Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Public Engagement with Theoretical Physics

If you talked to me about communicating theoretical physics to the general public a month ago, I probably would have run in the opposite direction screaming. Physics is just one of those things that seem really hard to communicate. Compared to chemistry or biology, theoretical physics has a lot of abstract concepts that makes it difficult to relate to your Joe Public on the street. It doesn't help that physics was just one of those subjects I never terribly cared for. (Not that I don't have an appreciation for physics and physicists mind you.)

Today however, changed everything. Today we visited the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, ON. Their mandate is to conduct research and educational outreach, two goals at which the definitely excel. These guys have an impressive set of outreach programs designed to reach teachers, students and the general public. From cartoons (Alice and Bob in Wonderland) to summer camps aimed at top high school students and teacher resources, the outreach and communications department has certainly outdone themselves. They also hold public lectures every month related to the field of physics in which a few hundred local people attend. Talk about public engagement of science!

Waiting for a lecture to start at the Perimeter Institute.

I especially like their page on "Meet the scientist". One of the big things about a scientists' image is that they are expected to be the best of the best students in school and followed the straight and narrow path towards science. That is certainly not true as there are many paths to science. These short 5 minute videos show the human side of scientists which brings them a bit closer to the public.

Perimeter Institute deserves top marks for their breadth and depth of outreach on such a seemingly difficult topic. Visit their site and take advantage of their great materials.

Well.. this is day one of our field trip. If anyone from the Perimeter Institute reads this... Thanks for the great hospitality! Now I need to get a good nights sleep for our trip to Daily Planet and the Ontario Science Centre tomorrow. The adventure continues....

1 comment:

  1. Justin,
    Your writing brought to mind my classes in Physics at the U. of Chicago 1956. Gee, that's over 50 years ago. I was the oldest student in a class of over 100. I had a family of 3 boys and could not afford a car, so I had a Cushman motor scooter for transportation.
    The Professor (I think he was younger than I) was expounding on the quantum theory. It was not penetrating the brain cage well. At least 1 of 100.
    He could sense the lack of general non-understanding. He then, referred to my scooter and used it as a subject for the quantum theory as being on both sides of a hill at the same time, without having to travel over the hill. I think you probably can go from there. It is still fuzzy, but the major concept leaked through.
    We were the BEST students!