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Grand Slam: Fermilab Physicists Duke It Out

On Friday, Fermilab held its first Physics Slam. Five scientists, trying to explain complex concepts in the most entertaining way possible to an audience of 1000 people. It was a lot of fun.

So, what did you do on Friday night?

Me? Oh, I hung out with five of the smartest people you’ll ever meet, and watched as they took each other on … with science. It was the Fermilab Arts and Lecture Series' first ever physics slam, and man, it was a good time.

A physics slam is kind of like a poetry slam for PhDs. Our five contestants, who are all used to delivering dry scientific presentations to their peers, were given 12 minutes each to explain a complex particle physics concept to an auditorium filled with more than 800 laymen. And they had to do it in the most entertaining way they could, because audience applause determined the winner.

The slammers could use anything they wanted to on stage, from songs to props to dancing bears. (No one used a dancing bear, alas.) The objective was to do whatever it took to entertain the audience while talking science.

This is not a new idea. The first particle physics slam we’re aware of was held at the Max Planck Institute for Physics in Germany a few years ago, and the first one on these shores took place last year at the University of Oregon.

Now, I confess, I initially thought this would resemble a rap battle, with science-related put-downs. (Here’s the only one I could think of: “Your muon’s so fat, it’s 200 times heaver than an electron!” Trust me, the physicists reading this are grinning.) But like most things in science, it was a respectful competition.

It was a fun one, too. Chris Stoughton had the packed house at Ramsey Auditorium doing the wave to illustrate the holography of the universe. Deborah Harris called her presentation “The Neutrino Monologues,” and she played five different characters, tracing the evolution of neutrino physics up through Fermilab’s current experiments.

Doug Glenzinski had the audience cracking up at his fabricated pictures of himself accepting a Nobel prize and talked about the experiment he hopes might get him one: Mu2e, which will try to catch muons changing into electrons, an event as likely as your house getting hit by a meteor. And Bob Tschirhart somehow worked Danica Patrick and dogs playing poker into a talk about one of Fermilab’s big future experiments, Project X.

But it was Stuart Henderson who took home the prize. He spiced up a talk about how particle accelerators can alleviate the problem of nuclear waste by bringing in Homer Simpson, and this The Onion graphic about a giant science machine. Because we’re a science lab, we used a scientific instrument — an applause-o-meter iPad app — to determine the winner.

And speaking of the audience, I think that was my favorite part of Friday night. Our first physics slam sold out that morning, and about a thousand of you showed up to share in our delightfully nerdy evening. We had to open up a second auditorium as an overflow room. Thank you for coming out, and I hope you had a good time.

The physics slam is part of our ongoing Arts and Lecture series, and you can see the full lineup here. I don’t know when we might do this again, but if it were up to me, I would make this an annual event. Next year, though, I hope someone uses a dancing bear.

Watch the full video here.

Andre Salles is the media and community relations specialist at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. Contact him at asalles@fnal.gov or 630-840-6733. Follow Fermilab on Facebook at www.facebook.com/Fermilab, and on Twitter @FermilabToday.

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