Week 4: What did one subatomic duck say to another?

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Tuesday, July 5, 2016


Tabitha Colter


This joke is perfect to describe a week that ended with a breakfast with high-energy physicist turned Congressmen: Representative Bill Foster. Bill Foster worked at Fermilab for 22 years in particle physics and one of the projects he worked on was the design of equipment and data analysis software for the detector that was used to discover the top quark. (For all my non-physics readers: short explanation of a quark is an elementary particle that combines with other quarks to form composite particles that include neutrons and protons. The top quark is the most massive of the six types of quarks and was the last to be discovered in 1995. Read more here if you're interested.) After joining the House of Representatives, Rep. Foster became the third research physicist ever elected to Congress. If that seems like a lot to you, keep in mind that there are currently 20 members of the House with no education beyond a high school diploma. Since Congress is the largest American funder of science in that they set the budget for groups like the NIH, NSF, NASA, and all the other great agencies doing important work across all scientific frontiers, a lack of scientists represented in Congress means that people who have very little scientific background are making really important decisions regarding science. These decisions have huge implications for not just the scientific community but society as a whole. In fact, only about 4% of Congressmen have any sort of scientific background and that's with a very broad definition of scientific being used. Rep. Foster has been a huge advocate of calling upon his fellow scientists to join him in politics. I actually had the chance to hear him speak to a STEM audience back in April when I was in DC for a conference on science advocacy in politics and hear his take on why scientists should get involved in politics. Being able to sit down with him and Dr. Mather was one of the most amazing experiences I've ever had and definitely the most intimidatingly sharp breakfast company I've ever found myself in the presence of. Thank goodness I'm a morning person because the conversation flew rapidly between discussions of automated cars, genetic engineering, economic calculations of inflation, NASA's recent successful orbit of Jupiter, and the future of politics and technology. For Rep. Foster having the opportunity to be around Dr. Mather is an exciting chance for him to be in the presence of a high-profile physicist who also speaks his technical language, even though their backgrounds are completely different. The breakfast was also held in the Member's Dining Room in the Capitol which was a beautiful room reserved only for Members and their guests. Since the breakfast occurred the morning after the Fourth of July, most Members were using that day as a travel one to return to DC from their home districts and as a result the dining room was completely empty. After a stimulating breakfast and a quick photo shoot outside on the Capitol steps, I made my way to the office to begin week five. 

Other highlights from week four included the Fourth of July, a Nationals baseball game, a quick visit from part of my family, a meeting with a former Mather intern, and a long term project. The visit with family was just a quick dinner with my stepmom and little sister with family they had been visiting in Richmond as they all made their way up to DC for the day. We went to a yummy restaurant in Eastern Market and had a few hours to catch up. My little sister loved the Metro and when she was telling me about her day in DC the main highlight seemed to be riding around the Metro all day. Oh to see the city through the eyes of a 6 (almost 7!) year old and not through the lens of a commuter at rush hour who's uncomfortably squished up against other professionals. The Nats game was a neat opportunity from my Committe who had a section of tickets available for only $10 each. I had been at the Nationals stadium the week before for the Congressional game but it was neat to see an actual Major League game taking place there and be part of that atmosphere. The meeting I had with Ben, a former Mather intern who now works at a lobbying firm in DC, was very enlightening and a great opportunity to pick his brain about different career paths involving the intersection of politics and science. My long term project involves researching multiple think tanks in the DC area to write up their opinions on some of the big questions that might be coming up for future legislation with our committee.


To end the blog with a bang I thought I'd wrap up with the story of my first Fourth of July in Washington DC! Unfortunately the weather didn't realize how exciting of an experience this was for me and decided to rain most of the day but we made the most of it. Vanessa, Jose, Victoria and I made our way to another intern housing location for an ice cream social in the morning then wandered over to Union Station to walk around where it was dry. After that, Victoria and I made our way to the Archives to try to see the Declaration of Independence and Constitution on Independence Day but realized the line was so long we might not even make it into the building. From there, we wandered to the National Postal Museum which was a surprisingly large museum home to some really neat exhibits. We met Dahlia and her friend visiting from home there as well then together we walked to a pizza place out past the Capitol, stopping to take photos of the Supreme Court and Capitol Building. The pizza place called We the Pizza is the #15 ranked restaurant in DC and we could definitely tell why! I had been wanting to try it for a few weeks so I was glad to get the chance to finally make it there during the Fourth of July. Finally, we made our way down to the National Mall to watch the actual fireworks themselves! All in all it was a great week absolutely full of some amazing experiences.



PS: Due to bad weather and the cloudy conditions, even PBS showed old footage for the fireworks display on TV rather than actual footage from this year's Fourth so I feel no shame in using this great photo of fireworks in the past over the Monument for my blog instead of any of the blurry foggy ones that I took.


Tabitha Colter