Particle Physics, Climate Change, and Dinner with Vera Rubin
|Former SPS Intern Mary Mills (left) and SPS Reporter Leigha Dickens (center) enjoy dinner and conversation with Vera Rubin and other SPS members at the APS/AAPT Joint Meeting.
Photo by Luke Heselden
The 2010 April Meeting of the American Physical society was full of excitement for this recently-graduated physics student. Along with hundreds of scientists, graduate and undergraduate students, and interested parties, I arrived on the scene of the Woodley Park Marriott in Washington, DC, eager to spend Valentine's day celebrating something we were all in love with: physics.
Present were many of discipline's brightest minds, including the renowned pulsar discoverer Jocelyn Bell, and Sakurai Prize winners Fancois Englert, Peter Higgs, Gerald Guralink, Carl Hagen, and Tom Kibble, whose work laid the groundwork for the current search for the Higgs particle. Session topics ranged from hadronic physics, dark matter and gravity in extreme conditions, to discussions on minority participation in physics and the Sakarov Prize for physicists whose work has forwarded the cause of international human rights.
For undergraduates and recent graduates like me, the opportunities to meet and mingle with the larger physics community were priceless. One of the main goals of these meetings is to share research and ideas, and undergraduates were given this opportunity as well. Sunday afternoon, after a quick trip to the National Zoo to see the famous pandas Mei Xiang and Tian Tian nimbly chewing bamboo leaves, I hit the presentation room to see what my peers were doing. I was very impressed with the quality of work and diversity of experiences presented by my undergraduate colleagues. We "future physicists" have our hands in all kinds of groundbreaking work: developing better methods to manufacture "super capacitors," examining the electrical properties of impurities in a two-dimensional crystal called graphene, working with quantum dots and non-linear optics, probing the physics of amorphous semiconductors, switching super conductors on and off in Josephson junctions, and examining particle suspension in specially designed "nano-fluids."
Yet the most exciting thing about this meeting, for me, was the opportunity to find other professionals engaged in the research areas and subjects that I am interested in.
Energy and Climate Science
As a not-so-shy environmentalist and concerned citizen, I could not miss the sessions on energy research. I wanted to see what cutting edge knowledge was being tossed around by scientists toward the goal of sustainable energy sources and reduced carbon emissions. And there were all sorts of promising ideas: a method of using the extra heat produced during photovoltaic operation to heat chemicals, thus lowering energy barriers in the reactions being powered; research on energy exchange at the interface of two fluids; and work to improve the amount of nuclear fuel that can be re-used, both increasing the energy output per mass unit of fuel, and reducing the amount of radioactive waste produced in the fission process. I conversed with a professor who had started a successful renewable energy minor at his university about the kinds of classes that best prepare science-minded undergrads for applied careers in that growing field, and I learned some interesting ways to present important energy science concepts to a general audience. According to Dr. Alison Baski, who teaches a general education credit course called Energy! at Virginia Commonwealth University, students can better understand the difference between energy and power with simple examples that relate to their daily lives. For example, she teachers her students that the power needs of one person are similar to a 100-Watt light bulb.
By far the biggest event in the avenue of energy and environment was the plenary talk by Naval Research Observatory scientist Dr. Judith Lean, entitled "Surface Temperature Responses to Natural and Anthropogenic Influences: Past, Present, and Future." In light of such recent events as the email hacking at the Climate Research Unit in East Anglia, and the APS's ongoing discussion on its official climate position, Dr. Lean's talk was destined to be a hot topic, and was well attended. In the talk, Dr. Lean presented climate data from the past 30 years, revealing the contributions of both natural and anthropogenic factors to global temperature changes.
"Surface temperature is the equilibrium of incoming and outgoing radiation, modulated by several processes," explained Dr. Lean. Although human additions to concentrations of so-called greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide and chlorofluorocarbons, have received much attention of late, many other natural processes have observable effects on global temperature. The presence or absence of an El Niño Southern Oscillation can create warming in equatorial oceans, aerosols from volcanic eruptions can block incoming sunlight and create periods of cooling, and the sun itself goes through cycles of increasing and decreasing irradiance. When these decoupled effects are looked at together, they explain some of the temperature patterns of the last 30 years, yet anthropogenic greenhouse gases are so far the only explanation for the background rise of global temperatures in the past two decades.
In other words, it does not take a steady increase in temperatures across the globe to indicate that humans have altered global temperatures. Rather, what we see is an upward trend that is modulated by natural processes. According to Dr. Lean, we can expect that upward trend to dominate in the long run.
A common critique of anthropogenic warming asserts that the global temperature changes can instead be accredited to the changing brightness of the sun. Dr. Lean admits that solar irradiance has been something of a wild card: direct measurement of irradiance only goes back to 1978, and even the IPCC models do not deal with variances in irradiance, because of the difficulty in modeling the changes in oceanic and meteorological processes that can be caused by a change in solar irradiance. Yet Dr. Lean's work for the NRO includes modeling the changing magnetic forces within the sun, in hopes of yielding a more long-term picture of the patterns of solar irradiance, so she is well qualified to speak to the variation in solar irradiance itself. For solar variation to account for the nearly 0.9 Kelvin change that has been observed over the past 150 years, says Dr. Lean, “you'd have to say that the sun has varied five times more than we think it has varied, and you'd have to say the earth is really sensitive to sun's variations but at the same time is insensitive to increasing greenhouse gasses." To that she adds that taking the anthropogenic and natural processes together gives a consistent picture of both the last 30 years and the last 150 years, something solar variation does not do.
Immediately after her presentation she was swamped with enthusiastic crowd members, eager to ask questions or obtain a copy of her slides. Those slides contained simple and informative graphs of the past three decades of climate data, information that Dr. Lean admitted to me that she and her colleague almost didn't bother publishing. "We really focused on the forecasting at first, because we didn't think there was enough science in just explaining the past 30 years," she told me. "We thought, 'everyone knows that', you know, here's an ENSO [El Niño], here's a volcano. But it turns out that nobody knows that!" When working to determine how much models can or cannot tell us about the future, we sometimes forget that there is much that direct observation from the past can say.
Dr. Lean and I discussed the importance of communicating climate science effectively. I asked her, as a climate scientist, what she wanted the public to know about climate change, and she reiterated the main points she'd made in her presentation. "The climate varies for lots of reasons, on different timescales, by different amounts, and due to different things," she reminds. "There's this expectation that if anthropogenic gasses are causing climate change, then as proof of that we'll see global temperatures going monotonically up and up. But just because you see ups and downs, doesn't mean that anthropogenic gasses aren't affecting the climate."
She adds that, "The sun actually does appear to have a role, but it's not a very dominant role."
I asked Dr. Lean how she would improve the current climate science study, if she had more resources. She laughed, and said she would put in place the best observing system that money could buy.
Women and Minorities in Physics—A Different Kind of "Climate Change"
Two other sessions of interest at this meeting were “Perspectives on The Outlook for Women in Physics”, and “Strategies for Improving the Climate for Diversity in Physics Departments.” In the former, representatives from industry, national laboratories, and academia presented on recent changes and programs put into place to encourage female representation, while in the later, strategies for improving participation among minorities of all kinds were discussed. I thought the second session was more valuable because it proposed multiple solutions, and was well attended by male and female physicists, students, and industry workers alike.
The speakers explained several programs that have been put into place to address continued low minority participation in physics, especially at the highest levels of physics achievement. The list included observational site visits to departments requesting them by the APS Committee on the Status of Women in Physics, workshops in which department chairs receive a crash course on issues and strategies for improving the climate of diversity in their departments, and more recently, broad and open conversations brought to the campuses themselves. Many of these initiatives have been remarkably successful at mitigating some of the more obvious barriers, such as work/life balance issues, the provision of equal support and networking opportunities for all students, regardless of race or gender, and awareness of unconsciously biased behavior. Many difficult hurdles have been overcome, though many more remain.
A key feature of these sessions was the discussion of best practices for departments and minority studies. For departments, one of the simplest suggestions was to make lounges an inviting place for students. If there are inviting, public places to meet and network, all students have an opportunity to be involved, and some of the informal networking that often leaves minorities isolated can be made more inclusive. This is something that has worked very well in my own undergraduate department, which boasts a very high proportion of female students, as well as a large proportion of students who are constructively involved with department activities. Other suggestions included celebrating the accomplishments of all students and faculty whenever such accomplishments occur, and never tolerating rudeness and derogatory behavior, especially if one is not a member of the group being singled out. Advisors and faculty should take care to build in students and colleagues an identity that extends beyond his or her minority status as the "token" member of a particular group. Finally, the kind of climate that encourages competition for competition's sake, demands extensive after-hours work weeks, and ignores the concerns of the outside world is something that is becoming increasingly undesirable for young women and men who want to balance a rewarding career in physics with a rewarding family life. Departments and institutions as a whole should take care to observe how policies might inadvertently deter some of their potential talent.
Some of the advice that came up for women and unrepresented groups is to go after networking aggressively, rather than wait for it to come to you, and apply for grants, funding and positions aggressively as well. As one speaker put it, in reference to general climate and atmosphere, "Have a sense of humor, but don't be a doormat." It is important to understand situations and to pick the correct battles, but at the same time, there is no need to tolerate discrimination.
Dr. Sherry Yennello, a speaker from Texas A&M University, commented that "physicists are the best problem solvers there are, so let's wrap our heads around this problem." With all of the ideas, programs, and open dialogue I witnessed at these sessions, a truly inclusive and collaborative environment is something we physicists seem quite capable of building.
Celebrating an Accomplished Woman in Science--Dinner with Vera Rubin
One of the benefits of being an undergraduate at this meeting was the opportunity to interact with renowned astronomer Dr. Vera Rubin. She gave a presentation on her work to the undergraduates attending the meeting, and played on my team in Physics Jeopardy (we lost). At 82 years of age, Dr. Rubin's presentation on her work studying the rotation of galaxies was both interesting and anecdotal: with a colleague, it was her observation that the stars in other galaxies complete their rotation much faster than predicted by Newton's law of gravitation. It was this observation that that led to the postulation of dark matter!
Several of the students, myself included, were invited to a special dinner on the town with Dr. Rubin as our guest of honor. We piled into a circular table at a nice Italian restaurant. I had the privilege of sitting next to Dr. Rubin for the first half of the meal, and she was very eager to hear our stories and share her own. She spoke candidly about both her joys and struggles in astronomy: from the advisor who told her she would not be allowed to present her research at a conference, but that he could present it for her in his name; to the lone scientist at that conference who, instead of making a big deal about the disaster of her presence, asked enlightening questions and offered to help her publish her work in her own name. She said she knew she wanted to be an astronomer from the time she was a little girl and could stare at the stars from the window of her bedroom—back when she believed that everything in the world could be learned from books. Discovering that everything could not be learned from books only increased her desire to learn more, and through hard work and undaunted determination, with the help of a supportive husband and family, she succeeded at receiving her PhD, making important contribution to our knowledge of galaxies, and raising four children.
Perhaps inspired by the Pope decor, Dr. Rubin told another story as the evening came to a close. She told us about a time when she was able to meet the Pope, as an astronomer selected to be a member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. (As a member of that organization, Dr. Rubin shares an honor with such notable scientists as Steven Hawking, Werner Heisenberg and Paul Dirac.) Apparently, members receive elaborate jewelry as indication of their membership, which Dr. Rubin had not thought to wear on her evening in the Vatican. She was expecting, along with the other members of the Academy present, to have an opportunity to meet with the Pope, an opportunity that was extended to members alone and not to their families. Because she had not brought her jewelry identifying her as a member, and because she was one of the few female members of the Academy of Sciences, she was stopped by three separate Cardinals during the course of her ascent, and told that only members would be allowed to see the Pope. By the time it was her turn to speak to the Pope and shake his hand, she laughed to recall that she was very angry.
"I told him that I was one of five female members of the Pontifical Academy," said Dr. Rubin, "and that was all I said."
In response, the Pope looked thoughtful, said, "Oh?" and paused. "Is that all?" he asked, to which she replied, stonily, "Yes."
"Well, there will be more," replied the Pope, and that concluded the interview.
Over the course of the evening, Dr. Rubin was inducted into Sigma Pi Sigma, joining many of the students present who were also members of the SPS honor society. When she accepted her certificate and pin, she told us how envious she was of all of us, because we would go on to learn and discover the things she did not yet know.
And that—whether you got into science because you can see the stars from your bedroom window, or because, like me, your parents watched at lot of Star Trek—sums up both the privilege and the bane of being a scientist. We do, especially at conferences like these, get to experience something of the breadth of what human beings have learned about our world and our universe, which grows steadily year by year, and encompasses more fascinating things than one lifetime alone could spend in awe over discovering. And yet the more we discover, the more we realize what remains that we don't yet know, what we won't be able to know until more scientists and fresh insight come along to uncover it. I wonder, and I certainly hope, that the mysteries of dark matter are solved, the elusive Higgs found, and any potential climate crises averted with new and more sustainable technology, within my lifetime. Yet by the time any new discoveries come to pass, I'm sure there will be even more fascinating questions to explore.
When you join SPS national as an undergraduate, you get free one-year membership in one of ten other physics societies, including the American Physical Society (APS) and the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT).
SPS national sends student reporters to most major AIP Member Society meetings, where they are treated like other members of the press. Many ambitious student reporters succeed in securing interviews with society leadership and prominent invited speakers on such occasions.
A limited number of grants, on the order of $200 each, are offered to help fund SPS members' travel to national meetings of AIP Member Societies holding a "SPS Session" co-organized by SPS and the Member Society.