Can Engineers Popularize Science?

This is a very selfish and random post, but it’s an idea I’ve been musing over for a while as I’ve slowly been trying to establish a regular blogroll to get news and ideas. Over the last several years, there’s been much talk about science outreach, the teaching (or reaching out, if you will) of scientific research and concepts to non-scientists. Sometimes you’ll also hear the term “popularization of science” to describe the same thing. And sometimes you’ll hear about engineering outreach, but more often it seems to be wrapped up in the broader idea of STEM outreach. And you almost never hear of “popularization of engineering” to the broader public. The one exception I noticed was in college, when I saw several scholarships and programs that would be marketed to, or only open to, engineering majors. And then despite my previous rant on some of the technical distinctions between science and engineering, I would typically still try to see if I could count as a physics major with some engineering background. It’s not my fault Rice didn’t have a formal applied physics major. Also amusing, I still remember the time someone told me they thought physics was in the engineering school because “it’s so hard, it seems like it should go there” and I felt incredibly satisfied by that statement… this tangent has gone really weird places.

I typically don’t hear of engineers doing science outreach, aside from community service done by large science/engineering companies (in Houston, I think ExxonMobil was a sponsor of the Sally Ride Science Festival) or events sponsored by engineering programs at universities. And they seem nonexistent in the broader pop cultural view of popular science. When people think of “pop science”, it’s a lot of who pops up most on TV, like Neil deGrasse Tyson,  Richard Dawkins, and Carl Sagan and maybe even Richard Feynman for those of an older generation. If you watch more documentaries, then you may know Brian Greene, Michio Kaku, and other people who seem to make the History/Discovery/Science channel actual-science-show-not-a-terrible-show-about-antiques circuit. The one exception is Bill Nye, who seems to be making a comeback in culture as a science pundit. Nye studied mechanical engineering and worked as a engineer at Boeing before he would eventually become the Science Guy. The science blogosphere is also really well-developed and is made up of science writers and scientists who blog in their free time. For the purpose of this article, I looked up “engineering blogs” on Google and came up with no websites with regular postings that still seemed active (excluding corporate blogs mainly meant for publicity).

It’s also interesting to note that the scientists I pointed out, besides Dawkins, all have physics backgrounds. And they’re all either in astrophysics or “theoretical” physics, which is what I typically call “fundamental” (along with random elements of quantum mechanics) or more technically rigorous people consider “quantum gravity”. And while I love reading about astrophysics and think things like string theory and the LHC are cool, it’s strange that pop culture only seems to put those branches in the limelight. They don’t make up the majority of work in physics.

Articles sent to the pre-print site arXiv, by field. Left is total number of articles, right shows the percentage of articles in each year from the field. CS is computer science, hep is “high energy particle physics” (think LHC), the cyan covers a mixture of fields that loosely covers “quantum gravity”, and cond-mat is condensed matter physics.

And the breakdown seems even more clear when you look at membership in physics groups. Dr. Hossenfelder looks at the numbers in Germany:

More data that tells you that the vast number of physicists aren’t working on anything related to quantum gravity can be obtained from the number of members in sections of the German Physical Society. The section on Particle Physics (which includes beyond the standard model physics and quantum gravity) has about 2,500 members. The section on Quantum Optics and Photonics has more than 3,000 members, Physics of Semi-conductors 3,800Low Temperature Physics 1,450Atomic Physics together with Hadronic and Nuclear Physics come to about 3,000, Material Physics together with Chemical and Polymer Physics and Thin Films another 3,500. Not all sections have membership numbers online, so this doesn’t cover the full spectrum. But this already tells you that “most physicists” don’t even do high energy physics, certainly not quantum gravity, and have no business with multiverses, firewalls, or “micro-landscapes of black holes”.

So why does it matter if, say, string theory gets nearly all the limelight? Because it’s not what all of physics is and it’s becoming a PR problem, because people don’t understand what these other fields of physics do. Pop physics books talking about quantum mechanics will often mention how computer transistors work on purely a quantum mechanical level. And that’s true. But making the transistors is very much an act of solid-state physics and understanding how structure and material properties relate to quantum behavior. It’d be like thinking only a surgeon is a doctor, and not the general practitioner you have a check-up with. (This also can extend to science in general. PZ Myers has pointed out that in philosophy of science circles, “science” often just seems to mean physics unless there’s a biology context to the discussion, like evolution.) And these other fields may be easier for non-scientists to relate to. By talking about crystal planes, I can explain why metal is flexible and glass is brittle (and I did this for an open house my department had).

And so this is why I’m confused by how little engineers seem to be involved in the science/tech blogging communities and science outreach. Engineers are definitely at the intersection of scientific concepts and everyday life. This would seem to make them perfect for explaining how science affects people. But aside from Bill Nye, you don’t see much of this. And I really want to know why. Are engineers too busy? Is it because most aren’t in academia, with its obligations of public service and education? Or do people want to hear more from scientists than from engineers?

3 thoughts on “Can Engineers Popularize Science?

  1. It’s super interesting to me that you think of all the pop science books as being about physics. The biology equivalent is (somewhat unfairly) “pop medicine” – Dr. Gupta on CNN, Bill Nye (who did a lot of chemistry and biology as well as physics), even someone like Atkins or the others of “Forks Over Knives”. Even Discover Magazine has a regular medical mystery feature (or it did back when I was a subscriber). Chemistry also gets its fair share of news coverage – think about the NPR article on wine tasting you sent out a while back.

    I think engineering gets less (or at least different) coverage because, in a basic sense, engineers make stuff and thus feel like they need to do less explaining. Imagine being at a five year old child’s birthday party. Ask an engineer what they do and they say “I help make bridges stronger” or “I figure out ways to make the wires in your computer talk to each other faster”. Ask a physicist what they do and they will sputter something about working with very tiny particles. So the occasional physicist who DOES know how to explain their research in concrete plainspoken terms winds up with a megaphone, while other fields just explain what they do over birthday cake.

    • Oh, I don’t think all pop science books are about physics. If you look at the link, it starts by looking at chemistry’s “PR problem” and how little knowledge of that exists in the broader culture compared to physics and biology. Most science sections in bookstores are filled with stuff on theoretical physics, biology (and now that mainly seems to evolutionary biology or the “pop medicine” you point out), and some random math. I am aware of one pop science book about polymers (which most reviews seem to have found a bit too technical) and virtually no popular books about solid-state/materials science, and only really know of Napoleon’s Buttons as a general chemistry book.

      It seemed like when we were in high school, there were lots of books about nanotechnology and a lot of them did talk about some basic materials science and chemistry, but I haven’t seen many nanotech books meant for a general audience lately. (Maybe I’m biased? I’m going to admit I don’t look for many nanotech books now that I sort of am working in the field, but I still typically browse through everything in the science section of a bookstore.) Even your comment kind of shows my point. The person making faster wires might be a solid-state physicist, not an engineer. Or like the theoretical physicist mentioned here ( who calculated the energy needed to grow the structure.

      The thing I was referring to with PZ Myers was about a recent word war between fundamental physicists and philosophers, where Myers said both sides seemed to use “science” to mainly refer to physics.

  2. Pingback: Where are all the engineering blogs? | nontrivial problems

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