Neutrinos, claymation and ‘Doctor Who’ at this year’s physics slam

Wes Ketchum of the MicroBooNE collaboration is the Physics Slam III champion. Ketchum’s slam was on the detection of particles using liquid argon. Photo: Cindy Arnold

On Nov. 21, for the third year in a row, the Fermilab Lecture Series invited five scientists to battle it out in an event called a physics slam. And for the third year in a row, the slam proved wildly popular, selling out Ramsey Auditorium more than a month in advance.

More than 800 people braved the cold to watch this year’s contest, in which the participants took on large and intricate concepts such as dark energy, exploding supernovae, neutrino detection and the overwhelming tide of big data. Each scientist was given 10 minutes to discuss a chosen topic in the most engaging and entertaining way possible, with the winner decided by audience applause.

Michael Hildreth of the University of Notre Dame kicked things off by humorously illustrating the importance of preserving data — not just the results of experiments, but the processes used to obtain those results. Marcelle Soares-Santos of the Fermilab Center for Particle Astrophysics took the stage dressed as the Doctor from “Doctor Who,” complete with a sonic screwdriver and a model TARDIS, to explore the effects of dark energy through time.

Joseph Zennamo of the University of Chicago brought the audience along on a high-energy journey through the “Weird and Wonderful World of Neutrinos,” as his talk was called. And Vic Gehman of Los Alamos National Laboratory blew minds with a presentation about supernova bursts and the creation of everything and everyone in the universe.

The winner was Fermilab’s Wes Ketchum, a member of the MicroBooNE collaboration. Ketchum’s work-intensive presentation used claymation to show how different particles interact inside a liquid-argon particle detector, depicting them as multicolored monsters bumping into one another and creating electrons for the detector’s sensors to pick up. Audience members won’t soon forget the sight of a large oxygen monster eating red-blob electrons.

After the slam, the five scientists took questions from the audience, including one about dark matter and neutrinos from an eight-year-old boy, sparking much discussion. Chris Miller, speech professor at the College of DuPage, made his third appearance as master of ceremonies for the Physics Slam, and thanked the audience — particularly the younger attendees — for making the trek to Fermilab on a Friday night to learn more about science.

Video of this year’s Physics Slam is available on Fermilab’s YouTube channel.

Andre Salles

The slammers at this year’s Fermilab Physics Slam were, Michael Hildreth, University of Notre Dame (far left); Marcelle Soares-Santos, Fermilab (second from left); Vic Gehman, Los Alamos National Laboratory (third from left); Wes Ketchum, Fermilab (second from right); Joseph Zennamo, University of Chicago. Fermilab Director Nigel Lockyer (third from right) congratulated all the participants. Photo: Cindy Arnold