Quarter Life Crisis

The world according to Sven-S. Porst

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621 words

For some reason many people are afraid of something as simple as numbers and units. Instead of giving a length in metres or a mass in kilograms, writers - mainly journalists - prefer using ‘real world’ comparisons. Something will have the height of a pile of 250000 phone books or the ‘weight’ of 50000 shipping containers.

At least my imagination isn’t quite good enough to make any sense of those pictures as the majority of them contain a large number which makes things completely unintuitive. In addition to that, these notions are very vague (how thick is a phone book? 1cm? 7cm?) and thus imprecise, leaving you in a situation where you have to guess and compute to figure out which number or measurement the comparison is supposed to describe. Even more so as people using those comparisons usually don’t include the precise and objective description.

With the new particle accelerator at CERN starting to work these days, the world in general and the internet in particular - heck those CERN people gave us the web - are abuzz with reports on the topic. Covering everything from physics to the end of the world. Of course none of the big reports has a clue what things are about. The reason for that probably being that the standard model isn’t a trivial thing to explain.

And thus we hear about the ‘particle zoo’ and the the elusive Higgs boson as a famous person at a party. That’s all nice and dandy, but what about making a serious attempt at explaining the stuff. Surely there must be loads of physicists who are keen on giving that a try. Journalists should ask them, even if it it means doing ‘research’ by other means than Google and a news ticker.

The number problem is a big one for the CERN case as well. Simply because the particles they deal with are tiny and very light and the energies put into them are immense. That’s the whole point of the machine. And thus it is extremely difficult to ‘explain’ what’s going on there. Unfortunately the journalists and PR folks totally avoid giving a simple number even if it comes with an exponent in it. That may be due to the fact to newspapers usually being rather bad at writing numbers with exponents, but it may also be because of the people being involved living out their fear of such ‘scientific’ statements.

An example they gave in the paper, for example, was that the energy the accelerator puts into a load of protons is the same given to 22 litres of water that comes out of a huge fountain they have in Geneva. Can you tell whether that’s a lot or very little? Wouldn’t a statement in Joule or eV together with a reference value have been clearer even if it meant the journalist might have had to use his brain and those of his readers?

But it doesn’t take multi-billion Euro physics projects to see this problem. Simple and totally imaginable distances will do. Dave recently made a post about the size of Washington, the U.S. State, trying to illustrate its size by comparing driving distances to those at other locations I am not familiar with. A single number of kilometres (or even miles, if needs be) would have made his case perfectly clear, but I just ended up being even more puzzled because one distance I am not familar with was replaced by a handful of other distances I am not familar with.

Even if it doesn’t give nice pictures, abstraction helps as it doesn’t require the reader to have made specific real world experiences which may be needed to appreciate a comparison.

September 11, 2008, 9:24

Tagged as numbers, physics.


Comment by g: User icon

The problem of using “witty” or “clever” analogies to explain science is quite prevalent within the scientific community. too. The specialization of disciplines means that, even within the biomedical sciences, explaining an interaction in thermodynamic terms to a person who is embedded within the cell biology field can be very hard without an analogy. And most of the time the analogy stupifies the meaning, and the dialogue ends with a “so fucking what?!” conclusion.

I think the CERN-LHC thing is mild in comparison. Science writing is so bad these days that I’ve stopped being shocked by its boring and stupid nature. One cannot blame the writers, per se. I think it’s due to a lot of presumptions about the average public understanding about science. So either the perceptions are really bad, and the writing has to fit that. Or, the writers are wrong, we’re all smart and perhaps a few more details would be well received.

September 11, 2008, 13:18

Comment by ssp: User icon

You may well be right about the writing in general and communication between disciplines. It probably boils down to many parts of advanced science not being comprehensible with a single paragraph of explanations – however unpopular that may be.

Yet I think the writers need to take the blame for simply not giving the actual information but giving witty analogies only. If they think they need the analogies to keep the ‘dumb public’ reading, fine. I could simply ignore that. But leaving out the actual numbers means that they omit all the information.

With a longer term perspective this is even worse: If one got the numbers along with the analogies, one could at least start building an ‘intuition’ for them. How many Joule / calories make a big meal? How many make a fast proton? How many Tesla make a strong magnet? Even though people read a lot about particle accelerators in the past week, the opportunity to actually learn anything from that stream of ‘information’ seems to have been lost.

Of course one could blame editors as well, perhaps those do the dumbing down. But I am happier blaming the journalists. Because in my romantic image of the world they will fight for good texts and argue with the editors and eventually leave the editors if they can’t write good texts with them…

But my gut feeling here is not that this is mainly a problem of brilliant journalists seeing their work destroyed by evil editors. To me it mostly looks like mediocre journalists having to write about stuff they neither understand nor care about and simply trying to get a ‘colourful story’ out of that.

September 11, 2008, 13:43

Comment by Dave2: User icon

Actually, mentioning distance in my entry would NOT have made my case clear to you because you were missing the entire point… it had nothing to do with distance, it was all a set-up to make a joke about Sarah Palin. :-)

September 13, 2008, 7:51

Comment by ssp: User icon

At least I would have known what you were talking about. I found most distances in the U.S. very long. So if the natives consider things far apart, I suspect that they are very very far apart. I still like to attach a number of kilometres to that to have a better idea.

(I also suppose that jokes on Republicans are lost on me. But, hey, the lady will be your vice-president. She’s a jerk, a grandmother and a woman and hasn’t left the county so many people should absolutely love her no matter what she does.)

September 13, 2008, 10:47

Comment by Dave2: User icon

And don’t forget that she’s a bible-banging, gun-packing, lying, two-faced redneck… “love her?” I dare say they worship the polluted earth she walks on.

September 13, 2008, 16:48

Comment by ssp: User icon


September 13, 2008, 17:20

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