Thursday, May 19, 2011

Three Tweets

It is well-known that it's not always easy to explain scientific ideas to the public.  Scientists are often blamed for being bad communicators, but I don't think that's fair.  Most people simply aren't interested enough to read detailed explanations of science (or of anything for that matter).  And scientists are hesitant to give oversimplified explanations because, among other reasons, oversimplified explanations are by definition not correct.  The problem surely exists in all sorts of disciplines, but is probably exacerbated in the sciences/math, where one often needs years of postgraduate study to truly grasp what's going on.

Sometimes, though, it doesn't hurt to give simplified explanations of complicated phenomena.  Our universe is a cool and interesting place, and making some of what we've learned accessible to more people isn't a bad idea.  Maybe it will make more people excited about science and help with funding in the long run.  It's also fun to try to explain what you're doing to others, even if it's on a high level.

Unfortunately, there's still temptation for scientists to go into too much detail.  We can't help ourselves but to bore everyone around us.  This is where twitter comes to the rescue.  Its 140 character limit forces us to be concise, so if we're going to talk about science at all, we have to choose our words carefully.  So, when Sean Carroll, a physicist at CalTech, entertained a request to explain M-theory on twitter, and attempted to do it using only 3 tweets, he opened a floodgate of other scientists trying to explain the major ideas in their fields in just 3 tweets.  Check out the #3tweets hashtag, and you'll see all sorts of interesting things posted.

Sticking to three tweets strikes a balance between a blog post (which won't get a large readership) and just 1 tweet (in which one cannot explain anything).  And if you have followers who are reading your twitter stream, they won't be able to avoid reading some science.

I, too, got tempted and did my own three tweets on the Church-Turing thesis (to be read bottom-up):

If you have a twitter account (and if you don't, get one), try explaining something about what you do, whether it's science or not, in just three tweets (and don't forget to use the #3tweets hashtag).  It's harder than it seems.

Sean Carroll also blogged about this.

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