Though it was supposed to be a work-free holiday, and even though no internet connection is available there, during my recent vacation to Cuba (yay) I could not avoid spending some time working (mostly in the evenings and/or early in the mornings — depending on how many mojitos I had the evening before).
The day after tomorrow, the first draft is due of a book chapter on which I should have been working over the past two months, if my time during the Fall term had not been consumed almost entirely by teaching. It is a chapter on the properties of clusters of hydrogen (obviously nanoclusters, goes without saying), which I am planning to upload on ArXiv early next week. It is going to be included in the upcoming Handbook of Nanophysics.
Although I am describing work that has been done over the past few years, and about which I have published a few articles which I could use at least in part as a template, to make things particularly difficult this time is the explicit request of the Editor to make the material “accessible to a non-specialist”. In the words of the Editor: “Imagine for example a molecular biologist at a cancer research center who is interested to connect cells to a nanoelectronic circuit or a physicist who plans to do work in nanomedicine” .
This is not the first time I receive a request of this type, and I am sure some of my fellow science bloggers are encountering it often too. These days, statements for the “general public” are required almost ubiquitously; for example, they must accompany most research proposals; then there are short articles written for one’s department, or college of science newsletters, as well as popular science magazines . All of that is part of the public relation, outreach effort in which every scientist must engage. It is usually a difficult proposition, though, mostly coming from the simple fact that scientific results that are worth publishing are not exactly the type of things that lend themselves to simple descriptions in “layman terms”.
In the case of this handbook, the stated aim is more ambitious, as the final result is supposed to help a “non-specialist” become proficient in an area of inquiry that can be fairly removed from his/her expertise, to the point where (s)he may be able to start independent research work in that area. After all, interdisciplinarity is the name of the game these days, is it not ? Everybody has to know “a little bit of everything”, I guess…
Particularly telling is this specific piece of advice given by the Editor, regarding references to be included at the end of a chapter:
“readers are scientists like you and usually very busy; they don’t want to take the time to look up references. Sometimes a few additional sentences in the manuscript may help to make this unnecessary.”
I don’t know, maybe I am just reading too much into this but… for some reason it rubs me the wrong way. The contention that a professional scientist, supposedly eager to master the basic elements of a new field, can’t be bothered to look up and study original references, is just bizarre. It is all too reminiscent of the request from students of introductory physics that I “just teach them what they need”, “skip over the mumbo jumbo”, and mostly “avoid the math”. Hey, don’t get me wrong, I am all for trying to make things accessible to as wide an audience as possible, and utilizable by colleagues in many different fields. However, there is a point where this objective, sensible and commendable as it may sound, becomes meaningless, and seriously risks turning into an exercise in vacuity in the best case, spreading misinformation in the worst case.
If there was a way to make a subject on which people write PhD theses, easily “accessible to the layperson”, would universities grant PhDs on that subject ? Would they hire specialists to teach it ? Would it be considered “advanced knowledge” ? If a biochemist could become versed in spintronics in a few weeks, by reading a chapter of two of a handbook, why would physics graduate students spend years specializing in spintronics ? Should they get a degree in biochemistry and read the same chapters instead ?
There is something profoundly silly, disingenuous and insulting in the very notion that expertise acquired by a scientist over the course of years of hard work, study and research, can be summarized in “a few additional sentences”, or even forty pages, and that from a whole body of knowledge a minuscule fraction can be excised of “stuff worth knowing”, which can be expressed in “layman terms” — all the rest is just a pile of “mumbo jumbo” with no real use. It shows scarce understanding of science, but more importantly little respect for scientists and the scientific enterprise.
Some of the general ideas can be explained in simple terms, but most of them cannot. Trying to do that anyway is likely to generate only confusion and misunderstanding, achieving precisely the opposite of what “divulgation” aims at accomplishing. For examples of how this routinely happens in physics, you may read ZapperZ’s excellent blog (especially what he calls “bastardizations of quantum mechanics”), but the very same point is made in this article by Nobel laureate Paul Krugman about economics. Krugman chastises precisely the habit of many, including some of his most respected colleagues, to skip over, or dismiss the importance of the “technical” and mathematical aspects of his discipline. I cannot express it more eloquently than him:
“There are important ideas in [economics] that can be expressed in plain English […] but there are also [some] that are crystal clear if you can stand algebra, and very difficult to grasp if you can’t.”
At the cost of sounding like an old fart, I do believe that years of hard work are not just an unfortunate, pedantic requirement, much less some kind of “rite of passage” imposed on the younger generations. Rather, an essential part of the process of learning and comprehension. It is the very individual process of spending hours, months, years thinking about a subject that underlies knowledge, and the ensuing appreciation for the field and for science in general, much in the same way one does not become a musician in a week. Perhaps nowhere as in science the devil is in the details. Trying to by-pass that, advocating the idea that it can all be reduced to “pills”, and even promoting the teaching or the divulgation of science by short-cuts may be politically appealing, but is going to be detrimental to science literacy. In the short term it gives rise to the type of confusion that leads politicians to make uninformed decisions, and (even more importantly) in the long term it will promote a superficial approach to science.
 What the heck is “nanomedicine” anyway ? I am a long time detractor of everything “nano”, but really, this is going way too far…
 I also remember getting into an argument with an NSERC administrator, who insisted that my bio was not written in a way that would make it “accessible to the layperson”, and kept taking the liberty of making changes — problem is, the person had no clue about what it is that I do, and therefore wrote nonsense, inserting random text copied off some encyclopedia, changing words into others that had different meaning, and in general misrepresenting my work, all in the name of “divulgation”.