APS News

Putting a Face on Physics

This new program further enhances public appreciation of the value of physics.

PFP participants at their recent media training session.
PFP participants at their recent media training session.

What good is physics, who are physicists and what on earth do they do? APS is keenly aware that most people can't answer those questions with any specificity, and that a deeper public appreciation of physics is important for the continuing health of the field and the nation. A fuzzy but increasingly positive image of science and physics appears to be forming in the minds of the American public, thanks to the recent vigorous efforts of many individuals and organizations. A new APS project, "Public Face for Physics" (PFP) aims to sharpen the focus.

In short, PFP seeks to identify a cadre of physicists who are so enthusiastic and articulate in explaining their research that their personalities and the clarity of their communication will "put a face" on physics when they appear in broadcast or print media. The idea arose as APS worked with the Edelman Worldwide public relations firm to publicize the 1999 Centennial, and to find ways to use the event to raise public awareness and appreciation for physics. PFP is now an independent experiment, lead by APS Executive Officer Judy Franz and 1990 APS President Eugen Merzbacher.

Franz and Merzbacher asked physics department chairs nationwide for recommendations of faculty members who were superb communicators. Nominations were also sought from the public relations network of DOE laboratories and from industrial members of APS Council and key committees. "The response was overwhelming," Merzbacher said. "A few people declined for personal or professional reasons, but most were eager." The resulting group of over twenty individuals represents the diversity of physicists and the work they do.

To begin the process, each member was asked to provide a concise bio and an essay on his or her work, written for a reader who has no physics background. Four experienced APS and AIP science writers then worked with the teams to refine the essays. At this point Edelman took over, bringing the team together in two subgroups to undergo media training. After a presentation on the principles of dealing with the media, the group members participated in several practice interviews under the watchful eye of a video recorder. "My previous interviews were limited in scope to my immediate work, but this training prepared us for a much wider range of questions," said team member Richard Superfine. "The taped interviews were painful but there is no substitute for practicing some of the techniques that they described. Most interesting was the idea that we have control over any interview, and that we should make sure that we politely steer the discussion so that our own points get across."

The Edelman staff was equally enthusiastic about the PFP training sessions. "We've never worked with such quick studies," said Edelman senior account supervisor Tish Van Dyke. "They caught on fast and were so passionate about what they do. That's infectuous. If anyone can communicate physics, these people can." Edelman's next step is to prepare press kits and 'pitch' the PFP team stories. The targetted media channels are PFP participants' local newspapers and radio stations, and national outlets like CNN, NPR and airline magazines.

"The proof of the pudding will be the success in reaching the media," Merzbacher observed. A newly formed Task Force on Informing the Public about Physics will evaluate PFP in spring of 1999, and make a recommendation on whether it should be continued. The Task Force will evaluate present efforts and explore and recommend new ways for APS to inform the public, political leaders and other relevant constituencies about the nature and importance of physics to society.

One established way to introduce physics to the public is to start with what is close and familiar, like baseball, cooking, or weather phenomena and explain the physics involved. PFP will try the reverse: team members will explain their own sophisticated research in simple terms, using analogies to everyday items, and avoiding off-putting technical terms. "This is real physics," Merzbacher said, "presented to the public in ways they can understand."

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Editor: Barrett H. Ripin
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette