Perform or perish? Guilty confessions of a YouTube physicist

xkcd-physics.png

First published at physicsfocus

This week is YouTube’s Geek Week so it seems a particularly (in)opportune moment to come clean about some niggling doubts I’ve been having of late about physics education/edutainment on the web. Before I get started – and just to reassure you that these are not the bitter ramblings of a dusty old academic who, like our current education secretary, is keen to hasten the return of Victorian education values – let me stress that I am extremely enthusiastic about many aspects of online science communication. Indeed, not only have I been almost evangelical at times about the value of web-based learning, I’ve invested quite a bit of effort in helping to make YouTube videos of the type I’m about to criticise (just a little).

Along with a number of my colleagues at the University of Nottingham, since early 2009 I’ve been contributing to videos for Brady Haran’s popular Sixty Symbols and Numberphile channels. I’ve even crossed over to the dark (and smelly) side and made a couple of videos with Brady for Periodic Videos, the chemistry-focussed forerunner of Sixty Symbols. These channels, along with Brady’s many other YouTube projects — Haran has the work ethic of an intensely driven academic — have been extremely successful and have garnered many accolades and awards.

Brady is of course not alone in his efforts to communicate science and maths via YouTube. There is now a small, but intensely dedicated, clique of talented YouTubers, as described in this article in The Independent, whose videos regularly top one million views. (Conspicuous by its absence from that list in The Independent, however, is minutephysics, a staggeringly popular channel with, at the time of writing, 1.6 million subscribers.)

Working with Brady is a fascinating – and frankly quite exhausting – experience: challenging (because there’s no script – and even if there were, Brady would rip it up); unnerving (because the first time we academics see the video is when it’s uploaded to YouTube and it may well have picked up 10,000 views or more before we get round to watching it); and always intensely collaborative (because Brady not only films and edits – his ideas and questions are absolutely central to the direction of each video). Most of all, it’s fun. It is also immensely gratifying for all of us involved with Sixty Symbols to receive e-mails from YouTube viewers across the world who say that Sixty Symbols has (re)ignited their love of physics, and, for example, inspired them to pursue a degree in the subject.

You might quite reasonably say at this point that it sounds like ‘all win’ for everyone involved. What the heck is my problem? What’s the downside? (…and where are those guilty confessions I promised?)

I’m such a scientist. Get over it.

It took me a while to work out just where my nagging uneasiness with the YouTube edutainment business sprang from. It wasn’t until I borrowed a copy of Randy Olson’s book Don’t Be Such a Scientist from a colleague’s bookshelf a few months ago that things began slowly to crystallise. (Coincidentally, Don’t Be Such a Scientist was published back in 2009 – the year my colleagues and I started to work with Brady on Sixty Symbols – and I was somewhat surprised that I hadn’t encountered the book before, given that it’s about outreach and public engagement via film-making). My eyes were drawn immediately to the quote from Jennifer Ouellette on the back cover:

“This book is likely to draw a firestorm of controversy because scientists may not want to hear what Olson has to say. But someone needs to say it; and maybe Olson’s take-no-prisoners approach will get the message through.”

Jennifer Ouellette is an exceptionally talented science writer and blogger, so I was really looking forward to reading Olson’s book; praise from Ouellette is high praise indeed, as far as I’m concerned. She has an unerring knack for explaining complicated concepts in a lucid, engaging, and effortlessly witty way, without resorting to stereotypes or patronising the reader.

I really wish that I could say the same of Olson’s book. But I hated it. Not all of it, grant you, but enough that I often had to leave it to one side and count to ten (or go make yet another coffee) to stem my flow of expletives. In that sense, Ouellette was dead right – I didn’t want to hear what Olson had to say. Here are just a few reasons why:

The relentless stereotyping of scientists as unfathomable, passionless, literal-minded automatons.

To be fair, Olson highlights one or two exceptions to this general type, including the inspirational Carl Sagan. But that’s the point – he discusses Sagan as an exception.

The “us and them” mentality.

Olson argues that scientists are not well-equipped to communicate with the ‘general public’, i.e. the great unwashed who are too intellectually challenged to “get” science without it being brought down to their level (which is apparently generally below the waistline.). I was put in mind of the late Bill Hicks’ intense frustration with TV executives who told him time and time again that although his stand-up comedy routines were creative and funny, they were concerned that his material wouldn’t “play in the midwest”. As Hicks put it, “If the people in the midwest knew the contempt that television holds for them…”.

Reducing science to easy-to-digest content requiring little intellectual effort from the viewer.

In essence, Olson argues that scientists should adopt an approach to science communication which is informed by the strategies used by Hollywood, and the marketing and advertising industries: “Style is the substance”. Although my views on marketing may not be quite as extreme as those of Hicks, the very last thing that science needs to do is to move any closer to the advertising industry.  (A word of warning: Do not click on the preceding link if you are easily offended. Or work in marketing.)

One of the things I love about Sixty Symbols, and Brady Haran’s work in general is that, contrary to Olson’s view that ‘talking heads’ are boring, Haran’s videos humanise scientists by forgoing the bleeding edge graphics, the Ride of the Valkyries-esque backing tracks, and the breathless faux-urgency that have come to characterise so much of science communication in the mass media.  My colleagues who contribute to Sixty Symbols (and Numberphile, Periodic Videos etc.) have the remarkable ability to combine enthusiasm with clear and coherent explanations, each time breaking Olson’s cardinal rule that – and I hope they’ll forgive me for saying this – substance must be translated to style.  (In my case, although enthusiasm is generally not lacking in the videos I make with Brady, clarity and coherence can often take a back seat. Style is also not something that unduly concerns me.)

Although each of those points above certainly irritated me, it was Olson’s closing line, and over-arching theme, that made me realise just where my misgivings about science-by-YouTube came from:

“…you’ll find that making an effective film, in the end, is really not different from conducting an effective scientific study”.

Hmmm, really? The last thing you need for an effective science study is to elevate style over substance. Good science necessitates careful, systematic, and tedious measurements. It couldn’t – or shouldn’t – care less about the need to “arouse and fulfil” an audience. It certainly doesn’t follow a neat story arc.

And if doing science shares little with film-making, what about science education…?

I’m with stupid

I read most of Don’t Be Such a Scientist in one sitting. Shortly after putting it down an e-mail from physicsfocus arrived in my email inbox pointing to this excellent post by Alom Shaha: Explanations are not enough, we need questions.

And there, in a nutshell, were my niggling doubts about YouTube edutainment laid bare.

Education is about so much more than an engaging video and a simple, compelling explanation. Indeed, and rather counter-intuitively, an enthusiastic lecturer apparently plays very little role in students’ ability to grasp the material covered in a lecture.  I have always seen university lectures simply as a way of enthusing students about the material – the real learning takes place outside the lecture theatre. Or after the video has been played.

If YouTube science edutainment is seen in this light – with the focus firmly on entertainment and engagement, rather than education – then my concerns are allayed. But it’s when comments like the following are posted under the videos, or at the Sixty Symbols Facebook page, that I start to get a little ‘twitchy’.

SixtySymbolsComment

Watching a five minute (or one minute) video is only the first step in the education process. As Shaha points out, what’s then required are the questions, debate, experiments, problems, and discussion that underpin deep learning.   This may well bring on the yawns, but we need to expose students, at whatever level – and, more broadly, any fan of science – to the hard graft required to grasp difficult concepts.

Moreover, some concepts simply do not lend themselves well to a short, snappy explanation. (Negative temperature is another example.)

I know full well that there’s a famous Einstein quote: “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough”. But he’s also credited with this: “Everything should be made as simple as possible, and no simpler”, and, perhaps more importantly, this: “I do not teach anyone, I only provide the environment in which they can learn.”

I used to be very proud when Sixty Symbols viewers would leave a “Great – I feel smart now!” comment under one of the videos to which I contributed. But then I realised that any substantial leap in my understanding of physics had come not when I felt smart, but when I felt stupid. Really stupid.

Yet again, I discovered that another physicsfocus blogger had been through the same thought process long before me. Suzie Sheey made this wonderful point at her High Heels In The Lab blog: “…there are many arguments to be made that if you’ve stopped feeling stupid then you’ve stopped really doing science”. (I urge you to read the entire post).

Even Feynman, arguably the most gifted physics communicator there has been, clearly felt that the complexity and elegance of some concepts deserved more than just a shallow description and required considerable intellectual effort from the audience.

Sometimes we need to admit that the fabric of the cosmos takes a little more than five minutes to comprehend.

Update: The thoughts above became the theme of a TEDxDerby talk I gave in 2014:

Image: xkcd on teaching physics, used under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.5 License

Selling science by the pound

mixture-69523_960_720

The President of the National Research Council (NRC) of Canada, John McDougall, caused quite a blogstorm, and set Twitter alight, at the end of last month when he said:

“Scientific discovery is not valuable unless it has commercial value.”

The tweets below give a good indication of the consensus view among the Twitterati. I don’t have a Twitter account but I also added my own small howl of outrage via The Conversation.

There’s just one small problem: McDougall didn’t say that.

As described at Phil Plait’s Bad Astronomy blog, McDougall was badly misquoted in a Toronto Sun article. This misquote effectively went ‘viral’. Shortly after my brief article at The Conversation was uploaded, I was contacted by Patrick Bookhout, Media Relations Officer at the NRC, who was understandably quite keen to put the record straight. As I told Patrick by e-mail, like too many others I took the quote at face-value. A mea culpa is in order – I didn’t spend enough time doing my homework, ie verifying that the newspaper article had got its facts straight. That I was not alone in this is no excuse.

So what did McDougall actually say? Here’s the contentious quote verbatim:

“Impact is the essence of innovation. A new idea or discovery may in fact be interesting, but it doesn’t qualify as innovation until it’s been developed into something that has commercial or societal value.”

And you know what? I agree with much of that statement. Scientific discovery and innovation are different things and, for reasons I’ll outline below, we ultimately do academic research, and the taxpayers who fund it, a disservice to pretend otherwise. (McDougall is wrong, however, in suggesting that new ideas and discoveries, in and of themselves, do not have societal value.)

Richard Jones, Pro-Vice Chancellor for Research and Innovation at the University of Sheffield, and erstwhile Strategic Advisor for Nanotechnology for the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), has pointed out the disconnect that exists between fundamental scientific research and the ‘nucleation’ and growth of successful industries based on innovative technologies.

I’m not going to rehearse Jones’ arguments here. I would strongly recommend that you visit his Soft Machines blog for a number of extremely well-argued posts on the deficiencies in UK innovation policy. (If only all PVCs were as well-informed as Prof. Jones…). Although Richard and I may not always see eye to eye on the value of, and motivations for, basic scientific research, he is someone who certainly does his homework. Take a look at his analysis of the UK’s disinvestment in R&D since 1980. (Note, in particular, the steady decline in private sector investment and Jones’ highly plausible interpretation of what this means for the direction of academic science in the UK.)

McDougall got it right about the disparity between scientific research at the frontiers of knowledge and innovations that translate to the market. But, of course, this is not a distinction that academic scientists, and the research councils which fund them, are exactly falling over themselves to promote to government. In the short term it serves us very well indeed to blur the boundaries between funding for basic science and for near-market R&D. You reap what you sow, however, and ratcheting up expectations for short-term, and direct, returns on investment in academic research, across the board, is a rather disingenuous and dangerous strategy.

What I find truly depressing is that this strategy is now fundamentally embedded in the workings of the research councils in the UK. EPSRC, in particular, has introduced a slew of new funding mechanisms and policies over the past five years or so which are steadily ensuring that it becomes more and more difficult in the UK to get funding for disinterested research which is not connected to the near-term requirements of industry.

For the more masochistic among you, there’s much more on my ‘issues’ with EPSRC here, here, and here. (And, oh, here as well.) As I mentioned in the article in The Conversation, recent moves by EPSRC towards further skewing the funding landscape towards applied research include the recommendation that industry not only is involved in Centres for Doctoral Training, but ‘co-creates’ the PhD training programme.

Not long ago, at the 2013 Association of Research Managers and Administrators (ARMA) conference here in Nottingham, Rick Rylance, Chair of Research Councils UK, said – assuming that I can believe the Twitter traffic this time – that the distinction between pure and applied research is “beginning to become untenable”. This is a stance that is becoming increasingly fashionable and was levelled against my particular research area, nanoscience, not so long ago.

I disagree with Rylance in the strongest possible way. All scientific research indeed falls somewhere along the pure-applied spectrum, and the boundary can certainly be difficult to define. But there is a vast difference in the mindset, motivations, and working methods of an academic scientist working on, for example, the fundamental basis of quantum field theory (…or the origin of dark matter, or the location of exoplanets, or submolecular resolution imaging at 4 K …etc.), and her colleague in a nearby department who is attempting to improve the efficiency of a market-ready photovoltaic device in collaboration with industry. Germany certainly sees a distinct separation between fundamental and applied science, supporting basic science via its Max Planck Institutes, and applied research through the Fraunhofer Society.

Contrary to what Rylance states, the science funding process would be a great deal more honest and free of misleading hyperbole (directed at both government and the taxpayer) if there were a much stronger delineation of basic and applied research projects, including the provision of separate funding streams. As it stands, EPSRC’s ‘one size fits all’ approach means that, regardless of where a scientist’s work falls on the pure-applied spectrum, each and every grant proposal must outline the direct socioeconomic worth of the research via Pathways to Impact and National Importance statements.

And that’s not so very far removed from a position which holds that “Scientific discovery is not valuable unless it has commercial value.”

Image: https://pixabay.com/en/mixture-currencies-finance-business-69523/

Not everything that counts can be counted

8539517000_9a44748db4_n

First published at physicsfocus.

My first post for physicsfocus described a number of frustrating deficiencies in the peer review system, focusing in particular on how we can ensure, via post-publication peer review, that science does not lose its ability to self-correct. I continue to rant about discuss and dissect the issue of post-publication peer review in an article in this week’s Times Higher Education, “Spuriouser and Spuriouser”. Here, however, I want to address some of the comments left under that first physicsfocus post by a Senior Editor at Nature Materials, Pep Pamies (Curious Scientist in the comments thread). I was really pleased that a journal editor contributed to the debate but, as you might be less than surprised to hear, I disagree fundamentally with Pep’s argument that impact factors are a useful metric. As I see it, they’re not even a necessary evil.

I’m certainly not alone in thinking this. In an eloquent cri de coeur posted at his blog, Reciprocal Space, last summer, Stephen Curry bluntly stated, “I am sick of impact factors. And so is science”. I won’t rehearse Stephen’s arguments – I strongly recommend that you visit his blog and read the post for yourself, along with the close to two-hundred comments that it attracted – but it’s clear from the Twitter and blog storm his post generated that he had tapped into a deep well of frustration among academics. (Peter Coles’ related post, The Impact X-Factor, is also very well worth a read.)

I agree with Stephen on almost everything in his post. I think that many scientists will chuckle knowingly at the description of the application of impact factors as “statistically illiterate” and I particularly liked the idea of starting a ‘smear campaign’ to discredit the entire concept. But he argues that the way forward is:

“…to find ways to attach to each piece of work the value that the scientific community places on it though use and citation. The rate of accrual of citations remains rather sluggish, even in today’s wired world, so attempts are being made to capture the internet buzz that greets each new publication; there are interesting innovations in this regard from the likes of PLOS, Mendeley and altmetrics.org.”

As is clear from the THE article, embedding Web 2.0/Web 3.0/Web n.0 feedback and debate in the peer review process is something I fully endorse and, indeed, I think that we should grasp the nettle and attempt to formalise the links between online commentary and the primary scientific literature as soon as possible. But are citations – be they through the primary literature or via an internet ‘buzz’ – really a proxy for scientific quality and the overall value of the work?

I think that we do science a great disservice if we argue that the value of a paper depends only on how often other scientists refer to it, or cite it in their work. Let me offer an example from my own field of research, condensed matter physics – aka nanoscience when I’m applying for funding – to highlight the problem.

Banging a quantum drum

Perhaps my favourite paper of the last decade or so is “Quantum Phase Extraction in Isospectral Electronic Nanostructures” by Hari Manoharan and his co-workers at Stanford. The less than punchy title doesn’t quite capture the elegance, beauty, and sheer brilliance of the work. Manoharan’s group exploited the answer to a question posed by the mathematician Mark Kac close to fifty years ago: Can one hear the shape of a drum? Or, if we ask the question in rather more concrete mathematical physics terms, “Does the spectrum of eigenfrequencies of a resonator uniquely determine its geometry?”

For a one dimensional system the equivalent question is not too difficult and can readily be answered by guitarists and A-level physics students: yes, one can ‘hear’ the shape, i.e. the length, of a vibrating string. But for a two dimensional system like a drum head, the answer is far from obvious. It took until 1992 before Kac’s question was finally answered by Carolyn Gordon, David Webb, and Scott Wolpert. They discovered that it was possible to have 2D isospectral domains, i.e. 2D shapes (or “drum heads”) with the same “sound”. So, no, it’s not possible to hear the shape of a drum.

What’s this got to do with nanoscience? Well, the first elegant aspect of the paper by the Stanford group is that they constructed two-dimensional isospectral domains out of carbon monoxide molecules on a copper surface (using the tip of a scanning tunnelling microscope). In other words, they built differently shaped nanoscopic ‘drum heads’, one molecule at a time. They then “listened” to the eigenspectra of these quantum drums  by measuring the resonances of the electrons confined within the molecular drum head and transposing the spectrum to audible frequencies.

So far, so impressive

But it gets better. A lot better.

The Stanford team then went on to exploit the isospectral characteristics of the differently shaped quantum drum heads to extract the quantum mechanical phase of the electronic wavefunction confined within. I could wax lyrical about this particular aspect of the work for quite some time – remember that the phase of a wavefunction is not an observable in quantum mechanics! – but I encourage you to read the paper itself. (It’s available via this link, but you, or your institution will need a subscription to Science.)

I’ll say it again – this is elegant, beautiful, and brilliant work. For me, at least, it has a visceral quality, just like a piece of great music, literature, or art; it’s inspiring and affecting.

…and it’s picked up a grand total of 29 citations since its publication in 2008.

In the same year, and along with colleagues in Nottingham and Loughborough, I co-authored a paper published in Physical Review Letters on pattern formation in nanoparticle assemblies. To date, that paper has accrued 47 citations. While I am very proud of the work, I am confident that my co-authors would agree with me when I say that it doesn’t begin to compare to the quality of the quantum drum research. Our paper lacks the elegance and scientific “wow” factor of the Stanford team’s publication; it lacks the intellectual excitement of coupling a fundamental problem (and solution) in pure mathematics with state-of-the-art nanoscience; and it lacks the sophistication of the combined experimental and theoretical methodology.

But yet our paper has accrued more citations.

You might argue that I have cherry-picked a particular example to make my case. I really wish that were so but I can point to many, many other exciting scientific papers in a variety of journals which have attracted a relative dearth of citations.

Einstein is credited, probably apocryphally, with the statement “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts”. Just as multi-platinum album sales and Number 1 hits are not a reliable indicator of artistic value (note that One Direction has apparently now out sold The Beatles), citations and associated bibliometrics are not a robust measure of scientific quality.

Image credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/bigleaftropicals/8539517000