Multichapter Event Lifts Spirits, Builds Community

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Multichapter Event Lifts Spirits, Builds Community


Levi McClurg, Past SPS Chapter President (2020–21), Point Loma Nazarene University

Pandemics don’t stop physics.

It was the fall of 2020, the thick of the COVID-19 pandemic, and there were few gatherings of any sort going on—let alone in the physics community. But three SPS chapters in Southern California somehow pulled off a joint virtual event featuring physics Nobel laureate Dr. William (Bill) Phillips. Phillips works at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and gave a great talk about international unit reformation.

William D. Phillips received the 1997 Nobel Prize in Physics for developing methods to cool and trap atoms with laser light. He’s a great friend of SPS and is shown here at the 2019 Physics Congress. Photo courtesy of SPS National.The event was a collaboration between SPS chapters at the University of California San Diego, California State University, San Marcos, and Point Loma Nazarene University. Chapter members, alumni, and friends from each school gathered over Zoom in numbers any one of us would have struggled to muster on our own.

If you’ve attended virtual talks before, you probably know how awkward they can be—especially the Q&A section. But all of the attendees can attest to the clarity, brevity, and general charisma of Phillips as a speaker. To our delight, this event wasn’t laced with the usual muted-mics and cameras-off silence at the end of the talk. We had an influx of questions right away and ended up going over our 30-minute Q&A allotment to get to all of them. 

Pulling off a joint event in the strangest of global circumstances was cause for celebration, even if it had to be held virtually. The fact that a Nobel laureate gave the talk made it an even more meaningful time for the students, alumni, and faculty in attendance.

Ironically, the COVID-19 pandemic is part of what made this event possible. The geographic separation of the three SPS chapters from each other and from Phillips means the chances of an event like this happening in ordinary times—when the default would have been an in-person talk—are slim to none. Our chapter is eager for more joint events and has realized that it’s easier than we thought to organize a virtual one.

We hope this experience serves as a catalyst for further collaborations between SPS chapters, whether they be fun activities, professional physics talks, or anything in between. Joint events have the potential to create and foster lasting relationships across campuses between physics enthusiasts. After all, we call it “the physics community” for a reason.

In 2018 the kilogram was redefined in terms of the Planck constant, ending our reliance on physical artifacts to define SI units. That transition was the subject of Bill Phillip’s talk. Shown here is a platinum-iridium kilogram mass housed at the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST), with stainless-steel masses in the background. Photo courtesy of J.L. Lee, NIST.

SPS members from Point Loma University hang out during a virtual event, an Among Us social.

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