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World Year of Physics Blog by Ernie Tretkoff

Ernie Tretkoff
Blog Archive

January 3, 2005
January 13, 2005
January 14, 2005

Saturday, January 15, 2005

The launch conference is officially over, and the World Year of Physics has now officially begun.

Today's topics were physics education and outreach to the general public. This morning Georges Charpak spoke about physics education, emphasizing the importance of hands-on learning. This was followed by today's round table on the "perception of physics in the general public." No members of the non-physicist general public were present to say how they perceive physics, so it was more a discussion of physicists' perception of the public rather than the other way around, but nonetheless some good points were made.

Naturally, everyone agreed it is important to get people, especially young people, interested in science, and some panelists described their experiences in engaging young people. Marvin Cohen, president of the American Physical Society, made a nice speech describing some APS outreach activities as well as his own experience speaking to high school students. Jose Luis Moan-Lopez of Mexico described a project called "Science for Everyone," which is a collection of books that helps interest young people in science.

Ayse Erzan of Turkey brought up an especially interesting point: throughout the conference, and in talking about physics with the public in general, we often emphasize how useful physics is—how physics can solve society’s problems or lead to new gadgets that improve lives. But most physicists, Erzan pointed out, didn't go into physics to be useful, they went into the subject simply because they were curious about how the world works. Unfortunately, that sense of curiosity is lost on the public. Children are naturally curious, but by the time they become young teenagers, they seem to loose that. (So physicists are people who never quite grew up, in a way.) Maybe she's on to something with the idea that we need to engage the public in the wonder and fascination of physics, not just the usefulness.

One panelist bemoaned the fact that "normal people feel that physics is not for them." The unfortunate implication, which is probably not what the speaker intended, is that physicists are not "normal people." It isn't really surprising that the public thinks physicists are not normal people, especially when we continue to promote the image of Einstein, the mad-looking genius with his crazy hair, as a mascot for physics. People might admire Einstein, but it is hard to identify with him. Yesterday Harold Kroto made a good point that the Einstein who made all the brilliant discoveries is not the old Einstein with the mad hair, but the normal-looking young man in the patent office, and perhaps we should emphasize that image more.

Anyway, hopefully throughout the year we will be able to engage the public and improve their perception of physics.

Since the conference was in large part for the students, let me just say that they all seemed to be having a great time, and everyone I spoke to was very excited to be here. (Many were more excited by the chance to visit Paris than by the physics conference itself, but that’s natural.) The U.S. was a bit underrepresented, with a delegation of four students (who, oddly, all attended MIT), when many countries brought as many as ten students. Anyway, all the students were enthusiastic about meeting other students from around the world, and about learning and talking about physics. So from that perspective, this has been a successful event.

The closing session was short. Nice words were said, the appropriate people and societies were thanked, and the World Year of Physics is now officially underway.

Here's a picture of some of this morning's panelists looking thoughtful, slightly obscured by some guy's head (okay, so I'm not a great photographer):



Friday, January 14, 2005

What a day! After a full day of lectures and discussions, I feel like I've heard about almost every possible topic related to physics, and met people from just about every corner of the globe. It's all a bit jumbled in my mind, but here's an attempt at a quick summary:

This morning's event was a round table on "what physics can bring to the socio-economic challenges of the 21st century." These challenges are, to name just a few: the increasing demand for energy, the need for sustainable development, climate change, and natural disasters. Just thinking about these things can easily make you feel the whole world is just doomed. The panelists, however, were at least somewhat optimistic that physics can help solve the energy problem by developing more sources of clean and renewable energy, if only those ignorant, short-sighted politicians would stop getting in the way. Much of the discussion focused on last month's tsunami in the Indian Ocean area. It was pointed out that satellites can pinpoint the location of a taxi on a city block, but couldn't give us warning that an enormous tsunami was coming. Even elephants seem to have known it was coming, but we had no clue. Panelists naturally denied that this was a "failure of science," but clearly more work is needed here.

The rest of the day's talks described advances in physics. Some speakers managed to cover entire fields of physics in just an hour. Denis Le Bihan talked about how Brownian motion is used in MRI imaging, making it possible to learn a lot about the brain. Harold Kroto gave an entertaining talk mostly about nanotechnology. C.N.R. Rao offered a historical perspective on the interface between chemistry and physics. Gerard t'Hooft basically covered all the key points of particle physics, and Masatoshi Koshiba presented an overview of neutrino physics (fortunately he managed to narrow his talk down from his assigned title, which would have covered all of "Cosmology and Astrophysics").

Though wide-sweeping and varied, these were all very understandable talks, especially considering how incomprehensible physicists can be when discussing their work. In fact, the only part of today's program I had trouble understanding was a press conference, and that was because it was mostly in French, which I only understand if people talk very slowly and repeat themselves at least three times.

I'm looking forward to more interesting events tomorrow, the last day of the conference.

Here are a few pictures from today:

Euro Physics Fun Friends

students watch a demonstration at a
EuroPhysicsFun exhibit

me and two of my new friends from Sudan

Press Conference

press conference

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Thursday, January 13, 2005

Bonjour. The World Year of Physics is now officially launched. The first day of the conference went well. In the opening session this morning, about ten important people spoke for about five minutes each about how exciting physics is, and how important it is for physicists to reach out to others and to inspire young people to take an interest in physics, etc. Einstein was quoted many times. It was all very appropriate for the occasion, but it did get a bit repetitive after a while.

There were indeed hundreds of students there, as advertised. I saw groups from Sudan, Austria, France, Serbia-Montenegro, Israel, Mexico, Japan, Russia, and many other countries. I believe the group from the U.S. was there as well, though I didn't see them in the crowd. It was a rather impressively international crowd, though the majority of them were still white males.

There did seem to be a great deal of enthusiasm among the participants, but the most enthusiastic person whom I talked to was a man who explained to me at length how evolution is totally wrong. According to him, life has come about and evolved the way it has because of some sort of "signals from the cosmos." He declined to tell me exactly where these signals were coming from, what sort of message they carried, or how he knew they were there, but he believed this very enthusiastically, and said he had calculations to prove it. He was clearly trying to tell everyone he could about his theories. Wouldn't it be great if people who have made legitimate scientific discoveries were this excited about them?

This man probably would have gone on to tell me how all of science is wrong, but I managed to escape when the next lecture began. Katepalli Sreenivasan discussed the importance of science for developing countries, and then Claus Weyrich of Siemens (Germany) discussed physics and innovation.

The afternoon talks were probably quite interesting, but unfortunately I missed most of the afternoon sessions after having eaten something squishy and French for lunch that disagreed with my stomach. Hopefully things will go better tomorrow.

I tried to take some pictures, but most of them didn't come out well at all. I think I had the camera on the wrong setting. Here is a picture of some people milling about during a coffee break and a picture of the lecture hall filled with people listening to a talk.

Coffee Break Lecture

And here is a picture that I took yesterday evening of the Eiffel tower.

Eiffel Tower

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Monday, January 3, 2005

Happy World Year of Physics! Welcome to the World Year of Physics Weblog. I’m Ernie, a writer intern at the American Physical Society. Soon at this website you’ll be able to read my comments from the World Year of Physics launch conference, which will be held in Paris at UNESCO headquarters, January 13 -15.

According to the conference website, there will be over 1000 people attending, including renowned physicists, and about 500 physics students from around the world (they will be there to “represent the future of physics”). I’ll be there as well, reporting for APS News and posting my observations here.

The theme of the conference is “Physics for Tomorrow,” and I expect participants will discuss big important ideas about the future of physics, like “How Physics Will Save the World in the 21st Century” (This is not an actual talk title. See the real program for yourself). I’m sure it will be interesting and inspiring. And if it’s not, at least it’s in Paris, so I can always sneak out of the conference and go visit the Louvre, or climb up the Eiffel tower, or… Anyway, I’ll keep you posted each day on all the exciting events and interesting people. So check back here on January 13th.

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World Year of Physics 2005