Los Angeles Times, May 13, 2004

Dense Matter Indeed

With taxpayers footing the bill for much of their research, scientists try to illuminate for the layperson what seems incomprehensible.

By Paul Pringle, Times Staff Writer

John Schwarz, a string theory pioneer at Caltech, is working to solve the deepest mysteries of the universe. A tougher task might be explaining his labors to the public.

Schwarz gave it a shot recently at an auditorium on the Pasadena campus that was packed with nonscientists, in a town hall primer for the physics-challenged. Everyone appeared to keep up until his PowerPoint screen displayed things such as this:

"I was totally lost," said Ruth Seigle, a Santa Ana homemaker. "I was just along for the ride."

As science becomes more complex, more prominent in everyday life and more dependent on taxpayer dollars for research, Nobelist-breeding academies like Caltech are reaching out to the clueless — meaning most folks.

The goal is to nurture popular support for scientific endeavors by making them easier to understand. Public lectures are the front line of this campaign. But as Schwarz has learned, dumbing down the toils of super-nerds can strain the brawniest of brains.

"I don't think anybody's going to get the whole story," said Schwarz, before addressing 900 walk-ins at Beckman Auditorium, where Caltech holds a series of public lectures. "I am presenting some difficult subjects, like extra spatial dimensions. It's a little hard to visualize."

No kidding, said Marianne Woods, a Torrance pediatrician who attended Schwarz's talk with her husband and their two teenage sons. Her medical training didn't help much with string theory, the hypothetical concept for the tiniest building blocks of everything.

"I tried," Woods said in the lobby of the wedding cake-shaped auditorium. "Of course, there was that point where it was way over my head."

It's a common frustration, said Stanford molecular biologist Renu Heller, who has organized a lecture program on the human genome. "There is a big gap between what we scientists know and what the public knows, and it's our fault," she said. "Why can't we talk to the public?"

She encourages lecturers to ditch terms like "double helix," a description of a DNA molecule's structure. Heller prefers "coiled ladder," because that's what it resembles.

"You have to make it simple," she said.

These days, laptop computers employ technology scarcely dreamed of during the Apollo moon missions. Physicians prescribe gene-triggering drugs that were fantasy elixirs a decade ago. And microchips have become so small that they're measured in billionths of a meter.

Not only is it hard to stay current, but the leaps in technology can be scary, said Bruce Alberts, president of the National Academy of Sciences.

"We have to help the public deal with these things," he said. "Otherwise you have people living in fear of their hair dryer, of their cellphone causing cancer, of drinking their tap water."

The science literacy level of Americans has actually been rising and stands unsurpassed in the world, said Jon Miller, a Northwestern University political scientist who has conducted polls on the trend for 20 years.

But more than 80% of U.S. adults still are not knowledgeable enough to digest a science story in a major newspaper, Miller said.

His surveys quiz 2,000 people about fundamental subjects, nothing as tangled as string theory.

A sample question: Does the Earth go around the sun, or the sun around the Earth? Others seek rudimentary definitions of radiation and DNA.

Miller says it is the rare scientist who can decode denser material for the uninformed. "Most of them are pretty awful at it," he said.

He sympathized with Schwarz, whose lecture earned hearty applause even from those who struggled to keep up.

"Very few topics are as difficult as string theory," Miller said. "That's taking the toughest test of all."

Brian Greene gets high marks on that test. The Columbia University mathematician and physicist won critical acclaim and hefty sales for his 1999 book on string theory, "The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory." It became the basis for a PBS miniseries.

Greene, who is now promoting a second book aimed at the masses, said "The Elegant Universe" grew out of his public lectures. "Many people just seemed so interested and wanted, with a passion, more to read," he said. "They really can grasp these ideas if you translate them."

The translation is taxing, however, and Greene concedes that some might find his books rough going in spots. In his talks, he dispenses with math — geek Greek to the typical audience.

"Our natural language is mathematics," he said of scientists. "People don't speak mathematics."

Greene relies instead on imagery, especially when noting that string theory requires nine or 10 dimensions of space, six or seven of which can't be seen. The theory holds that the smallest particles physicists have identified — electrons, neutrinos, quarks and such — are filaments that vibrate harmoniously in all the dimensions.

"The extra dimensions may really be the hardest thing to wrap your mind around," Greene said.

Like other scientists faced with a roomful of head-scratchers, he turns to household objects in hopes of clearing the mental fog. He favors a garden hose.

Greene asks listeners to envision an ant crawling along a hose that stretches into the distance. To the ant, the surface of the hose is always two dimensional, with length and width. Far away, to a human, the hose appears to be a one-dimensional line. Its width is imperceptible.

"We imagine that space itself might have a tiny curled dimension," Greene noted.


He tried again. "You have to imagine, for this analogy to work for you, that the hose is a universe in itself," Greene said. "You have to imagine something as bizarre-sounding as a 'garden hose universe.' "


Jerome Friedman, a Nobel laureate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is hooked on fishbowls as a public-friendly metaphor. The notion struck him after he was invited to discuss his Nobel-winning achievement — proving the existence of quarks — with a fifth-grade class.

"I said, 'Oh, my God, this is fifth grade! How in the world do you talk to a fifth-grader about it?' " Friedman recounted. "So I came up with this metaphor and they got it."

He says it clicks with all ages.

The bowl represents a proton, part of the nucleus of an atom. It sits in a dark room. Fish lurk in the bowl. You enter the room and illuminate the bowl with a flashlight, which reveals the fish. The image reflects on your eye and is processed by your brain as a fish.

Friedman explains that the flashlight is the 2-mile-long linear accelerator he used to shoot electron beams at protons, exposing the quarks (fish) within. The eyes and brain play the role of computers.

Follow, grown-ups? To help his audiences keep pace, Harvard University astronomy professor Robert Kirshner avoids javelin-length equations and words such as spectropolarimetry, a means of analyzing light.

"Spectropolarimetry rolls right off the tongue," he joked.

Snowballs and buses are his metaphors of choice. He says his groundbreaking research on the expansion of the universe — it involves charting the relative dimness of light traveling through space — can be understood by picturing snowballs (subbing for photons) smacking a moving bus (a galaxy).

"If the bus is driving by but speeding up, the snowball barely clunks it," said Kirshner, author of "The Extravagant Universe: Exploding Stars, Dark Energy and the Accelerating Cosmos." "If it's slowing down, the snowball hits with a thud."

And, well, so on.

Carl Wieman, a Nobelist at the University of Colorado, has also been on the lecture circuit for a decade. "I do what works," he said. "I see what causes people to fall asleep."

If described in scientific jargon, the breakthrough that bagged Wieman the Nobel Prize would cure any insomniac lacking a physics degree.

It established that vast clusters of atoms behave the same at extremely low temperatures — one-billionth of a degree above absolute zero, which is minus 460 Fahrenheit. Normally, in "warmer" settings, atoms act differently, spinning at varying speeds and the like.

Wieman said he had reduced the number of snoozers at his lectures by using cartoons and a toy machine gun that fires pingpong balls (mimicking light particles) at a basketball (an atom).

"Before I had a Nobel Prize, there would regularly be a physicist in the audience who would jump up and say I was oversimplifying," he said. "That doesn't happen very often after you win a Nobel Prize."

Wieman said the mantle of Nobel laureate carries a responsibility to enlighten Jane and Joe Average. "We're asking them to spend their money on scientific research," he said.

The federal government is the largest single source of funding for basic research, and the taxpayer's burden has been growing.

The combined budgets for the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, two of the government's leading research agencies, have soared from about $17.3 billion to $32.7 billion since 1998. Other government programs funnel more billions to raw science.

"You're selling science to the public," said Daniel Weitekamp, a Caltech professor of chemical physics. "You've got to get funding."

Weitekamp chairs a committee that selects the lecturers for Caltech's series, which dates to the 1920s. He said the panel enlists professors who can "bring it down to earth."

He has not given a lecture himself, and there might be a good reason. In explaining his research on magnetic resonance, he let fly with the likes of "micron scales," "intrinsic angular momentum" and "energy difference divided by Planck's constant."

His wife, Kathryn Bikle, joined the interview in Weitekamp's campus office. With a background in theater, she coaches Caltech students in public speaking.

"I try to bring out their personalities," she said. But as her husband discoursed on "spectroscopy" and "spin magnetic moments," she shrugged and said: "I'm married to the guy and I still don't understand it."