Thursday, February 14, 2013

Advice from the Director of SNOLAB


 By Ben Williamson
 The interview was hastily scheduled. I was leaving for Boston the next day and the deadline would come before I got back, so it was Monday or never. That Dr. Nigel Smith, Director of SNOLAB, would give the interview on short notice showed pretty clearly that he was serious about getting the public interested in physics.
SNOLAB is an enormous laboratory at the bottom of an active nickel mine. Over two kilometres down. Real deep.
The complex is about a half hour from town. After signing in, the security gate was raised and I drove through. I was sharing the path with mining transport trucks and men in hard hats.
The interview would be in the above ground office building. Going down into the lab would require catching the lift at 6:00, showering, and putting on a clean suit. Dr. Smith came out of a meeting right on time and we sat on some leather couches in the reception area.
I asked about the research at SNOLAB: the search for dark matter, the ultra-sensitive neutrino detectors and the various other projects. Then I asked him about a public talk he had given at Science North last fall. How do you explain particle physics to the public?
"Particle physics is tough stuff. But if you talk about things in the right way, everything is accessible. You're not going to wade into the standard model and start talking about the role that the Higgs has. Taking the historical perspective puts it in context because you bring people along to a point of contemporary knowledge . It's the old standing on the shoulders of giants concept: building on the work people have done before. "
In his public talk, Dr. Smith wound the clock back thousands of years to give a sketch of physics from the ancient Greeks up until the Higgs Boson was confirmed last fall at the Large Hadron Collider. This might seem like a lot of unnecessary history, but the idea makes sense. Scientists in this century made discoveries by first learning what scientists in the last century had figured out. Why shouldn't the public walk the same path to understand current theories?
He also gave some tips on how to present science in a compelling way.
For the people demanding practical results, Dr. Smith notes that, "It's very easy to demonstrate the technology that particle physics develops, how it spins out everywhere. Every non-invasive  test done in a hospital is developed from some fundamental research."
Stories about researchers and methods are compelling too. "There's that human angle, which I think is obviously very strong because people empathise when you talk about the struggles you are going through when you're trying to do an experiment."
These are good strategies, but he wants mainly to inspire people.
" I tend to prefer the look at the science. It inspires me. Trying to understand what's going on around you is one of the fundamental things that make us human. People are generally fascinated by the universe around them.
"As somebody engaged in trying to understand the universe around us,  I think it's my duty to get out there and explain to them what we think is happening."
He adds, "It's just good fun."

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