Thinking About Science Writing

Amanda Gefter’s book Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn is an enjoyable read even if you only have a slight science background because Gefter is able to transform incredibly challenging physics topics into understandable and relatable concepts and ideas. Her use of metaphor throughout the book is funny and inviting, and while I am not an expert in the cutting edge of physics after reading her book, I do have a better basic grasp of the challenges physicists face when observing and making predictions about the universe today.

Early in the book Gefter describes some of her own confusion with topics like general relativity and quantum mechanics, and she provides in depth yet accessible explanations. In addition to describing the ideas themselves, Gefter is able to describe the why the problems and challenges at the edge of science puzzle so many people in a way that is accessible. Regarding quantum gravity she writes,

“I knew that physicists needed a theory of quantum gravity because general relativity and quantum mechanics couldn’t manage to peaceable coexist in a single universe. But what made exactly made them so hopelessly incompatible? Everywhere I looked I found technicalities—the world of relativity is continuous and the quantum world discrete; relativity regards positions in spacetime as well defined, while quantum theory renders them fuzzy. They were obstacles, sure, but they struck me as mere couple’s squabbles, not deep, unbridgeable rifts. It was like relativity preferred chocolate and quantum theory vanilla—not like relativity was a Protestant and quantum theory was a duck.”

I have more or less forgotten any ideas about quantum gravity, but I have managed to retain some general relativity and some quantum mechanics knowledge after reading Gefter’s book. What I enjoy about the passage above is the humor she brings to the science. We don’t often invite people into the science because we become very technical when describing the complexities of cutting edge science. There is a place for the jargon, but when we want to excite people and get them interested in the truly fascinating work taking place, we need to make science more clear and create demonstrations that will encourage people to look further as opposed to confuse people and put them to sleep.

What I think is also important to remember is that it is good for people to hear the answers to the basics, even if we (or they) have heard the basic questions and basic answers multiple times in the past. I listen to a lot of science podcasts, and the question/answer portions of the shows often have pretty strait forward and basic questions. My reaction as a human being when someone asks a question to which I know the answer is to praise myself for being so smart and to criticize the other person for not already knowing the answer to the question. However, I try my best to acknowledge that reaction, and then put it away because it is not helpful. Undoubtedly every time a simple question is answered, the response on a podcast is unique, and my understanding is deepened or even corrected altogether. What we must remember when discussing science, and what Gefter does a great job of in her book, is that everyone in our audience will come to our writing (or podcast discussion) with a different level of understanding and we must write in a way that does not make those with less background think that we are arrogant in our use of language and description of basic concepts.

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