How much detail is appropriate?
As a student recently wrote on one of my chalkboards after school:
- Mass, energy, momentum, and charge are conserved.
- Anything you think is easy at first will quickly become complicated.
When I’m writing a blog post that I try to keep under 1,000 words, how much room is there for explaining everything about a particular topic?
Even in class, when I have 43 minutes of uninterrupted class time, I still have to gloss over ideas that are either too esoteric, too advanced for the students’ knowledge, or too insignificant to mention. If I don’t prune the material, a simple lecture on electric current becomes a twelve-hour marathon.
I even admit “lying” to my students on some occasions when I need to go back and add in a small effect later. Before you crucify me for being a horrible teacher, let me explain that most physics classes do this. First you study motion, then you add the effects of friction or air resistance on that motion, then you discuss what happens at high speed — relativistic effects.
Physics, and many other sciences, are built on basic phenomena that can be layered to obtain the required level of precision.
So, for an example, did you catch the “error” in my student’s conservation laws? If you noticed while reading that conservation of mass is really just a special case of conservation of energy, you’re right. But in Newtonian physics, mass is conserved — only in the quantum realm do we need to worry about mass-energy equivalence. My students don’t need to know that (yet), so why complicate matters? In a few weeks I’ll discuss E = mc2, and then I’ll break it to them that their beloved mass conservation is no more.
Back to writing.
Science is tough enough for the public to digest. So how can we attract a greater readership? Include ridiculous detail to present an immaculate picture, withstanding the critique of the most knowledgeable reader? Or should articles be written to be intentionally vague (and arguably inaccurate), sacrificing detail for clarity?
I’m torn on this one.
Is this phenomenon unique to science writing?