Ms Kanta

Voracious reader and DPhil candidate blogs about books and scholarly life.

“So what is your research about?”

It is a question I get asked often, and frankly, it is the question academics love to be asked most. (Hint: it is a much better question than “When are you submitting?” or “How much have you written so far?” or “What have you done today?”)

Jorge Cham nailed it once more.

Jorge Cham nailed it once more.

It can be a hard question to answer, though, especially if you are looking at a bacteria/writer/physical process nobody has ever heard of, and explaining it requires a lot of long Latinate words and letter-digit combinations. Fortunately, my topic is science communication. If I am not able to explain my research to everyone I talk to, I have failed and I do not deserve to do this research. So over the past months, I have honed my elevator-pitching skills to the point where I now explain my research as the following:

I look at the way scientists write about quantum mechanics for people without a physics degree. Quantum mechanics is an extremely complicated branch of physics, very heavy on the mathematics. The topic is roughly a century old now, and during this century, it has been covered in countless popularizations, and its principles have been taken up in science fiction. How do authors do this? Is an untrained audience able to understand the mathematical concepts at all? Is it possible to convey the ideas behind quantum physics properly without using mathematics? And how does this writing influence readers’ attitudes towards science?

Or, as I put it on Twitter earlier this week:

If popular science isn’t supposed to contain maths, how can quantum physicists still communicate their discoveries? #ShareMyThesis

Generally, there are three ways in which people respond to my research topic, depending on their background:

  • The scholar: Whoaaaaaa science. Like Stephen Hawking? His book was so hard.
  • The scientist: Whoaaaaaa science fiction. Also, Stephen Hawking inspired me to become a scientist.
  • Everyone else: Have you seen The Theory of Everything yet?

I love talking about my research, but what I love even more is that everyone else seems to like talking to me about it, too. Yes, Stephen Hawking gets mentioned all the time, but I am writing quite extensively about A Brief History of Time, because of its odd status as the popular science book everyone seems to own but very few people seem to have read. (Yes, I’ve seen The Theory of Everything, I’m writing a review on it next week.) But really, I have had great conversations in pubs and at parties, with people enthusiastically recommending me books, films, TV series and lectures. It’s a topic everyone seems to appreciate: two weeks ago I presented my first chapter at a faculty seminar and my scientist flatmates showed up, which led to a brilliant interdisciplinary discussion.

Speaking of interdisciplinary, the next question people usually ask me is, “Do you have a background in physics?” No, I don’t, not beyond my A-levels. My background is in comparative literature. As you may have guessed, this makes it quite hard for me to investigate popular science books: my knowledge of physics should extend beyond the contents of these books in order to see what has been left out or changed. This is why, from the day my PhD started, I have been teaching myself quantum physics. I will get back to this topic in a later blog, as it is quite interesting to talk at length about the potential for self-education in the twenty-first century.


2 comments on ““So what is your research about?”

  1. the grad muse

    Ah, SO envious of your research topic! It really does sound like something that merits good conversation at a pub. In fact, my father in-law is an astrophysicist, and I’m always trying to get him to explain his work to me, but he seems to think largely in terms of mathematical formulae and quantitative data, so I still can’t grasp what he’s on about. Here it is, then, your topic provoking yet another engaged dialogue.

    Of course, it should be possible for anyone to do this — but it might take me a little more time and effort to chisel my elevator-pitch into form…


  2. oxford dphile

    Whoaaaaaa, have you read William Empson’s poetry? He used quantum physics metaphors before it was cool…


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This entry was posted on 07/02/2015 by in Blog and tagged , , , , , , , .

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