Forum on Education of The American Physical Society
Summer 2004 Newsletter

APS HOME

FEd HOME

Previous Newsletters

CONTENTS
this issue

Contact the Editors

Physics Research Presented for Undergrads: On the Web and at APS Meetings

David Ehrenstein, American Physical Society

College physics students need more than textbook physics. They need to hear about current research because it reveals the excitement of new questions and new discoveries. It also demonstrates that the elementary principles from their physics courses apply to experiments in today's labs. At the same time, PhD's enjoy a dose of fun and easily digested physics from outside their specialty once in a while. For both of these audiences, we have been serving up undergrad-level descriptions of current research at APS's Physical Review Focus web site (http://focus.aps.org) for the past six years. I also organized a session at the APS April meeting in Denver this year and will present a similar one at next year's March meeting in Los Angeles (please contact me to suggest speakers.)  My experience with writing and attending talks has led me to some rules for communicating science, which I describe at the end of this article.

On the web: Physical Review Focus

http://focus.aps.org

largefocus.gif (7823 bytes)

Physical Review Focus was originally conceived by the APS as a site for physicists to learn about hot research outside their specialty, so we could write stories assuming PhD-level knowledge. Right? Wrong. Being brutally honest about what most physicists remember about the Fermi surface or isospin, I realized early on that we needed to go down almost to the level of a typical college physics major. Besides, most physicists don't want to think too hard reading a short web story on a physics paper outside their specialty. They just want the gist of the paper.

So I geared the site toward undergrads, an audience that usually gets little exposure to current research in classes and textbooks. In fact, undergrads are a sort of in-between and underserved audience: they can go beyond the level of New Scientist but aren't ready for Physics Today. And presenting current research at their level seems like an ideal way to get them excited about physics, especially if the coursework isn't proving exciting enough. I hope that college physics teachers can use the site to point out connections between topics in the physics curriculum and the latest research results in Physical Review Letters (PRL.) (There is also an e-mail list that delivers weekly summaries of Focus stories, so students and teachers can keep up with the latest stories.)

I choose papers “of interest to outsiders.” That often means papers that are counter-intuitive, combine multiple fields, have some “cool” device application, relate to “everyday physics,” or relate to traditional undergrad-level physics problems. And of course, they can’t be too hard to explain. These characteristics appeal to non-specialist PhD’s but also to physics students and even journalists.

My writers and I try to write like journalists, not scientists. We try to avoid not only jargon, but also many of the abstract concepts that physicists find useful but readers find difficult, like the “energy landscape” picture. In this view of a system’s energy, hills and valleys represent energy maxima and minima encountered as one varies some system parameters. There just isn’t space in 500-600 words to describe this seemingly simple concept adequately. Instead, we rely heavily upon intuitive mental images, which can often do much of the work for us. We stick with “real” space and forces, rather than the energy space.

One example of avoiding the energy landscape appears in a story from February 5, 2004. (http://focus.aps.org/story/v13/st5). The new computer technique we described could simulate the exceedingly rare early events in the formation of a salt crystal from salt water. We chose to discuss “sequences of water molecule motions” that bring a sodium ion and a chloride together, rather than “paths the system takes through the energy landscape” leading from one valley to another, which was the authors’ view of the problem. While it’s visual, the energy landscape doesn’t give you an intuitive sense of what is happening, especially if you’re a student--or physicist--not used to thinking in that world.

crystals.jpg (14478 bytes)

Baby picture. A sodium ion (purple) with six chloride neighbors (green) may be the first step in crystallizing salt from salt water, according to a computer simulation. Past simulations haven't been able to capture the extremely rare events in the first moments of crystal formation. See story at http://focus.aps.org/story/v13/st5. (From D. Zahn, Phys. Rev. Lett. 92, 040801(2004).)

At APS Meetings

Attending an APS meeting can be hard on your brain, so just imagine how the handful of undergraduate students at the meetings feels. They are genuinely excited to be at such a prestigious physics conference, yet they have a hard time understanding the talks. They probably don’t realize that the PhD’s don’t understand a lot of what they hear, either. To help both groups, I invited four excellent communicators to speak at the APS April meeting in Denver in a Forum on Education session on presenting research at the undergrad level (/meet/APR04/baps/tocJ.html#SessJ14). I plan to organize a similar session for the March meeting in Los Angeles (and would welcome suggestions for good speakers.)

The speakers discussed complex systems in nature, ultrafast lasers, “taming” francium, and “asymptotic slavery” in high-temperature superconductors. Each speaker had had his or her work highlighted on the Focus web site or on AIP’s Physics News Update (http://www.aip.org/pnu). The students present learned about some fascinating areas of physics, and the PhD’s probably learned more than they would have at a typical colloquium-style talk aimed at physicists. During the Q&A, I asked the speakers about the challenges of speaking at such a low level, and it was clear that to do it well is a lot harder than it looks. It means avoiding almost all the math, but more importantly, paring down the topics to a sometimes painful minimum of information.

Rules for Presenting Science to Students and Others

My rules for communicating science apply to teaching physics, telling a physicist friend about your latest results, or even explaining your work to your next-door neighbor.

Rule 1: No one knows as much as you think. You can never talk “too low” to your audience. In fact, most people are flattered when you say things they already know.

Rule 2: No one has the attention span you expect. The most common mistake in speaking to non-scientists is not using too much jargon but saying too much. Usually half of what you want to say is enough, as anyone who has accidentally bored a non-scientist with a long answer to an innocent science question knows.

Rule 3: No one cares about as many details as you do. There is always a temptation to go on to what you consider the “most interesting” part of an explanation, even though the background up to that point is often enough for your audience. Think of those colloquia where the first or second slide was enough for you, or papers where the abstract was all you needed to know.

I hope you will see these rules in action on the Focus web site and at the March meeting session next year.

David Ehrenstein is the Editor of Physical Review Focus (http://focus.aps.org/).

APS HOME

FEd HOME

Previous Newsletters

CONTENTS
this issue

Contact the Editors