Friday, June 14, 2013

Nordita’s First Workshop for Science Writers, Summary

Patrick Sutton
George and I came up with the idea for this workshop one year ago at a reception of an earlier Nordita workshop. Yes, alcohol was involved. We talked about how science writers often feel like they’re running on a treadmill, having to keep up with the frenetic pace of publishing, only seldom getting a chance to take a few days off to gain some broader perspective. And we talked about how researchers too are running on a treadmill, having to keep up with the pace of their colleagues’ publications, and often feel that science writers miss the broader perspective.

And so we set ourselves the goal to get everybody off the treadmill for a few days.

Our “workshop for science writes”, which took place May 27-29, was devised for both, the writers and the physicists: For the writers to hear what topics in astrophysics and cosmology will soon be on the agenda and what science journalists really need to know about them. And for the physicists to share both their knowledge and their motivation, and to caution against common misunderstandings.

We modeled the workshop on “boot camps” organized by the Space Telescope Science Institute, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, U.C. Santa Cruz, and other institutions. Our workshop was a very intense and tightly packed meeting, with lectures by experts on selected topics in astrophysics and cosmology, followed by question and answer sessions.

George, wired.
On Tuesday afternoon, we visited the phonetics lab at Stockholm University, which was a fun excursion into a totally different area of science. At the lab, participants could analyze their voice spectra and airflow during speech, and learn the physics behind speech production. They could also take an EEG, which the researchers at the lab use to study which brain areas are involved in language processing and how that changes during infancy.

On Tuesday evening, one of the participants of the workshop, Robert Nemiroff, gave a public lecture at CosmoNova. The fully booked lecture took the audience on a tour through the solar system and beyond, projected on the 17m IMAX screen, while Robert explained the science behind the amazing photos and videos. Besides the stunning images, it was also great to see so many people interested in the laws of physics that shape our universe. (The guy sitting next to me held a copy of Lee Smolin’s new book on his lap which caused me some cognitive dissonance though.)

It was admittedly quite an organizational challenge to find the right level of technical details for an audience that physicists rarely deal with. I think however that the question and answer sessions as well as a large number of breaks were useful for participants to talk to lectures individually. We also had many interesting discussions about the tension between scientific accuracy and popular science writing. As you can guess, I inevitably come down on the side of scientific accuracy.

George turned out to be an excellent organizer, though clearly not used to the physicists compulsive ignorance of deadlines and reminders. I found it quite interesting that when I sent out mass emails to the participants that asked for reply, the first cohort of replies would come almost exclusively from the science writers, frequently within minutes. Among the physicists there were but two who'd answer within 24 hours and meet the deadlines, the rest waited for multiple reminders. The other interesting contrast was that the science writers were considerably more comfortable and engaged with social media.

For me, it was a great pleasure to get to know such an interesting and diverse group of people. I’m neither an astrophysicist nor a cosmologist nor a science writer, and I learned a lot at this workshop - it will probably inspire some more blogposts.

You can find soundbites and links from the meeting on twitter here, and slides of the lectures here.

George Musser, Robert Nemiroff, I, and a bunch of beautiful flowers.


  1. Hi Sabine,

    I was interested by (and sympathetic with...) your comments about the different responses of science writers and physicists to deadlines and emails.

    As a physicist I spend an increasingly large fraction of my time teaching or at meetings (although meetings which only require my physical presence are a good opportunity for catching up on emails...). And when I'm 'in the office' I deliberately don't have an audible 'email alert', since if I dealt with emails as they arrived I'd never get any research done.

    Having said that, as someone who regularly gets asked to organise things, the tardiness of many physicists about deadlines drives me up the wall!

    I think this is largely learned behaviour (being organised might come more easily to some people than others, but it's not a purely inherent trait):

    i) A lot of admin/bureaucratic requests disappear or change, so if you respond quickly you end up wasting your time doing things that aren't in the end required.

    ii) If you don't do things people are less likely to ask you in future (and the converse is also true).

    iii) There's kudos attached to appearing to be busy. Sometimes people really are so busy that can't find a few minutes within a week to respond to an email. But I don't think most people fall into that category all of the time (and often the really busy people are among the ones who do manage to respond).

    Apologies for the slightly off-topic rant-it's a pet hate of mine!


  2. To know what everybody is saying about science, ask the US National Security Agency to send you a thumb drive. Pick up your cell phone - no need to dial - and ask.

    Cf: The President's Analyst (1965) and TPC; 1984, George Orwell; Prism; and Pink Floyd, The Dark Side of the Moon (1973). US government is an L. Ron Hubbard dime novel.

  3. Hi Anne,

    Yes, I know what you mean. I'm afraid there's a social reinforcement going on here in which the physicist affected with the disease assumes that 'everybody does it' and so it it's okay. They also believe that a deadline isn't really a deadline, but that there is always another, 'real' deadline.

    This behavior pisses me off because I'm somebody who tries to be ahead of deadlines and tries to sort out things early enough so that there is time for plan B if necessary. If many people ignore the timing, it causes me a lot of headache and in the end some things just don't work out. (In this case there were a whole list of things that didn't work out because some people willingly ignored my repeated reminders.)

    Basically, it pisses me off because it shows zero respect for other people's time and effort, in this case mine.

    All that doesn't explain of course, why it seems to be prevalent among physicists and not (not so much) among science journalists. Best,


  4. I'd love to understand why the default behaviour is so different in the two communities.

    Is seems a bit like the prisoner's dilemma. In a community where the majority cooperate presumably there's some penalty for not cooperating. But in a community where a significant fraction don't cooperate then, if self-interest is your main motivation, there's no incentive to do so.

    I guess lateness is sometimes part of a more general 'do as little as possible, but take as much credit as possible' approach. And I"m guessing that approach doesn't get you far/anywhere in the writing community.

    However the thing I don't get about chronic lateness is that as well as wasting other people's time, it's not the most efficient way of using your own time.


  5. This science writers workshop was a cool idea Bee! If I would have been in the country, I would have attended :)

  6. I think the problem with science writers is that they can’t identify correctly their readership. The Laymen who read them are mainly engineers and scientists in other fields. So they should stop treating them as morons. The other problem is lack of competence, in most cases they don’t have a clue of what they are talking about.
    The situation is even worse with physicists writing popular books. All these naive metaphors give a distort picture of the actual physics and are quite frustrating.
    They should try more to convey the actual physics and not resort to easy simplifications.
    A notable exception is Musser. He is well educated, talented, respects his readers and is doing his homework before publishing anything. Most of his articles are truly inspirational, focusing on the essence of the underlying physics without compromises and naive simplifications.

  7. Hi Giotis,

    What you say about the difficulty of identifying the readership is a very good point. It seems to me though that at least online it should be possible to cater to people at different levels of knowledge. It might be difficult (or costly) in print, but on the web it's easy enough to give readers an option to see the fine print and the references and the expert comments.

    Regarding competence. I've found this varies widely. A lot of people who write about physics actually have a PhD or at least an MS in physics or a related field. They do understand the equations. What they usually don't know is what the sociologists call 'tacit knowledge'. It's the things you just know when you're part of the community, but that aren't normally written down anywhere.



  8. Hi Anne,

    As we're speculating on the reasons, let me add that I suspect the behavior is amplified by physics being very male-dominated. I don't have proper statistics, but at least among the people I know procrastination is considerably more pronounced among men. (There are exceptions though, on both sides.)

    And, yes, of course bad time management is self-defeating. But you know how the joke goes: you don't have to outrun the bear, you just have to outrun the other hiker. Which is to say, heaven forbid people would work on their time management, they might become over-achievers :p Best,


  9. Hi Sabine

    I’ve never heard of this concept before. Could you give me an example of ‘tacit knowledge’ in physics? I would really like to know what you mean. In principle all knowledge should be writtensomewhere , in research papers or textbooks.

  10. If one knows what to look for(tacit knowledge) one begins to understand that language behind the everyday writing that takes place?

    IN a sense it is a direct knowledge of the vision a scientist may share with the public whether they realize it or not.

    While all dressed in the mathematical language, the vision is what amounts too, and what that tacit knowledge represents. At least in my view it does.

    In a sense, this is why a whiteboard/blackboard readily available in lounging areas, help to initiate the deeper conversation of that vision being shared between scientists.

    On a public format you look behind the words. You get a sense of the person, and a sense of their positions in terms of their bias.

  11. This comment has been removed by the author.

  12. Hi Plato, I've freed your comment...

  13. Hi Giotis,

    Well, maybe saying that it's not written down anywhere is too strong a statement. Chances are, if you'd be looking for it, you'd find it somewhere. But then journalists don't normally have the time, and they don't know what to look for.

    Examples that I had in mind are procedures of data cleaning, cutting and fitting, that in most cases only those working on the experiment really know. There are also assumptions to many models that are rarely written down, or if, then their relevance isn't clear. Eg if you check the literature on Asymptotically Safe Gravity, you'll be astonished how rarely they state what signature they work with (answer: in most cases Euclidean). It's the thing that somebody who just reads a paper on the topic and has to summarize it is prone to miss, yet everybody who works on the topic knows (and tends to forget to mention it). You can count many "known problems" in that category. Eg that Lorentz-invariance violating higher order operators induce lower order operators that one has to argue away somehow. That Hawking radiation doesn't mean particles of negative energy exist and so on.

    A more general example may be that the expression 'elementary particle' is arguably nonsense because elementary particles aren't actually particles. They're described by wave-functions, etc etc. It's the kind of thing everybody knows who has ever dealt with the theory, but people who haven't tend to get confused by it.



  14. /* Could you give me an example of ‘tacit knowledge’ in physics?*/

    Speaking of first physicists, the Robert Hooke had a tacid knowledge of physics, Isaac Newton had a formal one. I'm proponent of tacid knowledge too.

  15. I'm a bit late to this, but what is this little picture of Patrick Sutton doing ?
    (I say this a fairly close colleague...)

  16. What's the picture doing? The picture was taken at the workshop during his lecture. I just liked how the title of the slide showed. Best,



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