PhysCon 2016: A Wooster Student in San Francisco –Guest Blog by Zane Thornburg

When I began studying physics, I had no idea that scientists travel so much. In the fall of 2016, I attended the Quadrennial Physics Congress, PhysCon. Before I get to talking about the conference itself, I think it is worth mentioning that this was the farthest I have ever traveled, so I had a lot of excitement knowing it was the first time I had ever been in a different time zone.

View of mountains from our plane window on the way to San Francisco

The flight there had very tight timing, and we were to have a tour of Google X very soon after our flight was to land. When we arrived and found that we had made it in time for the tour, I was absolutely ecstatic. We stood in a lobby containing over 100 physics students and got to socialize while we waited, and although I had not slept in over 24 hours, I was having a blast meeting physics students from across the country.

The tour of Google X was not at all what I expected. It was more of two and a half hours of talks about their public projects followed by a twenty minute walk-through of the first floor of one of their buildings. At first I was mildly upset, but then I couldn’t help but laugh at myself. I am not sure why I ever expected them to show us anything truly confidential, as we were only a bunch of undergraduate students. I must say, though, I highly encourage anyone to look up the public projects of Google X and read about them. The work being done on those projects is astounding.

Justine, Nathaniel, Emma, and Zane in front of Google X

After we got back from Google X, we had a snack and were directed into the ballroom for the opening session and the first plenary speaker. There were over 1000 physics undergraduates in that room, and it was a beautiful sight. The first plenary speaker was Dame Jocelyn Bell-Burnell, who discussed many exciting recent discoveries as well as unsolved mysteries in astrophysics. Although I have never had much interest in astronomy beyond being an amateur astronomer, she made me feel like I am missing out by not studying astrophysics. At the end of her talk, the floor was opened to questions. This was promptly ended when a student rudely inquired about her feeling of “being cheated out of a Nobel Prize.”

The next morning we had breakfast with volunteering professional scientists. I sat down apart from the rest of the group with a younger woman who works at Lawrence-Berkeley National Laboratory. Some of the other students at this table seemed very self-centered with the conversation and kept interrupting as I tried to listen to her stories, one of which may be the most hilarious lab safety story I have ever heard. I have tried telling it, but she told it much better.   We then had the pleasure to hear Dr. Neil Turok speak. I don’t think I got much out of the science in his talk other than laughter from hearing him tease the ideas of theories such as multiverse theory and string theory. What I really picked up from his talk was something he said at the beginning that was something along the lines of saying, “In science, there is still room for individual brilliance, but the day of the independent scientist is over. The big problems of today are too difficult for any one person.”

View of the bay from our hotel in San Francisco

The afternoon consisted of a workshop in which groups had to make something that solved a problem out of construction paper. The required materials and functions were given by drawing three random cards from a deck. Brainstorming and working with individuals from across the country was compelling since we had many different thoughts and ideas from having different backgrounds. The group Nathaniel Moore and I worked with designed mobile greenhouses to traverse the surface of Mars to stay with the sunlit side of the planet. This was followed by a talk from Dr. Persis Drell, which I found to be inspirational in the area of diversity in STEM. During the questions after the talk, a white male asked her what actions white males should take to want to make STEM environments more comfortable for women and minorities. I found this question to be important and have decided to ask that question myself whenever I can because I cannot understand what needs to be done since I do not experience the discomfort of not being a white male. Her response to the question was for white males to not be afraid to stand up to people who are discriminating against others and to not show strange behavior that might make someone feel they are out of place. After the plenary session, there were three workshops from which we had to choose one. Nate and I went to “What is Grad School Really Like?” It turned out to be a panel session from which I feel I did not learn much. I’m not sure what all I hoped to get from that session, but I don’t feel like I learned much that will be useful to me.

AIP President Robert Brown and Zane at the PhysCon dance

The events of the evening are still one of the best highlights in my mind. After dinner, we had the opportunity to go to a PhysCon dance party. Not half an hour after it started, I noticed that the president of the American Institute of Physics, Dr. Robert Brown, had showed up. I thought it was amazing that he showed up to see all of the students dance, but then he handed his jacket to someone and joined us on the dance floor. I thought I had to be dreaming. There I was, doing the Cupid Shuffle with the president of the AIP. He was done dancing after just a few songs, so I went over to him after he was finished and introduced myself and told him that I admired him for joining us on the dance floor. He gave me some advice in response, “Never stop being around young people.” The rest of the dance was great too, even though my dancing skills are quite poor and mostly involve flailing around. Also, I have never heard so much music from the early- to mid- 2000s in one night.

The last morning and early afternoon were composed of a plenary talk by the string theorist Dr. S. James Gates and two other workshops. Later in the afternoon, there was a plenary talk given by Dr. Eric Cornell. I found his plenary talk to be very inspirational in several regards. To begin, he told us that he would not be discussing the Bose-Einstein condensate, but would be discussing his more recent research in trying to measure the dipole moment of an electron. I found it difficult not to laugh at one of his comments. He was giving us the introduction to the research and he said that he had some difficulties with some of the background regarding ions when he started. This is where he inserted the comment, “My chemistry level is that of a high school freshman at best.” I just found that comment to be amusing. Near the end of the talk, he spoke briefly about his feelings toward taking on a completely new area of research. He told us he felt that he was in way over his head with the new area of research at times and told us to always challenge ourselves. Hearing a Nobel laureate say that he is in over his head is something I never thought I would hear.

At the end of the talk, the floor was opened to questions and Dr. Cornell told us that we could ask him about anything including his asymmetry (he is missing his left arm if you aren’t aware). Someone did ask about his arm, which turned out to be a tear-jerking story. One of the other questions asked was for a brief description of the timeline of his career since he had mentioned his regular life events accompanying his work leading to the Nobel Prize. We ended up getting a five to ten minute overview of his life, which I think was one of the most influential things I have heard in a research talk. I felt awestruck and happy to hear about the life of a Nobel laureate that sounded very commonplace. He also made some comments regarding his recognition he was given and his gift that were hilarious. His comment after being given his gift was, “Swag!”

After the talk, the second poster session began (we had missed the first). There were literally hundreds of posters being presented by undergraduates. I could write another entire blog post purely on everything I learned during that poster session. The quality of the work being presented as well as the presentations was incredibly high, and even included work in physics education and outreach. As the poster session was ending and I was walking out of the poster area, but I noticed someone was walking the opposite direction into the poster session. After closer observation, I noticed that the person was Eric Cornell. All of the other plenary speakers had been hounded by students after their talks, so I did not get to meet any of them. I knew he wanted to get to see some of the posters, so I did not want to take up a lot of his time. I walked over to him, though, since there was no one else gathering around him, and meeting him one on one was truly delightful and humbling.

The last events of PhysCon were a banquet followed by the last plenary talk given by Patrick Brady. Sadly, the banquet was not very enjoyable. The food was very good, but I felt uncomfortable at the table we had seated ourselves at. After the talk began, I realized it was going to be another LIGO talk. I understand that it is one of the most astounding experiments in recent physics, and I find it to be amazing and exciting, but I had already heard talks about it multiple times. This combined with my discomfort at the table and my desire to sleep before our early morning flight led me to leave and go to sleep.

Overall, PhysCon is a true highlight of my undergraduate career in physics. I would recommend the event to anyone and everyone who can find their way to the next one. I am so glad I have chosen to go into physics, not only because of the incredible ways we find to explain and predict physical phenomena, because the people I have met and the places I’ve gone and will go are astounding.