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A Fusion of Scientists
This article by Phyllis Maguire was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper
on January 14, 1998. All rights reserved.
Science on Saturday, the eight-lecture series presented by the
Plasma Physics Laboratory, kicks off its 14th season at PPPL’s James
Forrestal campus on Saturday, January 17. If past seasons provide an
accurate measure, Science on Saturday will transport 2,500 rapt
from deep space to the workaday world of living molecules, showcasing
passions and talents of Princeton’s remarkable scientific community.
Only a handful of locations in the country offer such a rich and
community of scientists, says Norton Bretz, principal research
at PPPL and one of the series’ organizers. "You would have to
live in Palo Alto, Boston, the North Carolina research triangle —
or here," he claims, "but I think here has other places beat
hands down because of the presence of so many universities,
and industrial research labs." In choosing topics and presenters
for the series, Bretz says he and his colleagues try for as broad
a range as possible. "This is the one program in the area that
brings scientists from business and academics together, so audiences
can see the full range of research and career options."
This year’s series, like its predecessors, features a sampling of
area scientists. The first lecture is by Gillian Knapp, a Princeton
University astrophysicist who, in her talk on "Mapping the
Universe," will describe a project in which Princeton is
with seven other institutions to build a dedicated telescope and
map the nearest 10 percent of the universe.
The series also includes Isaac Held of Princeton University’s
Fluid Dynamics Laboratory, who speaks on "Global Warming"
on January 31. Clarence Schutt of Princeton’s Chemistry Department
will go molecular on March 7 with "The Architectronics of Living
Molecules". And William Thomas of Richard Stockton College of
New Jersey presents "Cannibals and Conservation" on March
The corporate corridor is well represented: Laura Whatley from
Cyanimid will discuss "Maintaining Biodiversity While Protecting
Crops" on February 7; and Steve Wann, of Union Camp Corporation
in Lawrenceville, gives the final lecture, "Tree Cloning and
Biotechnology," on March 21. Two technological giants are also
included: A team from PPPL’s neighbor, the Sarnoff Corporation,
"TV Systems Old and New: Introducing Digital, High-density
Television" at Sarnoff’s Washington Road research center on
And Don Monroe from Bell Laboratories in Murray Hill will answer
Many Transistors Can Fit on the Head of a Pin (and All Work)?"
on February 21.
The series’ mix of business and academics, with pure
and applied science, is a welcome one for Bell Labs’ Monroe. "I’m
trained as a pure scientist, now doing applied research," he says.
"Much of the political support for science is largely derived
from technological advances, so it’s good to see them together. One
of the things I’d like to communicate is the idea that scientific
careers include solving technological problems, all of which are very
interesting on a scientific level."
In fact, one of the few scientific topics not touched on in this
series is the one to which PPPL’s host scientists are dedicated:
Plasma physics, says Diane Carroll, head of PPPL’s Science Education
Program, is "the study of very hot gases. Traditionally matter
has been classified as solids, liquids, and gases, but plasmas are
the fourth state. Plasma occurs when you heat a gas to the point that
electrons separate from the atom nucleus, becoming a very hot,
medium that responds to magnetic fields because the particles are
charged. The sun, the stars, interstellar matter — over 90 percent
of the matter in the universe is in the plasma state. The thrust of
our plasma research is fusion energy."
PPPL began as a small project in 1951, a part of Princeton University
founded by the illustrious (and recently deceased) astrophysicist,
Lyman Spitzer. Spitzer had a vision of fusion — the principle
behind the hydrogen bomb — being controlled and sustained as an
energy resource, and though research at PPPL was never for bomb
or military application, it was highly classified for its first 10
years. By the late 1960s PPPL had evolved into a large-scale fusion
laboratory and now, with funding provided by the U. S. Department
of Energy, it employs a staff of 350. Despite a succession of budget
cutbacks in recent years, it still maintains a ferocious commitment
to community, state-wide, and national science education.
Says Carroll: "We have undergraduate research summer programs,
as well as semester-long programs for high school students. We sponsor
a Hopewell Valley High School robot-building project, and we are in
partnership with the Trenton Public Schools. We host the National
Science Bowl — the winner goes on to the national competition
in Washington — and we sponsor many enhancement programs for
teachers, down through the elementary school level." The Science
on Saturday series is part of PPPL’s community mission. "As we
became a larger, more visible laboratory," she says, "we
to find ways to reach out to the community and let them learn a little
more about us." About every other year, one Science on Saturday
lecture will concern plasma physics, though each year’s series focuses
on "hot" scientific topics with wide community appeal.
"Cloning is hot this year, as is global warming," says
"We try to focus on cutting-edge topics and scientists who can
present them well, conveying some of the passion they feel for their
Fusing scientists with lay audiences brings enormous
benefits to them both. The lectures — geared to the level of high
school science — draw many middle and high school students, giving
them the opportunity to meet working scientists and to question them
about their field of expertise. "It’s important for students to
see the whole spectrum of people doing science now," says Monroe,
and PPPL’s Bretz agrees. "Science is changing so rapidly that
students, from a purely practical point of view, need to be fairly
adaptable," he says. "The series presents a broad range of
scientific endeavors. As students go through their education, they
may find they are at the top of their field, the brightest and the
best — but most people are average and may have to make practical
choices about how to make a living and what their interests are. The
different lectures demonstrate that people with a scientific bent
can be involved with science at many different levels."
But just as important as showing the breadth of scientific careers
and applications, Science on Saturday affords the public a needed
reality check on people who are scientists. What scientific
have become common coin? "Pick one," says Bretz. He cites
the movie "I.Q," filmed here in Princeton, and "Jurassic
Park," as fairly typical: "The bright savant who is
good at computer games but restricted intellectually and socially
incompetent." Carroll mentions last year’s "The Saint,"
in which the fusion physicist played by Elizabeth Shue kept scientific
formulas fetchingly stuffed in her well-filled bra. For budding
such depictions can send a confused and discouraging message.
important for young people to see scientists as full-dimensional
people," says Bretz. "That makes them think a little harder
who is smart and who can do science. Students frequently don’t
themselves with the characters they see, so meeting scientists lets
them realize they fit in too."
For Gillian Knapp, the astrophysicist who is a veteran
Science on Saturday presenter, the interchange helps dispel some of
the remoteness perceived in scientific practitioners. "I think
science is often regarded as a rather inhuman pursuit," she says.
"Some people believe that the proper study of man is man, that
we should be more concerned with what’s going on here on earth, how
people behave and so on. But scientists will tell you that the thing
that drives us must be part of human nature, and kids get to see that
through this series. Scientists are really driven by something that
is in all of us: curiosity about where we came from and the need to
understand the world around us."
And for the scientists, interacting with an engaged lay audience is
a breath of fresh air. "When scientists talk to each other, they
often focus on some very narrow aspect of their research," says
Carroll. "At scientific meetings, most papers are on very
in-depth topics, so scientists welcome the opportunity to talk about
how their piece of the puzzle fits into the big picture. And these
are all big-picture talks, on research over several years and how
it fits into an entire discipline."
While the ages represented by the Saturday audience cover the spectrum
(typically ages 8 to 80, attendance at each session is usually about
300), it is the young people for and from whom Knapp feels the most
enthusiasm. Growing up in Edinburgh, Scotland, she found few resources
as a science student — a memory echoed by her American
"There was something called the Scientific Film Society at the
museum," Knapp recalls. "I used to love to see them, but I
would very much have liked to have had something like this." Knapp
keeps in constant touch with students, not only through her Princeton
professorship but with her own extracurricular commitments. "I
go sometimes to grade and nursery schools, talking to the kids about
what we’re doing," she says. "The questions they ask are
You would think children would ask very naive questions, and sometimes
they do — but they are the same questions scientists grapple with
every day. It is true that `God is in the details,’ and as scientists,
we work those details out, but the big questions are the same no
who you are."
Encouragingly, several of the scientists see science education
"especially in New Jersey," according to Bretz, citing the
New Jersey Core Curriculum Content Standards, adopted in 1996 from
national benchmarks for science literacy. "There is now more
placed on methodology and hands-on experimentation than on rote
of individual facts." Carroll, who directs PPPL’s Science
Program, agrees. "There has been a steady and constant improvement
this past decade that has really picked up over the last five
But few communities boast of a series like Science on Saturday —
a felicitous and essential spin-off from the nucleus of national
being made to improve how science and technology is taught and
— Phyllis B. Maguire
Forrestal Campus, 609-243-2121. January 17 to March 21, with no
scheduled on January 24 or February 28. All lectures are free and
take place at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (except for
the February 14 session held at the Sarnoff Research Center). Lectures
begin at 9:30 a.m. and last about two hours. Registration is on-site
prior to each session. Seating is on a first-come, first-served basis
in the PPPL auditorium, though overflow is directed to a large-screen
TV set up in the cafeteria (where families with younger children are
encouraged to go). For more information, call the Science on Saturday
Hotline and leave a message. All calls will be returned.
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