Public outreach is a tricky thing, particularly when it comes to physics. For several years now, the APS has sponsored the odd "public lecture" at the April meeting, with only spotty success. Even when the speakers are excellent, it’s rare for actual members of the public to show up, with very few notable exceptions. It kind of defeats the whole purpose of "public outreach" when the only people in the audience are one’s fellow physicists. Talk about preaching to the converted.
So it was a pleasant surprise to find an auditorium at the Dallas Hyatt Regency filled not just with April meeting physicists, but with an equal number of high school students, teachers, local university types, and interested members of the public — all on hand for "An Evening of String Theory and Cosmology" with Harvard University physicist Lisa Randall, author of Warped Passages. Authors don’t always make the best public speakers — and scientific authors can be more challenged in this area than most — but Randall delivered a polished, enjoyable presentation covering the basics of particle physics, string theory, extra dimensions, and the mysteriously elusive hypothetical "gravitons" — force-carrying particles (part of the family of bosons) believed to transmit the gravitational force.
Those are deep, deep waters, Watson, and it is to Randall’s credit that she held her audience’s attention for well over an hour, even though there were sections where the technical detail admittedly got a bit too heavy. It’s extremely difficult to condense such a complex topic into language a lay audience can understand, and I doubt many people could do better. I won’t go into a summation of Randall’s talk here, partly because I’m feeling lazy. This gives me something in common with gravitons, apparently. Consider Randall’s analogy for why gravitons don’t travel far off their respective "brane": it’s not because someone locked the metaphorical door to prevent them from leaving the "house," but because they’re simply lazy couch potatoes that lack the energy to venture much further than the front porch. (Yes, I realize the analogy lacks context, but perhaps it will spur you to buy her book, thereby supporting the popular science genre.)
As well-received as the talk was, the real highlights were the pre-lecture reception, where Randall mingled with local high school students and their teachers over tasty hors d’oevres and non-alcoholic beverages, and the Q&A afterwards. Randall skillfully avoided engaging the borderline crackpot who brought up Moses of Maimonides’s notion of extra dimensions and asked, "Would you care to comment on that?" She flatly said, "No," and moved on. That’s really the only way to deal with people who only ask questions to push a private agenda. (Whenever someone at one of my own readings begins a question with "Don’t you think…" my answer is inevitably "No.")
More impressive was the caliber of questions posed by the students who were present. One pretty blonde student in bohemian-chic garb asked for clarification on gravitons and their relation to W and Z bosons. Where was her physics teacher when I was in high school? I didn’t learn about W and Z bosons until I became a science writer. The girl received a well-deserved free copy of Warped Passages for her precociousness. And there were flashes of shared humor, such as one student who followed up his question with a second tongue-in-cheek observation: "I notice you keep dropping your microphone. Is it possible gravity is taking your comments personally?" He also received a free book for his trouble, which the otherwise-serious Randall playfully dropped on the floor with a thud, rather than handing it to him directly.
I suppose it depends in part on your criteria, but as public lectures go, I would consider "An Evening with Lisa Randall" a solid success precisely because there were so many non-scientists present. The APS Powers That Be probably don’t care much what we think here at Cocktail Party Physics, but we shall offer our opinion anyway as to why this event "worked" so much better than in past years, in hopes that the Society can build on what it did right to ensure future successful public lectures.
(1) It goes without saying that the choice of speaker is paramount. One should consider the intended audience. If it’s physicists you’re after, by all means choose a speaker with a certain degree of eminence. Nobel laureates are always a safe bet, although a Nobel Prize is no guarantee that they are good speakers. That’s why an ability to speak well, present complex topics simply and clearly, connect with the public and hold a lay audience’s attention should be the primary factors when selecting a speaker for a public lecture; eminence is a secondary (even tertiary) concern. Frankly, even physicists enjoy elegant, well-organized general talks;
the level needn’t extend into the technical stratosphere.
(2) It helps to have some kind of media tie-in, such as a recent book. This gives local radio and newspapers a handy news hook, making them more likely to cover the event, or at least announce the listing prominently.
(3) One of the chief factors contributing to the Randall event’s success was the involvement of local education enthusiasts, who rallied high school teachers, arranged for the reception and book signing, and bused in loads of students — in short, they made it so easy and accessible that people had little excuse not to attend. Alternatively, you can bring the physics out of the meeting itself and into local venues. That’s the model physicist Brian Schwartz employs as part of his "Science and the Arts" program at the City University of New York Graduate Center. In 2000, Schwartz arranged a special scientific/historical symposium tied to the Broadway premiere of Michael Frayn’s Tony-award-winning play, Copenhagen, and the resounding success convinced CUNY that this was a very effective method of outreach. The program has expanded to include staged readings, public lectures and panel discussions, a robot dance competition, and a "concert theater work" inspired by astrophysics. This June 17-18, CUNY will sponsor "Street Fair Science," bringing science demonstration booths to New York City’s ubiquitous summer street fairs. (Unless there’s an unforeseen wrench in the works, Jen-Luc Piquant and I will be on hand that weekend with various members of our former jujitsu dojo, demonstrating the physics of the fight.)
(4) Put your money where your mouth is. The APS spent far more money on this event than it has in prior years. You can’t claim to be a proponent of public education and outreach and then start skimping on the funding. We all know that funds are spent according to priorities; the Society has had a tendency to give lip service to the principal of outreach, and yet be unwilling to make the financial commitment to ensure success. You can’t do outreach as an afterthought. It took a lot more time, effort and money to put together the Randall event, but in the end, it served its intended purpose: to reach members of the general public.
Randall’s lecture provided a tidy wrap-up to what turned out to be a particularly enjoyable meeting (despite the poor wireless service). I’ve got a couple more blog posts in the works about some of the other tidbits gleaned from my time in Dallas, which will appear over the next few days as I manage to get them done. (Sadly, my "real" work has a way of interfering.) All good things must come to an end, even physics conferences, and perhaps I left Dallas in the nick of time. At the Randall reception, I overheard a fellow science writer bemoaning an earlier session, in which a physicist in the audience raised his hand to ask the speaker a question, and filled the room with the unmistakable scent of B.O. "It’s time for the April meeting to end," the science writer sniffed disdainfully. "The physicists are starting to smell."