The terminal ‘why?’

Yesterday was Carl Sagan’s birthday. Let me introduce you to another role model of mine. Like Sagan, I’ve never met this gentleman, who passed away when I was just 11 years of age. While Richard Feynman is best known for his contributions to physics, it was his understanding of a key aspect of learning that continues to influence my work as a science communicator. He knew that people engaged with stories based on the experiences they’d already had in life. You couldn’t teach a person using concepts they’d never encountered.

In this interview, Feynman answers the question of why magnets repel, ironically by explaining why he can’t explain it.

Feynman is a superb communicator who knows the value in telling a good story that an audience can relate to. More importantly, not only does he know the importance and limits of metaphor, he knows there is a ‘terminal ‘why?”, a point when you have to say to your audience, ‘For now, just accept the answer, ‘because it does”.

When I was twelve, I remember learning about the atom. On the black board there were concentric circles, dots, pluses and minuses. Electrons were the dots with minuses next to them, and they sat on large circles called orbits. Protons were small circles in the centre, and contained plus signs. With them were neutrons which held no symbols. And that was the atom.

A model of the atom...or solar system...always get them confused...

Of course, electrons aren’t dots, but rather exist in clouds of probability as something that has both the properties of a small discrete object and a wave rippling through a medium. The nature of their wave functions is what creates zones and keeps the electrons from meeting with their oppositely charged nuclei.

Do I understand what I just wrote? If I’m being honest, I’d say I grasp about 30%* of it.  That 30% comes from what little experience I have in the history of particle physics, which doesn’t provide me with a deep appreciation of the mathematics or the theoretical framework. A person who studies particle physics for a living might be able to profess an understanding of about 80%, resorting to vague shrugs only if you challenge them with bothersome questions like  ‘what fundamental processes produce a particle’s wave-like properties?’

If electrons aren’t dots that whiz around a nucleus like planets around the Sun, why did my teacher lie and say they were? There are two possibilities. One is that they didn’t know any different. The other is that telling me that electrons exist in clouds of probability as waves is not something I would have made sense of at twelve. There were no experiences which could serve as an appropriate metaphor that would not have carried superfluous baggage, or models I was familiar with which could provide a framework. So the solar-system analogy – as wrong as it was – served well until somebody explained it differently.

What was therefore necessary wasn’t an accurate explanation of particle physics, but a metaphor that could serve its place until I had ample experiences with which to refine the model into a better one. As a science writer with an audience of children, this is a skill that I’ve found remarkably difficult to pick up, even with years of teaching experience behind me.

You can’t avoid the risk of myths and misinformation accompanying your analogies – you are simply forced to pick the analogies that are most resistant to carrying unwanted baggage. Picking which ones will do the job comes down to knowing your audience and knowing how they think not only now, but in years to come. It also means knowing when you have to resist using metaphors or models that convey the wrong details – such as Feynman’s example of the rubber-band in the interview above. It’s tricky. Very tricky. And I’m the first to admit I struggle in getting it right.

When I hear it suggested that scientists should communicate more with the public about their work, this is the thought that comes immediately to mind. There are indeed those like Feynman and Sagan, who comprehend the significance and risks involved with selecting the right communication tools. Yet few, if any, research and applied science organisations select their scientists on criteria of pedagogy or public education. And nor should they. Which means there is a gap that needs filling with people who take the time not just to grasp the science, but to pick out the pieces that are necessary for their audience, finding those metaphors that are less wrong than others and are able to form a sound foundation for future learning. It also relies on science education concerning itself with teaching critical thinking as a means of continual adjustments in the broken models collected along the way.

In communicating science to the public, accuracy is essential. But sacrificing comprehension for that accuracy makes for a pointless exercise. Finding that balance is as vital as it is difficult, and finding people skilled at doing it requires more than simply finding people who are well versed in their discipline.

*Percentages in this article are completely arbitrary and aren’t linked to any particular formula for deducing confidence levels in physics.

Published in: on November 10, 2010 at 4:25 pm  Comments (1)  
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  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Magdeline Lum, Mike McRae. Mike McRae said: The terminal 'why?' – A post about Richard Feynman and the importance of good science communicators […]

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