APS News

Physicists in Outreach Face Tricky Career Choices

By Calla Cofield

The 2013 APS April Meeting was brimming with sessions on science communication and outreach. These talks addressed how physicists engage and communicate with the public by blogging, writing books, speaking at public events, teaching classes on unusual subjects like the physics of cooking and the like. Many of the presenters addressed a common question:

When, during a physicist’s career, is an ideal time to get involved in public outreach?  

Diandra Leslie-Pelecky, a physicist at West Virginia University, outlined in her talk key issues that a physicist should consider before getting involved in outreach, including career timing, and what he or she is willing to sacrifice to make time for outreach. Early career physicists may have advantages such as more energy, more time, and fewer personal responsibilities.

But Leslie-Pelecky also warned that young physicists should consider how senior physicists with whom they work view outreach. She said that many physicists assume young people involved in outreach are “not serious” about their scientific work. Those opinions could harm young careers, especially if they come up on review boards or in recommendation letters.

To overcome this obstacle, Leslie-Pelecky says physicists should first find out how much their institution and their coworkers value outreach work.

Leslie-Pelecky is the author of the book The Physics of NASCAR, and her work has been featured in The New York Times and Sports Illustrated. Last year she began appearing the SiriusXM satellite radio show Sirius Speedway, where she addresses science questions about NASCAR, such as whether or not a misplaced oil tank cover can increase the speed of a car. An article she wrote about stock car science received over 40,000 unique views, about which she noted that “even if only five percent of those people actually read the article, that’s more students than I teach in a year.”

James Kakalios, a condensed matter physicist at the University of Minnesota, got involved in science outreach when he started teaching a freshman seminar class titled “Everything I Know About Science I Learned from Reading Comic Books.” The class drew physics lessons from the pages of superhero comic books—such as why Lois Lane would still die from a fall off a skyscraper even when Superman catches her in his arms, inches above the pavement. Kakalios’ work caught the attention of major media outlets, and he eventually wrote the book The Physics of Superheroes. He has since written a second book, this one about quantum mechanics, and served as a science adviser for the most recent Spiderman movie.

At the April Meeting, Kakalios chaired a session hosted by the newly-organized APS Forum on Outreach and Engaging the Public, FOEP, for which he is now the Past Chair. In a press conference preceding the session, he echoed Leslie-Pelecky’s concerns for young physicists.

“I think young scientists have a great deal of enthusiasm for [outreach] and…they are able to communicate in a very natural way to their peers,” he said. “On the other hand, they’re also trying to establish their own careers. And right now efforts in science outreach are more tolerated and accepted than actively rewarded. And I think it’s probably important for them to focus on first establishing themselves.”

Kakalios said that as a tenured professor he felt he had “flexibility and protection,” when he began his outreach work. He advised other physicists to perhaps treat outreach as a “hobby” or “diversion,” while always placing research and professional responsibilities first. Kakalios also said that the physics community’s aversion to outreach does not serve its current needs.

“At the same time that institutions are saying ‘Where’s the next Carl Sagan?’ and ‘Why doesn’t the public support more of what we’re doing?’ they’re…not giving support to those people who are engaged in it,” he said.

Kakalios says his own turn into science outreach was a surprise, and he confessed that he was once one to scoff at the pursuit: “Back when Carl Sagan was doing Cosmos I said, ‘Oh, this is trivialization!’ And so for my sins I now get to be the person that people say that about.”  

Sidney Perkowitz is a professor of physics emeritus at Emory University. In his 45-year physics career Perkowitz contributed to over 100 scientific publications; but he also authored five books, two plays, a performance dance piece, a handful of YouTube videos, and dozens of articles about or inspired by physics, all meant for non-scientist audiences. Recently he was a co-editor and contributor to the anthology Hollywood Chemistry, about science in entertainment.

Perkowitz spoke about the reasons why physicists should engage in public outreach: to inspire future scientists and to return society’s support of science. He echoed the warning that many physicists do not look kindly on outreach, despite the community’s need for it, but he also pointed out that a career should match the individual. In his case, that meant a combination of science and art.

“For each of us it comes down to a personal decision,” said Perkowitz, “about varied career paths and satisfactions, with inevitable tradeoffs.”

Some physicists ultimately choose outreach as a career. Ben Ames, a physics graduate student studying quantum optics at the University of Innsbruck, Austria, spoke at the April Meeting about a project he participated in called “The Flame Challenge.” Ames won the 2012 contest to create a video that explains the science of fire in a way that is understandable and engaging to 11-year-olds. He spent two weeks working only on his animated video, complete with original songs.

In his talk, Ames told the story of how he initially wanted to be a filmmaker, then decided to shoot for a more lucrative career as a patent lawyer, which landed him in the physics department and ignited his passion for the subject. While Ames expressed nothing but love and excitement for physics research, he is now working on an animated, science-themed television project with an executive producer of the children’s show Yo Gabba Gabba. After he completes his PhD, Ames says he will have to consider in which direction he wants to take his career.   


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Editor: Alan Chodos
Staff Science Writer: Michael Lucibella