Show & Tell in Sunny Cali

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October 30, 2015 to October 31, 2015

Long Beach, California

Meeting host:

American Physical Society


Olivia A. Krohn

SPS Chapter:

SPS Reporter Olivia A. Krohn.

Imagine you have driven down the center of California for a few hours to arrive at the beautiful beaches of Southern California. Specifically, California State University, Long Beach.

Because you hit traffic on the Interstate 5 (which every West Coaster knows is inevitable) the SPS welcome reception is in full swing, and you and your classmate walk in, quickly grab a plate of finger food, and build up courage to join the small talk. Except the wonderful reality is that everyone in the room has at least two things in common: we are all from the west coast, and we all love physics. This, I learned, is a wonderful recipe for introductions and small talk and an all-around great evening.

This was the American Physical Society Far West Section Meeting. And it was fantastic.

Conference attendees enjoy an outdoor poster session.

The Thursday night reception progressed much as described above, and I thoroughly enjoyed meeting other students from campuses from around California and neighboring states. Our commonalities made for good casual conversation, from the drought to REU experiences to favorite professors and their idiosyncrasies. There’s nothing quite like meeting people with common interests, especially when physics tends to be one of the most difficult, smallest, but most rewarding interests you can have in common.

The next two days were even better, with invited talks spanning neutrino physics to alternative energy sources to cosmology. With a diversity of backgrounds, each speaker had a passion for physics that was apparent in their excitement.

Dr. Mu-Chun Chen from UC Irvine described how she chose physics over a potential career in music: “I wanted to just keep going and understand physics at the most fundamental level.”

Dr. Michael Peterson from CSU Long Beach told me he wasn’t interested in physics in high school but rather went to the University of Utah to study architecture. But when he took a physics class, “I fell in love with it” and decided to switch to Theoretical Physics and Math.

These are only two of many examples. Each person seemed to have a unique yet universal draw to physics, something that contributed to a general camaraderie and shared excitement.

Also exciting were the talks given on theoretical and experimental research being conducted on the West Coast. These talks by graduate and undergraduate students were brief but fascinating glimpses into research topics: axions as dark matter candidates, mechanisms for determining neutrino mass, Λ scattering, and many others—and those were just within the High Energy Physics session.

However, my favorite part of the conference by far was the poster session, which struck me as not too different from a large-scale, epic session of show & tell.

Show & Tell on a grand scale, physics edition.In early elementary school, show & tell was almost as exciting as flipping through the newest National Geographic. There were usually at least a few items that were fascinating, thought- provoking, and unlike any I had seen before. When people are sharing something new, something they are passionate about, its hard not to listen—the passion is contagious. This is particularly true when the focus is on conquering the yet-unknown “whys” and “hows” of the universe. Wandering around the maze of posters allowed me to learn about a myriad of research projects by my peers—a potential lead on how to slow the onset of Alzheimer’s disease, studying plasma production by current-driven implosion, calibrating a telescope, analyzing preliminary results from CERN, and much more. Every poster had a unique question and approach.

People come to physics to ask and answer questions about the way the world works, and land in some specific field to answer their own set of questions. This afternoon session became my opportunity to branch out and see where other people spend the same passion. Maybe it is more accurate to describe the session as what show & tell “wants to be when it grows up”—the real deal. It was a conglomeration of ideas and glimpses into many different fields of study. It was better than a museum: not only was there something fascinating to learn, but a person personally attached to the research to talk to. It was also wonderful that it was held outdoors, in the gorgeous 75◦ SoCal October weather. Altogether a wonderful environment to talk physics.

Dr. Mu-Chun Chen presenting on “Neutrinos and Physics Beyond the Standard Model.” Dr. Mu-Chun Chen presenting on “Neutrinos and Physics Beyond the Standard Model.” After all, why do 160 or so physicists and future physicists travel miles to listen to and give lectures? To ask and answer questions? I believe it is due to the inquisitive nature of physicists and the nature of the discipline itself: it is a search for knowledge and an enjoyment of sharing what has been learned. There is no doubt that this was accomplished over the 97 presentations and innumerable conversations that sparked up over the course of the weekend. Although not as large or epic as an April meeting, or so specialized and focused as divisional meeting, this sectional meeting had a special charm in staying close to home. The diversity of interests and presentations was a source of inspiration, and the geographical familiarity a common ground. Where else does “You’ve heard about this year’s Nobel Prize, right?” mix with “Can you believe we have already gotten an inch of rain this year?!” It was a unique environment where swapping research stories was interspersed with rants about all that is to love and hate about the Golden State and neighbors.

My friend and I returned up north, having learned from many disciplines of physics, and having met many people with the common passion of physics. Perhaps this is the best recipe for an excellent APS conference. And it was indeed an excellent conference.

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