How do you get the general public interested in physics? How do you show in an accessible way why and how you do physics? How do you convince youngsters to study physics? These are all non-trivial questions, which many physicists have posed themselves when trying to reach out to the general public. Ultimately, their goal is to transmit what Roger Penrose calls “the excitement of doing physics.”
Despite having a growing number of specialists in HEP, some Latin American countries like Venezuela still have a great gap between the scientific community and the general public. Depending on the place and the socio-economic circumstances, one can find twelve-year-olds that know about the existence of the LHC, but also last-year high school students that are misinformed and discouraged about attending the university (even if they don’t have to pay for it), not to mention pursuing a career in science. Part of the problem is also that specialists in specific areas may work abroad, as is the case for most of the Venezuelan experimental high energy physicists.
The good news are that there are more and more people worried about these problems that are taking action to address them.
CEVALE2: What is it?
The “Virtual Center for Higher Studies in High Energy Physics”, CEVALE2, is an initiative to promote and spread the interest in HEP in Latin American countries. Its contributors are mainly Venezuelan scientists working at CERN and physics professors in Venezuela and Colombia, who organize events aiming at different audiences: from the non-scientist public to physics students.
I first heard about them a couple of years ago, when they organized an introductory high energy physics course for physics students in three Venezuelan universities, including mine. The program comprised a series of video-conference lectures with an important focus on the physics of the LHC, as well as a hands-on project. The local professors would host the students and arrange the venues for the video-lectures. Although I didn’t enroll in that course (because I had just taken particle physics in Sweden), I could witness the great impact that this course had on the community.
More recently, CEVALE2 has also organized seminars, masterclasses and outreach events supported by the Physics Without Frontiers program. The masterclasses are one-day-long sessions for high school students or university freshmen, providing the chance to go through a simple physics analysis using real LHC data. Six institutions from Venezuela and Colombia have hosted these events in the past months.
What should we expect?
There is a handful of outcomes that one can already notice from this effort. The course has helped students start a career in particle physics; a few of them have become Summer Students in big labs, like Anabel Romero at CERN and Manuel Morgado at DESY, just to cite two examples from my university.
On top of that, the masterclasses and talks always trigger the interest of the general public in the field and potentially lead to choose physics as a career. (These events should never be underestimated, as the first time I considered becoming a physicist was after a screening of The Elegant Universe back in 2007.)
Naturally, there are many objectives that are only feasible on a longer term, but this doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be pursued! Founding local research groups, establishing exchange and collaboration agreements, looking for financial support and, why not, eventually have nation-wide collaborations with CERN, are part of the work that CEVALE2 is conducting in Latin America.