Thursday, September 20, 2007

"Public" Science

Last week I got an e-mail from the San Diego Supercomputing Center asking if I would be willing to provide one of the images for their 2008 calendar. Every year SDSC puts out a calendar that they give to people that donate money, funding agencies, people that SDSC wishes would give them money, etc. Since July, I have been working with Steve Cutchin, director of visualization services at SDSC, on adapting our data and his 3-D volume rendering program, Vista, to work with each other. It's been a productive collaboration and I've enjoyed working with Steve, so when SDSC came calling, I was happy to provide one of the images and a short caption.

Little did I know what I was getting myself into. I have made publication quality figures before and I know that a good figure is a bit of trick, but "public" quality figures are a different story. The image I submitted is shown on the right, and let me tell you, it's hard to try and make a scientific image both visually appealing and, in some small degree, understandable to someone who does work in astrophysical fluid dynamics.

The image shows the large (greater than 5 Tesla in magnitude) components of the toroidal magnetic field (red positive, blue negative) in one of our simulations of a sun-like star spinning at three times the solar rate. As you can see, the star's rotation has organized the random, chaotic small magnetic fields generated by the turbulent convection below the star's surface into strong, organized magnetic fields that last for thousands of days (as long as we've run the simulations).

In the sun, the global magnetic fields are believed to be generated in random, small segments in the turbulence of the sun's convection zone and then pulled by down-flows into a region where the sun switches differential rotation (near the Sun's surface, the equator rotates faster than the poles) to solid body rotation rather abruptly. This region of strong shear known as the tachocline organizes the magnetic field into large, coherent structures.

The reason that the image above is remarkable is that in this simulation, there was no tachocline. The simulated region only covered the convection zone, so in some way, this star was able to organize its magnetic field without a layer of strong shear. As far as we know, this is the first time this has ever been demonstrated and there is no known theoretical method for creating this type of field - yet there it is.

The problem is how on earth do I convey the importance of this image to non-physicists in a three sentence caption?

Sadly, the answer is that I can't. It is simply not possible to explain the importance of this image if it is displayed opposite the month of March or June. So the question then becomes, what is my objective? Do I even try to explain what the image means or do I just go for the "Wow, that's very important science" effect?

I'm not sure that there is a good answer to this question, and it certainly isn't going away anytime soon. So how do we make our physics relevant to the public?


  1. Nick, nice picture. For good or worse, public perception of physics is important.

    Now how to solve your "encapsulate the physics in three sentence" problem. Fred Hoyle summarized modern cosmology in three words "The Big Bang." He was looking for a short description of modern cosmology that would shock people when they heard it.(He was hoping in a negitive way since he didn't like the theory.)

    So lets see: "Magnetic Rings of Fire." "B-Field Hoops." "Solar Ear-Rings." "Solar Magnito-Halos" "Flaming Toroids"

    Anyways you get the idea. I wonder who coined the phrase "String Theory" and the circumstance of it.

  2. I find it is easier NOT to explain what I do to the public. With all of the people I interact with, when ever they ask me what I am doing I simply say I am figuring out how a certain type of star works. If they press for information I ask them If they know what a neutron star is and then I say I'm studying that type of star.

    Of course there are cases when I am blatantly trying to "WOW" somebody and I tell them that we are doing a "theoretical calculation of a rapidly rotating neutron star in general relativity", but their eyes start glazing over at about "theoretical". Most people don't know the difference between Newtonian Physics and GR, or even know that there is a difference. Mostly I just don't tell people what I am doing, but if I do I keep the language very, very, very, VERY simple.

  3. I guess what I'm trying to say is that I'm not good at coming up with sound bites. It usually takes me four or five tries before I come up with a good sound bite.

    I suggest using Buzz Words.


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