You are here
Sigma Pi Sigma Sharing Science
In the News
Sigma Pi Sigma Sharing Science
Don Lincoln honored with AIP’s 2017 Gemant AwardBy:
Rachel Kaufman, Editor
It’s fitting that one of Don Lincoln’s favorite science communication videos involves him blowing up a house.
Lincoln (Sigma Pi Sigma ‘85), a senior scientist at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Chicago, is a particle physicist. He smashes small things into each other on the regular. So why not also blow up a house?
Okay, so Lincoln didn’t push the plunger, but in one of his science communication videos (he’s created dozens) the physicist uses a recently demolished house (with permission from the local bomb squad) as a metaphor to explain how particle accelerators work.1 In another video he makes the compelling case that particle physicists led to cat videos,2 and in a third a Charlie Chaplin gag reel explains gravity.3
It was for these videos, as well as his Great Courses lectures, numerous articles in popular media, and a TED Talk—among other scientific communication achievements—that Lincoln was awarded the 2017 Gemant Award from the American Institute of Physics.
The Gemant Award is an annual prize recognizing “significant contributions to the cultural, artistic, or humanistic dimension of physics” and comes with a $5,000 grant and an invitation to give a public lecture.
Winning the award “means a great deal,” Lincoln says. “Outreach is… something I did, sort of not greatly encouraged by academia,” he says. “Nonetheless, I personally think it’s important, and the fact that people have looked at it and said, ‘He’s doing it well,’ is something.”
Lincoln didn’t grow up in an academic family, but even early on, he had “theological questions” about the world. “Questions like, ‘How did the universe come into existence? Does it have to be the way it is? Could it be a different way? Could there be a universe where we don’t exist?’ These are questions that have bothered classical thinkers for thousands of years,” he says, and as a kid, they bothered him, too. He tacked onto his physics major minors in both philosophy and religion, but realized that only science held quantifiable answers. While conducting research at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) as a graduate student, he began “learning how to talk to people” by leading tour groups of visiting high school students. Soon he began writing for Fermilab’s website, then writing articles, hosting videos, and writing books.
Lincoln has also had a successful research career—he helped discover the Higgs boson at CERN, with “six thousand of my closest friends,” as he jokes in a TED Talk.4 But it’s with outreach that he has made his broadest impact.
“The fact of the matter is that we as scientists… we make measurements, make insights, make discoveries, and understand the world around us. However, we also live in an environment in which a lot of science funding is handled by the public. We are not independent of the community. I think it’s imperative that we share the things we discover,” he says.
Further, science isn’t going away just because someone might want it to, he says. “We live in a highly technically advanced society. Cell phones work because of scientific principles that have been discovered. Vaccines keep people alive—babies used to [regularly] die before they were 2. Scientific phenomena are all around us.” Now, however, science is under attack, he says. “There are people who have not only skepticism but a hostility to the idea that there really are answers. So I think it’s extremely important that we as scientifically minded people push back against what I see as a fierce undercurrent of anti-intellectualism.”
Ultimately, Lincoln hopes that the physics knowledge he shares in books, articles, and videos reaches more than “science likers.” “Somebody who stumbles upon one of my videos on YouTube could have no clue they like science,” but after watching a 5 or 10 minute video, could be converted. “That’s great,” he says. “That’s the [outcome] I’m most proud of.”
1. “Subatomic Bomb Squad,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-d6sKfPfYTU.