Saturday, February 28, 2015

Are pop star scientists bad for science?

[Image Source: Asia Tech Hub]

In January, Lawrence Krauss wrote a very nice feature article for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, titled “Scientists as celebrities: Bad for science or good for society?” In his essay, he reflects on the rise to popularity of Einstein, Sagan, Feynman, Hawking, and deGrasse Tyson.

Krauss, not so surprisingly, concludes that scientific achievement is neither necessary nor sufficient for popularity, and that society benefits from scientists’ voices in public debate. He does not however address the other part of the question that his essay’s title raises: Is scientific celebrity bad for science?

I have to admit that people who idolize public figures just weird me out. It isn’t only that I am generally suspicious of groups of any kinds and avoid crowds like the plague, but that there is something creepy about fans trying to outfan each other by insisting their stars are infallible. It’s one thing to follow the lives of popular figures, be happy for them and worry about them. It’s another thing to elevate their quotes to unearthly wisdom and preach their opinion like supernatural law.

Years ago, I unknowingly found myself in a group of Feynman fans who were just comparing notes about the subject of their adoration. In my attempt to join the discussion I happily informed them that I didn’t like Feynman’s books, didn’t like, in fact, his whole writing style. The resulting outrage over my blasphemy literally had me back out of the room.

Sorry, have I insulted your hero?

An even more illustrative case is that of Michael Hale making a rather innocent joke about a photo of Neil deGrasse Tyson on twitter, and in reply getting shot down with insults. You can find some (very explicit) examples in the writeup of his story “How I Became Thousands of Nerds' Worst Enemy by Tweeting a Photo.” After blowing up on twitter, his photo ended up on the facebook page “I Fucking Love Science.” The best thing about the ensuing facebook thread is the frustration of several people who apparently weren’t able to turn off notifications of new comments. The post has been shared more than 50,000 times, and Michael Hale now roasts in nerd hell somewhere between Darth Vader and Sauron.

Does this seem like scientist’s celebrity is beneficial to balanced argumentation? Is fandom ever supportive to rational discourse?

I partly suspect that Krauss, like many people his age and social status, doesn’t fully realize the side-effects that social media attention brings, the trolls in the blogosphere’s endless comment sections and the anonymous insults in the dark corners of forum threads. I agree with Krauss that it’s good that scientists voice their opinions in public. I’m not sure that celebrity is a good way to encourage people to think on their own. Neither, for that matter, are facebook pages with expletives in the title.

Be that as it may, pop star scientists serve, as Steve Fuller put it bluntly, as “marketing”
“The upshot is that science needs to devote an increased amount of its own resources to what might be called pro-marketing.”
Agreed. And for that reason, I am in favor of scientific celebrity, even though I doubt that idolization can ever bring insight. But let us turn now to the question what ill effects celebrity can have on science.

Many of those who become scientists report getting their inspiration from popular science books, shows, or movies. Celebrities clearly play a big role in this pull. One may worry that the resulting interest in science is then very focused on a few areas that are the popular topics of the day. However, I don’t see this worry having much to do with reality. What seems to happen instead is that young people, once their interest is sparked, explore the details by themselves and find a niche that they fit in. So I think that science benefits from popular science and its voices by inspiring young people to go into science.

The remaining worry that I can see is that scientific pop stars affect the interests of those already active in science. My colleagues always outright dismiss the possibility that their scientific opinion is affected by anything or anybody. It’s a nice demonstration of what psychologists call the “bias blind spot”. It is well documented that humans pay more attention to information that they receive repeatedly and in particular if it comes from trusted sources. This was once a good way to extract relevant information in a group of 300 fighting for survival. But in the age of instant connectivity and information overflow, it means that our interests are easy to play.

If you don’t know what I mean, imagine that deGrasse Tyson had just explained he read my recent paper and thinks it’s totally awesome. What would happen? Well, first of all, all my colleagues would instantly hate me and proclaim that my paper is nonsense without even having read it. Then however, a substantial amount of them would go and actually read it. Some of them would attempt to find flaws in it, and some would go and write follow-up papers. Why? Because the papal utterance would get repeated all over the place, they’d take it to lunch, they’d discuss it with their colleagues, they’d ask others for opinion. And the more they discuss it, the more it becomes interesting. That’s how the human brain works. In the end, I’d have what the vast majority of papers never gets: attention.

That’s a worry you can have about scientific celebrity, but to be honest it’s a very constructed worry. That’s because pop star scientists rarely if ever comment on research that isn’t already very well established. So the bottomline is that while it could be bad for science, I don’t think scientific celebrity is actually bad for science, or at least I can’t see how.

The above mentioned problem of skewing scientific opinions by selectively drawing attention to some works though is a real problem with the popular science media, which doesn’t shy away from commenting on research which is still far from being established. The better outlets, in the attempt of proving their credibility, stick preferably to papers of those already well-known and decorate their articles with quotes from more well-known people. The result is a rich-get-richer trend. On the very opposite side, there’s a lot of trash media that seem to randomly hype nonsense papers in the hope of catching readers with fat headlines. This preferably benefits scientists who shamelessly oversell their results. The vast majority of serious high quality research, in pretty much any area, goes largely unnoticed by the public. That, in my eyes, is a real problem which is bad for science.

My best advice if you want to know what physicists really talk about is to follow the physics societies or their blogs or journals respectively. I find they are reliable and trustworthy information sources, and usually very balanced because they’re financed by membership fees, not click rates. Your first reaction will almost certainly be that their news are boring and that progress seems incremental. I hate to spell it out, but that’s how science really is.


Charles Day said...

I agree with you that celebrity scientists are, on balance, good for science. In fact, I tacked that question two years ago in a blog post about Brian Cox, "The Celebrity Physicist." Here's a quote:

"Although I was surprised to see Cox in the pages of Hello, I shouldn’t have been. Besides being a member of the ATLAS team at the Large Hadron Collider, Cox is also an engaging and prolific broadcaster. His clear, direct style and enthusiasm for physics comes across on radio and TV. He’s even been credited for a dramatic increase in the number of British students who want to study physics."

Henning said...

Kids require role models to figure out that there may be a space for them in a certain field.

That's why deGrasse Tyson is great, he models for black US teens that there are other ways to live and prosper than professional sports. In a society with abysmally bad public schooling this is only a small contribution to tap into a more diverse talent pool, but clearly his celebrity status helps in this regard.

Now, if only we had a similarly prominent role model for girls - I think a female scientist with a strong voice in theoretical physics, as well as in song, may very well fit the bill :-)

Uncle Al said...

1) The masses are asses. Stampede cattle uphill for mass slaughter downhill.

2) Management enforces rules and counts things. Rules are arbitrary (e.g., religion). Bigger numbers are better. Publications became citations.

3) Preening academic intellectual vacuity says "being illiterate and borderline retarded is Authenticity." Empowerment is so loathsome that money is loosened to avoid it,

4) The unabled maximize self-esteem to be credible, effectively selecting for the deluded (e.g, fan clubs). Social advocacy requires not empirical answers, but instead proper answers.

5) Research is bleeding. Sauve qui peut.

Pentcho Valev said...

There are celebrities but there are also unpersons:
George Orwell: "Withers, however, was already an unperson. He did not exist : he had never existed."

Here is the most important unperson in physics (in my view):
Bryan Wallace: "There is a popular argument that the world's oldest profession is sexual prostitution. I think that it is far more likely that the oldest profession is scientific prostitution, and that it is still alive and well, and thriving in the 20th century. I suspect that long before sex had any commercial value, the prehistoric shamans used their primitive knowledge to acquire status, wealth, and political power, in much the same way as the dominant scientific and religious politicians of our time do. (...) Because many of the dominant theories of our time do not follow the rules of science, they should more properly be labeled pseudoscience. The people who tend to believe more in theories than in the scientific method of testing theories, and who ignore the evidence against the theories they believe in, should be considered pseudoscientists and not true scientists. To the extent that the professed beliefs are based on the desire for status, wealth, or political reasons, these people are scientific prostitutes. (...) Einstein's special relativity theory with his second postulate that the speed of light in space is constant is the linchpin that holds the whole range of modern physics theories together. Shatter this postulate, and modern physics becomes an elaborate farce! (...) The speed of light is c+v. (...) I expect that the scientists of the future will consider the dominant abstract physics theories of our time in much the same light as we now consider the Medieval theories of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin or that the Earth stands still and the Universe moves around it."

Note: Bryan Wallace wrote "The Farce of Physics" on his deathbed so one can find stylistic imperfections, undeveloped ideas etc.

See also:
Radar Testing of the Relative Velocity of Light in Space, Bryan G. Wallace, Spectroscopy Letters, 1969, pp. 361-367. ABSTRACT: "Published interplanetary radar data presents evidence that the relative velocity of light in space is c+v and not c." INTRODUCTION: "There are three main theories about the relativity velocity of light in space. The Newtonian corpuscular theory is relativistic in the Galilean sense and postulates that the velocity is c+v relative to the observer. The ether theory postulates that the velocity is c relative to the ether. The Einstein theory postulates that the velocity is c relative to the observer. The Michelson-Morley experiment presents evidence against the ether theory and for the c+v theory. The c theory explains the results of this experiment by postulating ad hoc properties of space and time..."

Uncle Al said...

@Pentcho Valev
Bryan Wallace is wrong by 10 orders of magnitude, by observation.

Actively rotated on turntables. Berlin, Germany with fused silica optical Fabry-Perot resonators. Simultaneous Perth, Australia microwave whispering-gallery sapphire resonators. Lorentz violation limits for electrons (5 coefficients) and photons (8) down to 10^(−16). c = lightspeed from any reference frame, and re GPS.
To within 1%, C = (2)(pi)(r)[cos(x)], mean r = 6371.009 km, t = 23.9344696 hrs (sidereal day).
Go ahead, calculate it exactly.

Berlin is 52.527084° 13.40744° 1017.522 km/hr
Perth is -31.952162° 115.861816° -1419.094 km/hr
net 2436.62 km/hr, 2.258 ppm of lightspeed

The Equivalence Principle can be violated even with GR, re Einstein-Cartan-Kibble-Sciama theory. Lightspeed is solid.

Uncle Al said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Uncle Al said...

WGS 84, Earth's corrected mean radius vs. latitude r = (6378136.46)[1-([sin^2(lat)]/298.257223563)] meters
Overall mean r = 6371.0087714 km

Berlin is 52.527084°N Crude 1017.522 km/hr. 6364.666973 km corrected radius. 1016.50893 km/hr, sidereal day.

Perth is 31.952162°S Crude -1419.094 km/hr. 6372.147373 km corrected radius' -1419.34747 km/hr, sidereal day.

Equator C = 40,075.017 km, 1674.36412 km/hr. You can crunch cos(latitude) from that, too. The net velocity stays tight.

2435.8564 km/hr net velocity for the two antipodal Michelson-Morley observers, 2.257 ppm of lightspeed. Lightspeed is constant for all viewers. By lab and astronomical observation (gamma ray bursts, quasars): no vacuum refraction, dispersion, dissipation, dichroism, or gyrotropy toward massless boson photons. Fermionic matter (quarks, haderons) has never been sensitively tested in kind for ECKS geometric violation, DOI: 10.5281/zenodo.15107, 10.5281/zenodo.15439. Look.

Dorothy Kurtz said...

I wish that scientists were as famous and rich or richer than show biz celebrities. Maybe that would convince more children and teens to study for more STEM careers instead of trying to be actors or singers. I have nothing against somebody who wants to get into show business if that's what they truly want to do, but I heard more than a few young people say that they want the fame and money that show biz people receive. Few people bother to tell them that the celebrities on TV and in films only make up a very small percent of those in the entertainment field. As for being in a STEM career and making a better living, the odds are much more in their favor, but only if more scientists got more media attention.

Zephir said...

IMO the pop star scientists tend to conserve the religious paradigms in public perception of science - because they're preachers in essence.

CapitalistImperialistPig said...

I haven't read Krauss, but of your examples, all except deGrasse Tyson are or were extremely accomplished. Celebrity is a very strange beast, but completely human, and scientists are surely as suitable hero objects as pop stars or movie actors.

Of course scientists are pretty unlikely to join the celebrity cults themselves - they are pretty much weird oddballs by nature.

Of course nobody should be offended because you don't like their favorite here, but I do remember what I thought when one of my professors announced that Feynman's Nobel proved that you didn't need to do anything important to win one.

"What an idiot," I thought.

L. Edgar Otto said...

Today's ticker tape parades for our heroes, the first space pilot explorers for example, are tomorrow's bus drivers.

As Napoleon noted "It is but one step from the sublime to the ridiculous." Yet many will follow his return or feel less than those who cast their long shadows that discourage the young to find their place, expanded legends dreamed as fame seeking new frontiers.

Sincerity is not enough although it is part of the human equation and an excuse that we have to commit to something, at least at first. As Goethe said, "it is not what we are given in experience but what we do with the circumstances given."

We know in some moments of change that more is within and between us as healing hands or healing that passes thru us, yesterday's heart surgeons a rising morning sun, then gloamy twilight routine and forgotten footnote in history we constantly rewrite. Some of us the discoverers to inspire as examples or in the wake of their growing and fading legend, some who take the role as actors to remind us that we do not forget then stumble... that perhaps we can live long and prosper.

kashyap vasavada said...

I have lived through times when most newspapers and TV channels totally ignored scientific developments. Even now most TV channels in U.S. spend more time in evening news reports on dog shows than on Nobel prizes in science! So, if the choice is between distorted or hyped reports of scientific developments and total disinterest, I would choose the former. Obviously, some people who know some science and are not great scientists themselves, but have entertainment and oratory abilities like Tyson, talk about science, it cannot be bad for science in the long run. Very often, great scientists do not have either time or ability or both to explain science to majority of public who does not even understand high school level science. If these talks lead to some students to pursue science, that will be nothing but good for science. When these students study science at depth, they would realize that the talks they heard in the social media were naïve and some of it was total hype! But so what? Eventually they will study correct science! Also as long as scientific research is dependent on financial resources controlled by nonscientists, public discussion is necessary and mostly will lead to good results. Of course, completely wrong ideas floating in the public media should be corrected by leading celebrity scientists.

Jose said...

Celebrity scientists, annoying as some of them may be, aren't the problem, IMNSHO; they are a symptom. The underlying problem is a social trend for people to "like science" without wanting to learn any.

A segment of the population wants to be associated with science (because it's "cool" now) in the same way that an overweight sports booster is associated with sports.

As with all "cool" trends, this is about in- versus out-group signaling, and celebrities are the leaders of that signaling.

Consider that most people who are not working scientists (or engineers) who like Feynman's books don't mean this Lectures on Physics, QED, etc. They mean his two autobiographies.

(I wrote a blog post about this, FWIW.)


Arun said...

A visit to a friend who was house-sitting the Delbruck house somehow led to his narrating how unhappy Feynman's playboy shenanigans had left some families, as per the relayed narration from an older Delbruck.

After Feynman's death, a major mathematical physicist of Russian origin visited, and I was the designated graduate student to show him Feynman's office. Observing the absurdity of his adulation of Feynman was the final step that utterly cured me of hero worship of scientists or of anyone else.

Don't get me wrong, Feynman was a great scientist. But he was human. He was certainly conscious of his own legend and did try to burnish it. Humans are worth of love and respect, but not hero worship. Certainly not of the kind that would make saying "I don't like Feynman's writings" into blasphemy.

Henning said...
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Henning said...

@Pentcho Valev, it is a common misconception that you need the postulate of the invariance of the speed of light to derive SR.

It shouldn't really be taught this way. All that is required are the usual first principles of classical mechanics (homogeneity and isotropy of space etc.) that are used to establish Hamiltonian mechanics. It just so happens that if you live in world where spatially separated events can not influence each other instantaneously you then have to pick SR's Lorentz transformations.

I.e. that then implies that there is a finite upper speed at which any effect can propagate in all frames. This pedagogical paper from the seventies derives the Lorentz equations from these principles, using only high school level math.

As one would expect if the propagation speed can be infinite you get the classical Galilean transformations. There are only these two choices for any system of mechanics.

It just happens so that experimentally we have established that this upper propagation speed equals vacuum light speed.

Historically this fact was of course established before this much cleaner derivation of SR, but it should be quite clear from the paper that it is not needed.

This is really not rocket science, the math is quite elementary, and since all experimental data indicates that spatially separated events cannot exhibit an instantaneous causal effect, the only possible fit is SR. That is unless you also want to throw all classical mechanics out the window. Your choice.

Henning said...

Apparently I wasted time on an infamous troll. Oh well, made me look again at one of my all time favorite papers.

Stuart said...

The celebrity scientist is created by the media.Every society needs a hero and the media creates one.By this token you will hardly ever read of a celebrity scientist from one society in the media of another.Furthermore, if you carefully scrutinize the achievements of the so called celebrities you will hardly find any significant contribution to science they have ever made.

Henning said...

Stuart, so by your estimation neither Einstein, Feynman nor Brian Cox a celebrity scientists.?

Very confusing.

Phillip Helbig said...

"I wish that scientists were as famous and rich or richer than show biz celebrities. Maybe that would convince more children and teens to study for more STEM careers instead of trying to be actors or singers. I have nothing against somebody who wants to get into show business if that's what they truly want to do, but I heard more than a few young people say that they want the fame and money that show biz people receive. Few people bother to tell them that the celebrities on TV and in films only make up a very small percent of those in the entertainment field. As for being in a STEM career and making a better living, the odds are much more in their favor, but only if more scientists got more media attention."

Wrong on several levels. First, people going into STEM subjects because they want money will not bring us the people we want. When I was a wee lad and going to school in the States (at a very exclusive private school) I knew a guy who had moved with his family from Canada to the States because physicians earned more in the States. Of course, he wanted to become a physician in order to drive an expensive car. Once in Latin class, a girl farted. After class, he came up to me an said "Did you hear that?" I was already annoyed by the low level of "humour", but this was a new low. "What?" " farted". "So what, big deal." "I didn't know that girls could fart!" He was 17 at the time. This is not the type of person who should be attracted to STEM for better money.

Second, neither most scientists nor most actors nor most musicians earn much money. However, if one has some basic ability, one can get by as a musician or actor. The fame might not be there, but one can do what one loves. There are already way too many people with doctorates in STEM subjects than there are positions in academia. Yes, most of them can get a job, but in industry or business, probably doing something completely different than what attracted them to STEM in the first place. So, we definitely don't need more, and even if we did we want the best people, not those after money and fame. If you think that industry needs more STEM people, then industry should finance their studies, not public money which should target science for its own sake.

Pentcho Valev said...

Henning said: "Apparently I wasted time on an infamous troll. Oh well, made me look again at one of my all time favorite papers."

Just a quote from your favorite paper:
Jean-Marc Lévy-Leblond: "The evidence of the nonzero mass of the photon would not, as such, shake in any way the validity of the special relalivity. It would, however, nullify all its derivations which are based on the invariance of the photon velocity."

The same wisdom in French:
Jean-Marc Lévy-Leblond: "Il se pourrait même que de futures mesures mettent en évidence une masse infime, mais non-nulle, du photon ; la lumière alors n'irait plus à la "vitesse de la lumière", ou, plus précisément, la vitesse de la lumière, désormais variable, ne s'identifierait plus à la vitesse limite invariante. Les procédures opérationnelles mises en jeu par le "second postulat" deviendraient caduques ipso facto. La théorie elle-même en serait-elle invalidée ? Heureusement, il n'en est rien..."

Sabine Hossenfelder said...


Henning is entirely correct, the postulate that the speed of light is constant is unnecessary. The only postulate necessary is invariance of the Minkowski metric, you then find that there must be a maximum velocity, which you can THEN identify with the speed of light (if photons are massless).

Besides this, it's entirely off-topic and I will delete further comments on this.


Sorry about this. It's not a name I had on my watch list. I've been very busy the last weeks and haven't read comments too attentively.



Henning said...

Sorry about this. It's not a name I had on my watch list. I've been very busy the last weeks and haven't read comments too attentively.

No worries. Actually quite amusing that Pentcho Valev manages to miss the point in more than one language.

Phillip Helbig said...

"Stuart, so by your estimation neither Einstein, Feynman nor Brian Cox a celebrity scientists.?"

Yes, Cox has an impressive number of publications. But most of them are with a large number of co-authors. Even if one believes in bibliometry as an indicator of quality, one should divide the number of papers (and the number of citations) by the number of authors.

Yes, there are some people who put out a dozen single-author refereed-journal papers per year, but they are rare.

Stuart said...


I am glad you did not mention Hawking on your list.Einstein, Dirac and Feynman where Nobel laureates, they deserve to be in that category although they were reluctant celebrities their contributions to science really changed the course of Human history. One does not need the constant barrage from the media to remind you of the significance of their contributions.

Phillip Helbig said...

"I am glad you did not mention Hawking on your list.Einstein, Dirac and Feynman where Nobel laureates, they deserve to be in that category although they were reluctant celebrities their contributions to science really changed the course of Human history."

While Hawking doesn't have a Nobel Prize, many worthy scientists do not (and maybe some unworthy ones do). Yes, the work of Einstein and Dirac changed the course of human history. Feynman? Not really. In any case, changing the course of human history is not a requirement for the Nobel Prize.

Reluctant? Not really. At most Dirac but, as someone with Asperger's syndrome, his lack of lust for the limelight might have reasons other than reluctance. (Who said alliteration died out with Middle English?) Feynman of course enjoyed being a celebrity, whether it was as a scientist of a bongo player or a safe-cracker. Einstein certainly enjoyed his status as a celebrity, not only but also the groupies. Both were, however, smart enough not to overestimate its importance.

johnduffield said...

I don't think pop-star scientists are bad for science. I think bad science is bad for science. But unfortunately, some pop-star scientists peddle bad science!

Andrew Thomas said...

"Yes, the work of Einstein and Dirac changed the course of human history. Feynman? Not really."

No, apart from his work in Los Alamos ...

I'm with you, Bee, about Feynman's books. He creates analogies trying to simplify things and you end up wondering what he's on about.

CapitalistImperialistPig said...


When you say you don't like Feynman's books, did you mean the Red Books, the stories, or both? The stories are obviously matters of personal taste, but I can understand why you would get an argument about the Lectures. I suppose that's personal taste as well, but many have found them both insightful and inspirational.

Henning said...
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Henning said...

Phillip Helbig, by your standard there's hardly a worthy scientist working at CERN, if you work there it comes with the territory of such large projects that you'd hardly ever write a paper all by your lonesome.

BTW thanks for telling the story about the dork kid who moved to the US, made me laugh. Living in Canada I appreciate that he doesn't practice medicine up here. Now if we could only convince Justin Bieber to stay down South for good ...

Robert L. Oldershaw said...

Hmmm, a dusty galaxy present only 700 million years after the BB? Fast work, no?

Can we expect copious hand-waving?

Robert L. Oldershaw said...

FREE Copy of the paper, which will be published in Nature.

ajitjadhav said...


"I didn’t like Feynman’s books, didn’t like, in fact, his whole writing style."

I didn't get a good handle on what you mean by "his whole writing style." Could you please elaborate a bit?

As to me, I did like his books (both stories and texts), but not to the extent to which his fanship elevates them. For many years (decade+) I didn't realize that I actually had some differences from his fanship. Later on, as they continued further on their track, the differences became clear to me.

Today, if any student comes asks me for my advice, I would tell him to read (i.e. fully complete) Resnick and Halliday (or similar, e.g., Stanton, Sears & Zemansky, etc.) and in fact Thomas and Finney as well, before getting to the first two volumes of Lectures. As to Feynman's third volume, I would advise him to go through Griffith's electrodynamics, then quantum *chemistry* books, e.g., McQuarry (first half or so), then a rapid browsing of Lagrangian and Hamiltonian mechanics in Morris Kline's history or some classical mechanics texts, then Griffith's QM supplemented with Malcolm Longair's Quantum Concepts book. Then, if the need be, he could go through Feynman's third volume. And, Feynman's QED book could be read any time, but without letting yourself think that you know QM thereby. ... All throughout, I have assumed here that the student either is of engineering (who doesn't take concurrent courses on QM), or, if a student of pure science, he is asking for my advice for his vacation-time reading to get things better straightened out for himself. ... And, personally, I actually would ask him to desist reading any other book until this sequence is over. That means, not even, say, Shankar's book. For self-study, I would encourage him to go through the Instructor's Manuals to the recommended books as well---he doesn't have to solve or even attempt every (or even 25% of representative) problems, but he should go through the solutions, that's what I would advise him.

The Feynman fanship seems to have, say, a tunnel vision to me. As to his writing style, the first time I detected something odd was the brazen (even racy!) way he introduced the grad, div, curl and Laplacian operators in the 2nd volume. I knew instinctively that Feynman would never make it to the shortest of the short-list of great text-book writers, as far as I was concerned.

...Sorry, too long, that was; it was just that I thought that I had to show the alternative path-way that I thought was better.

Anyway, I would like to compare my notes with you all (mostly physicists) and as a part of it, also know in more detail what stylistic matter Sabine found odd with Feynman.



Sabine Hossenfelder said...


I read 'QED', the 'Character of Physical Law' (in German), parts of the 'Surely you're joking' and parts of the lectures. The lectures are useful, of course, but as most people I prefer the books that I dealt with myself as student and these were other books. This is mostly a matter of habit.

About the popular science books, I don't like the way that he seems to constantly be suggesting it's all super simple. It's really hard to tell, I just don't like some people's writing style, I think it's really a matter of taste. I also don't like Lenny Susskind's writing and neither do I like Tom Siegfried's. Not because I think they are objectively bad writers - they're not, I just don't like the way they express themselves. Hard to explain. Try to explain why you like your favorite song. Same thing.

I suppose there must be many people who don't like my writing for similar reasons. C'est la vie.



Phillip Helbig said...

"No, apart from his work in Los Alamos ..."

Yes, Feynman worked on the Manhattan Project, as did thousands of others. Without looking it up, do you know what he did there? His main work was elsewhere and the movers and shakers of the Manhattan Project were others.

Phillip Helbig said...

"Phillip Helbig, by your standard there's hardly a worthy scientist working at CERN, if you work there it comes with the territory of such large projects that you'd hardly ever write a paper all by your lonesome."

That's not what I meant to imply. However, it is unfair to compare someone who has hundreds of publications with dozens or hundreds of co-authors on each paper with someone who writes with fewer or no co-authors. If you divide by the number of co-authors, then Cox might still have a respectable number. I think it is fair to say, though, that he is better known as a popularizer than as a scientist. (This doesn't imply that he doesn't do good science. Sagan was better known as a popularizer, but he was extremely productive writing regular papers, was editor of Icarus, taught undergraduate courses at Cornell and so on.)

ajitjadhav said...

Who/what is CIP?


L. Edgar Otto said...


I imagine Feynman to be among those who calculated before the fact that storing nuclear waste in drums if surrounded by water raises the chances of reaction which if history tells us anything from the ancient lake that exploded when there was Neptunium or events in a Russian pond, this is good to know before the event. But I could have read this somewhere as far as he was involved.

I like that he changed his mind about the possibility of hidden values - something people do not want to hear or that scientists can be adaptable and he did say we should be careful in what we mean by complicated antiparticles.

Interestingly his series of lectures meant for the students became quite popular with the professors, faculty that packed the halls.


I did google CIP thinking it may have been German for QCD (since Phillip mentioned not google before hand and I rarely do google but lately. So I did not know or read that as one of Feynman's lectures, (we should do our homework as office hours are getting rather scarce in the economic changes or at least bring apples to our teachers :-)

I like that he casually mentioned black holes evaporate as some students mentioned he did... so he must have been on the right track of something even if this was not published.

Then there was the O-rings for the shuttle panel. Prestige can be be reassuring. I guess in these matters we all can have wormhole vision that collapses as we replicate the light.

Andrew Thomas said...

"Feynman worked on the Manhattan Project, as did thousands of others. Without looking it up, do you know what he did there?"

A book I'm reading at the moment which is really excellent is the illustrated comic version of Feynman's life just called "Feynman" by Ottaviani & Meyrick. It shows Feynman worked on the explosive compression of the plutonium core. It's a great book.

Thomas Larsson said...

Who is deGrasse Tyson? And why does he matter?

Henning said...

@Phillip Helbig thanks for the clarification.

As to Cox he still teaches at the University of Manchester.

ajitjadhav said...

Sabine, others,

One last time: What/who is CIP?

Is it some kind of a joke? A private joke? If the former, I did search Google and didn't find anything definitive. If the latter, what is it doing sitting on a publicly shared blog--- esp. obviously in a reply to my comment?

Why do so many Westerners---Americans, and now Germans/Swedes/whatever included, and especially the physicists among them---have this tendency to take Indian engineers like me for granted?

Hey, Sabine, I can leave your blog in one second, OK? That emphatically is not the point. The point is: what precisely did I do to get this kind of a lopsided treatment?

Just one last opportunity, I got to give you.


Sabine Hossenfelder said...


CIP is the above commenter CapitalistImperialistPig. It wasn't a reply to you. Until now, I did not have the faintest clue that you are a) an engineer and b) Indian, so I don't understand why you take it personally that I have 3 proposals to write, an essay to finish, n>3 overdue referee reports to submit, 2 kids to raise, a household to move, deal with the plumber, the carpenter, the moving guys and the phone company, 15,000 emails to reply to while the wireless is dead, and am supposed to be in two countries at once. Hope that explains it. Thanks,


Andrew said...

You are wrong about progress being slow and incremental. I just read some celebrity scientist talking about dramatic progress in ruling out a fifth force.

Kaleberg said...

There is a long tradition of scientific celebrities. England had lots of them: Newton, Davies, Faraday, and even Somerville. Faraday was long famous for his Christmas lectures which were open to the public. Somerville was probably known more for her popular unification of physics, chemistry and biology than her mathematical work.

I agree with you. Scientific celebrities are generally a good thing. Science is at the heart of our civilizations wealth. Not everyone can be a scientist. They might not be smart enough or have the right inclination or opportunity, but they still might wish to know something about science and support it. Celebrities help by providing a human link.