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
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
"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,
academies like Caltech are
reaching out to the
clueless — meaning most
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
"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
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
He sympathized with Schwarz, whose lecture
earned hearty applause even from those who struggled to keep
"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
"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
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
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.
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
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
"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."