Thursday, May 19, 2016

The Curse Of Being A Physicist

When do you speak up in a social setting and set someone straight?

I think I've mentioned a few times on here of being in a social setting, and then being found out that I'm a physicist. Most of the time, this was a good thing, because I get curious questions about what was on the news related to physics (the LHC was a major story for months).

But what if you hear something, and clearly it wasn't quite right. Do you speak up and possibly might cause an embarrassment to the other person?

I attended the annual Members Night at the Adler Planetarium last night here in Chicago. It was a very enjoyable evening. Their new show that is about to open on "Planet Nine" was very, VERY informative and entertaining. I highly recommend it. We got to be among the first to see it before it is opened to the public.

Well, anyway, towards the end of the evening, before we left, we decided to walk around the back of the facility and visit the Doane Observatory. The telescope was looking at Jupiter which was prominent in the night sky last night. There was a line, so we waited in the line for our turn.

As we progressed up, I and my companions heard these two gentlemen chatting away with the visitors, and then to each other about their enthusiasm about astronomy and science, etc. This is always good to know, especially at an event like this. As I got closer to them, it turned out that they were either volunteers, or were working for Adler Planetarium, because they were wearing either name tags or something. One of them identified himself as an astronomer, which wasn't surprising considering the event and the location.

But then, things got a bit sour, at least for me. In trying to pump up their enthusiasm about astronomy and science, they started quoting Carl Sagan's famous phrase that we are all made up of star stuff. This wasn't the bad part, but then they took it further by claiming that hydrogen is the "lego blocks" of the universe, and that everything can be thought of as being built out of hydrogen. One of them started giving an example by saying that you take two hydrogen and put them together, and you get helium!

OK, by then, I was no longer amused by these two guys, and was tempted to say something. I wanted to say that hydrogen is not the "lego blocks" of our universe, not if the Standard Model of Particle Physics has anything to say about that. And secondly, you don't get helium when you put two hydrogen atoms together. After all, where will the extra 2 neutrons in helium come from?

But I stopped myself from saying anything. These people were working pretty hard for  this event, they were trying to show their enthusiasm about the subject matter, and we were surrounded by other people, the general public, who obviously were also interested in this topic. Anything that I would have said to correct these two men would not have looked good, at least that was my assessment at that moment. It might easily led to an awkward, embarrassing moment.

I get that when we try to talk to the public about science, we might overextend ourselves. I used to give tours and participated in outreach programs, so I've been in this type of situation before. While I tried to make sure everything I say was accurate, there were always possibilities that someone in the audience may know more about something I said and may find certain aspects of it not entirely accurate. I get that.

So that was why I didn't say anything to these two gentlemen. I think that what they just told to the people who were within ear shot of them were wrong. Maybe their enthusiasms made them forget some basic facts. That might be forgivable. Still, it is obvious that I'm still thinking about this the next morning, and second guessing if maybe I should have told them quietly that what they said wasn't quite right. Maybe it might stop them from saying it out loud next time?

On the other hand, how many of these people who heard what was said actually (i) understood it and (ii) remembered it?


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