Science Comes to Life at PhysCon: Scholarly Adventures in Washington, DC

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Science Comes to Life at PhysCon: Scholarly Adventures in Washington, DC


Fabrizio Vassallo, SPS Reporter, Denison University


Centennial panelists (L-R) Eric Cornell, Jim Gates, Jocelyn Bell Burnell, and John Mather. Photo by Ashauni Lennox.


Fabrizio Vassallo.
Photo courtesy of

In a letter to a physics aficionada who had enjoyed his lectures, Richard Feynman suggested that she should “study hard what interests [her] the most in the most undisciplined, irreverent and original manner possible.”1 Feynman’s advice to combine the complicated, the abstract, the scholarly side of physics with its creative, messy, adventurous side is often hard to reconcile with the strict environment that seems to characterize the sciences. At the 2022 Physics Congress, however, attendees saw those two different strands of physics harmonized in every talk, workshop, special event, and meal. For a moment, join me in recapping some of those adventures, some of which you could experience at the next congress.

On the scholarly side of things, you can hardly do better than attending a plenary session given by some of the foremost faces of science in the last half-century, including two Nobel laureates, a presidential advisor, and perhaps the most renowned female astronomer alive, full stop. A thousand people gathered to witness this event, which would properly kick things off in one of the hotel’s ballrooms—a place grandiose enough to have been taken out of a British royal castle, with a slightly nerdy spin provided by the huge recreation of the James Webb Telescope’s primary mirror at one end. Despite the daunting officialism of it all, once Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell stood up to answer the plenary question, “Where will physics and astronomy be in 100 years?” all of that faded away to give place to the cool science we were there to learn and discuss. Hearing each of the speakers—Dame Bell Burnell and Drs. John Mather, Jim Gates, and Eric Cornell—present their views about the future of science, often mixing technical discussions with jokes and funny anecdotes, we got a sense that regardless of the titles and prizes they had accumulated, they were just like us—driven, curious scientists looking to share their research, experience, and love for physics and astronomy with like-minded people. This idea would be reinforced throughout the next few days as I interacted one-on-one with the likes of Drs. Gates and Cornell in the hotel hallways, something I definitely wasn’t expecting would happen when I flew to Washington, DC, from the small town in Ohio where I attend college.

If the difference between that environment and my tiny liberal arts university in Granville, Ohio, wasn’t shocking enough, one of the first events of the conference was a field trip to the University of Maryland, College Park. Its physics department is known around the world as one of the best in atomic, molecular, and optical physics. Although I wasn’t sure I would find this tour interesting, it turned out to be one of the highlights of my trip. This was my first time seeing an elite research institution from the inside, touring fascinating places such as the Lathrop Nonlinear Dynamics Lab, where they have a 3-meter-tall model of the Earth that looks equal parts daunting and incredible. Everyone was so nice to us visitors, from the university staff coordinating the event to the students that acted as our guides. This visit helped me decide that I want to go to a grad school with a similar culture and environment—one that combines a friendly atmosphere with a wealth of research areas at the absolute cutting edge.


A student presents research at the 2022 Physics Congress poster session. Photo by SPS.

If the trip had ended there, after just those two events, I would’ve called it a success. But there’s more. My last day in DC turned out to be the epitome of the undisciplined and irreverent attitude toward science that Feynman encouraged. Saturday started off intensely with the core event of my conference experience: the poster session. I went into it with a mix of anxiousness and excitement; although I’d presented a poster before, I’d never presented at such a big event. Despite my initial wariness, it went well. Multiple people, ranging from undergraduates to experts in my field, stopped by to ask about my research, sometimes pushing me to the limit of my understanding with probing questions, which I truly appreciated. And that was it, PhysCon was over for me. 

Holding on to my successful work, albeit with a bittersweet feeling, I decided to make the best of the rest of the day. For me, that meant hunting for bookstores. I took the metro downtown, explored the city, and walked for hours from one bookstore to the next. The day ended at a store in The Wharf, where I found a biography of the late Stephen Hawking and read at a little table by the docks. As the hours flew by, I reflected on the spontaneous nature of what I was experiencing and on my connection to physics as I read about Hawking’s own inspiring relationship with the same subject.


A full-scale model of the James Webb Space Telescope’s primary mirror looms in the background as PhysCon attendees discuss the most pressing needs in physics and astronomy today. The model was made by SPS advisor Toni Sauncy and her chapter at Texas Lutheran University. Photo by SPS.

That day—well, the whole event—taught me about making friends in science, interacting with elite physicists, and presenting a technical poster to a wide-ranging audience. But it also taught me about the approach I want to have toward science. As I started my trip back to Columbus, I realized that I now understood what Feynman had meant in that letter. PhysCon very well could have been a one- or two-day event completely crowded with technical presentations of all sorts, but it was the harmonious intertwining of the scholarly with the creative, the structured with the unexpected, and the abstract with the adventurous that made the event great. So that’s my main takeaway from this experience: science doesn’t happen, like they might have you believe, in dull rooms with people in lab coats writing equations endlessly on blackboards. Science happens best when we approach it “in the most undisciplined, irreverent, and original manner possible.” 


  1. Richard Feynman, Perfectly Reasonable Deviations from the Beaten Track: The Letters of Richard P. Feynman, ed. Michelle Feynman (New York: Basic Books, 2005), 206.


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