Writing in the Bad Science section of The Guardian, Ben Goldacre has a fun little article, titled “Party Hard”, in which he asks for readers’ input. Goldacre recounts some of the more stupid comments ever made to him about science at a party – his personal best involves being told that Newton’s laws of motion might have turned out differently if Newton was a woman (this might be a good time to make it crystal clear that this is not a comment about, or the beginning of an intended thread on, or anything to do with questions of women and science, and that I do not expect to see Larry Summers’ name in the comments).
Goldacre wants to gather more anecdotes regarding what he calls the Public Misunderstanding of Science and is exhorting his readers to send him their examples of the most stupid thing ever said to them about science at a party. If you want to take part, you can email your examples to firstname.lastname@example.org.
I’m not sure I’m prepared to reveal my personal party stories. Most of the silliest things I’ve heard came from people I know pretty well and who would recognize their role in any such story if they were to read the post (I do like the idea that, if they do read this post, they’ll be running their minds back through the rash comments they may have made to me in a half-soused haze). Rather, I’ll let you have a story from a different setting.
About eight years ago I was getting a haircut at a random place to which I never returned. My hairdresser was a very sweet woman who seemed to enjoy chatting with her clients. Part of our conversation went like this:
HD: “So what do you do then?”
MT: “Oh, I’m a physicist.”
HD: “That sounds interesting – what is it?”
MT (Thinking a little more specificity is required): “I study cosmology and particle physics. I’m interested in the universe and black holes and the big bang – that sort of thing.”
HD: “Yeah, but what sort of thing is it?”
MT: “You mean cosmology, or physics, …?”
HD: “Whichever. What you do”
MT (Trying to make touch with more everyday concepts): “You know, when you look up at the sky, at outer space, you see stars and galaxies. Well I care about the universe – how all that space and those galaxies came into being and behaved between the beginning of the universe and now.”
MT (Now thinking more generality is needed): “You probably remember physics, from school. You know – figuring out the laws of nature, like gravity and magnetism. How they work. I’m interested in those questions, applied to the universe.”
HD: “Yeah, but what is it? Is it dead bodies or what?”
MT: “Would you mind using the child-proof scissors please?”
OK, so I didn’t actually say the last quote. But I wanted to.
I did actually persevere with the conversation and did my very best to explain what physics and, more concretely, cosmology are. Unfortunately, I’m pretty sure I was unsuccessful is getting an appreciable amount of information across. Gotta try though.