Who, what, why, when, where

Feb 01 2013 Published by under Uncategorized

Hi there!
I hope you have appreciated my first two posts: my "Ode to the Higgs" and "Gravity: the dance of space and time"; I'll return to them in the future but now it is time for me to tell you something about me: Who am I? What brought me here? Why do I like being a Scientopia guest blogger? When did I start doing what I do? Where have I made my experiences so far?
Before you give up reading let me assure you: I'm not going to write a novel of my life but, as I feel some background is important, I'll just sketch a few chapters of my biography anyway ūüėČ
Who. I like to define myself as a "sociable physicist", that is to say someone who is equally appreciative of the conquests of the human mind, as well as of them being shared with those who did not take part in the endeavor … other than paying for that through their taxes. And that is What brought me to this point of my life, where I've realized that my deepest passion for the physical sciences has to be expressed through what it is generally called public outreach. I've recently read a blog post debating about what meaning to assign to "public outreach": is it something resembling preaching to the converted or does it really reach out to people who do not know why science concerns all of them? As much as I value initiatives falling in the first category, such as public lectures or popular science books, I believe they have to be accompanied by a larger set of efforts. This attitude is best defined, I think, as a marketing strategy for fundamental science, which is how I called it in a paper you can find at this address: http://arxiv.org/abs/1210.0082. There I explore why it is important that the scientific community reaches out to the largest public, through a variety of means and approaches that are tailored on the target audience. Another salient aspect of my proposal is the somewhat invasive character of the suggested outreach: you have to use your target audience's interests in order to have it pay attention to a scientific content whatsoever. That's where marketing kicks in. Of course among the means I propose to be more efficiently used and exploited by the scientific community are internet and the world of social media: you can't hope to reach out to the public if you do not have a presence where the public is and spends time. Therefore I couldn't be happier when I was offered the chance to participate as a Scientopia guest blogger: I've just started browsing the many blogs the Scientopia community comprises but I could already gather that it's a very convenient setting to have diverse interests and backgrounds all hosted under a common umbrella. Why: check.
When and Where. About a year ago I took the decision: I put aside research and committed to popularizing science. I was starting my second year as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Maryland, just outside Washington DC, which I had joined after four years of doctoral training in theoretical physics at the University of Geneva, in Switzerland. All along those years I've promptly taken any occasion to share tales of my personal journey in the world of the physical sciences: be them related to the exploration of advanced concepts or concerning visiting scientific cathedrals, such as the Large Hadron Collider at CERN or the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. However most of the people with whom I could talk did not show the interest I was hoping for: in general they did not feel much drawn to the theoretical aspects, however fancy their names were, or proud citizens of a country that sponsors the pursuit of knowledge. They did not know that those cathedrals I revered so much serve two purposes: the first is the scientific goal they are after, the second is to empower mankind with new means for growth and prosperity. The most eloquent examples of how this is true are both related to CERN (before being a physicist I'm Italian and I'm proud of my country being among the pioneer countries which founded CERN just after World War 2). First, the Large Hadron Collider, the experiment that has discovered a new particle of Nature, be it the Higgs Boson or not, has the word "hadrons" in its name: this is a category of subatomic particles subject to the strong nuclear force; had scientists not been curious about what lies at ever more microscopic scales and how it behaves, we would have not known that hadrons exist and that they can be used as very precise projectiles to be shot at tumors lying deep down inside the human body. Second, the World Wide Web, the network we now massively use to communicate, work, exchange and look for info, travel, buy, etc: its father, Sir Timothy John Berners-Lee, was working for CERN when he invented it. Both connections between fundamental physics and everyone's life are so profound you'd wonder how we (read: our governments) do not try and find more ways to keep this healthy process alive. That is the mission I've chosen for myself: to make people aware, first, and appreciative, afterwards, of why science is both beautiful and useful. I'm confident this experience at Scientopia will serve this purpose of mine, as well as teach me how to do it better along the way.

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Gravity: the dance of space and time

Jan 31 2013 Published by under Uncategorized

Our solar system is in a sparsely populated part of our galaxy and thus, fortunately for us, encounters with stars are rare and distant. However other regions in the Universe, like the center of our galaxy, are more crowded: they are packed with stars that either orbit each other or a central massive black hole. In the vicinity of heavy objects in fast motion, space and time do not behave in the way we are familiar with; rather, they behave as a single dynamical entity, space-time, such that its fabric stretches, twists, torques and even vibrates like the membrane of a drum, giving off the "sounds" of the Universe in the form of gravitational waves.
Around these subjects of cutting edge research a dialogue has been established between a couple of enthusiastic scientists and a curious, inspired community of artists: the result is "Gravity", a dance show that has recently been performed at the University of Maryland. Take a look at its recorded video and stay tuned for some more detail on the blending of physics with dance.

Gravity: the dance of space and time

Choreography: Adriane Fang
Costume Design: Kate Fulop
Projection Design: Andrew Kaufman
Lighting Design: Paul D. Jackson
Performers: Star Cluster: Jennifer Alcott, Chelsea Brown, Christina Camacho, Ellen Clark, Kayla Coutts, Katie Gundlach, Rachel Mucha, Nicole Turchi
Gravity Grads: Robin Neveu-Brown, Erin Crawley-Woods, Jessie Laurita-Spanglet, Nicole Y. McClam, Megan Morse-Jans, Lynne Price

This work was created in collaboration with Professor Cole Miller of the Astronomy Department and Doctor Umberto Cannella of the Physics Department. Special thanks to Laurie Frederik Meer and James Forsberg for their valuable input.

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Ode to the Higgs

Jan 30 2013 Published by under Uncategorized

The Higgs boson is my name
which to you might sound insane
I came to put order in some mess
as I give every particle its mass
I've been hidin' for billions of years
but now I am in every mouth and ears
My potential looks like a Mexican hat
and on it now you know where I'm at
They made me come out in a cave
and they're really kind of brave
LHC is the machine at CERN
which did so well since on was turned.  

It does not end with me getting to fame
Coz we've only started playing the game 
You won't wait long for some more fun 
Coz in reality it's only just begun 
It took 50 years for an idea to test
Now for sure we can't just rest
So much stuff we don't know yet
We could call Hawking and make a bet
Most of the Universe is still obscure 
We need imagination of the most pure
Our ignorance amounts to a grand 96%
So we hope for some strange particle event 
To shed some light on the dark sector
We rely on some smart physics doctor 

If all this doesn't ring you any bell
Then there's one more thing I'd like to tell
A weird connection called spinoff 
that we should really not break off
What we discover due to curiosity
Turns out to benefit all humanity 
Get then ready for some insanity
There's something called hadron-therapy 
That can cure people's cancers 
With best precision and least dangers 
This is just one meaningful example 
Of a pattern that is quite more ample 
We explore Nature to understand
What is the picture the most grand 
In trying to know of every piece its place
we get something you can't quite replace
To discover a particle called Higgs Boson  
We opened wide a brand new horizon 
In conclusion that's the story
Of why I deserve so much glory
So the moral of the story is
Don't forget what my name is

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STEMinist Profile: Alexandria DeWolfe, MAVEN Science Data Center lead

Oct 10 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

Alex Dewolfe_Steminist Profile
Alexandria DeWolfe, MAVEN Science Data Center Lead

Laboratory for Atmospheric & Space Physics (LASP), University of Colorado

What inspired you to pursue a career in STEM?
I've been interested in science ever since I was little, thanks to my wonderful parents and some excellent teachers. My dad was a very early computer programmer - he taught me BASIC on a home-built Sinclair in 1982 - so it's no surprise that I've found myself in a computing job. When I was in high school I took physics and loved it, and decided to major in astronomy in college. I went to Wellesley College, which is a women's college and a great place to do science.

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
MAVEN! It's NASA's next Mars mission, launching in November 2013. Ten months later, it'll go into orbit around Mars to collect data about the current and past state of the Martian atmosphere. I manage the Science Data Center, which is kind of like the centralized data library for the mission, where the entire MAVEN team can get all the latest data for doing science. Needless to say, it involves a lot of computing power: we don't have a huge data volume, but everything has to be carefully backed up, and accessible to the team but secured against unauthorized access.

It's really exciting to work on a planetary mission, especially since I joined the mission a couple years ago and will be able to take the data center from the initial design through implementation to daily operations during the mission. Also, I can't wait to go to Kennedy Space Center and watch the launch! Follow @maven2mars on Twitter for more info.

Role models and heroes:
Ada Lovelace, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Sally Ride.

Why do you love working in STEM?
I love working in the space program and feeling like my work is part of something really important and exciting. I actually took a break from STEM work for a few years and went to graduate school to study ancient Middle Eastern languages, which was really interesting, but I'm glad to be back in a field with more job opportunities, and I like being able to work on something completely new and innovative.

Advice for future STEMinists?
Working in science is great! There are so many opportunities out there for you if you study a STEM field.

Favorite website or app:
Goodreads and Ravelry, supporting my hobbies.

Twitter: @rocketshipmom - so named when I asked my then-three-year-old son what he thought my job was and he said "Rocketship girl."

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STEMinist Profile: Jarita C. Holbrook, Researcher

Oct 08 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

Jarita C. Holbrook, Researcher
Women and Gender Studies at UCLA

What inspired you to pursue a career in STEM?
My career is really two stages if not three. I hold degrees in physics, astronomy, and astrophysics through my doctorate. At that point in time, I wanted to be an astrophysicist but by the time I finished my PhD, I had changed my mind.

The next stage of my career has been as a social scientist focused on the links between humans and the night sky: Cultural Astronomy. To make the transition from physical science to social science was not easy! I had to learn a new language and way of approaching and analyzing data.

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
The third stage of my career is that I am a filmmaker! When I am making documentary films I focus on minority astronomers and astrophysicists. Being a cultural astronomer takes me to amazing places and I talk about the sky and gather information about the sky from everyone I meet; when I am making a film I follow astronomers to cool places and focus on them and their research.

Role models/heroes:
I have many great mentors but role models is more difficult: Anthony Aveni added respectability to Cultural Astronomy and his work is amazing. I love the work of filmmaker Julie Dash, but I have never met her. Angela Davis is my role model for how to always be gracious no matter how famous.

Anthropologist Brackette Williams taught me how to undermine my opponents because they are predictable. Finally, former dean of the UA business college Ken Smith taught me some tricks to being an effective academic leader. All of them I consider to be my role models.

Why do you love working in STEM?
I like being able to develop a hypothesis, design a research project to test it, and then to look at my results to see if my original hypothesis was correct. This step 1, step 2, step 3 that you can always fall back on. What I absolutely love is when I am looking for one thing and I discover another thing!

Advice for future STEMinists?
Being an interdisciplinary scientist is difficult because the academy is rigid so everyone wants to fit you into somebody else's box. However, I think that the most exciting work is occurring in the spaces between disciplines.

Career-wise, I have had to compromise and occupy places where I do not fit intellectually, however I have always learned things important to my research from my colleagues in every situation. I have occupied history of science, applied anthropology, Africana studies, and now women and gender studies not to forget physics and astronomy, too.

Favorite website/app:
I have always been a movie person so nothing beats IMDB and their app.

Twitter: @astroholbrook

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That wasn't so bad, was it?

Jul 18 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

Goodbye, dear readers!

Two weeks ago today, I started off my stint as Scientopia guest blogger with an apology.  Today, I end with one.  In my introduction, I indicated that you probably wouldn't learn anything scieny.

It has been brought to my attention through emails, tweets and blog comments that I failed to deliver.  

Turns out, some of you did learn something sciency.

We talked about the Supreme Court's Cocaine Problem, checked the math on¬†K-Y¬ģ Brand YOURS + MINE¬ģ, did Chemistry For The Zombie Apocalypse, worked on a Grant Writing Soundtrack and investigated the chemical behind DuPont's tree-icide trouble. ¬†It was a¬†smorgasbord¬†of¬†chemistry, with physics, biotechnology, and jurisprudence for extra flavor.

It wasn't so bad, was it?  Sure there was sciency stuff, but good times were had.  Sex, drugs, rock 'n' roll, zombies and a whodunit!  Chemistry is in even the coolest stuff - and I won't apologize for that.


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