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Science Made Complex

Keywords: communication of science, obscurantism, popularization, university enrollment.

XAVIER E. GROS

Research Institute for Applied Mechanics, Kyushu University, 87 6-1 Kasuga-koen, Kasuga-shi 816-8580, Japan, gros@riam.kyushu-u.ac.jp

January 12, 1999: While working in the department of Applied Sciences at a British university, I witnessed the decline of the Physics department. A drastic fall in applications for undergraduate admission was followed by a reduction in departmental funding and the elimination of several faculty positions. Similar scenarios occurred at other European universities. At the time, these developments were widely discussed and several articles on the topic appeared in European science journals. Nevertheless, a clear consensus about the cause did not emerge.

In my view, the major cause of declining interest in the sciences among young people is elitism, which makes science inaccessible to all but a select few. Too often do authors of scientific articles lose the message they wish to convey in an equatorial forest of jargon incomprehensible to the lay-person and sometimes even to other scientists. As a result, too many potential students believe Physics to be something they could never understand.

A major reason for obscurantism in science is peer pressure. At a recent meeting for young researchers attended by lecturers and professors with different backgrounds, one of the speakers illustrated his highly specialized topic in data processing with features from daily life. To my benefit and that of others still awake, he successfully conveyed the essence of his research. Nevertheless, a Physics professor was prompt to criticize this scientist's contribution for a lack of technical rigor. To this critic, science made simple is not science.

Where does such elitism in Science come from? The fullest development and application of ideas beneficial to all humanity depends on collaboration and understanding among scientists in different disciplines, and between scientists and non-scientists. But this cannot happen because there is a war. A war for recognition among scientists. Consider a nuclear physicist listening to a presentation by an astrophysicist. The former cannot fully understand the explanations of the latter and, when it is his turn, the nuclear physicist aims to make his paper as obscure as possible to the astrophysicist. In doing so, he may not only confuses the astrophysicist, but the entire audience.

Such behavior can promote career advancement but it stultifies science. The only hope is that a new generation of scientists will learn from this mistake. Fortunately, this appears to be happening in some European countries. With a fall in undergraduate admissions in Physics, the careers of academic physicists have been directly threatened. No matter how powerful they may have been in the past, they now have to justify their position at universities that must attract students. The major objective is no longer to build an elite, but to encourage prospective students to study science. This goal will be greatly advanced, if scientists accept it as a part of their role to explain the nature and significance of scientific discoveries in the simplest terms to the widest possible audience.

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