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  • Claire L. Evans’ project
    The human species is rapidly and indisputably moving towards the technological singularity. The cadence of the flow of information and innovation in...
    Now playing SpaceCollective
    Where forward thinking terrestrials share ideas and information about the state of the species, their planet and the universe, living the lives of science fiction. Introduction
    Featuring Powers of Ten by Charles and Ray Eames, based on an idea by Kees Boeke.
    Ed: This is an essay I wrote for my friends at the World Science Festival, riffing on the central themes of this years' event. If you prefer, you can also read this piece on the World Science Festival site. And, if you're in New York between the first and fifth of June, you could do much worse than popping into the Festival and getting a load of panel discussions like The Dark Side of the Universe, or Science & Story: The Art of Communicating Science Across All Media.

    Science communication is difficult.

    It can be crippled by the complexity of its own subject matter. It can be steeped in jargon, too dense for its readership, or, conversely, too simplistic to satisfy its critics in the scientific community. It can lack warmth, or be too paranoid about its empirical rigor to engage in the metaphoric flights — the quick shifts from microcosm to macrocosm — that cue readers to an emotional engagement in any subject. The problem may lie in an inescapable tautology: to fully understand a scientific, taxonomic, objective conception of the natural world is to be so steeped in scientific idiom that poetics become impossible.

    And yet, there are those who are capable of communicating the invisible phenomena of science to the public. These people are essentially bilingual. The Sagans, the deGrasse Tysons, the E.O Wilsons; Angier, Attenborough, Carson and Greene; the radio producers, writers, filmmakers, documentarians, and public speakers; these are our human bridges, our storytellers, fluent in both big and small. It's a specific skill, to be a gifted science communicator — that rare person who can straddle two divergent worlds without slipping into the void between the so-called "Two Cultures," someone with hard facts in their mind and literary gems in their rhetoric. They must accomplish the humanization of abstract ideas without pandering, make science poetry without kitsch. Even at their best, they can be silly — think of Carl Sagan, in his burgundy turtleneck, proclaiming, "in order to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe." It may seem absurd to draw such a huge subject down to Earth in such a literal way, but what Sagan taps into is the necessity of these seemingly silly flourishes.

    See, science is big. It's driven by the desire to understand everything!

    The immensity of such a project necessitates that science be undertaken not by one group of men and women in one time, but all men and women for all time. The final goal always eludes us: to understand this, we must first understand this, but to understand that, we must understand this, ad infinitum. Scientific knowledge is won by climbing the shoulders of giants; but these giants are a never-ending stack of matryoshka dolls. In fact, the very notion of there being a final point in science has become so abstract as to be almost irrelevant; the more we know, the more we know that we do not know, and the end of the game is nowhere to be seen. And, perhaps, there is no end game.

    To a scientist, this endless narrative satisfies. The balance of properties and theories that define the natural world, the physical Universe, or the underpinnings of mathematical reality are elegant and stirring; knowledge, and the search for more of it, is a raison d'ĂȘtre. For those of us not wired the same way, the greater narrative of science can be overwhelming, if not inscrutable. We need stories with beginnings, middles, and ends. We need things to relate to, objects to hold onto, characters to laugh and cry with. We need to synthesize abstract ideas through allegories, metaphors, and images.

    Popular science communication is defined by such literary gestures. For years, students of astronomy struggled with the concept of an expanding universe without a center (a notion which violently bucks against reason). Cosmologists, however, came up with an image — a metaphor — which lightens the load: imagine that the universe is an expanding balloon, and the stars and objects in space are dots drawn on the surface of this balloon. From any one star's vantage point, all the other objects in space are moving away from it, but without any perceivable pattern. The more distant points would appear to be moving faster. Apart from being a devastatingly simple image that conveys more information that entire astronomy textbooks, it's also an elegant metaphor. It accomplishes the same things as the most successful of literary metaphors: a world of feeling and information, the very chaos of physical reality, in one image. It translates profound abstraction (the universe) into something we can imagine holding in our hands (a balloon).

    Good science communication molds complex ideas into human-scale stories. It turns a discussion of the cosmos' impossible scale into inflating balloons. Or into Sagan, sitting at his dinner table like a medieval king in corduroy, a steaming apple pie at the ready.
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    Let's talk about the God Particle.

    It strikes me that people refer to the Higgs boson as the "God particle" in the same way some call the iPhone the "Jesus phone": with an almost pointed disregard for what such a prefix actually means. Considering the intensity of the culture wars, the popularity of the moniker is baffling. Is this about contextualizing the abstraction (and grandeur) of particle physics in a way "regular" people can understand? Does this represent a humanist concession to the religious? If so, can religious culture really be swayed by such a transparent ploy — y'know, it gives things mass, just like on Sundays?

    I know the use of "God particle" is largely a media problem, born of the Leon Lederman book of the same name, and that most scientists find it maddeningly overstating of the particle's qualities and importance. Lederman himself came out of a long tradition of scientists using "God" as colorful shorthand for the mysterious workings of Nature, rather than literally. Albert Einstein, who famously over-used the word, was not religious as much as a Spinozan humanist, explaining that "we followers of Spinoza see our God in the wonderful order and lawfulness of all that exists." This usage was not uncommon, but in a post-Intelligent Design scientific discourse, the habit has waned. And, while we scramble to find new, immediately relatable metaphors for "that grandiose, awe-inspiring quality of the Universe which eludes us," God does in a pinch.

    Yet punctuating the language about an elusive subatomic particle with the G-word seems like just the kind of thing that would infuriate anti-science religious nuts, or at least strike them as besides the point. I can't help but think of Yuri Gagarin, in 1961, returning from the first manned space mission and saying, "I looked and looked but I didn't see God." Did the certainly unsurprising revelation that the Creator wasn't lounging around in space like the man in the moon shatter global theology? Of course not — "I looked and didn't see God" is irrelevant if you believe (like the Catholic Church) that God exists in a realm outside of physics, or even the physical world. The discovery of the Higgs boson should reveal what the universe is physically made of, at its deepest level, but it shouldn't make a difference to those who see the making itself as an act of God. Which raises the question: do we say "God" particle because its existence would debunk religion, or because it would be an ultimate example of the manifold complexity of God's creation (ostensibly)? More importantly, of these two radically different readings, which is the most common?

    When the New York Times uses the phrase in headlines without discussion, which version of the phrase does its readership infer? It's impossible to know, and this rattles me. Language has a hypnotic, iterative power: with every use, a word becomes more engrained into its new context, increasingly impossible to view objectively. "God particle" has become a colloquialism for "Higgs boson," and it does neither physics nor the idea of God any service. Rather, it sells them both short: by implying that the questions we deal with in physics are so easily reducible, and that the Higgs might have any effect on how the religious see the world.

    "God particle" is a convenient phrase. It haphazardly gets at the importance of the whole enterprise — and it definitely grabs people's attention. Still, its meaning has become unclear, and no real information can be gleaned from it.

    At best, it hints at weightiness; at worst, it simplifies the Higgs to the point of obfuscation.
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    To aid in the gestation of a new project, I've been watching a whole lot of Carl Sagan programs.

    Namely, the 13-part epic of Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, which remains, to me, the most comprehensive survey of the Universe and our place within it ever presented to the lay public. Sagan's devastating empathy, his respect of the viewer's intelligence, as well as his often outrageously optimistic sense of human community, have never been replicated in television. He shifts deftly from dallies in human history to well-diagrammed explanations of evolution, stressing the clarity and self-evidence of science and framing its longstanding opposition — organized religion, unenlightened government policy, etc — as natural and understandable human foibles that we must overcome together.

    Modern science programs are usually hosted either by flashy, serious-voiced British actors or anonymous narrators; Sagan, however, takes it all on himself. He never conceals the fact that he's a total nerd, a courduroy-jacketed cosmologist from Brooklyn who gets stoked about watching live Voyager feeds from the JPL labs in Pasadena. Rather, he embraces it, presents himself as a helpful authority, someone genuinely invested in the well-being of the human race, happily taking on the enormous responsibility of educating us.

    For an example of the moral themes put forth by Sagan (as well as his close collaborators, Ann Druyan and Steven Soter), witness this, an excerpt from his 1994 book, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space. I found this while errantly clicking on Google Video (incidentally, Google Moon?!), and came pretty close to losing it.

    Sat, Jan 12, 2008  Permanent link
    Categories: Carl Sagan, Cosmos
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