Last Wednesday, a review committee from the organization that funds my research visited the university. I presented a poster, and also invited my father to come and see the lab and the poster. It was interesting, since my dad is a mechanic and has little formal physics background beyond what he learned in high school, but his intelligence definitely leans towards the quantitative, so he’s very interested in what I do. So I spent most of the time explaining what my research is, and some of the general physics concepts behind it.
One of the big ones was bosons versus fermions. He kept thinking of them as specific subatomic particles, so I explained it again in terms of dogs and cats. There are dogs and there are cats, but there are also different kinds of dogs and different kinds of cats. So you wouldn’t say you have fermions and electrons, because electrons are a type of fermion.
Later on this weekend, I heard him on the phone with his sister, talking about seeing the lab, and I listened to him explain some of the things that I explained to him. His sister is a scientists, a chemist, so she has a basic understanding of a lot of the general concepts. Dad didn’t parrot back exactly what I had said, but he did give a pretty decent explanation of the general workings of the lab. I felt kind of proud of myself that I had been able to explain things clearly enough that he felt comfortable explaining them back to someone with a higher level of physics knowledge than he has, and get things right.
I realized that listening to someone to whom I’d explained something re-explain it to someone else was one of the most satisfying things about explaining my work to a non-scientists. It is not enough to see the utterly lost look leave someone’s face; it goes so much further when you realize that he’s actually gotten it enough to pass the information along. I sometimes wonder how authors, both fiction and non-fiction, feel about book clubs. If I ever did write a popular science book, I would want to tour around to book club groups discussing my book and just sit in a corner without telling them who I was, so that I could hear how the audience understood my work and communicated it to someone else. If there are any authors reading this, do you feel the same way?