Why God Plays Dice with Science Communications

Today, I tried to think about what intrigues me so about science communications. I came upon the realization that what I find so fascinating about this field is its multi-faceted nature, and how sometimes those multiple facets multiply into outright uncertainty. And no great scientist is daunted by uncertainty: indeed, uncertainty and imagination are what make the journey into science communications that much more exhilarating.

dice.jpgI enjoy that science communications combines the empirical, scientific ‘truth’-testing of physical experimentation and research with an outlook on broader patterns across people and situations, as relevant to human communication (Communications Research, J. Keyton). For example, take an instance of my penmanship of an article on Communication Endeavors in Nanotechnology, and how improvements in cross-discipline and public communications may help to mature this relatively young field of science. I would inevitably focus down in parts of the text of such an article onto the fundamental physical laws governing the assemblies of basic units of matter on the nanoscale. I would mention that all things in our world as we know them are made up of fundamental particles, or atoms, and the further sub-components of these atoms that are often tricky to track down and observe at a particular place and time. I would mention that in the world of the very very small, strange things begin to happen that apple-falling-on-the-head classical physics cannot always explain. However, the broader scope of my article would be dealing with the concepts of how people from various backgrounds communicate with each other about the various scientific aspects and societal issues surrounding the field of nanotechnology. Such communication relies on highly complex systems (like the human brain itself with its almost innumerable nerve connections!) and assumptions about human nature and behavior. These systems far surpass in complexity and physical hierarchy the assemblies of atoms, or the basic units of matter, that I refer to as nanoclusters. And yet, in the same single article on nanoscale science communications, I can break down for my reader, into their respective ‘fundamental’ issues, both the nanoscience and the matter of that science’s dissemination through human communication. Perhaps even touching on the social and cultural impacts of the emerging field of nanotechnology, I would be intertwining what look to be two VERY different universes and modes of thought.

Now here is where it gets even more interesting. While the worlds of nanoscience and human behavior may seem to span a breadth not easily bridged by the words in a 1-page web article, I see some of the same research challenges appear in both. It is pointed out in Mass Communication textbooks (Communications Research, J. Keyton) that in communications research, we are attempting to uncover theories of communication as opposed to the ‘fixed’ laws of nature (I say this in ‘quotes’ because all students of advanced physics will learn that the laws of nature are indeed not fixed, but dynamic and prone to change as we learn more). The theories of communication and also diverse and dynamic, just as both the people are who study these theories as well as the people being ‘observed’ during communication research. ‘Untangling variables’ in research experiments becomes difficult as we approach the level of an entire human being, much less the collective of human behaviors and interactions. Even the very act of observation may affect the processes or the individuals under investigation in human behavior and communications research. Now let us see if we can remember where we have heard this before, that the very act of ‘observing’ or performing a measurement can disturb or affect that which we would like to study. Interestingly, the difficulty in observing human behavior in its raw state is similar to the difficulty researchers have in observing the quantum realm, the world that appears at very small scales and where quantum mechanical effects rule the land. Quantum mechanical effects can be epitomized by the wave function, which maps the possible states of a system in the quantum realm (Wiki). We talk about the probability, NOT the certainty, that a system such as a subatomic particle is to be found in a given state at a given time. And this is as far as we ever get to pinning down the exact behavior of quantum phenomena: a certain chance that is it one way or another. We can predict the odds of what will happen inside the box of our experiment, but we give up ever knowing for SURE, because the very act of opening up the box and observing what is happening inside will disturb the system.

Perhaps this is a good way of paralleling the difficulties we have in researching both the world at its very fundamental quantum pieces, and the complex myriad of phenomena that are occurring when people communicate and interact with one another. While we study human communications in an attempt to improve the dissemination and understanding of science, perhaps we must refrain from pinning down an act of human behavior to a very narrow set of rules and reasons. After all, the human mind is a complex combination of quantum states and quantum phenomena, the whole of which we can ‘see’ and thus believe that we can ‘understand’. But understanding takes flexibility, a willingness to bend the rules of nature when we come to find out new things about our world that do not fit our current state of knowledge. Understanding requires a degree of comfort with the principle of uncertainty. And this is what I love about science communications: looking at not only the raw science which informs our understanding of the world, but also the very complex human nature with which we must go about discovering and talking about that science. Simply fascinating: somewhat like God with one leg on the Earth, one leg on a pair of dice.

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