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W&M at PhysCon 2012

For the College of William and Mary, PhysCon began bright and early on Wednesday morning as the eight attendees met outside of Small Hall, the College’s physics building. With a thirteen hour drive ahead of us from Williamsburg, Virginia to Orlando, Florida, we prepared ourselves accordingly- with Classical Mechanics and Quantum homework, naturally. The intent was to caravan from Virginia to Florida, but due to differences in driving techniques and varying need for food the two cars ended up largely being on their own. We did try to meet up for dinner around Jacksonville, but our lack of knowledge about the area ended up making that a bit of a bust. Still, as this was our first multi-state trip the drive went about as well as we could hope. As a chapter that is particularly dedicated to community outreach, we were thrilled to be attending PhysCon to see what ideas other chapters and the various speakers could provide us. We were particularly thrilled to attend PhysCon as our chapter has been striving to become more of a force on our campus, so the opportunity to connect with other SPS chapters and participate in the workshops offered was one we did not want to miss.

Perhaps because of that, our chapter loved the fact that the speakers from the weekend attended events and talks just as we did. “Having the speakers just there in the audience so that you could just randomly bump into them and ask them whatever question you didn’t realize you had until the next,” was a high point for Reed Beverstock. It really made the conference feel like a meeting of the minds of all stages of study, rather than a series of talks that separated the students from the professionals. Paolo Black in particular was reduced to childlike glee at the chance to just run into Freeman Dyson among the crowd, and Elana Urbach happened to run into Jocelyn Bell Burnell and Mercedes Richards prior to an unrelated talk and couldn’t resist asking for a photo.

Elana Urbach snagged a photo with Mercedes Richards and Jocelyn Bell Burnell.

“It was great to see how much everyone loved their jobs,” Elana elaborated, “plus it was interesting talking with other students from different backgrounds during the workshops.” As communication is a vital but often overlooked part of a physicist’s job, the fact that the conference facilitated discussion amongst students and speakers alike was fantastic and fascinating training. The topics for the workshops were particularly interesting, especially the workshop on science policy. That one certainly got a roaring debate going as it cut to the heart of a very pressing issue that every scientist has to grapple with: funding. I know my table had some sparks fly when a comment I made was misinterpreted, but it was resolved quite nicely- again, stressing the importance of being able to communicate one’s point clearly!

Another group favorite was the fantastic Kennedy Space Center tour. We would be lying if we said we weren’t geeking out in the extreme as our bus drove up to the famous shuttle launch countdown clock by the press site or when we got out on the crawler path leading up to the launch pad (you could see the burn marks on the signs from shuttle launches!). For me, having grown up watching the shuttle launches, crying unabashedly during STS-135, and finding my love of science through the shuttle program, standing at the base of the path leading to the launch pad was a truly powerful moment. So, too, was talking to the scientists currently working to continue our study of our universe and beyond. I again had a personal connection to what Bob Youngquist in Applied Science was discussing, as he demonstrated the Schlieren system to us, the development of which I had studied over the summer via an internship at NASA Langley.

The lab tour that was part of the press bus tour was one of our favorite parts of the entire weekend. Hearing about all the problem-solving that the applied science lab had to undergo emphasized just how creative a research job had to be at times, and seeing some of the cutting-edge developments being made for future spaceflights was incredible.

Jesse Evans, Paulo Black, JJ Hoo and Will Bergan examine the spherical star map in the Visitor’s Center of Kennedy Space Center.

It’s impossible to gush about every talk as we would love to be able to do, but two talks definitely stood out to our group. Jocelyn Bell Burnell’s was particularly fantastic as we loved, in Rachel Hyneman’s words, “listening to nearly every single “end-of-the-world-in-December” theory destroyed with science”. Considering that these ill-founded theories are things that some of our peers might honestly put some faith in, it was refreshing to be able to joke around about them. Burnell’s talk felt very at home with the talk by Minute Physics creator Henry Reich, as both talks sought to address how science is communicated to the public. For Burnell, the focus was on how misinformation becomes popular and deconstructing those incorrect arguments; for Reich, the focus was on scientific outreach in an accessible way for all (something I’m sure Burnell is also in favor of).

All of our PhysCon expenses were covered by funding from our college and our physics department. One of the ways we could get additional funding was by presenting posters, so we have to admit that the main reason half of us presented posters was to get necessary extra funding from the school to cover the cost of attending the conference. However, we found the poster session to be particularly valuable once there. One of our poster presenters and reporters, Elana Urbach, explains: “It was a lot of fun talking to different people who visited my poster because they were interested in the subject or it just caught someone’s eye. I had a great time doing my research project over the past summer, and it was nice to be able to share my excitement with others. It was also fun talking with the people on either side of me. Some people came who were presenting on Saturday, so I got to visit their posters the next day, which was really fun and informative.” Being able to share our research and learn about the research being carried out by our peers around the world was fascinating, and a great way for younger physics students to get exposed to the possibilities awaiting them in the world of research.

Elana Urbach explains her poster to Rachel Hyneman during Friday’s poster session.

That really sums up our experience at the conference, actually: it was just incredible to be surrounded by people of all ages who shared our love of physics.