Charles Day on the Physics Today blog asks an interesting question: Why has physics today’s news coverage of string theory been so sparse? I must admit that I had not noticed what the level of coverage is, and so the matter had not sprung to mind, but it is an interesting one. He looks back at the number of major articles written about the subject in recent years (he was a feature editor, and so shepherded some of them through), and concludes that the numbers are low, and he may well be right, but I am not sure I know what the best measure is.
How do we measure the appropriate coverage level? Is it by the number of people working in a sub-field as a percentage of the overall field of physics? If it were possible to break things down that way (I’m happy to see that we have come to a point in the field where I’ve no idea how to define what a “string theorist” is, per se, any more than I know what a “field theorist” is. There are simply people working in various fields who use both as tools to make progress) I wonder what fields would end up appearing under or over covered?
Perhaps a large part of it it is the issue of how many articles on the topic can be written that are of general enough interest, and finding the people who are both able and willing to write. This is a tricky issue, and depends on a combination of the topic in hand and the knowledge and writing skill of the author. There are two extremes that would be a factor here. On the one hand, you have the obvious difficulty of a non-expert journalist either not being able to see the general relevance or value of new results in such a specialist field, or if having seen it, not being able to explain it properly (this includes being able to convey significance and excitement where appropriate, without resorting to sensationalization). On the other hand, you have the expert in the field who gets the significance, perhaps, but can’t (or, more likely, perhaps doesn’t care) to make the effort to explain it carefully to their colleagues in the larger physics community, not unpacking jargon and concepts, or not properly setting the results in the context of e rest of the field (ignoring work done in other sub-fields on similar problems, etc).
Even when you have the right person or persons lined up (and there are both journalists and experts who have done good work on the subject, I should say – and that does include work done in Physics Today), there is the “what’s in it for me?” factor, if they are not a staff editor or journalist, but an ordinary member of the physics community. Writing an article at a broad level is a difficult task when you’ve got to do it within tight space constraints. Also, this is not the science enthusiast level seen in Scientific American, Discover, or New Scientist, but more like the level of a departmental colloquium. It is aimed at other physicists – colleagues down the hall as it were. So, loose Discovery Channel type analogies are not going to make the grade. It is especially hard when it is a very esoteric subject, as parts of string theory can be. It all takes time and effort, and a busy researcher is bound to ask why they are doing it, who will care, and what they will get out of it.
Note that the raw writing is not the only difficulty, as I know from having recently done such an article. For Physics Today you not only have a space constraint, you’ve got to have the piece sent out to be refereed, and so there is a round of replying to the referee. Then it goes to the editor assigned to you, who negotiates with you over phrasing in many sentences, choices of words, internal conventions peculiar to the magazine, and so on and so forth. Then it goes to the copy editors. Another back and forth over possible issues there. And so on… So finding people who fit the criteria and also see the value in taking the time to get the broader scientific community who read such publications informed and interested (that’s the reward by the way – I consider it worth it, for the right topic) is an additional difficulty. Anyway, this all may well be contributing factors in how many articles can be written on the subject over the years. Of course, it is certainly likely not the only one.
Whether or not Physics Today has the right level of coverage of significant string theory developments, I cannot say. I am not a regular reader of the magazine, nor any such magazines, in fact, so I am not really in a position to weigh the coverage vs that of the several other sub-fields. But it certainly is an interesting question, and you should look at Charles Day’s thoughts here. We do generally need to communicate with our colleagues in other fields about what we’re up to (at the same time as learning about what they are up to) and this is one of the ways of doing it. These types of articles won’t get everything across, but they certainly start interesting conversations in physics departments far and wide. It is especially important to engage in this sort of activity when there is so much misrepresentation out there about what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, what we’ve achieved, and what we hope to achieve.
Regardless of sub-field, we do need to encourage each other to get involved in this kind of activity, and in my opinion it is especially good to get more young researchers (I’m thinking of those at assistant professor level especially) involved too. To this end it might be that more recognition should be given to the presence of this sort of article on a young person’s curriculum vitae (when it comes to promotions and so forth), acknowledging it as a valuable service to the scientific community alongside other forms of outreach.
Some Related Asymptotia Posts (not exhaustive):