what a writer notices — stories and how things are said — and educated myself accordingly.  So I never learned much science and now, after I’ve unexpectedly turned into a science writer, my questions to scientists are generally English-major questions.

Me:  Why do a tennis ball and a bowling ball fall at the same speed?

Physicist:  Are all your questions like this?

My problem is made worse because I write about the physical sciences which, with the exception of gravity, are rarely part of an English major’s life experience.  Nevertheless, on the whole, scientists are tolerant of my questions.   Maybe they understand the unfathomable distances between their education and mine.  Maybe because they usually teach undergraduates, they are used to such questions.  Or maybe they don’t expect much from me in the first place:  like the dog walking on its hind legs, they think, the wonder is not that she does it well but that she does it at all.

As I ask my questions, I can see them trying to figure out how to answer, how to communicate with this creature from another world, how translate the equations in their heads into words, let alone words about relationships between abstracts.  They’re earnestly trying their best to communicate but sometimes they get tired and give up.

Me:  Can you explain to me the work you did in quantum field theory?

Physicist:  You asked me that the other day and you couldn’t understand what I told you then.  That would still be true.

Surely that wine is doing derivatives, right?

The all-time best was over a nice business dinner full of wine and charm, and the astronomer said philosophically, “You could almost say that the future is a Taylor expansion of the past.”   I said, “What’s a Taylor expansion?”  And he said, “Oh you know, you take the first derivative and then the second derivative and so on.”  And I couldn’t help myself, I said, “What’s a first derivative?”

He said — poor guy, it just slipped out — “How did you get so far with so little fuel?”

I took it as a compliment.  I really think he meant it as one.


Photos: Loveroftruth, Wikimedia Commons; Stefan Krause, Wikimedia Commons

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15 thoughts on “Redux: Scientists’ Slippage

  1. One of the enjoyable parts of my job as a university staff photographer is talking with the faculty about their work. Years ago I was photographing a physicist, and having a very nice conversation about his research, when he turned to me and said, “You’re pretty smart for a photographer.”

    I took it as a compliment, too.

  2. I suspect physicists do this kind of thing the most, but I don’t really know. I like your story.

  3. Ann, I love this story. Sometimes I feel so lost that I wish I could just say, “Um, could you maybe just talk for awhile without me asking any questions?” Or, even better, “So, could you explain why anyone cares about this?” I find that when I write for Nature or ScienceNOW, scientists expect me to not only have a science background but also be an expert in their particular field. Sorry, Dr., I haven’t read every single scientific paper on the function of motor neurons. But, yes, I do know what a neuron is.

  4. I know, I know. I’m working on a neutrino story now and keep asking why oscillation means neutrinos have mass and the answer is either 1)stunningly obvious or 2)sunk in the quicksand of the Standard Model.

  5. You know, Ann, there are no stupid questions. There are only people too stupid to ask questions. I have never felt I was wasting my time answering an earnestly-asked question and breaking it down to an understandable form is not “dumbing it down.” It is simply reducing it to a simpler form. Nothing wrong with that.

  6. Dear Geezer, I didn’t mean to imply that the scientists were annoyed or condescending, only that they occasionally found the vast differences in our educations frustrating.

  7. After a talk at, I think, Caltech, my science writer father was questioning a physicist and repeatedly asked him to explain the same thing. After the third request, the physicist said, “If you were my student, I’d flunk you, but since you are a reporter and this is going to appear in a daily paper, I’ll try one more time.” said in a tone that expressed his feeling that my father was a complete moron.

  8. Very nice story about tolerance in interactions between folks with different skill sets, but with arguably overlapping interests.

    Your article struck a chord with me but in a curiously opposite way than what you intended, I think. For example, I have a strong background in science and engineering derived through education and decades of professional experience. Now I have turned to the field of science journalism, in which I have no real education or experience, but only a deep desire to be more writerly about things scientific – wonderful, interesting things, I would insist.

    I do realize that, as a science writer, you are not trying to become a scientist, but to simply report on matters of science in both a writerly and accurate manner. You are trying to get inside the mind and worldview of the scientist being interviewed. In my case however, there is a scientifically-educated journalist trying to understand the “genetics” of artful, successful science articles.

    So, you might be asked by someone like me to explain: how to structure an article to maintain interest; the attributes of a good lead paragraph that generates the initial willingness of a reader to invest any time reading the article; or the identification and placement of the so-called “nut graph” (i.e., the so what)? Most important is how to write about a difficult scientific topic in, say, less than 2000 words, if you expect to pitch the story to the New York Times for example … certainly NOT what is commonly taught to wannabe scientists.

    Down the road, I would indeed take it as a compliment if an accomplished science journalist or editor asked me “How did you get so far with so little fuel?!” 🙂

  9. Back @Ann: Judging from your website, we have very similar interests, especially in cosmology. But I don’t think we know each other otherwise. Although I lived near Baltimore (i.e., Washington DC, working at that interface between science and the government that you write about in your new book), I never went to Johns Hopkins. Sure, please sell me on a graduate science writing course. I am eager to be effective … more fuel.

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