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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

Princeton

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

attendees

from deep space to the workaday world of living molecules, showcasing

the

passions and talents of Princeton’s remarkable scientific community.

Only a handful of locations in the country offer such a rich and

diverse

community of scientists, says Norton Bretz, principal research

physicist

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,

pharmaceuticals,

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

collaborating

with seven other institutions to build a dedicated telescope and

camera to

map the nearest 10 percent of the universe.

The series also includes Isaac Held of Princeton University’s

Geophysical

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

14.

The corporate corridor is well represented: Laura Whatley from

American

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

Forest

Biotechnology," on March 21. Two technological giants are also

included: A team from PPPL’s neighbor, the Sarnoff Corporation,

presents

"TV Systems Old and New: Introducing Digital, High-density

Television" at Sarnoff’s Washington Road research center on

February 14.

And Don Monroe from Bell Laboratories in Murray Hill will answer

"How

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

year’s

series is the one to which PPPL’s host scientists are dedicated:

plasma

physics.

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,

free-flowing

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

development

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

science

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

wanted

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

Carroll.

"We try to focus on cutting-edge topics and scientists who can

present them well, conveying some of the passion they feel for their

work."

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

stereotypes

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

scientists,

such depictions can send a confused and discouraging message.

"It’s

important for young people to see scientists as full-dimensional

people," says Bretz. "That makes them think a little harder

about

who is smart and who can do science. Students frequently don’t

associate

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

specific,

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

counterparts.

"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

tremendous.

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

matter

who you are."

Encouragingly, several of the scientists see science education

improving,

"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

emphasis

placed on methodology and hands-on experimentation than on rote

memorization

of individual facts." Carroll, who directs PPPL’s Science

Education

Program, agrees. "There has been a steady and constant improvement

this past decade that has really picked up over the last five

years."

But few communities boast of a series like Science on Saturday —

a felicitous and essential spin-off from the nucleus of national

effort

being made to improve how science and technology is taught and

learned.

— Phyllis B. Maguire

Science on Saturday, Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory,

Forrestal Campus, 609-243-2121. January 17 to March 21, with no

programs

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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