If you can’t present your ideas to at least a modestly larger audience, then it’s not going to do you very much good. Einstein supposedly said that I don’t trust any physics theory that can’t be explained to a 10-year-old. A lot of times the intuitions behind things aren’t really all that complicated.
He became something of a womaniser, dating undergraduates and hanging out with show girls and prostitutes in Las Vegas. In a celebrated book of anecdotes about his life – Surely You’re Joking Mr Feynman – the scientist recounts how he applied an experimental approach to chatting up women. Having assumed, like most men, that you had to start by offering to buy them a drink, he explains how a conversation with a master of ceremonies at a nightclub in Albuquerque one summer prompted him to change tactics. And to his surprise, an aloof persona proved far more successful than behaving like a gentleman.
Christopher Riley in Richard Feynman: Life, the universe and everything, The Telegraph.
In these days of frivolous entertainments and frayed attention spans, the people who become famous are not necessarily the brightest stars. One of the biggest hits on YouTube, after all, is a video of a French bulldog who can’t roll over. But in amongst all the skateboarding cats and laughing babies, a new animated video, featuring the words of a dead theoretical physicist, has gone viral. In the film, created from an original documentary made for the BBC back in the early Eighties, the late Nobel Prize-winning professor, Richard Feynman, can be heard extolling the wonders of science contained within a simple flower.
There is “beauty”, he says, not only in the flower’s appearance but also in an appreciation of its inner workings, and how it has evolved the right colours to attract insects to pollinate it. Those observations, he continues, raise further questions about the insects themselves and their perception of the world. “The science,” he concludes, “only adds to the excitement and mystery and awe of the flower.” This interview was first recorded by the BBC producer Christopher Sykes, back in 1981 for an episode of Horizon called “The Pleasure of Finding Things Out”. When it was broadcast the following year the programme was a surprise hit, with the audience beguiled by the silver-haired professor chatting to them about his life and his philosophy of science.
Now, thanks to the web, Richard Feynman’s unique talents – not just as a brilliant physicist, but as an inspiring communicator – are being rediscovered by a whole new audience. As well as the flower video, which, to date, has been watched nearly a quarter of a million times, YouTube is full of other clips paying homage to Feynman’s ground-breaking theories, pithy quips and eventful personal life.
But, Key Takeaway: You get girls by being aloof.
It is the responsibility of scientists and journalists to work together in stopping such empathy fatigue, because empathy is the primary human quality that fuels our instinct to protect human rights around the world.
Jamil Zaki, Empathy Fatigue and What the Press Can Do About It, The Huffington Post.
Circa 2009, I geeked out over Zaki’s article because, well, hearing a psychologist weigh in on the objectivity-is-perilous-in-journalism debate is refreshing. No one’s really arguing anymore over the fact that objectivity is a tricky, nuanced, sub-standard ethic for journalism, but a new, better ethic hasn’t quite emerged. A singular sterling standard probably won’t.
Last fall, some of the best and brightest in media sat down to talk about it all and thanks to Poynter, this book emerged. Really smart people all over the world are creating and debating around accurate and value-creative reporting. You can explore our ethics tag for past coverage of some of those conversations.
Zaki, who is on the science side of things, very much heeded his own call to action and today I’m geeking out over his newest project, The People’s Science, a digital public space where scientists and the public can meet, share, and talk about science.
The site’s purpose is to encourage scientists to write posts about their research in easy-to-understand language and for the public to have conversations with those scientists directly.
In Zaki’s words (via NPR):
In an ideal world, I think TPS could provide a platform for scientists to feature their work to a broad audience and describe why they find it exciting and relevant. For non-scientists, I hope that the site can provide an insider’s perspective on how scientists think, and a way to go beyond the “punchlines” of a given study and understand the process that went into it. I also think the public should be able to use this to vet other media sources, testing claims made by reporters against scientists’ own descriptions. Finally, I’d like the site to be a true forum: instead of each “pop” abstract serving as a static document, I’d like non-scientists and scientists alike to be able to ask questions and engage in discussion about the work posted here. At the highest level, my dream for this site would be to help scientists and non-scientists into more dialogue, which I believe can only be a good thing for our culture at large.
FJP: We agree, obviously, on very many levels. It humanizes the researchers behind academia’s impenetrable walls by thrusting them into the social sphere. It’s a gold mine for science reporters to have easy and direct access to emerging research and scientists. As someone who (in my non FJP life) works for an academic journal and deals quite regularly with the incomprehensible abstract and insanely long paper title, it’s wonderful.
Now go explore the site and ask questions.—Jihii