Yale Public Voices Fellow Meg Urry sheds some light on “dark energy”

OEP Junior Fellow Ravenna Koenig here, ruminating today on the nature of the universe. Last Tuesday, three U.S.-trained scientists won the Nobel Prize for Physics.  Their winning discovery? “Definitive evidence that the expansion of the universe is accelerating.” As an individual who is far from physics-fluent, the exact meaning and significance of this apparently monumental discovery is somewhat lost on me.  For many of us, the world of physics is a mysterious place populated by strange paradoxical thought-experiments involving cats and bizarre words like “quark,” “decoherence,” and “gravitron” that seem about as likely to leap out of a Star Trek script as a physics textbook.

Fortunately for us, Meg Urry, the Israel Munson professor of physics and astronomy and chairwoman of the department of physics at Yale University, is here to help. A member of The OpEd Project’s Yale Public Voices Fellowship Program, she recently published a piece in CNN Opinion. In this piece she explained in laymen’s terms the discovery made by the Nobel prize winners along with why it’s significant, and what it means for our world. She kindly responded over email to some questions I asked her about writing articles on physics for non-physicists and what publishing op-eds has taught her.

Her piece is phenomenal and you can read it here

RK: One of the greatest challenges in sharing one’s expertise with the world is learning how to present what you know in language that doesn’t alienate or mystify the reader. How did you approach the task of making your op-ed understandable to someone like me, an English major in her 20s?

MU: The biggest issue is jargon. Scientists love to use words that don’t mean anything – or don’t mean the right thing – to people not trained in their discipline. Beyond that, I think the ideas in cosmology and astrophysics are often quite simple, and one should be able to explain them simply. I just imagine an audience that is intelligent but ignorant about the subject (as most of us are about many subjects), and I try to explain the idea to them.

RK: Does seeing your work published in a forum like CNN.com where the readership is broad and diverse feel different from seeing it in a more specified publication like “The Astrophysical Journal?” If so, how?

MU: Wow, it is way different. For one thing, you get feedback. Rarely does a professional article elicit a reaction, unless it is to say, “You’re wrong” or “You should have cited me.” When I write for the public, in a forum that gets huge exposure, I hear from all sorts of people. Some have theories to explain what I described, like dark energy; others just want to say, “Thank you, now I get the idea.” Which is really great. And finally, a few people always mention that it’s great to see a woman scientist doing these things; these folks are usually either young women in science or their parents or relatives. So I feel like a useful role model, which is also very satisfying.

RK: What have you learned the most from your recent success publishing op-eds?

MU: Couple of things: First, these are not technical pieces, and I can put the ideas together fairly quickly. Whether I spent an hour writing the first draft, or labored for months, the outcome is not very different, so why not try to pop a draft out quickly? Second, getting feedback from colleagues is incredibly helpful. If they miss the point, I know what I have to fix. Or they may spot a mistake, or a special sensitivity. I tend to write about science, obviously, and one comment I have made more than once is that I think this country needs to educate more people in science. But sometimes I have said these things in a ham-handed way – and a gentle comment from one of my colleagues reminds me that other considerations are important too.

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