The Future Of US Particle Physics: Communication, Education And Outreach
    By Tommaso Dorigo | January 27th 2014 06:19 AM | 3 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Tommaso

    I am an experimental particle physicist working with the CMS experiment at CERN. In my spare time I play chess, abuse the piano, and aim my dobson...

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    Chapter 10 of the report on the 2013 community summer study held at Snowmass, titled "Communication, Education, and Outreach" is available since Jan 24th in the Cornell ArXiv. It is a 26-pages document describing the importance of outreach activities to foster the development of particle physics, and offering ideas and strategies to improve the communication between scientists and policy makers. This is none other than the problem I have often referred to as the one of "filling the gap" between science and the general media.

    I think the report is a balanced look at the situation and a fair attempt at showing in what way the gap could be narrowed; but I have some reservation on the emphasis it gave to different aspects of the problem. The document also provides some interesting data on the beliefs of particle physicists and their involvement with outreach and communication activities.

    One important part of the report concerns the strategic issue of "Building support among policy makers and opinion leaders". Here the authors identify several recommendations. I am not too interested in this particular issue though, so I won't comment on this part further. I would just like to say that to me the one of "educating your congressman" is a distracting goal. Much more important than that would be to create the conditions for a change of our society, such that the next generation of congressmen are chosen also on the basis of their scientific literacy rather than the other way round. I really think we should work at the roots of the problem rather than finding ourself in the emergency of fixing the top as well as we can.

    The text contains the word "blog" twice and Twitter and Facebook are mentioned once. I believe this is a measure of the fact that those media are not considered very important to the cause by the authors of the study, which is contrary to my own belief (as is obvious by the fact that I have been blogging for eight years now...). In fact, I do believe that the combination of social media and outreach activities such as blogs and articles on popular science magazines available online is one very important tool for the capillary diffusion of scientific literacy and ideas in support of basic research to the general public.

    In the part titled "Building public appreciation for particle physics", which is more interesting to me, the report focuses on distinguishing the audience in categories - "popular science enthusiasts", "everyday people", "parents", "science skeptics", and "critics of public funding of science", for the purpose of trying to tailor to the different targets the outreach means and the messages to convey. I believe that this may be a good schematization, but I fear it sounds a bit like micromanagement to me. Besides, no single person belongs to one and only one of those above categories.

    I would have preferred to see more focus on the improvement of the way we reach people based on the ways we have to reach them - i.e. the media. If we conquer the media, we reach everybody. Television, newspapers, facebook. Those are the ways, like it or not.  Television is also mentioned just once in the report, while I believe it should still be one of our main concerns. There is too little good science in TV programs, and we do too little to increase that; of course, the problem in that case is how to make science entertaining, and that is a tough one - but until we face that we are doomed to lose.


    America is not the technocracy you wish it to be, thank goodness! And that's ok. Please go tell some other country how ignorant and misguided they are and how you wish to re-educate and rearrange their culture and financial priorities using the media to produce propaganda to suit your personal tastes and politics, then get back to me on what they say (or do) to you! Have a nice day, and good luck with that!.
    "How to make science entertaining"? Really? Honestly?? You're serious? "Sesame Street for PhDs"? This is the lynch pin of your great master plan to change society into a benevolent technocracy after taking over the media to spread propaganda and get more funding? Are you really that condescending and elitist or do you just not see it that way?
    Ok, I'm over laughing... for a bit. Let me let you down gently concerning your plan: Yes, you are doomed to lose, but please don't let that stop you from trying.

    I don't think it's a bad idea to be interesting. A robot on Mars and the LHC caught the public's attention because they were interesting. In March, there will be a documentary on the LHC and (I believe) the filmmakers are going to do a guest piece here and people will love it - because it's interesting. Talking ad nauseum about statistical blips, not so much.

    The NASA program caught the public's attention because it was a bold adventure - but in reality it was IBM and a bunch of very young government contractors doing tedious work discovering how to do something that had never been done. But if someone today advises NASA to stop being a zero tolerance for risk job works program, you will tell them to stop telling NASA what to do. Even though the advice is absolutely correct. 
    Hello Hank,

    I agree that statistical fluctuations are overhyped in HEP. That is due to the fact that often in the past they were the precursors of big discoveries, but admittedly they become less interesting when there is nothing any more to discover :-/  

    On the other hand, 1%-5% effects (which arise by chance in a study in 100, or one in 20) routinely percolate to the press when they come from studies of correlations between chocolate consumption and nobel prize winning odds, or other similar nonsense. If I had to choose I'd prefer to see particle searches discussed there, but of course improbable correlation studies are more entertaining...