A confluence of events yesterday gave me a new insight into the use and misuse of the term “dumbing down.” It all started with something weird that came on my car radio. I was returning from some errands, headed home to do a phone interview with Matt Strassler, a theoretical physicist at Rutgers. I was interviewing him for a physics story I’m writing about a big announcement planned for Tuesday – possible hints of a long-sought entity known as the Higgs particle or Higgs Boson.
I was flipping through the stations and thought I’d caught a snippet of something on NPR. There was a biologist, or what I thought was a biologist, saying something about amino acids, RNA, nucleotides, ribosomes, and pieces of genetic code with the letters ATT coming together to do something. It was such an addled interview I couldn’t believe NPR would use it. The guy came off as insufferably pompous and he didn’t seem to be trying to make sense. His point seemed to be that chemistry alone couldn’t explain some process by which these different substances interacted.
Then an announcer came on and I realized I’d been listening to a religious station and the interview was with a promoter of “intelligent design”, a brand of creationism. No wonder he was incomprehensible. There was no way any listener could evaluate the honesty or validity of this guy’s argument because it was impossible to figure out what he’d said.
later in the afternoon I realized how starkly this contrasted with my informative and clear interview with Strassler, as well as one I’d done Friday with Brig Williams of Penn and some of the physicists on his team. These guys deal with particles that don’t make up ordinary matter, invisible fields that “give” other particles their masses, breaking of “symmetries” in the universe and a bunch of other ideas that are hard to explain because they’re far-removed from everyday experience and because they fit together through mathematics.
Despite these difficulties, the physicists were able to explain in comprehensible terms what they were doing, what was likely to be announced on Tuesday, and how that would advance our understanding of the universe and fundamental nature of matter.
The news Tuesday will reveal the first major results from the most expensive and enormous science experiment ever built – the Large Hadron Collider. In a ring-shaped tunnel that circles through parts of Switzerland and France, beams of protons get whipped up to high speeds and then collide head on. This concentrates such an enormous density of energy that it can spontaneously convert itself into exotic particles that don’t make up ordinary matter.
In the 1960s, physicists including an Englishman named Peter Higgs predicted the presence of such a particle, which became known as the Higgs. That’s almost certainly going to be the subject of Tuesday’s announcement. It will take some work on my part to turn this all into a coherent story, but thanks to the scientists it won’t be too difficult.
The strange confluence of my interview with Strassler and the awful radio segment made me realize how wrong people are to complain about popularizers “dumbing down” science. There’s nothing dumb about scientists making the effort to translate their ideas, to distill them to their essence, and sometimes to remind us what the question was. It’s hard work. Nobody is getting dumber through this process of sharing the scientific enterprise with the public, no matter how simple the language.
In contrast, the biology guy ranting about amino acid and ribosomes on the radio might have seemed smart to the uninitiated. He used big words and they came out in a stream that sounded sophisticated but how can anyone know if this wasn’t a big con job?
Particle physicists use a lot of taxpayer money to do what they do, so they have an obligation to keep us all in the loop. They’re doing a good job of it and they prove that difficult science can be explained in a way that makes sense. Intelligent Design always comes across as nonsense. And if it walks like nonsense and quacks like nonsense, well…