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Einstein, Eddington, and public understanding of Science

By John Barker

A very long rave. I’m getting quite anxious about “things”.

My Sunday was book-ended by two “science experiences” that spoke volumes about the future of our civilisation: how can we survive if we don’t know what we’re doing?

The morning bookend was David Stapleton, an Adelaide-based “science communicator” presenting on ABCRN’s program Ockham’s Razor, which has been a staple of mine for many years. Stapleton was talking about communicating science to the public, with much of what he was saying relating to “stimulating interest”.

The night book-end was the 2008 movie Einstein and Eddington. Somehow, I have missed seeing it for more than a decade. I think that it is a pretty good movie, despite a few factual errors, portraying the way that science and politics can collide.

Stimulating stuff, indeed, but my particular interest is in the extent to which people in the general community “understand” science. That “general community” is about 95% of the total population, who haven’t studied any science beyond high school level.

Importantly, I distinguish between “understanding” science and “appreciating, accepting and believing” science. When you understand science, you are enabled to make up your own mind about the various science-related claims that are conveyed in the media or by friends and acquaintances- ranging from climate change to solar energy to genetic engineering.

Of course, very few can become expert in these areas, but a basic understanding of the principles involved can make a world of difference in one’s ability to make decisions involving these things.

On the other hand, “appreciating, accepting and believing” science means placing trust in scientists to be sincere and truthful. So if they are engaging, humorous and talking about things that are relevant to everyday living, we are more likely to accept their “scientific findings” that we don’t actually have any capability to examine or contest. In other words, we want to accept science on the same terms as everything else- including politics, health and religion.

As a test of my approach, I asked my very intelligent, but non-scientist partner Di whether she understood any more about Einstein’s theory of general relativity after watching the movie than she did before. She replied that she thought that the movie wasn’t really about explaining general relativity, but about trust and integrity. Indeed, she was right, but, to me, Eddington’s use of a tablecloth, cake and apple as as model to explain gravity as as space-time distortion was brilliant. Well, as a physicist, I appreciated the explanation, but clearly, it was seen rather differently by a non-scientist it enabled Di to accept the sincerity and competence of the scientist.

There have been quite a few mainstream movies recently that have tried to explain a bit of science or advanced mathematics, including Interstellar (wormholes in space-time), The Theory of Everything (Grand unifying Theory), The Imitation Game (computing), to name a few, plus Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s remake of the TV series Cosmos. I’m not really sure where TV comedy The Big Bang Theory fits in. But I have seen nothing to indicate that any of this science has stuck in the public mind, although maybe they have engendered a greater trust and acceptance of science.

So what’s my problem? My real concern is that while the tree of knowledge has brought forth the fruits of science which have nourished our society for 400 years, those fruit may contain the seeds of its destruction. Knowledge, separated from reason, soon becomes technique, which morphs into ritual and blind belief. Thus disconnected from its roots, it is prey to attack by those who prefer power to arise from brute-force and money.

This ritualising of science gives rise to “Priests” – or “Celebrity Scientists” – and as “celebrities” they are pitched against charismatic or outrageous politicians, reality show hosts and the Kardashians. Their ability to convince the community of important issues like climate change and vaccination will depend more on their ability to entertain than the force of their reasoning. It’s doubtful that science would ever win this battle.

What can we do? Certainly, all these depictions of science are fine; science should not be exempt from comedy, drama, or simple entertainment. But, if we are to continue to eat Newton’s apples, then we have got to nurture the apple tree itself-not just pick the fruit from its ageing boughs.

Not everyone can become a scientist, but it is my firm belief that everyone can be “a bit scientific” in the way that we approach the world. Thirty years ago I set up Scitech – the interactive science centre in Perth with this in mind – to be “enjoyable” (a cerebral sensation) – not just “fun” (a visceral sensation). I wrote “Warming to You – Falling for Me” as an attempt to explore the difference between “science appreciation” and “scientific explanation”. But to what avail.

That 5% of the population who are well-versed in science is unlikely to grow much, despite our efforts. But the bigger problem is that there is not a “long tail” of people who have some grip on science – you’re either a “scientist” or a “non-scientist” – and the “non-scientists” are divided between “believers” and “non-believers”. “Beliefy-ness” prevails over “reason”.

We have got to grow that “long tail” of scientific understanding, or, as we have seen from the idiotic, furious, ongoing anti-scientific revolution in the USA, that by tomorrow, the Enlightenment will signify nothing.

Does all of this seem reasonable?


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  1. Matt

    Ok, well it seems most Australians do not understand exponentials or we would be more worried about this:

    “That is the verdict of the 2016 census, released by Australian Bureau of Statistics on Tuesday, which found Australia’s population has grown by 8.8 per cent to 24.4 million people since the last time the national clock was measured in 2011.”

    Mind you in light of this you do not need to be an Einstein to understand why our environment and roads are under such pressure. I wouldn’t mind this growth if we were using it to help alleviate some of the problems of the world eg: refugees, but mindless growth for mindless reasons is insanity. In fact, it pretty much meets the definition of insanity attributed to Einstein: Western growth economics has lead to global crises, and Australia’s response is more growth based economics.

  2. Joseph Carli

    To me, there are two types of “science”..There is “Big Science”, like the NASA explorations of space thingos, which is a concept of engineering and mathematics wayyyyy beyond my capabilities, so I just look on and admire and hope they get on with it all…Then there is the “Local Science” ie; the environment and all things familiar to the world around me…sure there is the micro-organism part of that world I cannot understand, but the visual reactions that both thrill and affect me I at least try to.
    I suppose the “tricky science” is best left to those educated for it, and the “lumpy science” can be left on the board for us plebs to knead and mold into a kind of understanding.

  3. zoltan balint

    On the issue of science and general population not being interested, well one thing they are interested in is money. If it is poined out to the 95% that if they learn about the science behind the things they use every day in how it works and why it works they will know how to use it more effectively and save money. It’s not rocket science.

  4. king1394

    ‘Science’ is a huge umbrella covering every topic from astronomy to nanotechnology and much as it would be nice to be able to say that it is easily understandable, the fact is that it is not. In some areas of day to day technology we are happy that science has harnessed the necessarily know-how to provide electricity at the flick of a switch, heavy aeroplanes that fly high in the sky and functioning telecommunications at our whim. Please don’t expect me to explain how any of this works, it just does.

    The puzzling thing is that, although we, the members of society, can recognise that there are scientific reasons behind those things that have a mechanical and observable result, we do not find it as easy to accept science which tells us about things we cannot see or personally influence, such as the effects of greenhouse gases on the earth’s atmosphere. For some reason, most of us have accepted the Germ Theory of Disease, but many of us cannot accept the Theory of Evolution.

    Perhaps the difference lies in the willingness, or lack of it, to try to grasp at some level how science works. Tools that help with this include many excellent documentaries and nowadays, YouTubes, as well as great science magazines such as Scientriffic and Helix (from the CSIRO) for children and Cosmos for adults. Science as taught at school is too broad and often abstract.

    I believe one source of science education that can spark interest, that is often overlooked, is (good quality) Science Fiction, which, even when it is a little outside reality, explores scientific ideas in an entertaining manner, and opens people’s minds to scientific facts and theories which otherwise are very abstract.

  5. Miriam English

    Richard Dawkins said it well when asked to say something to those who believe in non-science, he said, “Science works, bitches.”

    That’s what we need to get through to people. And I think it is slowly having an effect. It is painfully slow though.

    When I was a child a little more than 50 years ago (I’ve always been a science and technology geek) I tried, as an experiment, asking each person I met if they could explain the basic idea behind what a light switch does. I was dismayed that after doing this for many days (I don’t remember exactly how long) almost nobody was able to tell me that it bridged two wires to let electric current flow. I should try the experiment again now because I’m pretty sure I would get better results, especially among the younger generations.

    Religion is dying. That alone should give hope that things are changing for the better.

    It is difficult to imagine a comedy about a bunch of scientists and featuring oodles of science-nerd jokes managing to survive some decades ago. But today it not only survives, but flourishes! The Big Bang Theory just finished its 10th season and begins filming its 11th season in a couple of months!! Movies like The Imitation Game center around science and scientists. Not long ago they would have been considered mildly interesting; today they are blockbusters. Almost all the most highly grossing films today are science fiction films. There have been a string of best-selling science books in recent years. Not long ago that would have been unheard of. The New York Times even has a list of Best-Selling Science Books. Again, not long ago such a thing would have been laughed at.

    I can understand your concern, John, but please don’t worry too much. I’m pretty sure science is gathering strength — not as quickly as I’d like, but it is growing. Don’t let that stop you from creating more works that popularise science, though. That work is always going to be extremely important.

    Incidentally, it is a pity you only make your works available on scabby iTunes. I have a linux computer so am unable to access it. Much better would be if you simply uploaded your book to your website as the much more standard epub format. Apple’s shit has always been about restricting people and fighting against standards.

    I put all my ebooks and short stories (science fiction) on my site ( for free, where people can download them to read offline in any ebook reader, or they can read them there as HTML. Both HTML and epub are public standards that anybody can use. (I use the free program, Calibre, to convert my writings from HTML to epub.) I also made a few science education cartoons that I called Random Walks… I really should make more of those…

  6. zoltan balint

    King 1394 have you come across a term ‘why is it so’. Any subject can be explained if you speak the language of the listener (and is not baby talk). Example, if you put just enough water in the kettle for your cup of what ever you drink it will take less time and energy to boil it and it will still be the same temperature, and since less energy used it will cost less. Simple … no fiction.

  7. Matters Not

    Miriam English re:

    Religion is dying

    Depends what meaning one gives to ‘religion’. Yes the latest census figures show a significant increase in the numbers who ticked a certain box, but the evidence of magical thinking (a shorthand for religion) seems to be on the rise.

    Indeed, the evidence of a rise in rational and scientific thinking escapes me.

  8. Rossleigh

    And, btw, Matters Not, what is “magical thinking” one day, is simply science the next.

  9. Matters Not

    what is “magical thinking” one day, is simply science the next.

    Again, it (perhaps) depends on the meaning one gives to magical thinking. Here’s one that might clarify my position:

    Magical thinking is a concept used in anthropology, sociology, psychology and other social sciences denoting the fallacious attribution of causal relationships between actions and events.

    With the emphasis on the fallacious attribution of causal relationships between actions and events.

  10. zoltan balint

    Rossleigh religion and faith = science and theory. Ask Malcolm Roberts. It depends what you believe gives the best explanation to the shi… life you have and the best hope for happiness in the future doing the least to get there. Religion and faith not questioning … go to church and find out. I stoped after the first time because they wanted to know what I fu..ed up lately. Spit in the Holly water was not my idea of telling.

  11. quiltingforkids

    I just came across a reference to the Flat Earth Society. I had heard the term, but failed to truly understand that people actually exist who believe that the earth is flat, and the spherical earth is party of a large conspiracy by NASA. I was appalled. Then I read some comments by, presumably, members, and I finally understood how/why Trump supporters exist. It is very scary that such folks exist in the 21st century, and are beginning to influence/control our public policies.

  12. Miriam English

    Matters Not, I think Rossleigh was referring to the famous quote by Arthur C Clarke:

    Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

  13. Miriam English

    quiltingforkids, I’d always assumed that the Flat Earth Society was a joke. After reading your comment I went to their page and was dismayed to find they apparently believe that stupidity. How utterly disheartening.

    I guess there will always be some incredibly gullible people.

    But, wait… on their FAQ page they say “There is no visible curvature to the horizon even from airplanes.”, which is clearly untrue for anybody who has flown or looked out from a skyscraper or a hill. Even standing on the beach and watching ships sail up the coast and only being able to see their tops shows the curvature of the Earth. So maybe they are a joke. Perhaps they are just looking for easy money from gullible idiots.

  14. totaram

    A nice piece and a valiant effort, which we must continue to make. However, science and technology do contain the seeds of their own destruction.

    Sadly, I see no hope that our civilisation will escape the inevitable collapse, which comes because our technological societies are too complex for us to “manage” in a way that benefits all. This comes about precisely because no one person can have even a decent appreciation of all the technologies that we use on a daily basis. And then we have the Dunning-Kruger syndrome. Even if our democracy were perfect (which it is not) how could we vote for the right alternatives? Bamboozling the populace on everything from climate change to vaccinations is easy.(check out the link by darrel nay, which should read “..pose no risk” ). That there is a lot of money being poured into this disinformation effort shows how much it benefits certain people.

    On top of that we have the religions, with their deliberate magical thinking, which are easy to twist into extreme positions. Even today, doctors performing legal abortions in the USA are murdered on religious grounds, and we have the Lord’s Resistance Army, and others in Africa, while the ISIS suicide bombers and jihadists are too well known. Sectarian violence is rife, and that too in the poorest societies.

    Thus we will see the rise of more con-men and psychopathic nut-jobs leading to world-wide malfunction, destruction of environment and habitat, and ultimately, wars and destruction. Given the weapons at our disposal, the destruction will be pretty extensive. It is hard to imagine what useful bits and pieces will remain.

  15. Zoltan Balint

    Sould we do as Randy Newman said ‘drop the big one now’. Your comment in ‘… no one individual has the appreciation …’ well that is what a society should be here for as with cooperation and communication it does not rely on just one individual to survive. Where society is going wrong is that at this moment it pits individuals against each other where it should look to find out how each individual can best contribute.

  16. Miriam English

    totaram, pretty pessimistic view. Thank goodness you’re wrong. Religion is declining. As religion loses its grip on society then society improves. All the most religious societies on Earth are the most morally ill and most violent. And the trend is toward secularism. We are moving more and more toward a science-literate, secular society. It isn’t science and technology that hold the seeds of our destruction, but the ancient superstitions, which thankfully are withering away.

    Zolatan gave an excellent reply. Cooperation is most important. Nobody can hope to understand all of the scientific and technological world anymore. We can have a useful overview with some favorite areas of special interest, but society is about using our collective minds together to become more than the sum of the parts.

    Just wait til you see what we’ll be able to do when we are each able to partner with artificial intelligence (AI). We’ve been using books, clocks, computers, and calculators as simple tools — like spanners for the mind. With AI we’ll each have the equivalent of jet engines, bulldozers, cranes, and automobiles for the mind. They will take each of us to a level of mental powers far beyond anybody today. I think we’ll look back and pity pre-AI people, trapped in Stone Age thinking patterns of superstitions and petty hatreds.

  17. totaram

    Miriam English: You may be right. I did not mention that aspect, because it holds its own danger. But it is true that our “embrace” of AI may yet save us. The problem, as always, is that it is the people with money who are using AI to their advantage. Haven’t you noticed?
    Have you heard of Cambridge Analytica? If the “elites” are the ones with the AI while the rest of us are the mug voters, you can see where this will lead. On the other hand, with proper use of AI we can shed the stupid ways we are “manipulated” to vote and take a more rational approach. The chances of that are again minuscule. Sorry, but I can afford to be cynical because I am in my seventies.

  18. Miriam English

    totaram, have you heard of Numenta? They have open-sourced their AI (I’ve downloaded it and fiddled with it) and they have tutorials on YouTube about using it or developing it further. Google have open-sourced one of their AIs (forgotten its name just now). I heard about a farmer in Japan using it to sort his cucumbers and saving him a lot of money. Demis Hassabis who created Deep Mind, acquired by Google, has set up an organisation to consider ethics and AI.

    Yeah, I’ve heard of Cambridge Analytica. They’re a prime pack of arseholes. They are exactly the kind of putrid scum I hope AI will protect us from. They’re not actually using what I’d call AI. They’re collating enormous data sets of people’s opinions, then programming chatbots to pretend to be people on facebook, twitter, and elsewhere to spread false info in order to sway people immediately preceding elections. You could call a chatbot AI, and in a sense you’d be right, but really they are cunningly programmed language processors, like the ancient Eliza program.

    I can afford not to be cynical because in just a few years I’ll be in my seventies too. 🙂 (I’m in my mid-sixties.)

    (And my apologies to Zoltan whose name I just noticed I clumsily made a typo on.)

  19. Miriam English

    Google have also open-sourced one of the most accurate OCR programs available. It is called tesseract and uses a neural net to gain accuracy. You can train it to increase its accuracy for your purposes, or you can just use it out-of-the-box so to speak. I don’t bother training it. It works brilliantly already, and each new version is a nice improvement over the previous. It’s a free download, of course, as open source software is and you can help improve it, as some elect to do, or just use it.

    AI really is coming to the people.

    I’ve already set up my Linux computer so it talks to me to remind me of things during the day, every day. I’ll be adding speech recognition soon. It would be nice to be able to talk to my baby AI. I have thousands of books. I would love to set an AI to work scanning and turning them into ebooks so I could discard the paper versions.

  20. Zoltan Balint

    no problem about the name I have been guilty of it my self

  21. totaram

    Miriam: You just proved my point. How many “average” people can do what you have described? Even if the downloads are free? How many people can even set up their Linux computer so that it works? You need some kind of an”expert” to do those things, and as you know the disinformation industry is out and about sowing distrust of “experts” – not a coincidence!

  22. Miriam English

    totaram, but I’m not an expert. And anybody can watch the YouTube tutorials on using the software.

    Linux has become easier to use than Microsoft Windows and Apple these days, and it is free! And there is an enormous amount of free information on the net about using Linux.

    My Mum and Dad, who are in their 80s and 90s are both perfectly happy using Linux on their computer. They are definitely not computer-oriented at all.

    My brother considers himself a technophobe. After his Microsoft Windows computer died really badly and the shop was going to charge him hundreds of dollars to put a new copy of MSWindows on his repaired computer I suggested he put Linux on instead. He has few problems with it, and that’s really saying something!

    Linux is far more secure than Microsoft Windows. Apple Mac OSX, is probably now about as secure as Linux because it is now based on BSD, which is a Unix-like operating system similar to Linux. But who can afford Apple’s outrageously overpriced garbage? (It used to be good quality, but years of cutting corners and underpaying factory workers is catching up with them.)

  23. totaram

    Miriam: You are more “expert” than most. You have written software. Don’t tell me your brother installed Linux on his machine without any advice from you. And all of what you have said may be true, but it does not provide evidence that my hypothesis is wrong. The fact that someone can use a piece of technology does not imply any understanding of it. Discussing policies about those technologies requires “expertise”.

    Climate change is a perfect example. Just listen to Senator Malcolm Roberts who has an engineering degree of some kind. An even better example is simple power generation. Just throw in some words like “base-load”, “synchronous” and “intermittent” and you can bamboozle the public. Even Chris Ullman of the ABC can pronounce “synchronous”! Don’t forget what happened to the NBN. Shock-jocks who could barely spell “multi-mode fibre”, were railing against Labor’s fibre to the premises plan. Malcolm Turnbull unveiled his alternative design of “fibre to the node” which would be cheaper, delivered faster, etc. and proceeded to demolish Labor’s plan the moment he got into govt. He had a “mandate” to do so. We are now told his version is still on target to be completed by the end of 2016! As AI becomes more “mainstream” you will hear about “neural networks”, “deep learning”, and “unsupervised learning”. Mr. Joe Average will get bamboozled and be made to vote against his own interests once again. The more advanced the technologies, the easier to fool the average person and manipulate her/him. The Dunning-Kruger syndrome helps greatly. Society does not have in place mechanisms to prevent this. That is the grave danger.

  24. Miriam English

    totaram, do you have a smartphone? That already gives you use of technology stratospherically beyond anything even the most wealthy experts had just a few decades ago. An old girlfriend, who is even more of a gadget-nut than I am, visited a couple of months ago and with a big grin on her face showed me her smartphone and asked it, in normal speaking voice, how far to the moon. It spoke back, in a delightfully human-sounding voice, with the correct answer. Then she extended her arm in my direction and said, now you ask it something, her grin even wider, (though she added that it might not recognise my voice). I can’t remember what I asked it, but it gave me the correct answer too.

    Everybody with a smartphone has access to this AI… even people like me, who use it as a pocket computer, not as a phone. (I don’t have a phone SIM in mine.)

    I was just last night reading about how AI is developing on-board processing instead of having to process requests via big servers. I read of one example — a children’s doll has a specialised vision-processing chip that lets it respond to the child’s facial expression appropriately, so that it can tell what emotions the kid is feeling. It does this onboard, without needing wireless connection to anything, and does so incredibly efficiently, running on a bare trickle of electricity, so that it doesn’t need its battery recharged for about 14 hours.

    We will all have our own personal AI guardians protecting us before long. Scum like Cambridge Analytics will have a much harder time subverting people by appealing to base emotions then.

    This is even more important for young people. Almost all the young people that I know are far smarter and more knowledgeable than the people I knew when I was young. I was really lucky. I was surrounded by some of the smartest people I’ve ever met, but many ordinary kids were sadly dumb as rocks. Nowadays many of the ordinary kids I meet are like my smart, geeky friends were. It is very encouraging to me.

  25. Zoltan Balint

    Intelligence is something you have in your head not in your pocket. A few years ago there was an argument put up that computers and the internet has increase everyones knowlage since fact were available with the press of a few buttons. Trouble is that the gadgets CAN NOT tell you how to use those facts and what to do with them and they never will. Unless you want the gadgets to tell you what to think when to think and what to do when (and when you should go to the toilet due to the expression on your face). Could not resist Miriam, sorry. As an add in when I was doing Organic chemistry final exam the professor we had told us to bring in our text books and what ever notes we wanted since he was not interested in what we remembered but in our ability to know where to look up and how to use information (since those books will be available to us where ever we worked) and that was 35 years ago.

  26. Miriam English

    Zoltan, you might be surprised to hear that I agree 100%. One of the things I like about partnering with technology to make available all this information is that I don’t have to remember all the details anymore. I can concentrate instead on why things work. It means I can fill my head with essential information on the larger scheme of knowledge and how to derive data, instead of the data points themselves that are likely to change. It means I can spend my time on how to think and the asking right questions rather than worrying about whether I’ve remembered all the bits and details, because now I can look up those details in an instant and quickly check how relevant they are. I can also quickly and easily check whether others have been there before me and what they found.

    All this becomes even better when we have artificial intelligence (AI) helping. Especially if those AIs exceed our own intellectual capacity. It lets us go beyond the limits of our biology the way we can use a car to go faster than we can run, or use an airplane to fly, or travel across lakes, rivers, and oceans with boats. Suddenly we will have insights into things we could never have before, will understand processes that we couldn’t have without an AI helping us, will be guarded against crooks that want to mislead or swindle us using emotional persuasion.

  27. zoltan balint

    Thank you for understanding. With AI controlling things how do we ensure that individuals retain the ability to think and determine direction of thought. With spell check will kids now if it is correct I ask u or any 1 else reading this (I’m bad at it, c i changed from using terrible as i was not sure and Jen always asked me how do I know what 2 look up in the dictionary, could not be certain if that is to or too). 🙂

  28. Miriam English

    I don’t think AIs will control things in the foreseeable future. We humans are way too paranoid and controlling to let that happen.

    I think your question was answered perfectly by your joking spellcheck sentence. 🙂

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