It was the February of 1985, and Robert Crease sat across the table from the Nobel Prize winning physicist Richard Feynman in his Caltech office. The subject was unification–the idea that there lies in wait a universal theory of everything. It was Einstein’s dream, and in 2011 is still an unachieved goal.
“So we aren’t any closer to unification than we were in Einstein’s time?” Crease asked. He and Feynman had been discussing the Standard Model, a cornerstone of modern particle physics that is considered to be almost a theory of everything, but still not quite there because it leaves out principle subjects like general relativity.
“It’s a crazy question!” Feynman said in anger. “We’re certainly closer. We know more. And if there’s a finite amount to be known, we obviously must be closer to having the knowledge, okay? I don’t know how to make this into a sensible question…it’s all so stupid. All these interviews are so damned useless.”
It was at that point that Feynman got up from his desk and cut the interview off. Crease heard Feynman yell from the corridor, “The history of these things is nonsense! You’re trying to make something difficult and complicated out of something that’s simple and beautiful.”
It was Crease’s line of questioning, and his mindset, that made Feynman so mad, despite Crease not being a physicist. He is in fact a science journalist, but more importantly, Crease is a philosopher.
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Robert Crease received his B.A. in philosophy from Amherst College in 1976. But science wouldn’t begin to play a large role in his life until he attended graduate school in the 1980s at Columbia University, where he would later receive his Ph.D in 1987.
It was during those grad school years that Crease found his love of science journalism, and it was then that the foundations of his knowledge as a science historian and later Brookhaven National Lab’s historian were born.
“I was really into philosophy, but also I avoided science courses. I think if I had a really good science teacher, I would have become a scientist,” Crease explains. “I didn’t. I had a really good philosophy teacher so I wound up as a philosopher.”
Even at the age of 57, Crease has a remarkably youthful face marked by cleanly cropped facial hair and a shaved head, with a pair of expensive frames resting on the brim of his nose. His short stature is absolutely dwarfed by the encyclopedic knowledge that has made him both an expert in subjects like philosophical performance theory and able to discuss and understand heavy-ion physics with particle accelerator researchers.
It was with his old Amherst roommate Charles Mann that the science journalism path ignited while Crease was still in grad school.
“This friend of ours had some kind of publishing company, where she would take Italian references books and she would publish them in English,” ex- plains Mann, who is now an accomplished writer of non-fiction, such as the New York Times bestseller 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. “She came up with the scheme to make an illustrated science dictionary. She hired a bunch of free- lancers and Bob and myself were two of them.”
At one point, Crease and Mann needed to write up something on a particle accelerator and happened to know that Brookhaven National Lab housed their very own in the depths of the Upton, N.Y. facility.
“We were really intrigued, and then they told us that this huge particle accelerator, called ISABELLE, was in deep trouble,” Mann says. ISABELLE was Brookhaven’s proton-proton colliding beam accelerator, partially built by the government before the project was can- celled in 1983. “We looked in the New York Times, which hadn’t covered it. So we wrote to the New York Times Magazine and said you guys are missing out on a huge story, the most important physics story in the country.” Crease and Mann were given the green light to write it up.
The article got some attention, but most importantly was a springboard for both Crease and Mann into the realm of science journalism. “On Bob’s part, I think, it was really just because he was interested in the subject. It wasn’t with the idea that he was going to be a science journalist,” Mann says.
“It was just something on the outside, something that was fun to do,” Crease says. “I would do science journalism to basically support myself as a grad student.”
Since then, Crease has continuously expanded into the published field of philosophy and science. He has authored or co-authored twelve books, and is working on his thirteenth, titled World in the Balance: The Historic Quest for an Absolute System of Measurement, due out this October.
The interview with Richard Feynman in which Crease was kicked out of his office was for his first book, The Second Creation: Makers of the Revolution in Twentieth-Century Physics, which he co-wrote with Mann in 1986. It was left out from The Second Creation, but was included in James Gleick’s Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman after the author found the conversation in Feyman’s correspondence files and got Crease’s permission to use it (Feynman died four years before Genius was published in 1992).
Crease has written a monthly column, called “Critical Point,” in the international physics magazine Physics World since May of 2000, but has written for a multitude of science publications throughout his academic and journalistic career, including The Scientist, Smithsonian and Atlantic Monthly.
After receiving his degree from Columbia in 1987, Crease joined Stony Brook University’s philosophy department and is now chairman. In 1989, he joined Brookhaven as a part-time historian. He now has an ID card, an office and can interview anyone he likes.
“The proximity to Brookhaven made me realize that it was a much more interesting place than I had even thought about,” he says. “So I began to work more seriously on the history of Brookhaven and looked into its research.”
“He has an intimate knowledge of Brookhaven Lab, having developed relationships with many of the influential individuals through the years, both on the science side and in management,” says Mona Rowe, the communications manager at BNL who has worked with Crease for many years.
“The laboratory has had a colorful history, and sometimes I think Bob is even gleeful that he is lucky to have such interesting subject matter,” she says. “Yet the story is in the telling. He’s a gifted storyteller.”
Crease’s storytelling expertise is showcased in Making Science: A Biography of Brookhaven National Laboratory, as well as seven published articles on the laboratory. He co-founded the Laboratory History conferences, which have been held bi-annually since 1999, and in 2007 he was elected a fellow of the American Physical Society in the United States, and the Institute of Physics in England.
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Understanding science journalism means understanding the unique relationship between the public, who know almost nothing about any given field, and the scientific community. Crease has come to know this relationship very well and has aimed to be what he calls an “articulate spokesman for science.”
“The problem is not transparency; it’s not like politicians,” Crease says. “The problem is something different. Almost all scientists I’ve talked to are more than happy to talk to reporters.” The problem Crease is talking about lies in understanding and clarity. It’s the largest hurdle a science journalist faces, and the largest barrier between the scientific community and the public.
“The average per- son has an extremely confused idea about how science works. If you look at things like the debate over climate change, on all sides there are extraordinarily mistaken ideas about how science works,” explains Mann, who, after working on his and Crease’s first book and penning a multitude of his own non-fiction pieces, understands the intricacies of communicating science.
Mann explains that in both cases, a distinct lack of understanding of the scientific process clouds the public’s idea of certainty and probability. “If people had a better handle on that, you would see a lot of these public policy disputes that would make people not want to bang their head on the floor,” he adds.
One of the principle examples Crease uses to explain the complexity of communication is the supposed “Doomsday” scenarios posed by critics of particle accelerators. The theory is that particle accelerators, which amass enormous amounts of energy as they whip particles around near the speed of light, could possibly create a black hole by creating a new form of matter that eats all other forms of matter.
“That’s the fiction that RHIC will create a black hole to destroy the universe. It’s absurd,” Crease says, referring to Brookhaven’s RHIC particle accelerator.
“Scientists look into that, and they can’t find any credible way, but they al- ways say that they can rule it out only with a certain amount of error,” Crease says. “Now there’s the problem. Theoretically you can disprove it, but the only people who can understand the argument are nuclear scientists,” he adds.
“Why should the public trust an argument that they can’t understand?”
Crease, being a science journalist, swiftly and concisely sums up the debunking argument, citing the lottery fallacy. “In the lottery there is a winning ticket. So even if it’s a million to one, there’s going to be a winning ticket. But here you don’t know, and there’s no reason to suspect one (a winning ticket). So it’s an interesting philosophical issue.
In this analogy, the lottery ticket is the chance that a particle accelerator will create a black hole, meaning the possibility of a black hole being created is as probable as any other science fiction or fantasy occurrence. Because scientists can rule out the probability only to a certain degree does not mean that the probability exists.
Given these problems of miscommunication and the barriers of under- standing, Crease doesn’t see an easy solution. “In principle, there should be a lot more coverage because the issues that scientists are researching are important, but there isn’t,” Crease says. “It’s because there’s not that much of a readership for it, and there’d be more if there were more articulate spokesman for science, but you can’t blame the newspapers. It’s partly the public, and it’s partly the lack of good writers about science.”
“A good journalist can make any- thing seem interesting.”
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The connections between philosophy and science run deep, all the way back to the Greeks in fact, and these connections continue to drive the over- lapping of the fields today. From Copernicus and Galileo’s scientific bouts with the Catholic Church to the “doomsday scenarios” of particle accelerators like Brookhaven’s RHIC, philosophical implications can be found everywhere in the umbrella field of science that many people consider to be solely fact-driven.
Another byproduct of these connections is both the creation of and in- creasing need for the insight of thinkers like Crease who have dedicated their lives to understanding this enmeshing of focuses.
“I think anyone interested in philosophy ought to know what science is all about because science is a method of inquiry that has proved hugely successful,” Crease says. “But is it the only method of inquiry? How is it different from ordinary methods of inquiry? What has made it so successful? So questions like that are deep philosophical questions.”
Here at Stony Brook, Crease gets to take this ideology to the front lines of higher education with a class he co- teaches with physicist Alfred Goldhaber, a man as outstandingly encyclopedic in his understanding of highly advanced physics as Crease is with philosophy and science history. It’s titled The Quantum Moment, and it explores the beginnings and later implications of quantum mechanics, in not only a scientific and philosophical sense, but also through a literary and popular culture lens.
“Basically, I get to ask him questions and he gets to ask me questions,” Crease says on the overall structure of the co-taught class. “He starts to explain something, and I don’t get it, so I ask him to explain and other people in the class ask him to explain, and then it’s my turn.”
Goldhaber found that working with a philosopher like Crease didn’t involve a dramatic bridging of gaps. “In the class, almost always we are on the same wavelength,” Goldhaber says. “I think our overall views are sufficiently similar that there has been rather little ‘in- stilling’ of different general perspectives,” he adds.
While Goldhaber and Crease may be able to tune to the same general perspective, it’s the specific perspectives that make their co-teaching such an insightful and valuable tool to students.
Can you grasp both the full philosophical side of an issue while simultaneously understanding the scientific perspective? “Ideally,” Crease says, “but it never works that way because you can’t fit it all into one brain,” he says.
Crease points to a model piranha sitting in the center of his table in the spacious office on the second floor of Harriman Hall. Its teeth glow with a yellow rust and its eyes bulge out like ballooning beach balls.
“You’re looking at it sort of head on and I’m looking at it from the side,” Crease observes, pointing at the lifeless model. “There is no right way to look at it. Because of who you are and where you’re sitting, you have one perspective and I have the other. It is not like one perspective is better than the other and we certainly couldn’t merge the two perspectives into one…It’s just the nature of perception.”
For Crease, understanding unique perspectives is his specialty. It’s what has allowed the philosopher to acrobatically break down complex scientific concepts, and delve as deep as into those fields as any traditional philosopher does into the works of Kant or Nietzsche. When he was kicked out of Richard Feynman’s office back in 1985, Crease was simply upholding a multi-disciplinary mantra that any journalist, philosopher or scientist should strive for – asking the right questions, no matter what the consequences.