Monday, 24 June 2013

Taking physics to new audiences: a realisation

A few months ago an amazing thing happened. I talked to my identical twin sister about my research.

We've lived on opposite sides of the world for the last six years and she didn't really know much about what I was doing, other than working on something to do with particle physics. Perhaps this situation with my sister seems odd to you, so let me explain how we ended up with this state of affairs.

Yep, that's really us. Cute, huh?
My sister and I got almost identical marks throughout high school (in Australia) except she'd do slightly better in the humanities and I'd do slightly better in the sciences. We were both pretty academic so the distinction was pretty trivial, but over time she leaned more towards history and I leaned more towards maths and physics. She's now a professional historian and part-time rock star, but that's another story.

The last time we discussed science was when I was in my fourth year of my undergraduate physics course at Melbourne University. We ended up in a heated argument about nuclear power in which she refused to acknowledge or even discuss the possibility that it might not be evil incarnate destined to mutate our children into three-eyed monsters in the way that she supposed had happened in Chernobyl. I believe our conversation ended with her announcing she had no interest in science and that I knew nothing. Well, that was that. 

We simply spoke about other topics while she pursued her career in history and I pursued mine in physics. Don't worry, it didn't ruin our relationship, it's just that after this event I didn't tell her much about my work. She remained my greatest science communication challenge.

This went on for about five years.

Then a few weeks ago I explained to her (via Facebook, the shame!) that I work on developing particle accelerators. I want to figure out how to make them smaller, cheaper and more efficient. I want to understand how they work and come up with new ones to solve problems in the world. At the moment the problem I'm focusing on is energy and nuclear waste.

To sum up my current research I said:

I'm currently working on designing a high power proton accelerator to drive something called an Accelerator Driven Subcritical Reactor. It's nuclear fission but without the nasty a) waste, b) proliferation risk, c) meltdowns and d) public perception issues. It uses Thorium instead of Uranium in the core & doesn't produce plutonium. As a bonus, it could transmute the long lived nuclear waste of existing power plants.

To my utter surprise she was interested and actually shared my explanation of what I do with her mostly non-academic music-loving rockstar friends.

The response?

"Fricking yes!"

"Nerdgasm. Science is awesome."


"Glad to hear it!" 

"Super fricking sweet!" 

"Thorium \m/ metal!" 

"That's hot!" 

Some of them even went on to ask more questions, look things up or just generally praise the fact that there are people out there working on new ideas like this. 

That was when it hit me. My sister and her friends aren't disaffected or disinterested. They are concerned, as concerned as anyone else out there about the issues facing us as a society. They simply don't feel that what they learned many years ago in high school will help them to be any more informed or knowledgable about what is happening, right now, in our society. 

I mean how is calculating the velocity of a falling ball in a vacuum going to help them to know whether they are justified in driving a gas-guzzling vintage car because it has prevented a new one from having to be built? How will rolling a ball down an inclined plane help them understand the effects of climate change and the risk and uncertainty involved?

They might not have degrees in science, but this unspeakably cool switched-on crowd still crave scientific knowledge and understanding.

However, their information comes in dribs and drabs. They aren't the kind to go to a "science" talk or to even read an article in a newspaper (have you SEEN how jargon-filled some articles on the LHC are nowadays? The journalists might as well be doing the physics!). It's fair to say our standard avenues of science communication simply don't reach this crowd**.

They are the kind of audience who might read one thing and be convinced one way, then have another conversation and be convinced another way. That's healthy. Letting new insight and evidence overthrow previous ideas; that's science. But it's hard for them to wade through the absolute rubbish out there on the internet and find the good stuff. That's why we communicate science, as best we can.

It got me thinking though. For audiences like this one perhaps scientists are only part of the picture? The experience of briefly getting involved in the scientific process and understanding the challenge from our perspective is great, but let's face it, it's not enough. These people are constantly faced with issues like climate change and GM food but they don't necessarily want to focus on the problems, they want to focus on solutions. They want answers. Society wants answers.

But for some of the biggest problems we face there is one big issue with that: science simply doesn't have all the answers. 

Instead of just looking at the science itself we need to understand society, how it works and how the historical picture fits, in order to actually make things happen. Even the best technological solutions won't win without the right approach, just like betamax vs VHS.

I hope I can use this experience to inform my science communication in the future. I feel I've probably spent too much time insisting that the science is the most important part, while neglecting avenues for engagement and missing the point of 'what people want'. I think a more integrated approach is in order.

I have learned something about connecting with disengaged audiences and perhaps I'm getting better at understanding how to make science fit in with the bigger picture of history, politics, society and culture.

Thanks, sis.

**I'm glad to see new initiatives taking science to music festivals, something I'll be doing myself for the first time this summer!

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  1. Wonderful to read. I find the "what people want" bit is in many ways the most exhausting part, because they often do want clear answers where there aren't any, or want the answers explained in a way that mathematically doesn't exist yet (some of the climate change questions I got in 2007 were like that - wanting a "maximum number" for something which global research did put out a good answer for a year later, but I wasn't a well-funded lab with a year to find the answer!). And when you can't provide a clear answer, or a new idea appears to change the possibilities, then "science obviously doesn't agree yet" and all possible answers remain equally credible. The bit of science literacy I most wish more people had is the understanding and acceptance that answers begin imperfect and get better as they go, not just get completely chucked out and replaced with their polar opposite.

    Working with what people want also makes you a bit more susceptible to trolls if you're working with mass media as opposed to in-person, and they are a bit tiring. Thankfully trolls don't like to hang out at science shows :-)

  2. Agreeing with you 100% there Suzie!

    Finding more engaging ways to bring science into the mainstream, ways to captivate the "non-academic music-loving rockstar friend" is a necessity to the future and development of humanity! -- It's a big deal... Thanks to the creation and globalisation of the internet (yes thank-you cern) we are no longer restricted to the restraints of traditional knowledge & education.

    The problem that I see is not really the media, or fear of lack of knowledge... It all boils down to how we receive our education. Children are forced to sit in a classroom for 7 or so hours a day and study from a text book about things that are often no longer relevant to this decade or even century. If we want to bridge the gap, allow for the true innovation and development of every individual to their maximum potential, we need to treat education like it's 2013, oh while we're there maybe make it enjoyable (I've skipped over your "5 things you should never do with a particle accelerator" video and it's great - why didn't you do lectures back in 2000 ;)"

    - let's face it... The average person wants to learn new and exciting things but generally the delivery style and methodology of the content is what put's them off... I'm not just talking classroom education - I'm talking every aspect of life... from the fancy bar or night club with tesla coils sparking away, to the latest 3d printers where innovation is only limited to the imagination ...

    People want to be engaged, they want to learn and explore new possibilities - It's human nature... The problem is how we are engaged?? - If we want to see change, a shift in the paradigm... we need to solve these problems and the rest will come.. (Trust me ... I used to once be a 'non-academic music-loving *insert-all-the-rest* bogan').

  3. Suzie - Unfortunately, your story of communications success makes my own self-appointed task of sharing the good news about nuclear fission just a little bit harder. I don't agree that there is anything actually "nasty" about uranium. Plutonium, for all of the demonization it has received over the past 55 years, is actually a very valuable fission fuel material that contains 2 million times as much energy per unit mass as oil.

    The volume of the world's used nuclear fuel is quite tiny compared to the amount of emission free energy it has produced. The really good news is that it still contains about 95% of the initial potential energy. There are known ways to safely use a substantially larger portion of that energy before the material has to be isolated as "waste".

    I applaud the fact that people are working hard to make nuclear fission better and to find ways of converting what some think of as waste into energy, but the nuclear technology that we already have working today is FAR safer and environmentally friendly than all other competing products. Keeping "old" nuclear plants running is a much more important benefit than keeping old cars running to prevent new ones from being produced; a single large nuclear plant can produce about 8 billion kilowatt hours of zero carbon electricity every year. If one is shut down out of misplaced fear, no matter what replaces it, the world's carbon footprint will increase.

    In the past two years, dozens of useful nuclear plants have been forced off line in an irrational response to a massive natural disaster that destroyed three nuclear plants without causing a single injury due to radiation. As a direct result of the excess fear, the world's fossil fuel industry has captured an increase in sales worth several tens of billions of dollars.

    Keep up the good work in trying to share the excitement of solving problems, but please take a harder look at the reasons why self-sustained nuclear fission (the kind that does not need any expensive accelerators) has such a negative "public perception issue."

    Rod Adams, Publisher, Atomic Insights

    1. Hi Rod, thanks for your message.

      Let me start out by saying I too am a supporter of nuclear fission (the kind of reactor that would be driven by the accelerator I'm working on is, after all, a fission reactor) but I am all too keenly aware of the public perception issues surrounding it. Something I didn't mention in this post is that Australia in particular has a stronger anti-nuclear stance than most other westernised countires, having never had a nuclear power plant and with (currently) none about to be built. The anti-nuclear sentiment is focused around the four issues I mentioned in my post above.

      There are two ways to tackle that issue - try piece by piece to change public perception (a laudible idea but one that has had very little traction so far) or change the game by offering a solution which, at a basic level, solves the existing issues. Both methods are valid.

      I applaud your efforts to spread the "good news" about nuclear fission but it is, I fear, a little too late for that. As you say, dozens of plants have already been shut down. I would love to think some effective science communication could change that but I am perhaps not as optimistic as you are...

      As for some of your other points:

      I agree that Plutonium is a valuable nuclear material, but it is still possible to make bombs out of it. In the right hands that's fine, but what if it falls into the wrong hands? Wouldn't it be better if this were simply not an option at all?

      Also, I agree that the nuclear waste is tiny compared to the energy obtained, but there is still a HUGE worldwide problem of nuclear waste storage which desperately needs addressing. Transmutation with a thorium reactor is a serious possibility to shorten the storage lifetime of existing waste. This can be done with or without an accelerator. (Although clearly I talk about the accelerator version because that's the one I work on!)

      So yes, we should work on communicating the positive side of current nuclear fission reactors (which of course I know are very safe etc, no need to remind me that no-one was injured from radiation at Fukushima!) while thinking about what might be superior in the future.

      Would be happy to discuss more.

    2. Hi, Suzie!  Long time energy-blogger here.

      "Plutonium is a valuable nuclear material, but it is still possible to make bombs out of it."

      Actually, it isn't unless the Pu is specially made.  Weapons-grade Pu is 93% or more Pu-239, to avoid the heat generation from Pu-238 and the high neutron emissions from spontaneous fissions of Pu-240.  In a thermal neutron spectrum, about 35% of neutron captures in Pu-239 create Pu-240 which is essentially non-fissionable and accumulates.  This quickly makes the Pu isotope mix completely unsuitable for weapons.

      How unsuitable, you might ask?  Unsuitable to the point that NO nuclear proliferator has ever used plutonium recovered from spent PWR or BWR fuel to make a bomb.  Ever.  England and France both recover a lot of Pu from spent fuel, and never use it for military purposes.  The way to make bomb-grade Pu is to push uranium through a neutron flux which converts a small fraction of the U-238 to Np-239, but only a small fraction of the Np-239 and Pu-239 to atomic mass 240.  IIUC, you can't do this in a reactor with a core that's sealed up for 18 months at a time and producing 40,000 MW-d/t or more during its run.  The resulting Pu mix is way too high in both heat generation and neutron emissions to make a weapon warhead out of it, and even crude bombs are problematic.  It's far easier to enrich uranium to bomb-grade.

      "what if it falls into the wrong hands?"

      How likely are they to die from radiation poisoning before they could get any chemical separation done, all to get something that cannot make a useful bomb?  Let them waste their time and effort!  Unfortunately, if the public knows the truth, so will terrorists and they'll attack softer targets.

      "there is still a HUGE worldwide problem of nuclear waste storage which desperately needs addressing."

      Is it on the order of e.g. heavy-metal poisoning, such as in India where falling water tables allow oxidation of arsenic in aquifer rocks to soluble forms and its extraction with groundwater, poisoning people both directly and through its inclusion in food crops?  (Indian basmati rice has arsenic levels tens of times that of American short-grain rice.)  How about the seepage of toxics from coal-ash dumps, or from fraccing fluids from the production of natural gas?

      In truth, the problem is neither huge nor urgent; it is minuscule and easily deferred for at least a century through the use of dry casks.  In that century at least 90% of the Cs-137 and Sr-90 will decay, leaving only 10% of the original problem to deal with.  We can actually make use of much of the "waste" right away, but letting it sit while politics catches up to our abilities isn't going to hurt much.

      "Transmutation with a thorium reactor is a serious possibility to shorten the storage lifetime of existing waste."

      Any neutron source will do.  Fast-spectrum reactors also create excess neutrons which can convert long-lived isotopes such as Tc-99 to something stable.  Or we can just encapsulate it in glass and plant it someplace stable, like salt domes.  If we can put it where it can't get out before it decays, everyone is safe.

  4. It would really be helpful to have a tutor for high school physics. The subject is really tough and a lot of points should be thoroughly discussed.