Fourth annual Physics Slam gets good rap

Chris Marshall, winner of the 2015 Physics Slam, soaks in the applause from the audience and fellow contestants. Photo: Reidar Hahn

Chris Marshall, winner of the 2015 Physics Slam, soaks in the applause from the audience and fellow contestants. Photo: Reidar Hahn

On the same weekend that saw the fourth Hunger Games movie open nationwide, hundreds of people trekked to Fermilab to watch the fourth iteration of our own ruthless competition. Five scientists took the stage on Friday night, and only one left — with a prize, that is.

For the fourth year in a row, Fermilab’s Physics Slam was a smashing success. The event sold out two months in advance, and even the first snowstorm of the season didn’t keep people away. They were there to learn more about science (and have a good time), and a few slick roads were not going to stop them.

The Physics Slam pits five scientists against one another in a battle for the audience’s love. Each is given 10 minutes to present his or her field of study in the most entertaining way possible, while still packing in as much scientific content as possible, and the winner is determined by audience applause. Slammers are allowed to take their presentation in any direction they choose. Previous winners have incorporated The Simpsons, claymation and The Colbert Report into their performances.

Brian Ingram of Argonne National Laboratory kicked things off with a talk about energy — specifically, what the next generation of batteries will look like. Brad Benson of Fermilab and the University of Chicago wore his winter parka to take the audience on a trip to the South Pole, where he is helping to build experiments to measure the cosmic microwave background.

Accelerator Operator Cindy Joe offered a glimpse at a day in her life, starting with her alarm clock waking her for a midnight shift in the Main Control Room and responding to several incidents requiring her to don safety gear and investigate. Steve Nahn, who works on the CMS detector at the Large Hadron Collider, gave a fun overview of high-energy physics in a presentation simply titled “Slam!”

But it was Chris Marshall of the University of Rochester who won the evening. Marshall, a neutrino physicist who works on the MINERvA experiment, unveiled his hip-hop alter ego, MC Truth, and delivered three deliriously entertaining raps about neutrinos. By the time of his final song, a parody of Ludacris’ “Area Codes,” he had the audience singing along (and learning the word “eigenmodes”).

Chris Mossey, Fermilab’s deputy director for the Long-Baseline Neutrino Facility, presented the contestants with certificates of appreciation and the grand prize. It was Mossey’s first Physics Slam, and he said he was “blown away” by the creativity on display.

For the fourth year in a row, Chris Miller, speech professor at the College of DuPage, served as master of ceremonies for the Physics Slam. At one point early on, Miller asked everyone in the audience under age 18 to raise their hands, and made note of how pleased he was to see so many young people spending a Friday night thinking about physics.

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