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Science And Story: Physicist and Author Sean Carroll Talks Metaphors, “Thor,” And The Higgs Boson

Sean Carroll wears two hats. He’s a Caltech physicist who tries to unravel higher scientific mysteries like dark energy. But as an author of popular science books, he also works to bring those higher mysteries down to Earth and introduce them to the public.

Carroll will be joining fellow authors Jo Marchant (“Decoding the Heavens”) and Steven Pinker (“The Better Angels Of Our Nature”) at the World Science Festival program “Science And Story: The Write Angle,” taking place on Thursday, May 29 at 5:30pm at NYU’s Grand Hall. (Tickets available here.) We chatted with him recently about the fine art of science storytelling:

(Note: this interview has been lightly edited and condensed)

WSF: When you’re writing about science, how do you make abstract concepts easy for a general audience to grasp?

SC: This is something you face all the time when you’re doing the kinds of topics I write about: particle physics, gravity, cosmology. You have try to remember what it was like to not understand these things, to remember what jargon you didn’t know. With schooling, certain things become ingrained.

What can be helpful is analogies or metaphors. However, you have to be careful, because you can give people ideas that come along with the analogy that you didn’t mean.

A classic example is the Higgs Boson: How do you explain what it is, why it’s important, how it does what it does? The reason the Higgs Boson is important is that it tells us empty space is filled with the Higgs field, which affects particles that go through it. People have used all sorts of metaphors to try and explain how the Higgs field adds mass to particles: “It’s like dragging a ping pong ball through molasses versus dragging it through air,” or “It’s like walking through a room full of people, where an unknown person will move through faster than a celebrity.” But this is dangerous, because all these analogies make it sound like the aether [a hypothetical element or “essence” that filled the heavens, according to some medieval thinkers]. It’s very helpful to suggest analogies to people, but you have to be careful not to confuse analogy with reality.

WSF: Who are some of your favorite science writers?

SC: It’s my duty­—but also true—to name my wife first, Jennifer Ouellette [“The Physics of the Buffyverse,” “Me Myself and Why”]. We read each other’s stuff before we me. Mary Roach [“Gulp,” “Packing For Mars”] is one of best science writers we have working today; she writes entertaining books about the ickiest topics. Another of my favorites is this relative newcomer, Natalie Wolchover, at Quanta. She does an amazing job of writing about topics that would scare most people.

Physicist and author Sean Carroll

WSF: What’s one underrepresented aspect of science that you’d like to see become general knowledge or part of pop culture?

SC: Quantum field theory! It a is framework that we use and have used for 50 years now to understand the remarkable fact that the world is not made of particles, but is made of fields. While you can’t buy popular books about quantum field theory, in the most recent “Thor” movie, Natalie Portman points at this device and says “that’s a quantum field generator!” That one was my fault. [E.N.: Carroll was a science consultant on “Thor: The Dark World”

WSF: Do you run ideas or drafts past your spouse? Ever collaborated on anything?

SC: We haven’t directly collaborated. Obviously we talk all the time, but we also operate independently. But I think we’ve had a big impact on each other. She’s pushed me to be less of a lecturer; I’ve nudged her to stretch into the more esoteric realms of physics.

WSF: Thank you! We’re looking forward to seeing you at the Festival.

SC: Thank you! I love the event title, by the way: “Science And Story.” Jennifer has always emphasized to me that the thing that helps people appreciate science is that rather than just giving them the facts, we put them in the context of a story.

Balancing the science and the story is tricky. In the movie “Particle Fever,” which we’re also discussing at the Festival [at the Museum of the Moving Image, Friday May 30, at 7:30 p.m…tickets here], you’ll notice the filmmakers almost didn’t try to explain much of the physics—most of the time they focused on the physicists.

Image Credit: Sean Carroll via Facebook

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