Friend (and guest blogger last week) Brett has an interesting post on his blog about the difference between maths and the other sciences in the public eye. He’s got an interesting point – even though maths and physics are both considered “too hard” by most of the general public, at least physicists can talk about black holes, play with liquid nitrogen and generally explain how we’re working to understand the underlying laws of the universe.
Interestingly, I was also talking to some biologists just recently who were complaining about how easy it was for physicists to put on displays and give talks, compared to biology anyway. I’d never really thought about this before, but it’s true – on the demo front, physicists are going to win hands down. It’s pretty hard to make any sort of interactive demo from biology, whereas physicsists can lie on beds of nails, break wood using air, and all sorts of other cool things.
It’s probably different for talks – there’s lots of cool things biologists can talk about: cloning, genetic engineering and slime moulds to name a few. For visual aids, there are those fantastic glowing green mice (that have been (harmlessly) genetically engineered) and movies of little e coli bacteria being eaten by giant macrophages. Physicists again have a wealth of options, but I’m not really convinced that there’s “easier stuff” to do talks with in physics compared to biology (of course, both are going to depend on the quality of your speaker – and a good speaker should be able to make anything interesting, entertaining and understandable!)
This raises an intriguing question: are physics talks intrinsically more interesting? It really seems like there are many more public talks on physics than there are on biology. People genuinely seem interested in physics, and the school students and even the general public I speak to usually have lots of questions (everything from “Why is the sky blue?” to “How can neutronium be compressed to become a black hole?”!) In many ways, as Brett pointed out, physics is the science of everyday life – anytime we wonder about why something is the way it is we’re usually asking about physics. I have a bias, of course, but I can’t see school students asking as many questions about biology as physics.
So then why do sooo many students go into biology, and so few into physics, to the point where they actively dislike it? If people are intrinsically interested, and we can do better demos and give just as good talks – where do we go wrong? Is it we don’t do enough? Are we marketing it wrong? On the one hand, we don’t want everyone going into physics! But it would be nice if more people were interested and open to it, rather than dismissing it as being boring or too hard. Perhaps understanding the answer to this question is an important step towards salvaging the physicsists’ image.