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Everyday science

Everyday science

Drawing noise and speaking out

01 Mar 2012 Margaret Harris
Cartoon of a noisy magnetic system


Cartoonist Flash Rosenberg’s drawing of “noise in a magnetic system.”

By Margaret Harris at the APS March Meeting

This year’s APS meeting has been one of the biggest ever, with nearly 11,000 attendees and 54 parallel sessions. It’s impossible to capture the totality of such a huge conference, but here are a couple of snapshots.

One of the most entertaining talks I saw was given by a cartoonist, Flash Rosenberg. Rosenberg makes videos that pair her quick sketching skills with a scientific voice-over: as the scientists speak, she draws what they are saying. Rosenberg spoke during a session on communicating science to the public, and towards the end of her talk she offered to illustrate audience members’ research questions.

Understandably, several of them leaped at the chance. For the first question – “How do bubbles form in nuclear fuel?” – Rosenberg began by drawing nuclear fuel as an unhappy-looking gremlin. I wasn’t quick enough with my camera to capture the hilarious conclusion of her sketch, but another audience member has posted a video of it here (turn the sound up – it’s worth it).

I was better prepared for the second question, which was “How do you measure noise in a magnetic system?”. As you can see in the image above, Rosenberg’s idea of a noisy magnetic system is a couple whose quiet romantic dinner is being interrupted by loud music. Cute.

After Rosenberg’ talk, I headed over to another session that was, in its own way, just as unusual. This year, for the first time ever, the APS meeting included a series of talks devoted to issues that physicists who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) have experienced in their careers. I have to confess that this subject wasn’t really on my radar, and it seems that this lack of visibility is part of the problem: although there are several organizations devoted to women and ethnic minorities in physics, there are no equivalent LGBT groups. Another problem is a shortage of detailed statistics that could reveal, for example, how many LGBT physicists are out there, and what difficulties they are facing.

At a reception on Tuesday evening, I spoke to Elena Long, a nuclear-physics PhD student at Ohio’s Kent State University and one of the session’s organizers. Long has been trying to raise awareness of LGBT issues within physics since 2009, when a stint at the Jefferson National Laboratory meant that she was temporarily without the support network she’d developed back home. As she searched for alternatives, she discovered that she was far from alone: other people were looking for something similar, and many of them had also previously thought that they were, in effect, “the only gay in the (physics) village”.

Long hopes that sessions such as the one at APS March will start to change that perception, and she and her fellow organizers were pleased at the turn-out: more than 150 people attended at least one of their talks. This was the first year of such a session; I doubt it will be the last.

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