31 March 2011

A physicist encounters the curious laywoman

While at a recent physics conference, I met a 54 year old Southern woman who asked me lots of questions about what physicists do and whether physics had anything to say about the existence of God. I was trying to grab a quick dinner in the hotel sports bar and she was at the same hotel for a homeowner's (?) conference. We talked for an hour. She seemed a little drunk because she'd forget facts I had told her. Sometimes she didn't seem to quite understand what I was trying to tell her. Nonetheless, I did my utmost be respectful and sympathetic and I think I did a good job for public relations between physicists and the public. She thanked me many times for taking the time to talk to her.

Later, I described this episode to a physicist friend and he thought the fact she asked me the "existence of God" question shows that the public doesn't know anything about the boundaries of scientific inquiry. In his opinion, it would be like asking "are there any paintings that are unartistic?"

So maybe ... because of the abstractions and the high level education required to experience scientific research, the public doesn't have any intuition for what questions scientists ask. Or maybe it was legitimate of her to ask about God and physics? I'm not sure.

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