April 2014 Meeting - Savannah, Georgia

At the APS April meeting FPS sponsored a session titled Popularizing Physics. where scientists and science communicators shared some of their expertise on the subject. The session opened with a talk from science writer David Lindley, titled “Explaining today’s physics through history and biography”. Physicist and science communicator Diandra Leslie-Pelecky followed up with a presentation on “Stealth Physics: Sneaking in Science Where People Least Expect It”. The session was concluded with a talk by Mats Selen of the University of Illinois at Urbana, titled “Everyone Loves Science”.

David Lindley talked about not just what physicists think but how they came to think that way. How did they come to such a peculiar conception of the universe: particles are vibrations of strings, there are 10 dimensions but six of them are bound up so tightly that you can’t see them, and so on. Lindley uses history to explain, starting with theories that turned out not to be correct — vortex atom theory, luminiferous Aether and moving to modern theories — superstrings and branes — where the jury is still out. What these have in common is the attempt to explain observations consistently and predict behavior. Scientists’ beliefs, acknowledged or not, about scientific thinking and the “correct” aims of science have a powerful influence on how their ideas develop. Physicists have some of the same disquiet and skepticism about new physics ideas that the public does. Telling that story illustrates that scientists are interested in finding the truth.

Diandra Leslie-Pelecky, author of The Physics of NASCAR, explained that she got interested in NASCAR when she saw a replay of a NASCAR race accident that had no obvious cause. She started looking into it and found that a bunch of people in NASCAR have science and engineering degrees. They worry about friction, balances of forces, aerodynamics, and other physics problems. Carl Edwards won a 2008 race but his crew chief was fined $100k for a violation because the car’s oil tank was modified resulting in lower lift on the car and greater friction. People wanted to know why, so there was an appetite for technical discussion. The explanation reached many thousands of people. Social media is a forum for discussions on the science of crashes. She also does spots on a radio show dedicated to NASCAR (SIRIUS XM Speedway). One spot focused on a major crash that removed the front end of a car. The driver was fine, but the engine went through the catch fence and the tire ended up in row 19, hurting some people severely. Why, the audience asked, didn’t the race officials know that this would happen? Even when Leslie-Pelecky was not on the program, the show’s host, who is not a technically trained person, said “the overriding point is that scientists often learn what works from observing what doesn’t work”. Working with the radio host has given science an advocate who reaches millions of listeners. Leslie-Pelecky had some brief takeaway messages: (1) We can explain what we think is interesting, but we really need to figure out how to show them the science in what they already find interesting. (2) Long-term relationships have more impact than hit-and runs. (3) They (the public) are more scared of us than we are of them. They appreciate experts taking the time to explain. And (4) We can’t wait for them to come to us; we have to go to them. NASCAR reaches a lot of people whom we can’t reach through science magazines.

Mats Selen talked about outreach activities at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champagne. He noted that kids are born curious, teachers love having science activities, adults are fascinated by science, and scientists love to talk about science, so there’s an obvious matchup. You just need to get it started, and as a college professor, Selen notes that college students are an amazing resource for making that happen. UIUC introduced Physics 123: Physics for elementary education students, because many elementary school teachers are not confident in science. The course is wildly popular and the students exit the class with a set of lessons for hands on exploration using cheap everyday materials. Selen has also done weekly spots on local television as “the Whys Guy.” He explained to the APS audience that getting on local TV is easy because viewers love it and it’s free content for the station. The key is to come up with crisp, clear explanations (and to wear bright, engaging colors). UIUC has also established a physics van, a traveling science show run by undergraduates (a club) targeting elementary schools, which was modeled on a project done at Purdue. Over the many years that the physics van has been operating, they have reached over 70 schools and over 100,000 students. The program is self-sustaining because the students run it and are passionate about it. Do kids remember what they learn? In a non-representative survey of his introductory mechanics students at the college, Selen found that most respondents said they had been exposed to the physics van or something like it, that they didn’t remember the details, but they thought it was cool. Finally, Selen and colleagues have run a Q&A website for science inquiries from the public. It is hard to get quality answers from students or young faculty members because of the time it takes to do it, so they enlisted emeritus faculty. One of those professors then added a section debunking bad explanations elsewhere on the web (“baloney websites”). There are many opportunities for such outreach.

These contributions have not been peer-refereed. They represent solely the view(s) of the author(s) and not necessarily the view of APS.