Editor, Daily Nexus:
We read with great interest the May 7 feature, “Strange Alchemy” by staff writer Eric Simons, about the role of UCSB physicists in developing string theory. His inclusion of the vignette about theorist David Gross was especially illuminating – not about science, unfortunately, but about the subtle and not so subtle ways that messages of exclusion can be sent and received, as well as the need for better communication between scientists and a broader public audience. Simons reports Gross’ rude treatment of a reporter at his 60th birthday party, who had the temerity to ask him to describe his contributions to the field. Simons writes, “It was a stupid question. The reporter was obviously out of her league, and Gross made sure she knew it. … From then on, only New York Times reporter James Glanz asked questions. He has a Ph.D. in plasma physics … “.
Why should one need an advanced degree in physics in order to ask a question at a press conference and receive respectful consideration? Will the reporter who was so peremptorily dismissed be eager to write about science or scientists again? Why is it a good thing that other reporters’ questions were effectively stifled out of fear of embarrassment? This unfortunate incident, together with the fact that Simons writes about it approvingly, reinforces the mistaken cultural perspective that science is an exclusive domain populated only by genius (the Einstein image), which is inaccessible, even closed, to everyone else. It also illustrates how such ideas get transmitted and reinforced. More to the point, however, we think that this incident also illustrates what a very human enterprise science really is. We encourage Simons to write more articles about the work of scientists on this campus, but to highlight those who use their stature to foster public interest and encourage others to be a part of this very important enterprise. Let’s not forget that scientific research depends in large measure on continuing public support.
CATHY K. PINE