Want to learn more about physics? Ask a scientist
|Ask-a-Scientist contributor Herman White (left) and founder Peter Garbincius work to keep members of the public engaged through the monthly program.
Fans from near and far pack their cars, program their GPS units and discuss what they'll talk about and what to expect when they get to their destination. But these fans aren't caravanning to see their favorite rock band; they're headed to Fermilab's Ask-a-Scientist program.
"They come from Iowa, Indiana, Wisconsin and downstate Illinois - anywhere within a six- or seven-hour drive. They've even come from as far away as Florida," said Herman White, a volunteer in the Ask-a-Scientist program for the past few decades. "They just get in the car and drive, like they would for a football game or a concert."
The program, founded by Fermilab scientist Peter Garbincius, started evolving in the late 1980s. It now has a solid fan base and always attracts new interest.
"We often have repeat customers, who return on their own or with their neighbors or out-of-town visitors," Garbincius said.
During one Sunday each month between 50 and 200 people attend a short lecture by a member of the Fermilab community on topics including elementary particle physics, accelerators, astrophysics and engineering. Attendees also get a tour from Lederman Science Education Center staff. They view the Cockcroft-Walton accelerator, Linac Gallery and Main Control Room. Finally, they crowd onto Fermilab's 15th floor, eager to pick the brains of some of the world's highest-energy physicists one-on-one.
"They ask you everything about science," White said. "It is kind of interesting to be put in that position. One person asked me if an electron was captured in an atom because it has a personality and feels closer to a charged particle."
But no matter how strange the question, nearly all attendees have questions connected to science.
"We make science less mysterious and more approachable," White said. "We share a little bit of ourselves and particularly help distinguish fundamental research from applied science."
To be successful in any outreach program, White said, you have to connect what you do to what the audience knows or what they want to know.
"This is an opportunity to meet the public face-to-face and present the human side of our work at the laboratory," White said. "They get a different perspective about the lab when they talk to a person than they can get from brochures."
The Ask-a-Scientist program is now seeking Fermilab scientists or users from all levels to volunteer for upcoming sessions. Anyone interested can contact Garbincius or Nancy Lanning, who coordinates the lectures.
"Everybody ought to try being part of this program," White said. "It is a great skill to be able to talk to the public, and this helps you develop that skill."
Learn more about the Ask-a-Scientist program.
-- Rhianna Wisniewski