“Wormholes” Author is a Liar and Thief. . . But Says It’s O.K.

27 09 2013

As the author of the new sci-fi adventure novel Wormholes, I’m a liar and a thief. I’ll explain why, and the reasons I think it’s O.K.

Some background: The idea for the novel had its beginning years ago in a simpleWormholes cover question “What if holes were to suddenly open up into other universes?” As is perhaps the case with most novelists, from that seed of an idea, I began to build a story. And in the process, I invented all kinds of physics. That’s when I became a liar.

I had to invent a scientific-sounding explanation of why, in its travels through the galaxy, our solar system enters a region of lurking wrinkles in spacetime. These wrinkles, I fabricated, constitute weaknesses in the spacetime fabric that cause holes to seemingly arbitrarily open up from our universe into other universes. So on Earth and on other planets, holes suddenly appear that might intrude into other universes’ interstellar space, into the fiery centers of stars, or onto the surfaces of alien planets. To drive my fictional story, I also invented some exotic physical properties for these “transdimensional apertures” that enabled me to plunge my characters into all kinds of perilous adventures. (I won’t reveal details, because that would give away the plot, and I’d like readers to be surprised.)

I was a bald-faced liar because my physics was all scientific poppycock.

Then I became a thief. I misappropriated the term wormholes to name these apertures, because it was popular and would attract readers. Again, it was poppycock, because scientifically, my “wormholes” are nothing like the theoretical wormholes of real astrophysics.

So, why should I care that I was propagating poppycock? After all, other sci-fi authors devise scientifically ridiculous stuff all the time, from Star Trek to Dr. Who. And sci-fi fans are perfectly willing—like the Queen in Through the Looking Glass—to believe six impossible things before breakfast.

However, I felt guilty because in my profession  as a science communicator, for decades I tried to write accurately about real astronomy and astrophysics, working at three of the country’s top universities in the field—Caltech, MIT, and Cornell. Was I betraying my own principles, and incurring the scorn of scientists whom I greatly respect?

Fortunately, I’ve been able to bury that nagging guilt beneath some pretty substantive—and I think interesting—rationales.

Wormholes sources 2 (300x276)For one thing, I wanted to grab readers and lure them into exploring real science, just as I was captivated as a boy by the imaginative writings of legendary science fiction writers Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Ray Bradbury and Arthur C. Clarke. Their books, which launched flights of fictional fancy from real science, inspired me to want to know more about science, and ultimately to write about it. To give readers a path to that science, I even added a this list of sources of real science and engineering that inspired the book to the Wormholes web site.

My lying and thievery was also justified because I sought in the novel to reveal some greater truths about science and scientists.

For one thing, they’re an incredibly courageous and indefatigable lot. Few lay people realize that the vast majority of scientific experiments are failures. Scientists only advertise their successes, in scientific journal articles and news releases. But despite failure after failure, scientists persist, laboring away until they achieve success. And so, in Wormholes, my characters—including intrepid geologist Dacey Livingstone and iconoclastic physicist Gerald Meier—suffer failures that are sometimes deadly, resolutely learning from each failure and trying again.

The novel also portrays another greater truth—that scientists have been censured and censored for their theories, even in the face of good evidence. Among the most notorious modern examples is the censorship of climatologist James Hansen for his assertions that global warming is caused by human activities like burning fossil fuels.

I also experienced censorship in my career as a public information officer, which is a particular reason I wanted to portray it in the novel. At Caltech for example, in 1983 the administration killed a news release I’d written about economist Roger Noll. He had analyzed the organizational structure of large government R&D programs, including the then-new Space Shuttle. He declared the Shuttle program a “catastrophe,” because it rushed headlong into a massive construction program without carefully evolving the technology over multiple generations. Roger Noll’s criticisms were borne out by the Shuttle’s massive cost overruns, under-performance, and of course the subsequent, tragic Challenger and Columbia disasters. When my release was killed, I suspected it had to do with Caltech’s ties with NASA, via its Jet Propulsion Laboratory. But I thought maybe the administration knew something I didn’t about Noll or the Shuttle program.

Another egregious example: At Caltech, I’d written a news release about a paper by geochemist Clair Patterson on the health hazards of global lead pollution. The head of his Caltech division killed that release, even though Patterson’s evidence was solid and widely accepted. At the time, I believed that the censorship was due to some scientific issue I wasn’t aware of. Today I believe it might well have been fear of offending the powerful oil industry. Patterson’s advocacy ultimately led to a removal of lead from gasoline and other products.

So, perhaps I am a liar and a thief. But I can live with it, because not only have I tried to spin an entertaining sci-fi adventure tale. I’ve also tried to inspire readers to explore real science, and given them some real insight into scientists and their quests for discovery.

“Marketing for Scientists” Charts a Path to Success

1 04 2012

The new book Marketing for Scientists belongs, not on every scientist’s bookshelf, but on their desk! It’s a useful, savvy guide for scientists on how to market their work and themselves, to the benefit of their career, their field, and science in general.

As author Marc Kuchner points out, scientists certainly need to learn marketing, given the uphill battle they face in publishing papers, winning grants, and getting jobs. And society needs scientists to market science, given such adversaries as climate change and evolution deniers, and those who cling to the dangerous myth that vaccines cause autism.

Wisely, Kuchner begins the book by correcting the misconception that “marketing” is a dubious business of selling snake oil. That’s an outdated definition of the word, he points out, offering a new definition that any scientist would be comfortable with:

Marketing is the craft of seeing things from other people’s perspectives, understanding their wants and needs, and finding ways to meet them.

Few scientists realize it, but they are already “marketing” each time they talk to a colleague, publish a paper, deliver a talk, or do just about any other communication. However, in my opinion, the vast majority are abysmally poor at these communications, because they do not heed Kuchner’s definition and consider the needs of their “customers.”

For example, he points out that the very basic concept of giving good customer service is an invaluable marketing tool. This service can be as basic as answering emails and phone calls promptly, and arriving at meetings on time.

However, Kuchner’s techniques extend far beyond etiquette coaching. He explains strategies for turning people who have never heard of your work into advocates. And again, it’s not snake-oil-selling he advocates, but clear honest communications and building relationships. He points out that “There are walls between universities, walls between research groups, walls between one scientist and another.” He asserts that “Each wall between scientific subcultures can only be penetrated by a real, organic human relationship.”

He also offers sound advice on “branding”—another word that might give scientists pause. But he uses the modern definition of branding as “the set of all expectations consumers have about a company or product.” And his strategies aim at helping scientists build their brand; achieving a reputation for creativity and quality. What scientist could possibly object to that!

In his book, Kuchner parses “customers” whom scientists are trying to reach—e.g. students, junior scientists, senior scientists, funding agency staff, and press officers—and details their concerns and how to meet them.

Kuchner also offers practical marketing techniques for getting job offers, writing proposals, producing papers, benefiting from conferences, giving talks, and using email and the internet effectively. And again, these techniques are based on communication skills, not on the old concept of marketing as crass salesmanship.

He also offers excellent insight into communicating science to the public and to legislators, and to marketing science itself to a public that all-too-often harbors wrongheaded myths about science and scientists.

As a final summary “cheat sheet,” he offers a list of marketing tips for scientists. Here are a few choice ones:

  • When you communicate with people, use their names.
  • Carry a prop; tell a story.
  • Everyone is wondering What’s In It For Me? (WIIFM)
  • Creating new research questions is as good for your career as answering old ones.
  • Promote your Signature Research Idea and it will promote you; promote the idea, not yourself.
  • Focus your research; become the go-to person in your subfield.
  • Make videos about your work and put them online.

Please Explain: Training Scientists to Be Better Communicators

17 05 2010

This commentary was published May 16, 2010, in The Chronicle of Higher Education (registration required)

When it comes to persuading the American public about some of the most controversial issues of our time, today’s scientists too often get failing grades. Gallup polls show that only 39 percent of Americans believe in evolution, for example, while 48 percent say global warming is exaggerated and 46 percent say temperature increases are not due to human activity. And despite many recent court rulings asserting that there is no scientific evidence that vaccines cause autism, far too many parents still cling to that dangerous belief and refuse to have their children vaccinated.

Certainly some unscientific views arise from religious and political beliefs, but there’s another reason for such wrongheaded convictions, as well as for the public’s lack of scientific knowledge: Science suffers from its lack of a culture of explanation.

Scientists and engineers tend to communicate poorly in public controversies because—compared with, say, doctors and lawyers—their professions have not valued explanation. Their career advancement doesn’t depend on having lay-level explanatory skills. To progress professionally, scientists really need only to explain their work technically to other scientists—their colleagues, department heads, and granting agencies. But imagine what would happen to a doctor who couldn’t explain diseases to patients, or a lawyer who couldn’t explain the law to clients and juries. Their careers would be over.

A lack of public-communication skills also means that scientists and engineers do not think strategically about how to make their research work to their best professional advantage. For example, in 40 years as a research communicator at universities including the California Institute of Technology, Cornell University, Duke University, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, I never heard a researcher ask, “Who needs to know about my discovery?”

A class is not a “lay audience”

Many academic scientists might consider themselves expert explainers because a significant part of their job entails explaining research to undergraduates in their teaching. But even the most skillful scientist-teachers aren’t necessarily skilled science explainers. Speaking to “captive” student audiences is very different from communicating with any other lay audience, who often must be actively persuaded to be interested in a scientific topic.

Unfortunately, most science and engineering educators don’t even realize they need improvement. They don’t appreciate the potential benefits of communication training, so such training remains extremely rare on most college campuses. The result is that their students, too, graduate without knowing how to give a compelling public talk, write an interesting popular article, or create an engaging Web site. That puts them at a disadvantage in the job market because employers rank communication skills high in qualities they look for in an employee, according to Job Outlook 2015, the survey of employer organizations by the National Association of Colleges and Employers.

[I sought to help remedy the lack of communication skills by publishing my Explainiing Researchbook Explaining Research: How to Reach Key Audiences to Advance Your Work (Oxford 2010).]

Science would not have such a cultural deficit if scientists and those who educate them took a broader view of the value of communications than just immediate career advancement. They need to appreciate that their lack of skill and interest in lay-level communications limits their ability to reach audiences crucial to the success of their own research and their field. Such audiences include nonscientist administrators, potential collaborators in other disciplines, legislators, and donors. But even scientists’ communications with their own colleagues are less effective than they should be. By using the same skills that grab the attention of the local civic club or readers of a popular magazine, scientists could easily improve their seminars and papers.

Learning lay language

Yet scientists seldom bother to emerge from their cloistered realm of jargon to learn “lay language.” They often miss even the simplest and most obvious opportunities to advance the scientific point of view in the public mind by merely adjusting scientific vernacular. Clive Thompson, a columnist for Wired magazine, suggests that scientists could short-circuit one of creationists’ major arguments against evolution—that evolution is only a theory—simply by changing “theory of evolution” to “law of evolution.” “It performs a neat bit of linguistic jujitsu,” he explains. “If someone says, ‘I don’t believe in the theory of evolution,’ they may sound fairly reasonable. But if someone announces, ‘I don’t believe in the law of evolution,’ they sound insane. It’s tantamount to saying, ‘I don’t believe in the law of gravity.'”

Similarly, scientists need to rethink their use of the term “believe” in talking to lay audiences, writes the theoretical physicist Helen Quinn in Physics Today: “For most people a belief is an article of faith; a hypothesis or a theory is not much different from a guess. … When a person hears ‘scientists believe,’ he or she may hear it as a statement of faith or a suggestion of uncertainty. Neither is what we intend.” She suggests that scientists would strengthen their authority by replacing “We believe” with “Scientific evidence supports the conclusion that,” or even “We know that.”

Beyond scientists’ being linguistically tone-deaf, their lack of a culture of explanation makes them strategically maladroit when explaining their work to lay audiences. Rather than tailoring their arguments to their audiences, they tend to believe that merely presenting the facts of their work will lead audiences to see the light on such issues as evolution.

Dismal media coverage of science

Scientists’ reluctance to become activist-explainers of their work is one reason for the dismal coverage of research in the news media. Science coverage on the nightly news is so infinitesimally small as to be journalistic “noise”—a couple of percent of total coverage, according to the “State of the News Media” studies by the Project for Excellence in Journalism. Such poor coverage closes an important gateway to science for the public, making people far less likely to understand the importance of scientific findings or consider the possibility of careers in science.

Despite poor news-media coverage, people are interested in science—so scientists don’t have lack of interest as an excuse for their failure to engage the public. According to the National Science Board’s Science and Engineering Indicators 2014, 80 percent of Americans reported they were very or moderately interested in new scientific discoveries.

Scientists may also be reluctant to enter the public arena because of a wrongheaded belief that lay audiences have a low opinion of them. For example, I once heard the director of a national lab declare to reporters at a scientific meeting that the public disparages scientists as socially inept, unattractive, or villainous. Yet in a 2006 Harris Poll, Americans said they trusted doctors (85 percent), teachers (83 percent), and scientists (77 percent) far more than journalists (39 percent), lawyers (27 percent), or pollsters (34 percent). According to the National Science Board’s Science and Engineering Indicators 2008, “more Americans expressed a great deal of confidence in leaders of the scientific community than in the leaders of any other institution except the military.”

Communication courses needed

Establishing a culture of explanation to capitalize on people’s natural interest in science would not be difficult. Better education and support for lay-level communication are essential first steps. “Communication for Scientists” courses should become a standard component of science and engineering curricula. Such courses need not be onerous additions to students’ workloads—a semester-long course would be enough to introduce them to basic techniques of explaining their work to the public. To help faculty scientists and engineers, universities should offer one-day seminars aimed at honing lay-level communication skills.

Also, more scientific associations should follow the lead of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Chemical Society in establishing programs to encourage scientists’ public involvement. The AAAS operates a Center for Public Engagement With Science & Technology, and the ACS has established a Chemistry Ambassadors program. Those efforts support scientists with workshops and information about how to explain their work to students, lawmakers, journalists, and other important groups.

Scientists and engineers may argue that they are too busy to engage the public. Certainly, the demands of running experiments, publishing papers, writing grants, and managing a laboratory are considerable. But researchers will inevitably need to explain their work at some point—on their laboratories’ Web sites, in reports to administrators, in research descriptions for government agencies, and so on. By applying only a bit more effort and attention, they can make those explanations far more effective for lay audiences. They should also use a “strategy of synergy” to make one communication piece—like a news release or feature article—serve many purposes and audiences.

As the former AAAS President John Holdren—now President Obama’s science adviser—asserted in his address at the association’s 2007 meeting: Scientists and technologists need to “improve their communication skills so that they can convey the relevant essence of their understandings to members of the public and to policy makers. … I believe that every scientist and technologist should tithe 10 percent of his or her professional time and effort to working to increase the benefits of science and technology for the human condition and to decrease the liabilities. The challenges demand no less.”

A Champion of Engineering Makes an Eloquent Case

14 05 2010

Engineer/Author Henry Petroski, in more than a dozen books, has taken readers on engrossing adventures into subjects ranging from the pencil to collapsing bridges. In his latest book, The Essential Engineer: Why Science The Essential EngineerAlone Will Not Solve Our Global Problems, Petroski eloquently challenges a fundamental and profound bias in our society—the relegation of engineers and engineering to second-class status among professions.

Even though every manmade object—including the computer on which you read this review—was invented by engineers, they remain all-but-invisible in the media and in the public conscious. For example, an analysis by researchers Deborah Illman and Fiona Clark of two decades of research coverage in The New York Times found that mentions of science and scientists consistently outnumbered by two to one mentions of engineers and engineering.

In The Essential Engineer, Petroski traces the roots of the perceived primacy of science over engineering, declaring that

…our Western Platonic bias has it that ideas are superior and prerequisite to things. Hence, scientists who deal in ideas, even ideas about things, tend to be viewed as superior to engineers who deal directly in things. This point of view has no doubt contributed to the mistaken conclusion that science must precede engineering in the creative process.

In America, the origins of the science-before-engineering bias arose in the 1940s, when science administrator Vannevar Bush promulgated a simplistic linear model of science and engineering “that put research before development in name, status, fact, and deed.”

Petroski demonstrates the fallacy of this model by pointing out that technologies including the steam engine, powered flight and rockets “provide incontrovertible evidence for technology leading science. Basic research, in short, has long been suggested and motivated by and intertwined with technological development–and often has been led by it.”

In short, he writes, R&D could just as well be D&R, and “both R&D and D&R are really linked segments of a long and continuing line of interdependent activities and results. Perhaps we should speak of R&D&R, or even longer strings of D’s and R’s, as if they were part of an industrial genome.”

“Science is a tool of engineering,” writes Petroski, “and as no one claims that the chisel creates the sculpture, so no one should claim that science makes the rocket. Relying on nothing but scientific knowledge to produce an engineering solution is to invite frustration at best and failure at worst.”

What’s more, he writes,”…engineering and technology often precede science, because so many instruments and devices are needed to carry out the experiments essential to making scientific observations and testing scientific hypotheses.”

The media in general, and not just The New York Times, have done their part to minimize the importance of engineers, writes Petroski who suggests that “…as a way of dismissing their individuality…that engineers are often subsumed by careless journalists and layperson into the general rubric of scientist.”

Petroski also addresses the interchangeable use of “engineers” and “scientists” in newspaper headlines, asking “…could it be promulgated—if unwittingly—by science writers and reporters in the media whose members have overwhelmingly studied science rather than engineering in college?”

One problem, points out Petroski, is that too many of engineering’s accomplishments are “underground, behind architectural facades and associated with other professions.” Another problem is that when engineers are placed front and center in media coverage, it too often tends to be in the context of disaster.

The Essential Engineer is far from a negative screed, though. Petroski deftly describes the optimistic, challenging, rewarding nature of engineering, declaring that “The design of engineering structures is a creative process in the same way that paintings and novels are the product of creative minds. ” He writes that

Scientists also warn us of the entropic disasters associated with climate change, asteroid strikes, and the like, but warnings are not solutionsnor are they necessarily a death knell. It will be the optimistic engineers who hear the warnings not as doomsday scenarios but as calls to tackle significant problems.

And as for the complexity of engineering’s challenges, Petroski emphasizes that the profession entails more than a rote designing of widgets:

The engineering of things is “pervaded by choice,” something that cannot be easily said about science or even engineering science, to which the natural and made world are givens. Whatever scientists may wish, they cannot credibly propose a theory of motion that does not comport with the facts of the universe.

In a declaration that might surprise many unfamiliar with engineering, Petroski cites its connection with humanities, declaring that “… it behooves scientists and engineers to be connected with the cultures of the humanities and social sciences. Solutions to global problems must take into account matters of humanity and society…. The goal, after all, is not science and engineering for their own sake, but for the sake of the planet and its inhabitants.”

To demonstrate the richness of engineering, Petroski takes the reader through a tour of technologies as seen through the eyes of an engineer, including speed bumps and humps, dams, climate change, “geoengineering” of the earth to combat climate change, renewable energy, nanotechnology, robotics, structural earthquake engineering, hurricane protection, airline accidents, the electric power grid, evolution of the automobile, and “financial engineering.”

And, he firmly establishes engineering’s place in solving the daunting problems such as climate change and energy shortage, facing humanity, writing “In the final analysis, it will be engineering that possesses the same qualities involved in accomplishing the great achievements of the last century that will be the key ingredient in a solution.”

The Essential Engineer—an accessible, enjoyable tour of engineering—is essential reading, not only for engineers and students, but for all of us who benefit from the vast wealth of technology that makes modern life possible.

The Seismic Changes in Science Communication: “Radio In Vivo” Interview

4 03 2010

I was interviewed about the extraordinary changes facing science communication and about Explaining Research, on the science radio program Radio In Vivo, WCOM-FM, on March 3, 2010.

The discussion with host Ernie Hood explored the new pitfalls and opportunities facing scientists, public information officers and journalists in communicating  research to important audiences—colleagues, potential collaborators in other disciplines, officers in funding agencies and foundations, donors, institutional leaders, corporate partners, students, legislators, family and friends, and the public.

Interview: Are Scientists Geeks or Heroes?

17 02 2010

I had a delightful interview with Maureen Cavanaugh of KPBS Radio San Diego on the topic “Are Scientists Geeks or Heroes?” Guess which side I came down on.

Scientists are Heroes

12 02 2010

(Here’s the latest round in my campaign to convince scientists and engineers that the public sees them as respected heroes. This article appeared on The Scientist Web site, February 12, 2010. Free registration required)

The author of a new book contravenes the myth that the public views scientists as geeks or villains.

by Dennis Meredith

For me, the last straw came several years ago when the director of a major national laboratory declared to an audience of reporters at a large scientific meeting that the public sees scientists as geeky, unattractive, or “mad.” He wasn’t the first scientist to spout this corrosive myth about his own profession. But I hope that the clear evidence to the contrary in my book Explaining Research will make him the last.

In fact, I think that the public overwhelmingly sees scientists as heroes. This is demonstrated most convincingly in the positive portrayal of scientists in movies and TV shows, which are prime barometers of public perception.

Opinion polls also bear out the public’s perception of scientist-hero. In a 2006 Harris Poll, for example, Americans said they trusted doctors (85 percent), teachers (83 percent), scientists (77 percent) and professors (75 percent) far more than they did journalists (39 percent), lawyers (27 percent), or pollsters (34 percent). And respondents to a 2009 survey by the Pew Research Center for People and the Press said that people who contributed the most to society’s well-being were members of the military, teachers, scientists, medical doctors, and engineers. The major survey Science and Engineering Indicators 2008, by the National Science Board concluded that “more Americans expressed a ‘great deal’ of confidence in leaders of the scientific community than in the leaders of any other institution except the military.”

However, the most dramatic insight into public perceptions of scientists comes from their depiction in movies and TV shows. After all, Hollywood tends to follow popular opinion when casting its heroes and villains. It seems to me that criminals, terrorists and greedy businessmen are the most frequent villains, and scientists among the most prevalent heroes. For example, in Jurassic Park, the heroes were paleontologist Alan Grant, paleobotanist Ellie Sattler, and mathematician Ian Malcolm. The villain was foolish entrepreneur John Hammond.

In Explaining Research, I decided to confirm this notion by presenting statistics on Hollywood’s portrayal of scientists. I compiled a list of some 140 films depicting scientists and engineers—drawing on the filmography in Sidney Perkowitz’s book Hollywood Science and also searching the Internet Movie Database. I then judged whether the scientists in those movies were heroes or villains. The analysis revealed about six times more scientist-heroes than scientist-villains. (For complete movie lists and discussion see “Scientist heroes” on the Explaining Research Web site.

Actually, the list of truly villainous scientists is even smaller because of a key caveat: most of the putative scientist-villains were not really evil, but merely flawed—either misguided or overly ambitious—or suffered when their research escaped their control. For example, in Spider-Man 2, the virtuous Dr. Otto Octavius transformed into the villainous “Doc Ock” when he was taken over by the mechanical tentacles he had developed as artificially intelligent tools. And in the end, it was Octavius, and not Spider-Man who saved the day by sinking the uncontrolled fusion ball into the sea.

Movie biologists have saved the earth—or at least a significant chunk of it—numerous times. For example, the scientists in the Andromeda Strain and Outbreak, rescued humanity from catastrophic infectious disease outbreaks through cutting edge science and a healthy dose of luck. They’ve even fought to save alien planets, as did Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) for the verdant Pandora in James Cameron’s latest blockbuster Avatar.

Some of Hollywood’s biggest stars have portrayed scientist-heroes, including Ben Affleck, Jessica Alba, Nicolas Cage, Russell Crowe, Laura Dern, Robert Downey Jr., Harrison Ford, Cary Grant, Anthony Hopkins, Dustin Hoffman, Angelina Jolie, Eddie Murphy, Bill Murray, Liam Neeson, Edward Norton, Gwyneth Paltrow, Bill Paxton, and Will Smith. Would those A-list actors sign on to play scientists if researchers were really considered geeks, devoid of personality?

Scientists are also equally heroic on TV these days. The bane of countless fictional criminals are the scientist-heroes of Bones, CSI (Las Vegas, New York, and Miami), Criminal Minds, NCIS, Numb3rs, and other popular crime dramas.

My aim in demonstrating that the public sees scientists as heroes is not just to boost scientists’ self-esteem, although that’s certainly important. I also hope that the next time a scientist stands before an audience to advocate for adequate research funding, argue for policies to alleviate global warming, or debate creationists, he or she will do so confident in having the considerable advantage of being seen as a trusted, credible, hero.