How researchers get heard
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Why Some Ducklings Seem Ugly

Why do some research subfields seem to get all the media and social love? Physicist Chad Orzel puts out some answers in his Substack, Counting Atoms. (I recommend it.)

Physics’ version of this ugly duckling lament seems to go like this : Why does glamorous but far-from-everyday-life stuff (e.g., particle astrophysics, string theory) get all the ink and pixels, while the “deep physics underlying ordinary materials” and “practical physics that is way more important to modern life” (quoting Orzel) get comparatively little in the way of popular press, video and books?

Orzel’s answer doesn’t go down the usual bitter researcher path of calling out the media’s superficiality or the public’s eroding scientific literacy. Instead, he focuses on the structural and cultural differences between those subfields that get the love and all the other ducklings:

  • Math. Particle astrophysics is “mathematically backloaded,” so “the big ideas are much easier to pitch to a layperson” without requiring a steep learning curve of complicated math to understand them;
  • Time to communicate.Condensed matter physics is generally done in small groups, demanding PIs wear a lot of hats, while particle astrophysics is done in Big Science groups with lots of specialization, freeing up individuals on these teams for communicating the science;
  • Momentum. Publishing is self-reinforcing — successful books and articles about a subfield beget more books and articles in that subfield, because the audience is proven and the subfield is familiar to journalists and publishers.

An example of how this works, according to Orzel: The reason so many particle physicists and astronomers are on Twitter is their work involves a lot of coding — i.e., sitting in front of computers. Not so, he says, for condensed matter experimentalists, who “are often doing their work in an entirely different place than the office where their computer is located, making it harder to dash off a quick tweet.”

Takeaway: You can give researchers all the training in the world to improve their public expert skills. But if your institution or organization doesn’t even recognize (much less try to address or compensate for) the structural and cultural differences holding some experts in certain fields back, that training won’t matter.