Being a physicist looks like a dreadful, thankless job. Through all the years of building baroque machines, dealing with equipment failures, and hunting some tiny source of noise for days, the big picture of my research keeps my spirits high. The underlying principles I study are so beautiful that I want to share them with others. What do I study? Well, I use a Bose-Einstein condensate contrast interferometer to test quantum electrodynamics as well as…
So, you see there’s a small problem with my aspirations: The longer I’ve been in grad school, the worse I’ve become at explaining physics to nonphysicists. Currently in my sixth year, I fear this condition is nearing terminal. I wasn’t always such a bad communicator. It used to be that friends and family would come to me when they heard of some new sciency thing. They’d ask me to explain what it was about and how it works. They’ve seen how grad school has turned me into a head-spinning fountain of jargon and so, gradually, they’ve stopped asking.
In college I was part of a group that went to local elementary schools to talk to kids about astronomy. I relished it and you could see the joy in the kids’ faces. A few months ago my nieces brought me to their sixth grade class to talk about what I do. I showed some cool pictures of lasers, and things were going well. Then I opened my mouth to tell them what I do. And I froze. How could I possibly explain what I do to these kids when my own colleagues often can’t follow all the details? As I limped through, I realized the problem was not that sixth graders are unprepared to learn physics. I had allowed myself to be so mired in minutiae that I could no longer talk about the big, beautiful ideas underlying the minutiae.
I said one good thing about the physics I study, and the kids all got it. It even stuck with them into the next week. This made it perfectly clear: The problem was with how I told, not with how they listened. I’m taking this class, because I want to be a better explainer. I want to be able to tell sixth graders about the wonders of physics and have more than one lucky turn of phrase excite them.
In my distant past I taught high school physics and creative writing. The ideas of the first day of class resonated well with my inner creative writing teacher, someone I’ve not heard from in a long time. The idea that a talk about science can, in fact should, be structured as a story makes perfect sense to him. However, I never would have thought of it because that’s not how you see talks structured. Trying to see my research as a story is hard, but it’s clear this will make me a better communicator and a better researcher. The improvisation games we played in the first class were like verbal versions of the free-writing exercises I used to give my students to help them loosen up their writing. This class seems like just the thing to make me a better science advocate and educator.