Blog / The Archmage's Ruminations

What’s it like to spend a weekend with 800 physicists?


Blogmaster Helen Cothrel, hc261409@ohio.edu

A little over week ago I attended a physics conference (PhysCon) in Orlando, FL, hosted by the national physics honor society (SPS). This year, PhysCon boasted around 800 attendees, making it the largest meeting of undergraduate physicists in US history. The weekend started off with a tour of the awesome Kennedy Space Center, and continued with a wide variety of talks from physicists in different fields.

The duration of the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) tour pretty much consisted of a ton of physicists nerding out really hard about how cool space is. We took pictures all over the center, from the famous countdown clock to a few glimpses of the Space Shuttle Atlantis. The Atlantis is a beauty, and KSC is currently constructing a building around her where she will be displayed starting in summer 2013.

Following the conclusion of the tour, we heard a talk from astronaut John Grunsfeld, also known as “The Hubble Repairman.” Before the end of the shuttle program, Grunsfeld was part of five separate missions to the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) to make repairs and upgrades. In his talk, he had a lot to say about what it was like to be an astronaut, but he also brought up a lot of interesting questions, one of which was, “Why should we study astronomy?” His answer was that astronomy is essential to “learn about the insights of nature.” Astronomy is a way to answer fundamental questions about the universe, such as the question of whether or not humans are alone in the universe.

At one point, Grunsfeld asked the room full of attendees, widely composed of undergraduates, but also including a number of professors and professionals, who thought there was intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. The response was nearly unanimous; almost every person raised his or her hand. I was surprised, at least until I remembered amongst whom I was sitting. Other than that, Grunsfeld covered a lot in his talk, going into detail about what it was like to actually repair the HST, and what it is like to have just one piece of polycarbonate in between you and the vacuum of space.

Another notable speaker in astronomy was John Mather, the project scientist on the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). The substance of Mather’s talk centered on ways we can try to connect physics and astronomy to the public. He noted that to connect and educate, physicists must “think with the public.” He also spoke about how we can encourage support for space programs: astronomy is not about why we (as physicists and astronomers) care, but about “why the public cares.” People across the world do care about space; we just have to let them.

By far one of the most amazing talks of the weekend was delivered by Freeman Dyson, whose contributions to physics range from extensive work on nuclear reactors ) during the 1950s, to the idea of Dyson spheres, an important concept in physics. Dyson had been a student in university in London during WWII, and he spoke about living through four revolutions: space, computing, genetics, and nuclear physics. He also shared a few anecdotes about the physicist Richard Feynman (of the Feynman diagram, a vital tool for particle physicists to analyze collisions), whom he called a “clown,” a “buffoon,” and a “genius.” Other than his reflections on the progress made in science during his long lifetime, Dyson had something important to say: don’t try to plan your life to every last detail, because your life will take its own direction.

I could go on about the remainder of the talks we heard, from physicists and astrophysicists like Mercedes Richards, John Johnson, and Jocelyn Bell Burnell, but what I’ll leave you with is this: all the speakers great insights inside and outside of physics. This led me to a conclusion that was my most important takeaway from PhysCon: physicists are just people. They’re just a little nerdier.

Thoughts? Questions? Or, is there something you’d like to see me write about? Leave a comment!

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One thought on “What’s it like to spend a weekend with 800 physicists?

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