Friday, March 26, 2010

March Meeting Round Up

For those of you who couldn't join us in Portland, you missed some great physics and some fantastic smells. Even downtown Portland smells like pine trees and fresh rain all the time. For me, living there would be akin to Homer Simpson's land of chocolate fantasy.

Well, maybe not quite. I might like to live the land of chocolate as well.

ANYWAY - There was a lot of amazing reporting that came out of the meeting, and I wanted to share some of the great story highlights with you. A few of honorable mention:

Geoff Brumfiel at Nature did a great job sketching out the feeling of the meeting outside the session rooms. And often, that's where the real action is. This link will take you to the first of about a half a dozen posts.

Great stories by Laura Sanders at Science News on Superchilly Chemistry, and the ways that body heat can change the airflow in your office.

"How does a worm wriggle," asks Adrian Cho at Science News. Cho also covered what seemed to be the big breaking news of the meeting. Here's the headline he gave it: "Quivering Gizmo Ushers in Quantum Machines."

Scientific American's Davide Castelvecchi covered that same story but titled it, "Macro-Weirdness: Quantum Microphone puts Naked Eye Object in 2 Places at Once."

Finally, New Scientist reporter Richard Webb also covered that story, which he dubbed "First quantum effects seen in a visible object."

This might be my favorite story from the meeting. First, it introduces a neat instance where packets of vibrational energy - phonons - are detected. Like photons, which are individual packets of light, phonons can't be split up into smaller pieces. The researchers used the phonon detecting device to show that they could measure a (barely) visible mechanical resonator both resonating and not resonating at the same time. Macroscopic objects in two states at once!

Webb also covered some interesting efforts to understand dark matter by studying matter we find here on Earth.

And despite what Chad Orzel says, he is a perfectly decent pool player. His team did lose two out of three, but that was partly due to a rogue 8-ball that I suspect may have had control of its own motion. Orzel's recap of the meeting also quite enlightening, entertaining and just a wee bit personal (don't eat the chicken fingers at fries at the Portland convention center, I guess).

Leading up to the meeting I promoted James Kakalios' public lecture on the Physics of Superheroes, and he delivered an amazing performance. I think at this point he's nailed down his routine pretty well, and it is a genuinely awesome routine to see.

What I loved most about his talk, was actually Kakalios' insights into the ways that people get interested in science, based on his experience with this whole comic book thing.

Kakalios has gone from physics researcher and comic book nerd, to nationally recognized science and entertainment expert in a relatively short amount of time, and without ever really having any intention of reaching this many people. While many people try very hard to get the public excited about science, and to convince them of its importance, few if any have had the kind of success that Kakalios has. His is like an experiment that worked backward: the results were overwhelmingly positive, and only now can we go back and try to examine what he did to produce them.

Kakalios was a professor and researcher at the University of Minnesota, teaching an introductory physics course that many non-science students would take. When those students got frustrated, they would throw down the all to familiar complaint, "When am I ever gonna use this stuff?!" Physics teachers hear this a lot and so they try to add things like car engines, solar panels and other "real world" examples to their lectures. But Kakalios almost never gets that response from students taking his superheroes class. Are all those kids going into the comic book industry - or is the "when am i ever gonna use this" complaint actually a diversion from something else. Maybe it's just a way to avoid their true feelings - that they simply find physics boring. Or worse, it just makes them feel stupid. Knowing this changes how teachers might approach this complaint.

Kakalios also discussed his experiences talking with non-scientists, and introducing himself as a physicist. He said that, quite often, people put up a wall when they heard his profession. He feels that people often assume they just aren't smart enough to engage in any kind of a conversation about physics, even if they have questions. When, in reality, a physicist might be equally befuddled by any number of occupations.

But when Kakalios discusses the physics of superheroes, people don't seem to put up that same wall. Instead, they begin to engage in a dialogue about physics.

Kakalios said in the Q&A period that the physics community is responding very well to his approach. The community is beginning to realize, he said, that it needs to communicate with the general public, and not just on an informational level. We want people to be excited about science. We want them to understand that it is an approachable subject. Because not all students who take a physics course will become physicists, but they will become citizens and voters. And voters can vote for science, get it?

That's my new sign off - "Vote for Science, Get it?!"

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