It can be done

Fermilab Director
Pier Oddone

In today’s competitive world, where the focus is often on the short term, conveying the excitement and value of particle physics to the public and policy makers is hugely important. But communicating particle physics to a lay audience is usually much more difficult for us scientists than giving a technical lecture in front of our colleagues.

In our favor is the nature of the questions we tackle. They intrigue the public beyond many of the scientific questions that have a shorter time horizon. The Higgs-like particle discovered at the LHC this year generated an enormous amount of press worldwide and large crowds for Higgs-related scientific lectures and events. The nature of dark matter and dark energy, the world of neutrinos, the possible existence of hidden dimensions—all have a deep sense of mystery that appeals to a broad audience. But communicating these concepts without a lot of mathematics is quite a challenge.

That challenge was met beautifully in Fermilab’s first Physics Slam. It was met not only once, but five times by the five speakers that entered the competition. I was struck by how different and yet how effective all the different approaches were in conveying difficult concepts. I was also struck by the audience: These were the thousand teachers, students and neighbors who, among all the choices they could have made on how to spend their Friday evenings, chose to overflow our auditorium to learn about particle physics.

While the slam was a competition, settled on the spot by the volume of the applause, the results were very close. The applause was huge for each of the presenters, as loud as I have heard for any performance. Only an electronic meter with a much better calibration than my ears could determine the winner, and even then only by a small margin. There was clearly great appreciation for the effort and the effectiveness of the communication that took place. The many questions that followed the presentation were a credit not only to the speakers but to the audience that stayed engaged throughout. Part of our role as Fermilab scientists and employees is to act as ambassadors for our lab and our science. I challenge all of us to follow the slammers’ examples and seek out creative and compelling ways to bring particle physics to the public.