Physics Is Not Special

I recently had the privilege of attending an exclusive Symposium, attended by a group of top up-and-coming young scientists in a variety of fields. While the talks were fantastic and the conversations about research exciting, it was the philosophical conversations that really intrigued me. One of them lead from a thought I’d batted around in my own head for years now: that physics and math are somehow treated as superior to other sciences.

I’ve seen this in my professional life, on both sides. I’ve seen physicists think that their intelligence entitles them to be taken seriously in fields vastly different from their own without any actual background or context in them beyond their own interest. And I’ve seen scientists in other fields express the view that the physicists treat them like they’re less intelligent because they’re in a field other than physics. And it’s not only wrong, it’s detrimental to the field.

There’s this perception that physics and math are somehow hard in a way that other sciences aren’t. I suppose we interact with living things and chemicals on a daily basis, so perhaps by extension, we think that biology and chemistry are easier to understand. Physics can be a bit more abstract. And then there is the inherent link of physics and mathematics that some physicists use as a crutch. If you want to understand a physics concept, you work through the equations.

But not everyone can work through the equations. And it is possible to intuitively understand physics, even if it’s only at a superficial level. I heard a talk from Rush Holt last year where he questioned if it was even right to teach “watered-down” physics to laypeople and to that I say, “were you never a child?” We teach watered-down physics all the time. None of us were born understanding complex concepts of math and physics. We all had to learn in easily-digested chunks that were targeted at our level before we understood and could move on. And there is no reason we couldn’t apply that same logic to teaching non-scientists physics concepts outside of a classroom setting.

So I think it is hurting science to treat physics like something special, something that can’t be separated from its connection to mathematics. Something that can’t be understood by mere mortals. Part of the job of scientists is to take their knowledge and use it to know how to accurately distill into something understandable, by a variety of audiences. Research can never do anything for society if researchers continue to target their communications to less than one percent of the population.

And then there are the social scientists. There is a sense of derision towards the social sciences from the other sciences, and I think this is also hurting science. You see, the people that actually study how societies move and grow and communicate are the social scientists. They are the ones who have the scientific expertise to help us make our findings reach a broader audience. And yet, social sciences routinely find them tacked onto grant applications (if they are considered at all) as a way to add appeal, without actually being consulted for their input on a project as a whole. No, they don’t know the advanced physics (or even biology or chemistry or geology, etc.) that is necessary to drive that part of the research, but they do have an idea of what kinds of data might be more appreciated by a group. And it’s time to start listening to their input and really collaborating with them to get all kinds of science seen and understood by a wider audience.

The first step to making the public believe in science again is to stop talking down to them and instead trying to meet them on a level where both parties can talk together. And the first step in doing that is to take physics off its pedestal.

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