Physicists are hiding a dark secret behind murky language

The wisest know nothing.
The wisest know nothing.
Image: Reuters, Bobby Yip
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Science seems solid and verifiable, reliable, practical, and nothing like an abstract art. Yet developments in physics seem totally opaque, as easily explained as a Mark Rothko painting, right? It’s fine to admit ignorance. This happens to physicists too.

There are “perfectly understandable reasons” physicists don’t always understand each other, says David Kaiser, an MIT professor of physics and history of science. In 1937, everyone in the field understood what you meant if you said you were getting a Ph.D. in physics. But already by 1948, increased specialization made it so even physicists didn’t understand the extent of the “physics” field. In the first issue of Physics Today, an editorialist expressed dismay that the field was becoming incomprehensible, obscure even to practitioners.

In his 2012 study on specialization proliferation, published by the History of Science Society, Kaiser attributes this phenomenon to a boom in graduate studies in the US after World War II. This led to micro-specialization, a trend that continues today. He told Quartz that his colleagues joke “more and more, we need to know more and more about less and less, ultimately knowing nothing about anything.”

In 1964, Samuel Goudsmit, the editor of the journal Physics Review Letter, suggested obscurantism wasn’t accidental. Scientists are unclear, he wrote, because they don’t want to be understood, using language to obfuscate rather than communicate. Goudsmit believed this was a painful secret hidden even to scientists themselves. “It is the common subconscious fear of exposing oneself to scrutiny,” Goudsmit wrote. “If a paper is too clear, it might be too easy for readers to see through it and discover its weakness.”

Kaiser, however, takes a kinder view. He doesn’t attribute obscurantism to fear, like Goudsmit, or a psychological defect, as does the Physics Central blog Physics Buzz. Instead, he says, the incomprehensibility of physicists is inevitable under the circumstances. Today more than ever, they are under pressure to find a niche in which to excel. All may dream of becoming the next Albert Einstein but in a field crowded with geniuses working on esoteric research, none are likely to replace him as the face of physics on t-shirts. More importantly, with so many researchers working on micro-specialties, Kaiser says it’s impossible for scientists to track and understand all of the developments today, and as a result really benefit from them.

To alleviate the stress, physicists have a laugh at their own expense. Kaiser and his colleagues play a game called SnarXive vs. ArXive, guessing if titles of scientific articles are real or fake—ArXive is an online record of papers published in scientific journals, relied upon by researchers, while SnarXive is, well, snarkier. The game spits out article titles using artificial intelligence following the rules of context free grammar, like computer-generated mad libs.

The right answers are rarely obvious, not even to Kaiser. He guesses wrong sometimes, and says that physicists feel like the rest of us, befuddled. But everything is relative (Einstein pun intended). “Context matters a lot,” Kaiser reminds. In Einstein’s time his ideas probably also seemed obscure and impenetrable to many fellow physicists and the general population. Today those notions are basic physics. “It’s hard to know on an absolute scale what we know.”

Still, we can all take solace in the Socratic wisdom that the wisest among us know only that we know nothing.