Sixty(ish) Symbols

One of my great interests is the way language is used in science communication, how it can be used effectively, and what the barriers are to understanding. One of the largest obstacles is mathematics.

Maths is a way of formally and precisely describing the relationships between different aspects of nature, a bit like an architect’s blueprint. It’s also a kind of toolkit, used to predict the logical consequences of certain ideas.

For example, Einstein’s general relativity was a theory, expressed mathematically, which logically led to exact predictions about the outcomes of experiments yet to be conducted. The idea was that the path of a light beam would be bent by gravity. So if light passed close to a huge object like the Sun, its path would bend slightly. It’s not too hard to draw a picture of this and understand the idea, but the maths predicted the exact amount of bending. It was only measurable with the sun obscured by the moon during a solar eclipse. The test of the mathematical predictions was essential to the vindication of the theory.

Maybe art was my true calling

The experimental proof of general relativity: light bending around the sun means that a star appears to be in a different place, in relation to other stars in the sky whose light doesn't pass so close to the sun. This effect can only be seen during an eclipse because stars can't be seen in daylight.

Scientists don’t all think the same way, but for me it’s all about imagination and visualising what’s going on. My understanding comes from ideas which can be expressed in words and pictures. The maths comes later.

The mathematical symbols we use look like a linguistic barrier, but really they’re just a shorthand for ideas, and it’s easy to step around the strange symbols and look directly at the physical concepts behind them.

Last year, the physics department at the university of Nottingham launched a series of short explanatory videos entitled Sixty Symbols. In each episode, researchers talk through the science behind a different scientific symbol (it’s now up to seventy five, but the title is still catchy).

What comes across is the genuine passion for the subject held by the presenters. From my point of view, that’s the first and most essential aspect of getting people interested in what you do.

In some cases, there isn’t a specific symbol for the concept they’re exploring, so they make one up. Highlights include the small hotrod collider, with similar experimental difficulties to those experienced at the large hadron collider, and Fourier analysis explained with an electric guitar.

There’s a video on nano below, since this is a nano-blog after all, but it doesn’t quite fit with my point on mathematical symbols, so I’ve also included the clip on density, ρ. The nano clip features my supervisor from my PhD days, Philip Moriarty. Enjoy!

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2 Comments on “Sixty(ish) Symbols”

  1. martywalpole Says:

    Believe it or not James, I found these videos very interesting. The guy or professor with the soccer ball, could explain in layman’s terms and is able to hold a person’s attention very well. His examples of just what nanoscience was, were excellent. Thanks for sharing.

  2. James,

    Thanks for this very nice review of Sixty Symbols. It’s important that I stress the key role that our talented film-maker, Brady Haran, plays in the project. In my case, Brady takes my typically long and rambling explanations – you’ll remember those from your days as a PhD student in Nottingham! – and cuts them down to size.

    Brady would entirely agree with your comments about mathematics. He had to gradually “wean” me off writing equations…

    Have a good trip to Barcelona! I look forward to reading of your exploits in Spain here at 10minus9…


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