While many scientists recognize the need for better science communication and want to connect people in their communities with science, the nitty gritty of engaging with the public is not obvious. But, the nitty gritty is really where all the fun happens! At least that’s what I learned at the first Engaged Scientist Series seminar and workshop at CU Boulder.
Picture a scientist. If you don’t know many scientists, you might picture a man with glasses wearing a white coat, perhaps with grey hair in disarray, holding a microscope or a flask of green liquid, like most children do. But when introduced to real scientists, a child’s picture changes – now there are women, people of color, very few white coats, and more holey jeans and t-shirts. And if these kids met the aptly named Alex Paine, PhD candidate in Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology, they’d draw another type of scientist – one with grapefruit sized calves and a back rippled with muscles: a body builder.
Think about the last time you held actual money in your hands – a crisp $20 fresh from the ATM, or a handful of coins jingling merrily in your pocket. Maybe you were driving on a cash-only toll road or had to pay back a friend. Although bills and coins are increasingly being replaced by cards or smartphone apps, our currency is still under attack by counterfeiters. Luckily, U.S. scientists have been continually inventing advanced anti-counterfeiting technologies as far back as Benjamin Franklin’s “nature prints,” which used actual leaves to create unique patterns on bills.
Last summer, I unexpectedly spent a rainy afternoon devouring a heaping pile of raw lemons, limes, and grapefruit with a giddy smile. I was determined to have an adventure in the rugged Colorado wilderness, so I joined a group of friends at an isolated hut in the mountains, where we enjoyed a weekend of hiking to amazing views, vibrant shooting stars, and “flavor tripping.”
Never heard of flavor tripping? I hadn’t either – and I wasn’t entirely on board with the idea of any kind of “tripping.” (I am, after all, a nerdy scientist.) But after reading the packaging of the mysterious “miracle berries” we were about to consume, my anxiety abated. This was just science! Allow me to explain.
The value of basic science has become a heated debate in politics – lawmakers the have berated the NSF for “wasting” money on research that, they claim, doesn’t align with our nation’s interests. Yet, we’ve seen countless times how basic science unexpectedly leads to huge advances in technology, and subsequently how we go about our everyday lives. Unfortunately, the history behind new technologies is not often acknowledged – when new tech is constantly becoming available, we take for granted the innovative science behind our latest gadgets.
If you’ve been paying attention to recent presidential debates, you’ve noticed that the current election has been a rancorous one. Presidential front runners from both parties have been vehemently, at times even bitterly, defending their positions concerning military, economic, foreign, immigration, and social policies. These issues, along with pettier campaign business concerning who lied about what and who’s a true progressive or a true conservative, have dominated recent news cycles.
How many different words do you use in a day? Take a guess. A couple hundred? A couple thousand? I couldn’t find stats on how many different words people use every day, but I did find that adults know more than 17,000 words, whereas an average five year old knows about 1,500 words. Having so many words makes language complex and nuanced, and virtually anything can be explained. But not everything explained is understood, and science in particular suffers from an overuse of jargon.
Imagine you are an electron. You aren’t very heavy, so gravity doesn’t really affect you. Instead, your world is all about charge. The electric field surrounding you dictates the motion of charged particles; since you have a negative charge you move away from the direction the field points (yeah, you’re a rebel). Boringly, most of your time is spent hanging out close to a positively charged nucleus. But, if you find yourself in the lab with Chris Mancuso and Dan Hickstein, you might be in for the ride of your life.
Scientists and engineers have been tinkering with lasers since the 1950’s, building a world in which lasers have become ubiquitous in our daily lives. You are probably familiar with lasers in CD players, barcode scanners, presentation pointers or cat toys. Lasers have also become an enormously important tool in the pursuit of scientific discovery. Lasers give scientists the ability to carefully control the interaction of light with matter in space and time, yielding information about the fundamental nature of materials. One Nobel-worthy example was pioneered at CU Boulder: the formation of Bose-Einstein condensates, a new state of matter which couldn’t have been created without lasers.
Growing up completely immersed in the world of performing arts, Simone had no idea how one physics class would change the course of her life. During her junior year in high school Simone really connected with her physics teacher, an ex-military engineer with a dry sense of humor, and suddenly physics was all she wanted to do. “I’ve always been the type of person to ask questions about the world and life, like really abstract things that my mom would get annoyed with me for asking. I went to physics and I was like ‘This is answering every question I’ve ever had about the world, I’m going to go to school for physics.’”