Answering the really big questions online

Recently, a chance enounter with a scientist on a Colorado mountaintop, plus the publication of a new book by one of my favorite authors (Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything), has rekindled my interest in cosmology – the scientific quest to understand the origin, evolution, and ultimate fate of the entire universe.

Big stuff. Fascinating stuff. Complicated stuff. Concepts that bear little or no relation to the world we experience with our senses. Notoriously hard to communicate about – especially if you’re trying to explain it to non-scientists.

I love a thorny content problem, and even more I love an elegant solution. If you want to check out a well-done site concerning cosmology, string theory, and other core puzzles of the universe, check out The Official String Theory Web Site — an independent project by physicist Patricia Schwarz.

Why I like this site:

  • It reflects the audience’s perspective throughout. The author appears to assume that readers are interested nonscientists, who may or may not have any background in the mathematics of theoretical physics.

  • It’s intuitive. Topics are labeled and organized in a way that will make sense to this audience. For instance: Basics, Experiments, Black Holes, Cosmology, Mathematics, etc. Each topic includes a basic (no math, light physics) and advanced (math and physics included) treatment.

  • Simple animations illustrate difficult concepts – thus getting around the intense verbal gymnastics that some concepts of cosmology often require.

  • Great discussion forum. OK, the threads get geeky, but not too geeky, and non-scientists are definitely welcome to participate. (I’m rather enthralled with a discussion about “information entropy” going on there now, I’ll have more to say on that later.)

  • Jargon is used sparingly, and it’s always defined on first mention.

  • Clear and fairly concise writing give this site an unmistakeable advantage. Most importantly, the author took great care to introduce ideas in a sequence that maintains a strong sense of context. (All too often, expert writers on this topic ramble, losing their audience in the process.)

  • No attempt to explain everything. The author has defined a scope and audience for the site, and addresses it fully but doesn’t appear to offer more than the audience could be expected to handle.

While this specific approach to content probably wouldn’t suit, say, the Web site of a theoretical physics lab, I would venture that such sites could still learn a great deal from Schwarz’s approach.

Most of the time, cosmology is presented in arcane terms that alienate non-scientists. Yet without the support of funders, policymakers, and the public, a lot of important theoretical physics wouldn’t get done. Where that kind of interdependence exists, good communication is crucial.