Why Popsci is Essential for a Well-Rounded Physics Education

In summary, popsci literature, while often dismissed as mere entertainment, provides a valuable and holistic approach to learning physics. It offers well-written books and audio-visual media that not only serve as great introductory material but also provide novel insights for advanced students. While there may be some inaccurate explanations or misconceptions in popsci, this is not unique to the genre and it is important for a well-rounded education to consume a variety of media, including popsci. It should not be written off as it can greatly contribute to one's understanding of physics.
  • #1
ergospherical
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Few things are disparaged so militantly on this forum as popsci: scientific literature written for a general audience.

"It's entertainment, not real science."
"They won't teach you any actual physics."

Such remarks are all too common - and, in my opinion, they are utterly misguided. I won't argue that these remarks are rooted in hubris, because I don't think that's true in most cases. I'd instead suggest that said views reflect a failure to understand the merit of a holistic, non-dogmatic attitude toward learning physics.

Books such as Weinberg's "The First Three Minutes" and Hawking's "A Brief History of Time" are superbly-written expositions of cosmology which offer not only a solid conceptual grounding in the subject for a newcomer but also novel insights for a practising student of physics. It is at best ignorant, and at worst downright heretic, to declare that one cannot learn anything from such masters in their fields merely due to the informal nature of the prose. Penrose's "Road to Reality" flirts with some considerably sophisticated mathematics - perhaps casting a degree of doubt on its popsci affiliation - but its conversational style helps to convey some really very abstract concepts (fibre bundles and gauge connections, anyone?) in an easy-to-understand way. And the usual suspects of Jim-Al-Khalili (see: "Paradox"), Brian Cox (see: "Why does E = mc2"), Simon Singh (see: "Fermat's Last Theorem"), etc. all have produced their fair share of thought-provoking material which serve, for example, as outstanding preparatory reading at the pre-university level.

There's a plethora of great audio-visual media, too. Sean Carroll's "Mindscape" and Brian Cox/Robin Ince's "Infinite Monkey Cage" podcasts come to mind first. The former values deep-dives into complex subject areas whilst the latter explores a varied selection of scientific topics through a somewhat more comedic lens, but both are thoroughly informative and feature well-renowned, expert guests.

A common complaint is that popsci sometimes, in its attempt to present the material as simple as possible, lends itself to inaccurate explanations. I've never found this to be much of an issue - the worst it really gets amongst reputable authors are mentions of, say, relativistic mass, or tenuous analogies which one can easily ignore, or whatever. But moreover, this issue is most-definitely not confined to popsci! On several occasions I've read through official, textbook-style materials chock-full with misconceptions and inaccuracies (especially at secondary-school level). Even reputable, advanced-level textbooks are known to contain severe conceptual errors, e.g. Goldstein's treatment of Lagrange's equation with non-holonomic constraints.

For the physics student: textbooks exist to provide rigour and hands-on practice through exercises; popsci is an informal avenue for intellectual enrichment and provides all-important context to the subject - not merely to "entertain". Consuming a wide-variety of physics-related media is critical for a rich physics education. In short: write off popsci to your detriment!
 
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  • #2
@ergospherical, while I agree with what you are saying, I would like to point that there is some not so good pop-science out there.
If I had to categorize it, I would guess to would be associated more with rapid turn-around, get payed by the piece type journalism.

Not all organization seek quality, but some do and that's a good thing.
 
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  • #3
There is a lot of bad popsci out there in exactly the same way that there are a lot of bad novels, bad music, bad journalism, heck, even a lot of very bad textbooks.

There's a huge spectrum in quality in pretty much any field - it's unfair to single out popsci.
 
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  • #4
ergospherical said:
even a lot of very bad textbooks
... and "peer reviewed literature".

Yes, I think you are right. But maybe the difficulty is, that pop-sci books are often read in isolation, not as part of a class with a lecturer who (one hopes) can make the distinction between what is crap and what is actually valuable in the ways that you describe.
 
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  • #5
To be clear: let;s define popular science as authoring pieces about science. This includes biology.

Interesting. Counterexample: Pop-science can be less than well thought out.
See:
https://www.physicsforums.com/threa...ion-opinion-piece.1009713/page-2#post-6570681

The basic concept is 'mammal species become extinct and humans are mammals that may go extinct'
reasonable arguments so far made against this are largely sociological refutations or are based on a real lack of concept support and logical support (bad writing) on author's part.

The article is from an Editor at a magazine, and it is an opinion piece, but it is pretty weak.

It was posted because most people on PF seem interested in the topic. It may also show how well educated non-biologists deal with marginal popular science. Up until the start of posting movie links in the discussion, our folks were doing well.

My take on your post is:
not always - the Article mentioned above is an example.
And your response is?

<Edit>
If you understand biochemistry and genomics then you will see that a large fraction of nutrition reported as pop-science ranges from:
self-promotion,
too dumbed down,
marginal,
completely spaced out.

Spaced out are nutritionists who label MSG (mono-sodium glutamate) as toxic. On PF we call that crackpot science. Why? Glutamate is a major neurotransmitter in the human brain. It has other functions as well.
 
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  • #6
I think we have to distinguish between books (Hawking BHT, Hofstadter GEB, Sing FLT) and articles which I find in my Facebook feeds. The latter merely attempt to get clicks. I am really sick of reading for the 1,000th time what a black hole is, a neutrino, or superconductivity. If you start there, you will never be able to explain anything correctly within the length of an article. I am already happy if they quote the source but even this isn't guaranteed, and unfortunately, it is often Nature. In my opinion, the gap between what can commonly be understood and the often very technical papers is simply too large. And these articles suggest that their readers are being informed about physics, which they are not. As a result, we frequently get crackpots with weird theories.

I often have to think about tv shows which cover, say a chess championship. I remember a GM as the moderator who explained what a knight fork is. Who the heck do they think is watching this stuff in the middle of the night? It is similar to those articles. They envoke false impressions and expectations. They are basically useless for ordinary people, as well as they are useless to interested scientists. There is actually no in-between, nothing to inform a physicist about biological research, a chemist about astronomy, or a mathematician about neutrino oscillation.

It is those articles that are entertainment and not science. And it is their false promises I am against.
 
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  • #7
fresh_42 said:
and unfortunately, it is often Nature.
+10 (ten)!
 
  • #8
fresh_42 said:
I often have to think about tv shows which cover, say a chess championship. I remember a GM as the moderator who explained what a knight fork is. Who the heck do they think is watching this stuff in the middle of the night?
LOL :smile:
 
  • #9
I myself was heavily influenced by popular science books. It all started with Pale Blue Dot and Cosmos, and grew to A Brief History of Time and Black Holes and Time Warps. Reading a biography about Feynman was the final straw. I'm sure I'm not the only one. I know a good number of my classmates were drawn to science from popsci. Most were devastated by the math involved.

I think the books written by experts serve a good purpose. The over the top articles don't.
 
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  • #10
I remember someone came to this forum a few years ago. They had started to learn SR from a textbook after previously having read lots of popular science books. They thought they had a pretty good understanding of SR and GR but were shocked to find that velocity-based time dilation was symmetrical; and, that there was no such thing as absolute velocity.

This is the conundrum. Most people who learn from popular science sources gain some sort of understanding, but its validity is questionable.

Also, popular science sources rarely if ever challenge the reader to do problems to confirm their understanding. So, there is no sense in which the student can actually confirm that they've understood anything.

If we assume that the popular science source has pushed the student's knowldege as far as possible, then the question for us is how to extend that knowldege. The ethos of this site is that they have probably reached the limit of what can be learned from popular sources and, if they want to go further, they need to backtrack and start again with textbooks. I don't think we should shy away from that home truth. I don't believe there is an alternative, reliable, constructive way to build on the material in books like Hawking's Brief History of Time. If he/she wants more, the student must put in the hard yards of study.

I believe that we could, perhaps, soften this message. It's not the poster's fault that they are at this stage. We should simply make the point that there is no way forward without hard work and a change of strategy.

I've been quoting Roger Bacon (1214-84) on this point:

Whoever then has the effrontery to study physics while neglecting mathematics must know from the start that he will never make his entry through the portals of wisdom.

And that, as far as I'm concerned, is the truth of the matter.
 
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  • #11
There are so few well written popular science books - can’t stand how most of them are just filled with analogies and anecdotes. In physics, too few respect the reader enough to get into mathematical concepts - and while it takes years of study and practice to do physics, it’s far easier to learn some mathematical rudiments than try to parse out some convoluted analogy or metaphor.
 
  • #12
ergospherical said:
Few things are disparaged so militantly on this forum as popsci: scientific literature written for a general audience.

"It's entertainment, not real science."
"They won't teach you any actual physics."

Such remarks are all too common - and, in my opinion, they are utterly misguided.
I don't think so - not here, anyway. On any other (not science focused) forum you would be absolutely right.

But, you know, this is intended to be a place where people could seek guidance when they decide to look behind the general 'popsci'. I think it's just natural that a bit more science-like standard is expected, and the limits of 'popsci' based understanding are highlighted.

On the other hand, did you notice that decent part of the content down from 'Engineering' is actually on-demand generated 'popsci'? o:)
 
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  • #13
Rive said:
But, you know, this is intended to be a place where people could seek guidance when they decide to look behind the general 'popsci'. I think it's just natural that a bit more science-like standard is expected, and the limits of 'popsci' based understanding are highlighted.
+1 on that
 
  • #14
Rive said:
On the other hand, did you notice that decent part of the content down from 'Engineering' is actually on-demand generated 'popsci'? o:)
Sorry, I'm not able to parse this. What do you mean?
 
  • #15
berkeman said:
Sorry, I'm not able to parse this. What do you mean?
+1 on that
 
  • #16
I mean, the most 'just a question' kind of topics where the OP is clearly not familiar with relevant science are opened in 'Engineering', 'Other Sciences' and 'The Lounge'.

And since in such cases there would be just very limited point in a scientific discussion, the answers are usually on the level of (high grade) 'popular science' - just case relevant, specially for the OP.
And this is actually a good practice (by my opinion).

Yes, there are problems with the general 'popsci'. But this 'militant disparaging' thing in general... Just did not hit the nail.
 
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  • #17
I enjoy many popular physics books, and I know many professional physicists (both personally, and through the internet) who also enjoy popular physics books. While it is true that a real understanding of physics requires studying mathematical treatments, it is not true that all readers of popular treatments should do this This defeats one of the main purpose of having pop-level expositions! Many physicists and physics research collaboration receive large amounts from the public purse, and thus have a responsibility to produce material accessible to the educated (but not necessarily educated in science) public.

For me, a good pop-level exposition can:

1) re-kindle my sense of excitement for the scientific adventure;

2) inform me about stuff for which I don't necessarily want to spend time learning technical details (if I want, I can look up technical details later);

3) give me ideas on how to explain stuff to my non-science friends;

4) feed my ego, when I think, probably erroneously, "I could explain this particular facet better";

Right now, I am reading the interesting new book "How to Make an Apple Pie from Scratch: In Search of the Recipe for the Universe, from the Origins of Atoms to the Big Bang" by Cambridge and LHCb physicist Harry Cliff. I am only on page 78, partially because my wife and I disagree on what I should do with my time while at home. She prefers that I spend time with her watching people get murdered :oldbiggrin:.
 
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  • #18
George Jones said:
She prefers that I spend time with her watching people get murdered

Watching from where. . . TV news media, or from your windows ?? . :-p

Lol. . . j/k .
 

Related to Why Popsci is Essential for a Well-Rounded Physics Education

What is "In defence of popular science"?

"In defence of popular science" is a term used to describe the idea that science should be made accessible and understandable to the general public. It argues that everyone has the right to access and understand scientific knowledge, and that popular science can help bridge the gap between the scientific community and the general public.

Why is popular science important?

Popular science is important because it allows for the dissemination of scientific knowledge to a wider audience. It helps make complex scientific concepts more understandable and relatable, which can increase public interest and engagement in scientific topics. It also promotes critical thinking and scientific literacy, which are important for making informed decisions and understanding the world around us.

How does popular science differ from academic science?

Popular science is often written for a general audience and focuses on making complex scientific concepts easy to understand. It may also include real-life examples and applications to make the information more relatable. Academic science, on the other hand, is written for a specialized audience and focuses on the technical details and research methods of a particular study or topic.

What are some examples of popular science?

Popular science can take many forms, such as books, magazines, websites, TV shows, and podcasts. Some popular science examples include "Cosmos" by Carl Sagan, "A Brief History of Time" by Stephen Hawking, and "Radiolab" podcast by WNYC Studios.

What are the potential drawbacks of popular science?

One potential drawback of popular science is the risk of oversimplifying or misrepresenting scientific concepts in order to make them more accessible. This can lead to misconceptions and misunderstandings about scientific topics. Additionally, popular science may prioritize entertainment value over accuracy, which can also lead to misinformation. It is important for popular science to be fact-checked and reviewed by experts to ensure its accuracy.

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