By Nadia Ramlagan
With the end of the 2008 US presidential election just a few days prior, the topic of scientific citizenship discussed at this year’s Sigma Pi Sigma Quadrennial Congress seemed especially relevant. Five hundred and fifty students representing 103 institutions gathered at Fermilab in Batavia, IL this year to explore the myriad ways scientists effect change in society, from local activism to national politics.
Sigma Pi Sigma is a national physics honor society, housed within the Society of Physics Students (SPS). Both are administered by the American Institute of Physics. The Congress, held November 6-8, was designed to bring together undergraduates, physics alumni, and practicing physicists. The APS and the American Association of Physics Teachers provided some support for the Congress.
“Our collective task, by the very nature of our gathering, is to ask what we can resolve to do as a society to best prepare the physicists of tomorrow. How shall we best encourage scientific citizenship?” remarked planning committee members Michael Gaither and Justin Stimatze at the opening of the Congress.
Participants tackled issues like science funding and policy, public perception of science, international research and collaboration, diversity in scientific fields, and science education and outreach through a series of scientific citizenship workshops. During roundtable brainstorming sessions, members formulated recommendations to enhance the Society’s role in the civic science movement. Chapters voted on several recommendations, which will be encapsulated into a subset of actionable ideas and eventually implemented.
Many attendees expressed surprise at the notion of scientists getting involved “in politics” and making a difference in their communities. “Before this conference, I didn’t know that as a physicist I could have a career in politics. It was really eye-opening”, said senior Emmaris Soto of the University of Connecticut.
Speaker Philip Hammer, Vice President of the Franklin Center, stressed that civic scientists must understand the nature of political discourse and the boundaries of scientific authority. “Progress comes through compromise and consensus,” he said.
Exhibitors representing graduate school programs and scientific societies and organizations filled the halls as students mingled with fellow members and physicists. “It’s very gratifying to see everything come together. What I really like is the conversation–everywhere you turn, every table or exhibit you walk by is just vibrating,” said Gary White, Director of the Society of Physics Students.
“The Congress is great for meeting influential people in the community and making contacts. There is so much other research going on, but it’s easy to get bogged down and narrowly focused on your own lab. The Congress provides a way to become aware of all the other research that’s out there,” said senior Kileigh Peturis of The University of Southern Mississippi.
Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) researcher Jill Tarter kicked off the plenary lecture series by posing some profound cosmic questions. “Can planets orbit stars like pulsars? Can two technological civilizations detect each other? We don’t know the answers…yet,” said Tarter.
“I really liked Dr. Tarter’s lecture. I previously did an independent study in cosmology and astrophysics, so I felt right at home,” said senior Chaan Thomas of Chicago State University.
Attendees also had a chance to foster dialogue on perhaps the most challenging social issue in physics–race and gender diversity in the workforce. The representation of women and under-represented minorities in physics has changed over the last several years. These “future faces of physics” will most likely be women, according to Rachel Ivie, Assistant Director of the Statistical Research Center at the American Institute of Physics (AIP). While the representation of women among physics bachelor's and PhDs has been steadily increasing, it remains the lowest among all other sciences. On the other hand, the percentage of African Americans and Hispanics who hold physics degrees is “extremely low and has changed little since 1994,” Ivie stated.
Collectively signing a letter promising to speak out against racism as civic scientists, participants vowed to uphold the pledge of Einstein, whose active work against racism remains largely unknown, at a lecture by Fred Jones and Roger Taylor, co-authors of Einstein on Race and Racism revealed.
A Congress highlight was the closing plenary lecture “What Presidents and Physicists Need to Know about Science” by Leon Lederman, 1988 physics Nobel Laureate and Director Emeritus of Fermilab. With visible optimism and humor, Lederman implored young physicists to use their scientific skills to help solve the many challenges our nation and planet face, while emphasizing the impact that public science literacy and education will have on developing future solutions to these problems.
“The Obama credo of change matches the scientific tradition; change is also what science is about, it is what science produces,” said Lederman.
For many attendees, holding the Congress at Fermilab has a special significance. “Fermilab is such a big part of physics. Even though I’m not planning to work in the particle physics field, I really wanted to see it,” said senior Devin Underwood of the University Wisconsin-River Falls.
The Laboratory’s rich history of scientific discovery made tours of the main building and 6,800 acre premise memorable. “Students were actually up early waiting for the 7:00 a.m. buses to Fermilab–college students!” exclaimed Kendra Rand, program coordinator for the Society of Physics Students.