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What is the definition of POP SCIENCE?

  1. Jul 13, 2003 #1

    Ivan Seeking

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    I am posting this here since this mainly applies to discussions of theoretical physics...especially in the extreme.

    I see the term "pop science" used frequently. This is one of those nebulous terms that has the bothersome quality of providing an escape mechanism to avoid unpopular interpretations. I have seen people ranging from Von Daniken to Sagan, from Kaku to Hawking, and from Wheeler to Bohm referred to purveyors of this hypothetical philosophy.

    Since I don't think the subject exists, I am wondering how you may define this term? My position is that there is good science and bad science. Bad science is a failed attempt at the proper application of the scientific method. Likewise, pop sci is either garbage or not. So do we always mean garbage, or do we mean something else?
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  3. Jul 13, 2003 #2
    Ivan, I am one of those accused of reading Pop Science. Since I have been reading Asimov, Sagan, Hawking, Feynman and Gribbin among others, I assumed it was meant as science written for lay people such as myself who do not have a strong mathematical background but do have the curiousity and desire to know and understand the concepts and principles involved.
    It has recently become obvious that even that term, lay, has become one of inadequacy and mentally challenged. It has become that last resort of those not doing well in a discussion similar to the term "prove it." Just the other day I was told not to take such readings too literally or seriously because I couldn't understand the math involved and thus couldn't understand the complete concept.
    This may be true for as one who is mathematically challenged I could never know or verify it for myself. I have only the word and ability of the above authors to express what is really happening in terms that I can understand.
    I have never thought that I was a mental giant but I can walk and chew gum at the same time and I can understand words of more than one syllabel even if I can't spell them. Snobs are everywhere even in gas stations, farms and ditches and I have in my life worked in every one of them.
    I know that I am not alone and we don't really mind because we are after all only trying to learn and better understand what we have read. It does ruffled our feathers however to be dismissed as rude childen trying to get involved in adult conversations that we have no hope of understanding.
    I'm sure Asimov and Feynman are turning in their graves and I hope Hawking and Gribbon never find out or they may quit writing their pop culture books.
    Thanks for giving me the opportunity to unload. I feel better now.
  4. Jul 13, 2003 #3


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    We should all try to understand that much of the latent anger
    on both sides of the divide (on modes of communication) has
    to do with frustration with language rather than dislike of people.

    I tend to like people who have the gift of gab and enjoyable to listen to. In many situations someone with a good verbal intelligence who can express something well is indispensable.

    But many of those people do not understand pictures or differential equations. So there is the frustration of trying to
    communicate an idea to someone you really care about and want to share a thought with---and not being able to.

    You run up against the limitations of English and the discontinuity between word and differential equation.

    then there are the odious egomaniacs who THINK they understand mathematical science and pontificate about it----acting like a priesthood with divine authority handing down the word to the lowly layperson from their superior position. Drat them. They are the worst.

    This crack in the communication picture causes all sorts of anger and dysfunctional behavior.

    Verbal descriptions are suspect and individuals like Feynmann who somehow manage to be honest using words alone are rare.

    I think he said one time that you do not understand your research, or any piece of physics, until you can explain it to your mother. This is a radical test of understanding. John Kelley the topologist used to say you dont understand a piece of mathematics until you can explain it to the man in the street---much the same idea but Feynmann said it funnier. These two men were saints in the only religion that impresses me as worth the time of day. But very very rare.
  5. Jul 13, 2003 #4


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    Royce lets do a kind of pop/real science experiment.

    go to the top diagram in Figure 1 on page 6 of


    see if you can read the diagram and put it in words

    it says among other things that even light emitted towards us in regions of space receding at greater than the speed of light can eventually reach us

    and it shows the track of light that started its journey towards us in a region receding faster than c away from us. It shows the track of light that was initially SWEPT BACK by the flow of the expansion---the socalled "hubble flow" and yet ultimately reached us

    and it shows typical redshifts for such light which are quite commonly observed---redshifts like 2, 3, 4----so quite a bit of what
    people are observing had that history of initially being swept back but eventually making it to us.

    now my guess is that no wide-market verbal popularization book about the universe tells this story. Despite the hunger for royalties and attention or whatever is motivating what seems to be a huge flood of popularly written books about the universe, my guess is that nobody says this.

    but the curves in that diagram are solutions of standard differential equations. So we have some kind of semipermeable membrane between equations and curves on the one side and the verbal market on the other. Only some things can get thru.

    It is not as if what is said there is new! Pearshape lightcones have been around for quite a while. No author who wants to sell books will translate them into words----no author I know of anyway. Why?

    what is your attitude towards perceptions and insight that cannot make it thru the membrane? That those perceptions simply do not matter and do not deserve to get thru into verbal discourse. To me they seem the opposite. What is unintuitive and discordant even disturbing in a purely verbal setting is precisely the most valuable insight to convey.
    Last edited by a moderator: Apr 20, 2017
  6. Jul 13, 2003 #5

    Ivan Seeking

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    Royce, I'm glad you found this useful. I was wondering if this would ring any bells or not out there.

    The problems that I have with using the lack of explicit mathematics as the basis for defining pop sci is I think contained with the statements by Marcus: The philosophy of physics is often call pop science. I think Marcus hit the nail on the head. Not many people can explain physics with common words. This is very difficult and it often requires not only the translation from mathematics, but it also can require an understanding of many concepts before a person can understand the key concept. But I also see many people who use the expression popular as meaning wrong; when what they really mean is that they don't agree. The philosophy of physics has its place and is not pop science...even if it enjoys some transient popularity with the average person.

    A professor of mine once commented that popular science books are really the new forum for discussion amongst the leaders in the field. These books are a way to engage in the process of interpretation and to still get paid for it. She suggested that in years past, most great minds were found at only a few campuses around the world. With the advent of mass advanced education, the once highly localized groups of gentlemen who met frequently for some discourse over a brandy and a cigar, are now duking it out on the supermarket shelves for ten bucks a copy.
  7. Jul 13, 2003 #6
    Thanks Marcus and Ivan. For some reason I am not able to open or download the link in pdf or postscript. I will try again later.

    Understand that I am not angry nor do I hate people doing this. I am frustrated first by my own lack of mathematics. I understand differientials at least in concept. Reguardless how hard I tried I was never able to get beyond analytical geometery and intro to calculus becuse I had to go the college at night. I was working during the day to support myself and family. That is, as they say, my problem. I do get frustrated when someone says that it is in the math and leaves it at that.
    The other thing is the conotation of "Pop Culture" science literature. I associate it with pulp fiction and romance novels, probably the snob in me.
    I know how hard it is to put such concepts into words but that is why Feynman said what he did and why the teacher learns just as much as the student in such and exchange. I have mentioned this before but I often imagine myself trying to do just that, esplain to some such as my wife something that I just read but don't really have a handle on it yet.
  8. Jul 13, 2003 #7
    It's scientific ideas made popular by the media which aren't nessicarily true.
    A good example from psychology is the Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus books.
  9. Jul 13, 2003 #8

    Ivan Seeking

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    Hi Dave, would you meet me in the general discussion area with this? I would like to pursue this point but I doubt we can pass this one off as theoretical physics.
  10. Jul 13, 2003 #9
    I finally got the file downloaded and opened. I looked at it and am abit overwhelmed. I'm sure that once I read the article and study the diagrams more I will understand it. I do inpart already as Hawking and is it Pemrose introduced me to pearshaped light cones.

    In short even though the emitting galaxy is receding due to expansion faster than the speed of light the light still travels at C towards us. The further towards us that it travels the slower the relative speed of expansion and eventually the light will reach us.
    I think(?) but you already said that so I'mn essentially jus parroting it.

    This does bring another question to mind. It is my understanding that due to inflation the light from the furthist regions, the far side of the universe will never reach us as our light cones are receding faster than C along with the Universe. This seems to be saying that it will.

    I assume that "Glyr" is Giga Light years or Billion light years in common USA lingo.

    The more time I spend her at PFs the more there is that I have to read. I'm falling futher and further behind every day. Thanks again. I really do appreciate all of this.
  11. Jul 13, 2003 #10

    Ivan Seeking

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    Hey Royce, I like your signature. By this should I assume that you're are a hybrid of Socrates and Archie Bunker?
  12. Jul 14, 2003 #11
    I don't know about Socrates, I'd like to think that I am at least in a small way like him; but, I'm afraid your right about Archie Bunker. I have been known in my later years, in moments of frustration, to say that Archie Bunker was right. Your very astute! But then, you know that don't you.:wink:
  13. Jul 18, 2003 #12
    Royce, you're reading my mind. You've said exactly the things I myself wanted to say.

    I'd like to oppose Marcus, though - if it works, there MUST be a way to explain it without using mathematics directly. So far I haven't encountered situations when it isn't so.
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