This post is a summary of my experience last Friday at the European Researchers’ Night event in Padova. It was an interesting experience and gave me some insights regarding public outreach in these type of events which might be worth sharing and discussing here.
The event was organised in the patios and the streets around the “Palazzo del Bo”, a historical building belonging to the University of Padova and also hosting the world’s first permanent anatomical theatre. The INFN and the Physics and Astronomy Department had two large exhibition stands filled with different experiments and exhibits managed by about 20 researchers who volunteered for the night. Apart from me, two of the volunteers were AMVA4NewPhysics’ collaborators: Sabine, our press office coordinator and likely moderator of this post, and Martino, one of the postdocs of the group and my office mate. Andres, the other postdoc of our group was also there for part of the night as an unofficial photographer.
Our exhibitions included a LEGO-based laser interferometer to explain how to detect gravitational waves, a working sputtering setup, a laser labyrinth, science-based games for kids and a cloud chamber built by students of the department. For unknown reasons at the time, we could not get the cloud chamber to work for the night, even though it was working flawlessly in the test performed by the students days before. While they were a bit annoyed, they still explained how it worked and what it detects and then showed videos of the chamber filmed days before to the interested public. To avoid open endings, the students came today to the office to show me the same setup working properly and told me that they concluded that the alcohol used that night was the cause, because it had been reused from the tests the day before and was somehow contaminated with condensed water or dust.
My piece of the pie, apart from helping out setting the exhibition stand in the morning, was to use an audiovisual installation created by INFN in collaboration with artist-programmer Paolo Scoppola called “Il Donno della Massa”/”The Gift of Mass” to get the attention of the public and explain them some concepts of Particle Physics in layman terms. You can check out the video below for demonstration and explanation of the installation, filmed when it was in a museum. We had a downscaled version of what is shown in the video, it used a Microsoft Kinect and a single large screen instead of being surrounded by wall projections.
In this artistic representation, your shadow will get coloured in the screen as you travel over a dynamical background, composed of white features. The background is nothing but a metaphor of the Higgs field, which permeates the whole Universe. The dynamical interaction of the fundamental particles (your body in the same metaphor) with this field effectively slows them down giving them mass. The mass of each particle depends on the strength of the interaction with the Higgs field. This mechanism is an explanation of the origin of the masses of the fundamental particles of the Standard Model which matches very well with previous current theoretical understanding.
Our initial aim was to link from that visualisation to our work in the CMS experiments and the AMVA4NewPhysics’ network. However, I experimentally found out that explaining the mentioned metaphor to the public was not easy, the analogy was too abstract and the link with the scientific background is not totally intuitive.
Furthermore, my interaction with the attendees was in Italian, so my expressive power was limited. For the sake of using an even stranger inverse metaphor of the Higgs mechanism: my mass would be small, if I was a fundamental particle in the Italian-language field. Nevertheless, the interactive exposition itself was quite effective at getting the attention of the public. The typical attendee group approaching us (Martino and I) would be composed of one or several kids and their parents. While it was hard to get the kids interested in the Higgs field analogy, they rather danced and gestured in front of the screen, parents sometimes were interested in the science background which motivates the metaphor.
To conclude, I was positively impressed by the amount of people that attended the Researchers’ Night in Padova and passed by our exhibition stand. Explaining concepts such as the Higgs field to the public is challenging, you have to avoid all jargon and reduce to the minimum the base knowledge required for the explanation, but it is definitely a fun exercise. Creative metaphors are really useful for scientific outreach, but sometimes it can be quite hard to link to the underlying science or maintain an appropriate level of scientific accuracy. Thinking now about next year’s European Researchers’ Night, I would like to prepare some demonstration and material which links directly to the work carried out within AMVA4NewPhysics and data analysis aspects of experimental High Energy Physics. Feel free to comment if you have suggestions.