23 August 2005

Talking Sciencese

My (attempted) post on entropy analysis elucidated the need for clear, concise communication. For a scientist or engineer, communication skills are paramount. They rank higher than your math or computer skills, and higher even than your creativity. You can be the most brilliant scientist in the world, but if you can't detail the consequences of your results, your accomplishments will come to naught. Physical sciences have become way more vast and complicated than was fifty years ago. As a result, students, and the public at large, have to learn much more, much more efficiently.

Science, like most professional services, has developed its own lexicon. My definition of work and energy is very different from that of the public at large. I notice for example, I used the term phonon when talking about Drude-model metals. How many of my readers, even the most technically inclined ones, know what a phonon is? @MonkeySign probably knows, since he is into photovoltaics, but everyone else probably had to head off to Wikipedia.

Mathematics, on the other hand, is a totally different language from English, and science incorporates it. This can make scientific journals even less comprehensible to the average person than military acronyms or legal jargon. In order to talk about science to normal people, we have to use some numbers, but we also have to be very cautious about when we use them.

In order to continue, I would present an example of what I consider a perfect example of how to talk to and inspire Ph.D.'s and normal people, at the same time. It is a famous speech by famous physicist, Richard Feynman. Feynman is famous, among other things, for reforming textbook selection for California public schools. Please take the time to read the link. Keep in mind, this is the transcript of a speech, not a massaged literary piece:


It's not important that many of the details of Feynman's talk are wrong. We certainly aren't moving towards nanofiche storage techniques. What matters is the concept, and that he was able to articulate it so clearly. What's more impressive is he gave the speech in 1959.

There are a number of success stories too. The focused ion beam (FIB) machine is used for nano-scale milling, and he accurately described it. He personally discovered Helium superfluidity, and by extension created a solution to the lubrication problem.

Nanotechnology didn't explode in the way he foresaw -- the supporting cast wasn't ready yet. However, practical nanotechnology development is beginning as computers and instrumentation improve.

The field of 'renewable' energy has never had a voice like Feynman to light a path. If it did, we wouldn't be using such a clumsy term to describe directly and indirectly derived solar energy. Renewable solutions have slowly percolated out of the ground at different points to form some gelatinous, heterogenous concept. A diffusion process like this is most likely to find the optimum solution, rather than some local minima. Science does eat its weakest children, so the bad concepts will eventually be filtered out. Unfortunately, diffusion is slow, and we need someone to stir the pot every once and awhile.

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