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Are lay person questions annoying to professional scientists?

  1. Oct 1, 2009 #1
    I am a "lay" person. I understand that I lack the mathematics knowledge necesary to fully understand advanced concepts in physics. Nevertheless, I find theoretical physics fascinating, and want to learn more. I have learned much from reading this board, and then using what i have read as a jump-off to look more deeply into topics. It is possible to have a general understanding of something (like relativity for example) without knowing all the specific math.

    Do the physicists here find it frustrating when people are looking for non-techinal answers?

    EDIT: There are also ALOT of misconceptions about physics amongst the general public! Even amongst science teachers!
     
    Last edited: Oct 1, 2009
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  3. Oct 1, 2009 #2

    Pengwuino

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    This question irritates me.

    hehe :)

    I think most people here enjoy helping people further their understanding. If anything, I only notice people get irritated when "lay" person thinks their uneducated ideas are correct and fiercly defend them in the face of people who have spent many years or decades researching and living in the field. Of course, when I say uneducated, i literally mean ideas from people who simply have no formal training, just like i have uneducated ideas about... art history or something.
     
  4. Oct 1, 2009 #3

    Pythagorean

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    I think it's a case-by-case thing.

    There's some cases where you can call on Einstein:
    "You do not really understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother. "

    In which case, the only physicists that get frustrated by the question are the ones that don't really understand the answer.

    But there's a lot of things in quantum physics that aren't graspable in an intuitive way, so we can call on Schroedinger:
    "If you think you fully understand quantum mechanics....then you haven't thought about it hard enough."
     
  5. Oct 1, 2009 #4
    Nah, I don't get annoyed by laypeople. The exception, which Pengwuino mentioned, is when they starte defending ideas that are just plain wrong. Once in awhile, somebody will send a random email to people in my physics department, pitching their latest idea. Just last week someone sent an email to all of the grad students in the physics department, suggesting that the Sun was the only luminous body in the universe, and that everything we see in space is the result of reflections from a "space mirror." That sort of stuff does tick me off. But for the most part, I'm always happy to explain physics to laypeople.
     
  6. Oct 1, 2009 #5

    turbo

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    There are some professionals in every field that are quite accessible and friendly. If they have the time and see some value in your question, you're probably not annoying them. Years back, I had written a letter to a popular magazine on astronomy, and referenced the work of a professional astronomer WRT to the subject matter of a recent article. A couple of weeks later, there was an air-mail envelope in my mailbox from said astronomer with a nice long personal letter addressing the subject matter and giving me encouragement along with some additional insights regarding the current state of the research.

    Another time, I emailed a researcher, who was working in NASA's propulsion breakthrough project at the time, with a question regarding the nature of vacuum. That started a months-long chain of correspondence regarding the expectation value of the vacuum energy, possible tests, theoretical considerations that might shed light on why the observed vacuum energy (in conventional cosmology) appears to be suppressed by >120 OOM...

    I'm not saying that you should pester experts in a field that you are interested in, but there are professionals who welcome contact. I did not initiate contact in the first instance, and asked just one simple question about a published paper in the second instance, only to find our correspondence going far afield and much deeper as the exchange progressed.
     
  7. Oct 1, 2009 #6
    Ok, thanks. I wasn't going to be writing letters to people, more so posting questions on this forum.
     
  8. Oct 1, 2009 #7

    ZapperZ

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    Yes, and No.

    First of all, I do a lot of outreach program, and I also host many "tours" by students and general public to the facility that I work in. I've enjoyed interactions with the "lay person" a lot, so much so that I've volunteered my time as much as I can for such causes. Our Open House at Argonne last month was a tremendous success, and I think both the scientists and the public got a lot out of such event. So no, in these cases, I don't mind them asking such questions. After all, it is their opportunity to get answers directly from the experts without having them reported by another person in the media. In my opinion, the more the general public get access to the experts, the better informed they will be.

    The "No" part is when the "lay person" either already has an "agenda" or a particular point of view about certain things stuck in his/her head. This is worse when the question isn't that easy to answer mainly because it requires a lot of "prerequisites" to explain something clearly. The issue of the LHC and "catastrophic black hole" is one example that I can think of. I've had people who clearly want to know about this, and I've had others who had already made up their minds that physicists are going to destroy the world, no matter what answer I gave them. The latter annoys me mainly because I've just wasted my time and effort for nothing. I can't even carry a rational discussion with them. If this was a disagreement between physicists, I could at least argue something based on physics grounds. But how does one do that with a lay person when you know it will go well over his/her head?

    The other thing that often annoys me is when a lay person gets "defensive" when I come back and ask him/her to clarify the question. For example, the question "Is the electron real?" (or whatever entity of the month is) will always get a response from me with another question "What do you mean by real? Is your mother real? What criteria do you use to know that she's real?" Inevitably, someone gets annoyed by that as if I'm evading the question, whereas all I'm trying to understand is to what extend does this person even understands his/her own question, and whether he/she has a set of criteria or a set of entities that has already been accepted as being "real". My approach has always been to use what that person knows, at the level that he/she knows, and use that as the foundation to explain and answer the question. So if this person says "My mother is real because such and such", then you can use that criteria to make a comparison with how we know about the properties of an electron. Knowing what the question is is one of the most important aspect of physics, because we need to clearly define what we are trying to seek the answer to. It is how many revolutionary aspect of physics came about, when we realize that our questions in certain situation simply make no sense, or invalid, and we must redefine them to learn more.

    Interestingly enough, this last part is also the http://news.cnet.com/8301-13772_3-10364928-52.html?tag=TOCmoreStories.0"! Read the last part of the article:

    So this isn't unique to physics, but rather a characteristics of trying to get answers out of a complex idea or situation.

    Zz.
     
    Last edited by a moderator: Apr 24, 2017
  9. Oct 1, 2009 #8
    I've found that if you engage by asking questions you can participate in nearly any thread on PF. If you are courteous, more often than not, someone will take the time to explain complicated posts.
     
  10. Oct 1, 2009 #9
    It depends really on how the question is asked. I find explaining things to people whose agenda it is to NOT understand something very frustrating.
     
  11. Oct 1, 2009 #10

    Moonbear

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    I agree with the others who have responded. If you are just genuinely trying to increase your understanding, and just ask for things to be explained in a more non-technical way, that is just fine. I enjoy being able to educate the general public about science, and am even chairing a fairly newly formed committee in our department that now coordinates the outreach activities of our departmental faculty.

    As others have pointed out, if the questions are less about learning, and more about trying to tell us how someone undereducated in the sciences thinks something should be, and looking for verification rather than accepting they may be completely wrong in their understanding, then it gets annoying.
     
  12. Oct 1, 2009 #11

    Pengwuino

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    Reminds me of a quote i heard that went something to the effect of "The number of people who truly understand General Relativity can be counted on your hand. The number of people who truly understand Quantum Mechanics is 0, including the people who created it."
     
  13. Oct 1, 2009 #12
    And what they're talking about there is that the nature of "observation" isn't well defined in the theory?
     
  14. Oct 1, 2009 #13

    Blah. I hate quotes like that. GR and QFT are perfectly well "understood" in the sense that we use the word. Did we ever know WHY the universe obeyed Newton's Laws? No. But we said it was "understandable" to us. How is quantum or GR any different. We have a nearly complete and incredibly accurate and predictive theory. How is that not understanding? We never understood the epistemological or ontological.
     
  15. Oct 1, 2009 #14
    I've always found the person who reads "Elegant Universe" or a "Brief History of Time" to be incredibly annoying. Those book make a person feel like they've conveyed so much when they've really conveyed so little. Not that I'm saying that a better layman book could be written but it's the nature of knowledge and understanding that it only comes with time, patience and discipline. There's no short cut to intuition of advanced physics/mathematics.
     
  16. Oct 2, 2009 #15

    Pythagorean

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    'Understanding' is meant as 'intuitive' here...

    F=ma is incredibly intuitive... Schroedinger's equation is not. This may be a matter of personal intuition, but I can understand how the same force results in a lower acceleration in bigger masses. I experience it every day. I'm used to it. It's familiar. That's the point. The model of probability wave functions... not so intuitive.
     
  17. Oct 2, 2009 #16
    Yes, but last time I checked "repetitive experience with" was not synonymous with "understanding"
     
  18. Oct 2, 2009 #17

    Pythagorean

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    you're being difficult... obviously you don't 'repetitive experience' my point.
     
  19. Oct 2, 2009 #18

    Vanadium 50

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    I was going to write something, but couldn't possibly have expressed my thoughts this well. Bravo.
     
  20. Oct 2, 2009 #19

    ZapperZ

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    I concur with maverick. It is irresponsible to make statements like that, and certainly, perpetuating it without CONTEXT. Why? Because the term "understood" means different things to different people, just like the word "theory". It can be bastardized.

    Would you want to put your life and the lives of your loved ones based on something that we don't understand? I don't understand medicine. Would you want me to perform surgery on you? Yet, you DO put your lives on many things that are based on Quantum Mechanics! So the people who utter such things have to do a lot of serious explanation on such a paradoxical statement. And if someone tells me that Feynman himself said something like that without citing the context of that quote, I'll smack that person on the back of his/her head! Would Feynman claim that they gave him the Nobel Prize for doing something he didn't understand? Seriously?! He did, after all, got the award for his work in QED!

    Zz.
     
  21. Oct 2, 2009 #20

    ZapperZ

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    The next off-topic, catfight post will get a very generous infraction! Never say that you haven't been warned.

    Zz.
     
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