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Stephen SkolnickStephen Skolnick
Indiana University
Internship: APS Public Outreach

Hi! I'm APS's public outreach intern for 2014. I was born in DC to a pair of neuroscientists working for the National Institutes of Health, who were largely responsible for instilling in me a love of science. Twenty-two years later, I'm a recent graduate of Indiana University's applied physics program, with a minor in mathematics. I've done research in experimental physics, involving polarization of Helium-3, but my academic interests range from geophysics to cosmology. My personal interests include writing, rock climbing, Star Trek (the original series, please), singing, and turning links purple on Wikipedia. I feel a serious need to affect social change for the better in my lifetime, and hope to do so by educating people about the laws of nature; a critical, rational approach to understanding our place in the universe is vital to maintaining and advancing our society. As such, I'm thrilled to be working with SPS and can hardly wait to see what we can accomplish this summer.

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  • Week 1
  • Week 2
  • Week 3
  • Week 4
  • Week 5
  • Week 6
  • Week 7
  • Week 8
  • Week 9
  • Final Reflections
Week 1, May 26-June 1, 2014

The Foggy Bottom Boys (and Girls!)

Moving to a new city is supposed to be scary. Some of my friends warned me about the turbulence of "leaving your bubble", of having to establish yourself, find your bearings, make new friends, and figure out who you are in a strange place. This transition has held none of that for me. I may be at an advantage, coming from DC originally, but I’ve only been back a handful of times since we moved away when I was 5, so it’s not as though I’m much more familiar with the metro than any of the other interns.

The ease of the physical transition—moving myself and my stuff to a new place—was probably one of the biggest factors in making me feel more like I’m coming home than striking out on my own. Everything, from printing my boarding pass at the airport to the door card waiting for me when I arrived at the dorms of GW, seemed to run in smooth defiance of Murphy’s Law. Meeting the other interns over the course of the next few days only deepened the feeling of arriving into a niche that had already been carved out custom for me; we all get along well, and within minutes of making our introductions we were talking about chemistry and dead presidents, comfortable enough to laugh at ourselves for making a contest of reciting the periodic table.

The occasional bumps and jostles of the transition back to dorm life have been a source of humor more than anything else. The plumbing in our dorm, JBKO hall, reminds me of the old analogy between water in pipes and electricity in wires: usually, voltage is compared to pressure, but in this case it seems to be more useful in describing temperature. It can be adjusted with the taps, but it seems no one’s grounded the circuit: some days the sink’s range is from hot to boiling, while this morning the shower spanned frigid to room temperature. I think it has something to do with who else is using them at the time, but we can’t rule out the possibility of LC oscillations without a full map of the pipes.

Kaiser Permanente (not so permanent)After making our way to the American Center for Physics, we began orientation. We’ve gotten acquainted with the building, met the staff and our respective supervisors, and begun work on our projects for the summer all in the course of the past three days. I’m working with two awesome people named Becky and James; I knew we’d get along as soon as I walked by his office and saw a signed drawing of Nikola Tesla by one of my favorite webcartoonists on the wall of James’ office. We’ve been hashing out potential concepts for this summer’s public outreach project, and while my favorite idea seems like it might not be practical, (it involves Tesla coils and, concordantly, safety concerns) we’ve had some really promising ones come up. You’ll be hearing more soon, and seeing the fruits of our labors not long after that!

Photo: Our residence hall is located near the former offices of the Kaiser Permanente Healthcare company. The irony inherent in the word "permanente" being all but obliterated struck me as photo-worthy.


Week 2, June 2-8, 2014

Arlington, A Brief Departure, Finding a Direction

Arlington CemeteryIn order to get a feel for the kind of work they do (and the kind of puns that will fly in this office), my supervisors had me spend one of my mornings the first week reading through issues 1-6 of "Spectra: The Original Laser Superhero." It's the interactive, experimental, educational comic for middle-school classrooms that they've been publishing since the idea was conceived for Laserfest back in 2010. By the end of orientation, meeting and eating with a Nobel Winner and being introduced to all these fabulous people, I was half-convinced I was dreaming. My experiences in the first week of real work haven't done much to change that perception, but I'm fine with that feeling sticking around.

Last weekend, some of the other interns and I took a trip to Arlington cemetery. We explored the Lees' old family estate, and watched the curious clockwork precision of the changing of the guard at the tomb of the unknown soldier. The grounds were spectacular, and we chose a great day for exploring; the magnolia trees were just starting to unfurl their petals for the season, pale blossoms that matched the gleaming rows of gravestones.

When the workweek resumed Monday, we got down to the business of planning out this summer's outreach project. A lot of the specifics have yet to be hammered out, but at present it looks like we'll be focusing on the role of physics in medicine. It feels like a good angle from which to drive home the relevance of our field in people's daily lives, in addition to emphasizing the potential for unforeseen advances that accompanies breakthroughs in fundamental physics. Lasik eye surgery is a great example; it improves lives every day in ways that no one could have imagined fifty-some years ago when scientists first perfected the techniques for collimating light.

Post-rehearsalA friend who I've known since the age of 12 got married back in Indiana this weekend, so I got to take off Thursday night to go put on a tuxedo and be a groomsman. After a series of painful delays while transferring through Atlanta, I made it to Indianapolis in time for the rehearsal dinner on Friday night. The ceremony and reception were beautiful, but the scene from the weekend that I know I'm always going to remember happened the night beforehand. At sunset, we walked out into the meadow where the wedding was to take place, on our way to do a run-through of the procession. From the bushes surrounding the vine-covered trellis gazebo that served as an altar, two butterflies emerged and met, dancing, dead center in the aisle. They hung there for a minute, climbing slowly into the sky, before their dance dissolved into chaos and they returned to the shrubs to rest and feed. We all stood there for a moment, laughing incredulously at the seemingly scripted perfection of the moment, before getting underway with the rehearsal.

While I'm not much for omens, I'd like to at least see the occurrence as evidence that things do occasionally happen in real life just the way they do in movies and storybooks, and reason to hope that my friends' marriage might, too.


Week 3, June 9-15, 2014

Benny and the Jets: How I Found Myself Inside Elon Musk's Latest Spacecraft

At a little past 7:30, just as the light of the day was beginning to fade, I walked up to the tables outside the Newseum in Washington, DC. House music thumped from inside the tents erected around the door, and through their sides, billowing in the hot humid wind, I could see about a hundred people in suits and dresses, champagne in hand. It was the unveiling of the Dragon V2, SpaceX's new 2-in-1 landing and escape pod.

SpaceX's Dragon spacecraftPhoto 1: SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft (first version) grappled by a robotic arm on the International Space Station. The Dragon Version 2 prototype was on public display in Washington, DC earlier this week. Image Credit: NASA/ISS

"Hi, I think I'm on the list — I should have just been added." I said to the man at the table, trying to mask my nerves and the flush in my face. I had practically sprinted there in full suit and tie.


I gave it, mentioning that I had just run into my friend an hour ago and been invited along. This was a bit of an exaggeration; I had, in fact, just met Benny, but he had invited me nonetheless. That made him the best friend I'd met so far in this city. The attendant ruffled through a few sheets of paper, first on a clipboard that said VIP at the top, then one that said Press.

"Yeah, not seeing you. Who did you say your friend was?"

"errr...Benny." I replied, saying a silent prayer to whatever gods look after coattail-riders and hangers-on. Those gods are popular in Washington, and must keep close watch over their supplicants here; the man's face lit up.

"Oh, Benny! Sure, yeah. Let me get you a tag." He wrote my name down, handed me one of the VIP badges littering the table between us, and pointed me inside. I stepped through the entrance to the tent, and was greeted by a welcome blast of cool air from the portable climate control towers in the corner of the room. Waiters in black bustled back and forth with plates of hors d'oeuvres, while televisions lining the walls ran graphic simulations of Dragon V2's docking and landing procedures. Christ, I was at a SpaceX party.

My eyes were immediately drawn to the Dragon, as I'm sure was the intent. The capsule towered over the crowd, bearing a striking resemblance to a giant egg, squashed at one end. Three fin-like white protrusions housed the module's SuperDraco thrusters, giving way below to the black heat-shielding that would prevent the powerful engines from incinerating the sides of the capsule. These were the defining feature of the Dragon V2, allowing the incredible precision of the landings being depicted on the wall displays.

Standing outside the Dragon V2 prototype at the NewseumPhoto 2: Standing outside the Dragon V2 prototype at the Newseum on June 10, 2014.

The V2 was designed to be reusable and multi-purpose, unlike the Command Module of the Apollo space program, which used parachutes to slow the capsule's descent after re-entry. Since parachutes rely on air resistance and drag to reduce the terminal velocity of an object, landing on planets with little or no atmosphere requires a propulsion-based mechanism (like on Apollo's Lunar Excursion Module). By combining the extraterrestrial landing module and the return capsule into one, the Dragon V2 allows for lighter overall payloads and helicopter-like precision landings on the trip home, rather than the nerve-rattling splashdowns of old.

A woman with an iPad in her hands stood at the base of the stairway leading up into the open door of the capsule, taking names. I asked how long of a wait it was, and when she replied "a very long time", I asked her to put me down anyway. I was thrilled just to be on the list. I walked through the party, found Benny and thanked him again for the invitation. He seemed genuinely glad to see that I had made it before hurrying off to find his date and pawning me off on Tom, a fellow journalist.

I tried to explain how I had ended up there, and got cut off halfway through the story.

"Let me give you some advice", he said. "And this is just business, don't take it personally. At events like this? Tell short stories. There are billionaires and congressmen here." I thanked him, and he left my side to try and push through the throng of reporters encircling Elon Musk. I didn't have any hope of getting to meet Elon that evening and, face still red with embarrassment from talking Tom's ear off, I was more than content to observe him from afar.

After a few hours of making friends, eating and drinking, the party was winding down. Fearing that the event would end before my name was called, I found the group that was next in the queue and managed to get in line with them. We ascended the steps, and seated ourselves in the carbon-fiber horizontal chairs, reminiscent of modern roller-coaster seating, suspended from the aluminum walls. There was a porthole to my left, and I briefly wondered who would be sitting in my seat watching the earth fall away beneath them when the ship finally took off. The command panel was pulled down, a glassy surface of touchscreens and LED-backlit buttons. My phone was dead, so while everyone took photos of themselves and their friends, I examined the controls. Launch. Abort. A chill ran down my spine; this was better than science-fiction. This was a real spaceship.

Happy to be insidePhoto 3: Happy to be inside.

We climbed back to the ground, and the party ended shortly thereafter. On the way out, I convinced a new friend to take a photo of me in front of the capsule, and snagged a Dragon baseball cap. One of the engineers led a small party to his bar,Thomas Foolery, for a few more hours of celebration, drinks, and darts. I stayed and talked for a while, and when the time seemed right I walked myself home in the cooling night air, my mind and body singing with excitement at the future I'd found myself in the middle of.

When I dragged myself out of bed Tuesday morning, I had no idea what the day had in store. When I fell back in that night, though, I was disappointed for the first time in my life that I had to leave reality behind for a few hours.


Week 4, June 16-22, 2014

A funny coincidence

After a meeting with Krystal, the APS's graphic design specialist, and the Education Manager for the AAPM (which is one floor up from us), it looks like our project for the summer is underway. We're going to be creating and distributing a poster series on physics in medicine, and building an accompanying website with information and links to APS resources. We're shooting for an art-deco feel, focusing on visual appeal for the actual posters; in the age of smartphones it seems more sensible to let someone take the information with them in the form of a url or QR code than to clutter the poster with facts and dense text. One of the topics we're planning on covering is proton therapy, a pretty new form of cancer treatment that takes advantage of some neat relativistic physics to reduce patient risk, and the discussion of which led to a funny coincidence.

Another coworker of ours, the careers program manager, popped out of her office.

"Hey, if you have any technical questions about PT, I can tell you all about it" she offered. I smiled, because I spent the latter half of my undergraduate career focused on medical physics, and had learned a good deal about the procedure.

"Oh I could tell you all about protons!" I replied, "I spent like two years in a basement labs at IU's cyclotron!"
"Wait, like Indiana? I did my graduate work there!"

"Oh no way!" I exclaimed, voice rising in excitement, "Yeah, I worked on Helium-3 polarization with Mike Snow!"
Her jaw dropped. "Get out! I worked on Helium-3 polarization with Snow!"

Interns on a carouselI suddenly remembered my old boss mentioning to me before I left that he knew a few people at APS, and slapped my forehead. I knew her name had rung a bell when I met her, and now I knew why--I opened my notebook that evening and found her name scribbled in the corner of the first page, along with those of a few other people I'd been told to look up once I was in DC.

We spent the next hour marveling at how small the world can be, laughing and swapping stories about working with one of the most unusual gases (and one of the most unusual professors) on earth. Summer just keeps getting better.

Photo: Some of the other interns ride the carousel on the national mall.


Week 5, June 23-29, 2014

The Eggonauts

Work, this week, consisted primarily of writing copy for the website that we're going to be putting up to correspond with our outreach poster series, and writing a bit for the PhysicsCentral Physics Buzz blog. The highlight of last week, though, came after work on Tuesday. One of the NASA interns, Kirsten, found out about a weekly "Science Night" at Argonaut, a small and out-of-the-way bar with a nautical theme. The event consists of a trivia contest and a mysterious-sounding "science challenge", so we naturally felt compelled to assemble a team and put our knowledge to the test. There turned out to be a third competitive aspect to the evening; the team that the hosts determined to have the best name would get a free bottle of wine. After a very formal nomination and voting process conducted by Ashley en route to the bar, we determined that our team name would be "Let us Atom".

Upon arrival we discovered that, in addition to being science night, Tuesdays are also taco night! After getting some discounted food and a few drinks, we were informed that the week's science challenge would be the classic "egg drop" experiment. Each team was given a bag containing a few clothespins, two sheets of printer paper, a few straws, dixie cups, cotton balls, and a strip of duct tape. During the ninety minutes we were given to turn these components into a working safety system to protect our egg from a two-story drop, we wrote down our answers to trivia questions about everything from Broca's aphasia to the chemistry of isopropanol. (No cell phones allowed, of course!)

Lincoln MemorialAt drop time, we saw a great variety of designs from the different groups. One tried to turn their paper into a parachute, attached to a dixie-cup basket with duct tape. It didn't slow the egg's fall much, and turned sideways right before impact. Another group had produced something that bore a startling resemblance to the Pathfinder mars lander, except made of Dixie cups (which ended up pulverizing the egg as soon as it landed). We were the last group to drop, so the pressure mounted as each subsequent group tried and failed to deliver their payload safely to the ground. We had opted for a crumple-zone-heavy design with a conical shape made of paper (reinforced with drinking straws) to ensure that the apparatus would land nose-down. Finally it was our turn, with none of the other groups having succeeded. I was elected drop-man and I knew, as I hung out the window looking down at the other interns, that a $50 gift card to the bar was hanging in the balance.

A short drop later, Let Us Atom was the second team in the history of Argonaut Science Night to ever win the "triple crown", winning trivia, the science challenge, AND the naming competition. The title is great, but the free food and drinks are going to be even better; we're returning to defend the title this Tuesday.

Photo: From a midnight visit to the Lincoln Memorial


Week 6, June 30-July 6, 2014

This was a fantastic week for outreach. Thursday afternoon, a few of the other interns and I headed to NIST, under Kendra's supervision, to talk to the children at the institute’s daycare about light and optics. We did demonstrations involving fluorescence and invisible ink, as well as diffraction and standing-wave experiments. I was assigned the standing microwave experiment, in which one measures the distance between hot spots on a piece of chocolate or other melty material that’s been in a microwave without a turntable. From the distance, which tells us the wavelength of the microwaves, and the frequency of the microwave, we can calculate the speed of light. While the kids were a little young to be doing the kind of math required (some weren’t even familiar with multiplication yet), they all seemed excited to learn about light beyond the visible spectrum. I did learn, however, that this demo should be done with wax or another inedible material if performed for a young audience—it becomes very difficult to get children focused on science when your demonstration involves chocolate chips and marshmallows.

LED streetlights with diffraction glassesBefore we left for NIST, though, I made sure we grabbed a few hundred pairs of diffraction glasses from a box on the 2nd floor. The next day, the fourth of July, we set out for the national mall early. We set up camp near the base of the Washington monument, and spent most of the day lounging on the lawn in the sun. As sunset drew near, we began walking around the vicinity and handing out pairs of diffraction glasses, explaining the physics behind them to people who were interested. When the fireworks finally commenced, the show was spectacular. Music swelled from the speakers as clouds of sulfurous smoke drifted over the crowd. The diffraction glasses turned every burst of light into three, a stretched duplicate made of strobing colors on either side of each flash. You can tell we’re nerds, we joked. Everyone else is watching fireworks and we're doing spectral analysis.

When the display ended, with the night air beginning to cool, the family in front of us turned around before leaving and thanked us. In the slow stampede toward the perimeter exits, I looked up at a rainbow-flanked moon and reflected on how lucky I am; that it’s part of my job this summer to help make the fireworks a little brighter.

Photo: LED streetlights have a spiky, unusual spectrum. Though it peaks in the orange, this firework clearly radiates all wavelengths of visible light.


Week 7, July 7-13, 2014

NISTWhile we visited NIST last week for an outreach event, this week we got to take a more thorough tour of the grounds and facilities. Practically as soon as we started the tour, we were in a hangar-sized warehouse, weaving among a baffling diversity of high-tech instruments and equipment. Stacks of lead bricks surrounded neutron beam-guide tubes taller than a man, and I could hear the steady whirr-chunk of a vacuum pump running somewhere in the tube-tangled distance.

Our tour guide, it turned out, had gone to school with Dr. Snow, the wiry and wild-eyed professor who supervised my Helium-3 work at IU. He pointed to a towering, powerful-looking device behind him, indicating that it was one of Snow’s experiments. I marveled briefly at the interconnectedness of the physics community, then hurried to catch up with the rest of our group.

Kayaking on the PotomacWe stopped by Ben’s office, where he writes code for simulations, and Kelby’s lab, where she’s working on producing samples an atomic layer thick. Collectively, they’re part of a project to create a nanopore analyzer that reads the electrostatic profile of a protein to determine its structure. We also got to check out a scanning electron microscope capable of visualizing nanoscale objects. Afterward, we went out to lunch and, while some of the others took the afternoon to visit NASA's Udvar-Hazy center, I returned home and collapsed, exhausted.

The weekend was a blast; we rented kayaks and spent the day on the Potomac river. A good ways downstream of the rental dock, we found a small but muddy island to relax on for a while. Jake went swimming and, though the river is supposedly legendary for its pollution, he seems fine. After another rough hour or so of rowing back upstream, we pulled into shore as the sun began to set burnt, weak and with blistered palms, but basking in the bliss of endorphins from the exercise.

Photo 1: Couldn't tell you what half this stuff does, but I'd love to find out.

Photo 2: Jake and I stopped to take a selfie with the Lincoln memorial and Washington monument in the background.


Week 8, July 14-20, 2014

Looking back, I'm always amazed how much we manage to pack into each week. Last Tuesday, I ended up at Bill Nye's "The Lure of Europa" event; a talk he was giving at the Rayburn house office building, courtesy of the Planetary Society. I stood in awe as one of my childhood icons, now with a bit of old-man-rasp creeping into his voice, spoke about Jupiter's icy moon as our best shot at finding extraterrestrial life. According to Nye, the icy surface of the planet is just a shell around a global ocean of liquid water, heated by tidal flexing from its core's interaction with Jupiter's tremendous gravity.

Staring at the false-color image of Europa on the front of the podium, orange sulfurous ridges crossing its surface, I was struck by the resemblance between the network of fissures and the growth patterns of organic life--both are fractal, as are many things in nature.

EuropaPhoto: A funny thought occurred to me--perhaps we've already seen the first signs of life on Europa. Photo courtesy of NASA/JPL/Ted Stryk

Immediately after the Bill Nye event, I made my way to the College Park Aviation Museum, where Dr. Dylla, AIP's CEO, hosted a dinner reception for the interns, mentors and some AIP staff. We were given a fantastic barbecue buffet and a brief tour of the museum. Every part of it was delightful, except the animatronic Wilbur Wright; he's just lifelike enough to make you wince when he opens his mouth to speak and it cracks a little beyond the edge of his lip. Uncanny robotics aside, it was an evening of laughs and good conversation; Dr. Mather made another appearance, and the incredible opportunities afforded by this internship were highlighted for me yet again when I got to chat with him about a hypothesis of mine dealing with galactic formation and dark matter.

Later in the week, we toured NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center facilities. We learned a lot about the James Webb Space Telescope, but my favorite part might have been the enormous centrifuge chamber. It's used as a storage room when the centrifuge isn't operational, but the machinery in there was truly humbling in its size. Thanks to some clever scheduling, we also got to attend NASA's "science jamboree" event, a sort of open-house where scientists from all wings of the administration set up booths and talk about their work.

Over the weekend, a friend and I rented bikes from the capitol bikeshare, took a late-night tour of the city, and visited the natural history museum. For being so dense with activity, time sure seems like it's flying; only a few weeks left in the summer!


Week 9, July 21-27, 2014

Last Monday, Ben (one of the policy interns) conducted us on a tour of the capitol. While Ashley, the other policy intern, applied for a tour of the white house earlier in the summer, they replied that they were unable to accommodate us, so this was our main opportunity to see the interior of such a historic building. After several rounds of security screenings, we were allowed to walk the halls, with Ben serving as a guide. The reconstruction of the original congressional chambers was fascinating, but the most striking part of the visit was the rotunda. Straight up through the oculus of the dome, George Washington sits ensconced among clouds, wielding a sword in the style of a Roman god. Maidens dance about him, and the enterprises that shaped America (commerce, science, agriculture, etc.) are depicted all around the heavenly scene. Freedom Incarnate leads the charge into battle at Washington's feet, looking for all the world like an early version of Captain America with her star-spangled shield. Think Positive, Think ProtonThe perimeter of the hall is lined with statuary--each state is allowed to contribute two pieces for inclusion in the capitol building. Below the floor of the rotunda, the collection continues in the "crypt", which was intended to house the entrance to George Washington's tomb.

Friday was a big day for the interns--the SPS Summer Symposium. Arriving at ACP bright and early in the morning, we gave presentations on the work we've been doing this summer to a conference room full of staff, friends, and family. My dad managed to attend, since he lives close by, which was a really special occurrence for me; I've sat in the audience for more than one of his talks, and I was proud to have him there for my first. I got to talk about this summer's project and, consequently, physics' role in medicine. It's an easy topic to get excited about, and I think the crowd walked away with some sense of that excitement. Look for the fruits of our labors going up on PhysicsCentral here soon! In the meantime, have a sneak-peek at an early draft of one of the posters (featuring Proton Therapy, a pretty new and really neat way to treat cancer)!


Final Reflections, August, 2014

This internship has offered me opportunities I couldn’t have imagined before the start of the summer. From climbing inside a cutting-edge spacecraft to seeing Bill Nye in person, the memories we packed into our days here have made the past two months a truly once-in-a-lifetime experience. Well, twice if you’re lucky like Caleb.

And while I value tremendously the professional skills we picked up, the chance to meet and network with people in government, academia, and industry, I hold as priceless the friendships we forged in the humid heat of a DC summer. While the internship itself taught me what work in the physics community can be like, I learned perhaps just as much through late-night card games fraught with delirious laughter, trivia triumphs, and the occasional struggles that brought us all together.

Most of the interns are heading back to college in the fall, and I'm among the few who have graduated, soon to be subjected to the unending maze of possibilities known as "real life". Ashley heads off to Luxembourg soon, and Caleb is going to teach in Arkansas, but it took me until very recently to figure out what's after the internship for me. I'm happy to say that it's another internship, and at the same desk no less! One of my first entries from the summer, "Benny and the Jets," was cross-posted to Physics Central's Physics Buzz blog where it caught the eye of APS's head of media relations. Just before the end of the summer, he came by my desk and asked if I had any interest in pursuing science writing; there's room for a writing intern until October.

As such, you can expect weekly blog posts from me on Physics Buzz through the end of September. It's not permanent, but I'm thrilled to have another month or so to job hunt in the area and explore the endless possibilities of Washington. It won't be the same, of course, without eleven comrades living in the same hallway, but as we group-hugged Dr. Sauncy before she left our dorm with a bin of stuff for next year's interns, I looked around at the faces that made the summer so unforgettable and knew, with a warm certainty, that I'm lucky to have known the people who are going to shape the world of physics in coming years.



Bringing Physics to the Public

American Physical SocietyThe American Physical Society's public outreach team, which runs the website PhysicsCentral, aims to communicate the importance and excitement of physics to everyone.

Steven is developing and completing a large-scale informal education project working alongside the APS public outreach team. Steven is tasked with thinking beyond the "regular" demo shows and classroom activities in order to design a fun and unique outreach project that effectively communicates physics concepts to the general public.

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