Thinking like a novice: the bottom up approach to explaining nano

I’ve gone back to square one. I’m a complete novice again.

I’ve said before that the way to explain science is to try to make a connection with your audience. This means two things; to be passionate, and to be responsive enough to adjust your own view to that of the audience, rather than the expert.

The problem with being on the expert’s side of the fence is that after a while some ideas can become so familiar we don’t even think about them any more, especially if we talk to other scientists on a day to day basis. So to think like a novice it’s necessary to smash apart what we know and put it all back together from scratch.

For example, take a simple statement about nanoscience, that the properties of materials change when made small enough. All you have to do to reach the beginner’s state of mind is to keep asking the simplest possible questions until you run out of answers. It doesn’t take long.

For example:

Why do the properties change?

Because you start to approach the scale of individual atoms and molecules, which behave differently from larger structures.

What’s an atom?

An atom is the smallest object we can build materials from, made up of 3 ingredients, protons (with positive charge), neutrons (with no charge) and electrons (with negative charge). The protons and neutrons sit in the middle, known as the nucleus, and the electrons travel round the outside. The number of protons determines what element the atom is.

What’s charge?

At this point it gets tricky. You can describe the way charged particles behave, describe the rules, but as to what makes them behave that way, we’re stumped. It’s just a property that electrons and protons have.

We know that opposites attract and like charges repel, and by how much. We also know that electrons can’t be broken down into anything smaller, and each and every one of them has exactly the same charge no matter what you do to it. All we can do is say how it is, and not why it happens to be that way.

OK, and protons have an exactly opposing charge, but are very different from electrons. They, and neutrons, are made up of smaller particles still, and have an equally mysterious property known as mass. But why should a proton have an exactly opposing charge, when its structure is completely different to an electron? It just works out that way.

You reach a point where you just have to accept that we can describe how things behave, but have no idea why they behave that way. These are the questions that beginners ask, and are by no means naïve. They happen to be the same as those asked by physicists at the very cutting edge. It’s these kinds of fundamental, simple questions that projects like the large hadron collider are set up to answer.

Once you reach the beginner’s state of mind, you can reconstruct your knowledge anticipating the simple questions that your audience will ask.

I’m going through this process of smashing everything apart and figuring out how it fits back together, asking the simple questions along the way. This way, I can challenge the ideas I take for granted after years of study, reassemble my own understanding with a new clarity and fascination, and, hopefully, explain them just a little better.

Explore posts in the same categories: Explaining nano, Science communication, science writing

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