Physics slam: Fermilab scientists explain, entertain
By Jenette Sturges firstname.lastname@example.org November 24, 2012 1:06PM
Stuart Henderson talks about nuclear power and waste disposal with help from a famous "expert" Friday during the Physics Slam at Fermilab. Mary Beth Nolan~For Sun-Times Media
Updated: December 26, 2012 6:05AM
BATAVIA — It’s like a poetry slam — if poetry could explain the Higgs boson.
And it packed the house at Fermilab this month, where the 850-seat Ramsey Auditorium sold out, and another 200 or so physics fans had to settle for overflow seating in a second auditorium.
Fermilab’s first physics slam brought five scientists to the stage to present their research in the most creative way possible — from ‘The Neutrino Monologues’ to Homer Simpson explaining how particle accelerators might power a new generation of nuclear plants.
Physicist Doug Glenzinski posed his research problem to the audience like this:
“By my count, 30 Nobel prizes have been awarded for work that supports the Standard Model. But there’s a catch,” he said. “None of them are mine.”
Glenzinski said his work on Mu2e, Fermilab’s project studying the conversion of muon particles into electrons, aims to complete and move beyond the Standard Model of physics.
Physicist Deborah Harris, meanwhile, explained the history of the muon, from its conception as a theoretical particle in the standard model to today’s underground experiments at Fermilab and partner sites in a series of journal entries — complete with costume changes — she dubbed “The Neutrino Monologues.”
She wrote journal entries based on actual writings, conversations and characters — Enrico Fermi’s rejection letters, the research assistant cowed into presenting the neutrino concept at conference, miner families and construction workers tasked with building the latest facilities.
Chris Stoughton explained gravity with a sack of potatoes and red- and blue-shift with stage lights for his explanation of the holographic universe, while Bob Tschirhart tried to demystify Fermilab’s next big thing — Project X, a search for rare particle transformations — and why the scientists on the project will need to produce so many particles to make it happen.
“What does ‘rare’ mean? The chance of an American home having at least one container of ice cream in the freezer is 9 out of 10. Odds of being audited by the IRS are 275 to one. Odds of becoming president of the United States are 10 million to one. Odds of a meteor hitting your house are 102 quadrillion to one. This is about the sensitivity in this experiment that we’re looking for... Fermilab will study more muons than all the grains of sand on all the earth’s beaches.”
For those in the audience for whom a quadrillion is too conceptual an idea, physicist Stuart Henderson brought ideas down to a lower level.
“... And then some science happens,” said Henderson, walking the audience through a diagram of a nuclear power plant with Homer Simpson pointing at each step in the process. “You can tell science is happening because there are bolts of lightning and flashes. And then the science is over, and you have energy.”
The full explanation got a little more technical than that, explaining how particle accelerators can be used to reuse already spent nuclear fuel. The process that Henderson and his research team are working on could cheaply and safely supply more power, and reduce the nation’s stockpile of nuclear waste.
“Accelerator-driven systems would drive a new generation of nuclear power plants that reuses spent fuel, burning waste and generating electricity,” Henderson said.
Henderson’s explanation — maybe it was the project’s nature of applied science and technology, maybe it was the world’s most famous doughnut-loving Springfield nuclear plant employee helping him along the way — was a clear crowd pleaser.
But it wasn’t a subjective judge that decided the winner. In true Fermilab fashion, scientists rigged a functioning applause-o-meter to precisely measure the volume of claps, cheers and cowbells from the audience.
“Usually, I try to catch up on sleep,” said Charlie Kerby, an eighth-grader who instead came out for the night of physics fun. “I could have wasted my night a lot worse ways than this.”