Making Things Too Simple

I’m all for efforts to make cutting-edge science accessible to people without technical training. Slicing away layers of jargon and technobabble is an important part of that process, but there’s a second edge to many of the rhetorical blades used for that kind of pruning. Without meaning to, I’m sure, sometimes authors seriously undersell the magnitude and significance of the science they’re trying to describe, which can leave the public feeling unimpressed and, consequently, uninterested in helping with funding for important projects. Here’s a short piece I wrote for class recently reacting to something I saw in “Newsday.” Yes, Newsday, the “Chicken Wyngz” of actual news sources. I don’t read it regularly; stop judging me. Anyway, here’s a short piece in defense of a cool piece of technology in my backyard:

To a teenage boy trying to score a date, there is nothing worse than hearing himself described as a “nice guy.” In practice, the harmless-sounding words can often feel like damnation through faint praise: at a time in life when everyone is seeking opportunities for rebellion and adventure, a straightforward “nice guy” can seem much less attractive than a brooding, impenetrable bad-boy. To many, it is truly one of the great frustrations of the high school years.

If any of those “good guys,” grew up to become scientists at Brookhaven’s National Synchrotron Light Source (NSLS), they must have had sudden traumatic flashbacks to their wonder years recently, when they saw their $160 million dollar facility described in a March Newsday article as device which “directs bright light at small objects.” For while those words may be strictly speaking true, they unfairly conceal the remarkably complex and incredibly unique nature of what is actually a triumph of modern technological prowess. To compare the NSLS to a turbo-charged flashlight is like calling a gourmet restaurant a “calorie delivery system”—the words may technically capture the most fundamental purpose of the establishment, but they completely disregard the incredible variety of food available, the perfect balancing of flavors, and the subtle attention to the most minute details that put a Michelin-rated Lobster bisque in a different category from a nutri-grain bar.

The advantages of the NSLS are similar: it is several billion times more powerful than any light source we are familiar with from our day-to-day experiences (including the sun!) and yet also much more flexible, allowing a scientist to order up an all-you-can-eat platter of exactly the type of photon he or she needs for their experiments. As a result, the NSLS is incredibly flexible: it is simultaneously one of the world’s largest x-ray machines, one of its most powerful microscopes, and one of its most precise facilities for the production of microelectronics. If it must be compared to a flashlight, it should be to a flashlight that can identify unknown chemical compounds, reveal the otherwise-unreadable text on ancient, weather-worn scrolls, and study the causes of Alzheimer’s disease, on an atom-by-atom basis. But until such a device appears to represent its fellow flashlights, the two can hardly be said to be in the same league.

If there is some comfort to be taken for the NSLS scientists, it must be that even most “nice guys” eventually get married, by finding someone who can see past their white-bread label and identify their inner complexity. But while the NSLS has had a successful relationship of this type for some time now with the Department of Energy, whose scientists are bright enough to recognize (and fund) a good catch when they see one, the economic downturn has made it increasingly clear that this alone will not guarantee future support for the project. It is now more important than ever for the public to understand that the NSLS is not a giant flashlight any more than a computer is really a giant abacus, and that for a science reporter to suggest otherwise shows a superficiality which should have been left behind in high school.



About Colin West
Colin West is a graduate student in quantum information theory, working at the Yang Institute for Theoretical Physics at Stony Brook University. Originally from Colorado (where he attended college), his interests outside of physics include politics, paper-folding, puzzles, playing-cards, and apparently, plosives.

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