Who Speaks For Science?

Neil deGrasse Tyson has been taking some lumps lately. He is the director of New York’s Hayden Planetarium and comments on science in various media. A couple of months ago, he ventured into biology unsuccessfully. Now he’s said that the universe may be a simulation created by other beings and has been getting pushback.

There’s a lot to science, and it’s not possible for one person to be equally versed in all areas. Getting a Ph.D. means enormous concentration on a minute piece of science. But there are basics to every field, and common ways to understand them. Rigorous logic is basic to all science. It’s the first thing the reviewers will look for in your journal papers. It’s the first thing that commenters at your talk will badger you with. Mathematics is important, too. Putting your ideas into mathematical form greatly helps in analyzing the logic and in making predictions. Observation of the natural world, the subject of science, is essential.

These three figure in different degrees in different sciences. Physics likes to claim a sort of primacy because it has put so many of its observations into mathematics. It can also be argued that physics deals with forces and phenomena that are the basis for everything else. That is true in the sense that everything is made of atoms or protons and electrons or gluons and quarks, and that physics’s array of forces, from gravity to weak interactions, explain how those particles interact. However, that kind of knowledge does not easily extrapolate to how calcium channels in living cells contribute to disease or figuring out the ecology of a coral reef. Or whether the universe is a simulation.

Tyson’s specialties, astronomy and cosmology, combine physics with contemplation of the beginning and end of the universe. Surely that background qualifies practitioners to comment about the universe and everything.

That’s an attractive idea. The history of physics in the twentieth century also contributed to the belief that physicists and those in closely related professions are uniquely qualified to comment on everything. But the times are changing.

Physics underwent a massive upheaval in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Observations of heat flow and radiation and their mathematical interpretations led to questions about how they all fit together. Einstein came up with thought experiments and syntheses that set the stage for results that even he was uncomfortable with. Those results proved extremely powerful in a very literal sense for the development of nuclear weapons.

The first atomic bombs punctuated the end of World War II. Other contributions from physics, like radar, contributed. Everyone was grateful for the end of the war. President Dwight D. Eisenhower began the practice of having a presidential science advisor, a physicist of course. Physicists were delving into the very structure of matter, the beginnings of the universe. Popular books on quantum theory, astronomy, splitting the atom, and such became best-sellers in the 1950s. Books interpreting physics for general audiences are still being written.

By the end of the 1950s, however, biology was becoming much more systematic. The discovery of the structure of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), the means of heredity, changed everything. The 1960s brought ecology to prominence through the writings of Rachel Carson and others. Living memories of the end of World War II are receding. What has physics done for us lately? Nuclear weapons are now perceived less as the end to a dreadful war than as a danger to the earth. The world we see and touch is Newtonian, regardless of the intellectual curiosities of Schroedinger’s Cat. The Higgs boson and gravity waves, major discoveries for physics, are bumps in noisy data traces.

You might think that up-and-coming biologists would take physicists’ place as spokespeople for science. We are seeing more of them. Francis Collins and Anthony Fauci, for example, have spoken for biology but less so for science generally. Physicists and their close relatives, astronomers, still command attention. Check out the contributors on science in the New York Review of Books, for example. Here a physicist explains why all the other sciences are really physics. Or they should be.

Another up-and-coming field that might supplant physics is computer science. Quotes from wealthy computer gurus are becoming more frequent. Bill Gates opines on vaccine research and nuclear reactor development. The State Department asks computer wonks to help with nonproliferation. Sean Parker feels that cancer is a “hackable problem” and hopes to disrupt cancer research to find that hack.

Of course, Silicon Valley, like physicists, can get things wrong when they go outside their field of expertise.

In the Theranos debacle, the protagonist did all the Silicon Valley things right: drops out of Stanford, wants to disrupt medical testing, wears black turtlenecks. All that, of course, has little to do with science, but it is a signal of belonging to the group. Unfortunately, knowing something about actual medical testing seems to have been neglected. Smart people were convinced enough of Theranos’s genuineness to invest or join the board. How could Silicon Valley go wrong? We’re now told that that Theranos wasn’t really Silicon Valley.

As long as editors, television producers, reporters, and venture capitalists have finite speed-dial lists and an outsize belief that their sources can opine on anything, we will continue to see experts in one field stumble in another. Perhaps a little humility is due on the part of those experts: “I’m not really acquainted with that topic. You might call my colleague.” And it would be great if some of those colleagues were female.


Photo: A biologist looks at the Schroedinger’s Cat paradox.