Of Ivory Towers and Physics Woo

One of the reasons I really, really like doing physics is because it gives you an amazing bullshit filter, if you let it. All of a sudden the world becomes clear and sharp and deep, described by the beautiful and powerful language that is mathematics. Hopefully you learn the tools to tell the plausible from the just plain nonsense and try to base things on evidence.

Because physics is shiny and wonderful and leaves people speechless, the awe of physics is popular and widely publicised. By and large, this is a good thing; I believe that everyone deserves the opportunity to learn not just for utility but for pleasure, and to learn whatever the hell they please. Unfortunately, because most people are averse to maths (this is an utter travesty; numbers aren't scary), most popular science books gloss over or ignore the mathematical foundation of physics, giving people misconceptions. Now add that to the wave of stupid people promoting things like quantum woo and what do you get? A bunch of people who think they understand physics but are fundamentally misguided.

As someone studying physics, I'll freely admit that I don't know everything - but that means that I won't peddle woo either. And while I can understand the arguments of those who argue that this woo can be beneficial to physics in small doses (How The Hippies Saved Physics is a magnificent book about how mysticism - not necessarily woo but often associated with it - lifted physics out of its Cold War rut), I think that right now we have too much woo.

You might argue that in the grand scheme of things, misconceptions about physics are not really something to get all het up about. After all, children are starving, economies are fucked and we're currently dumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere whilst causing habitat loss. There are bigger problems out there.

The thing is, physics has a wide range of applications, from basic research to climatology to dynamical systems theory (the stuff that tries to work with chaos and complexity and is genuinely a very interesting field). If you can get the physics right, you can do things with world-changing consequences. If you get the physics wrong, there is every possibility that people might die. You cannot separate science from the complex problems facing the modern world.

So because I see everything as connected and because I'm also a massive physics nerd, I find it really irritating and upsetting that my subject gets turned into woo.

What makes it worse is that the vast majority of these people are not dishonest or evil. They are good people trying to make the best of bad information. I have access to good information, but that's because I'm studying for a physics degree. In the UK, this is expensive - at least £9,000 a year in tuition fees (although this will mostly be covered by loans) plus accommodation and textbook fees. In the US, this is even more expensive. Studying full-time is expensive. Textbooks are expensive and there are so many of them that without guidance (again, something that can be difficult to get outside of the university) someone might get lost.

It is shocking and humbling to realise that I'm inside the ivory tower now, and that I have relatively easy access to things from inside here, while those outside the ivory tower are locked out of so much. Frankly, it makes me feel guilty.

But the harsh truth is that my guilt will do nothing to dismantle the ivory tower. It will do nothing to help stop the spread of misinformation or advance public understanding of physics. We need real, concrete action for that.

Academically, I'm a nobody. I'm a fresher just starting out on my academic journey. And you might ask what a nobody like me can do.

Surprisingly, it turns out that the answer to that question is "quite a lot". Through university I teach young girls the basics of coding and am currently applying to mentor students for next year. Outside of university, I run this blog and a science enthusiast/personal blog. You can find me explaining bits of physics to people on twitter, where I also post science links in between political ranting and mental health stuff. Lastly, talking to people (and trying to explain special relativity on a napkin) never goes out of style. It helps that nowadays in the UK there is a government initiative to widen access to higher education, meaning that you can get support with funding and paperwork when doing science outreach.

And we are fortunate to live in a time where we have many more free online resources. It takes a lot of free time and discipline to self-teach, but they're a hell of a lot better than woo.

Physics Forums: If you get stuck on a question, look here!
Khan Academy: I don't personally use it, but a lot of people seem to like it.
HyperPhysics: Mostly aimed at uni students, but a very good guide.
MIT OpenCourseWare: As far as I'm concerned this is just about the jewel in the crown when it comes to learning physics from scratch, and even when you're stuck on problems.

There are of course a lot more resources than this. Please post them in the comments, as different people learn in different ways.

Perhaps I'm just naive, but I truly do think that if we all try to pass on our knowledge we can turn back the tide of pseudoscientific woo and one day - maybe - just about dismantle that ivory tower once and for all.