For the love of Gauss, please stop

Yes, I'm grumpy. [Credit: Fox]
Yes, I’m grumpy. [Credit: Fox]
I read a fair number of popular science books these days, for inspiration (since the best way to learn how to write is to read) and for keeping up with what other people think is the good stuff to publish. However, not all these books are created equal, and I sometimes find myself wanting to make bingo cards for the clichés and other bad habits. The book I’m currently reading (Endless Universe by Paul Steinhardt and Neil Turok) is particularly bad about all that, probably because the authors are both research scientists who don’t do a lot of writing for general audiences. However, this book isn’t alone.

So, if I may be Andy Rooney-ish for a while, let me list a few things that we could do less of in science writing. You may spot a pattern in this….

  • When you’re writing about the rise of the “atomic model” in the early 20th century, there’s really no need to invoke the ancient Greek philosopher Democritus. Sure, the old dude (along with some other philosophers) postulated a world built of irreducible components, but his atoms didn’t resemble modern atoms in most respects and were motivated by different reasoning. As we all know, what we call atoms today are not irreducible: they are made of electrons, protons, and neutrons, with the latter two particles themselves made up of quarks. Even quarks and electrons aren’t precisely analogous to Democritus’ atoms: they are not indestructible, and their configuration and interactions are important in a way that we had to learn over the course of several decades of experiments. So, let’s retire that metaphor, OK?
  • Ptolemy is a frequent punching bag for writers. How could he have been SO WRONG by putting Earth at the center of the Solar System? And those epicycles? Yuck! Then along came Copernicus who solved it all in a single book. Or maybe Galileo. Or Kepler. Or Newton. It depends on who is writing and what they’re emphasizing. The truth is more complicated, of course: Ptolemy’s model and its refinements over the centuries fit observations very well, actually better than Copernicus’ model. (Galileo’s model was worse!) Kepler got it right because he had Tycho’s excellent astronomical data and was willing to see where it led, but it took Newton to explain why Kepler’s model worked. In any case, it’s not a matter of a single scientist (however you want to define that) solving the problems all in one go. Certainly the world, or even working astronomers, didn’t accept the idea that Earth orbits the Sun — heliocentrism — overnight.
  • Similarly, comparing every new advance in knowledge to the eventual triumph of Copernicanism is bad and you should feel bad. The rise of modern observational cosmology (including the Big Bang) was a big deal, but note that it took a relatively short amount of time to become the scientific consensus. I’m not a philosopher of science, but I suspect it’s because by the 20th century, people had mostly accepted the mindset and methodology of science, which didn’t exist in Copernicus’ day. Big ideas like the Big Bang and quantum physics are at least a little easier to swallow if you already have the idea that science describes the natural world. (Of course, I do find that people are more willing to accept the Big Bang than they are human evolution, so your mileage may vary.)
  • Making everything about Einstein. I’ve ranted about that a lot, so I won’t repeat myself here.
  • Making everything about conflict, either between individual scientists or between science and religion or whatever. It’s obvious that there are particular conflicts, both present and past, but it’s rare that the stories we tell are accurate or enlightening. Galileo was a devoted Catholic, and Georges Lemaître (who developed many of the ideas that became the Big Bang model) was a priest. Certainly much of the resistance to evolution has been couched in religious language, but the official Soviet policy of Lysenkoism rejected natural selection on philosophical grounds. Nobody could accuse Stalin of being pro-religion.

As I wrote in a previous post,

It’s a common mistake to think that theories are a binary, right or wrong. The reason we can say the geocentric model is wrong is because, though it describes the motion of some things in the Solar System, it breaks down too quickly in the face of accumulated evidence. However, while Newtonian physics gives incorrect predictions for small things, high speeds, and strong gravity, it still works remarkably well on the scale of the everyday. More than that, it still has explanatory power: forces, momentum, and even Newton’s law of gravity give us a very good—albeit provisional—way of understanding a lot of things on the human scale. Sure, relativistic physics and quantum mechanics are more “accurate”, but it would be foolish and unnecessary to use them to describe the trajectory of a baseball.

Of course, having said all this, I’m sure you could identify examples in my writing where I’ve fallen into similar traps. However, as I read the umpteenth book invoking Democritus and talking about Copernicus without a proper historical context, I do wish we science writers would stop mostly cribbing off each other and lazy textbook writers from which we first learned this stuff.

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