Taking The Stage At Famelab

by Sananda Biswas and Luca Grisanti

Luca Grisanti wowing the crowd. Image credit: Imaginario Scientifico

Luca wowing the crowd
Image credit: Imaginario Scientifico

Famelab is a challenge issued to scientists, asking us to explain scientific concepts to the general public in only 3 minutes. Both of us – Sananda and Luca – took that challenge and participated in this year’s round of the competition in Trieste, held back in February. The design of the competition is simple: we were asked to choose two scientific topics to be presented either in Italian or English, taking no more than 3 minutes to explain each. The presenters that the judges and audience like the first time around advance get to the second round, and the top two then go on to the International Famelab competition. This chance to talk to non-scientists was a unique opportunity, one we were both excited for.

Getting ready to get on stage for the competition was a process. The first challenge was to decide our topics: we had to convey scientific messages in the form of a coherent story and at the same time, thrill the audience. Of course, the preparation process and overall aim for the event were slightly differently for each of us.

Sananda Biswas making chemical bonds come alive. Image credit: Immaginario Scientifico

Sananda making chemical bonds come alive
Image credit: Immaginario Scientifico

Most of Sananda’s preparation was a search for an appropriate topic and message from her research, as she chose to talk about her work. “My aim was to raise the audience’s curiosity about scientific research, especially the school students,” says Sananda. “It’s exciting to be able to explain my work to people, to use simple terms to help them understand, and hopefully make them interested in learning more about physics and science.”

Luca participated in Famelab last year, and had developed a couple of ideas sometime back to prepare for 2016. His main objective was to explain a concept or a mechanism that the public hardly ever understood, although they observed it in their everyday life. “Science is everywhere, and most people haven’t thought about why things are the way they are.” Making them conscious of the science means they can enjoy and wonder at how things work.

Science Diplomacy: From Theory to Practice

by Bernard Amadei

The historic Apollo-Soyuz docking. Image by NASA [public domain]

The historic Apollo-Soyuz docking. Image by NASA [public domain]

Science diplomacy is a term often used to describe how science can serve as a vehicle to create transboundary and cross-disciplinary partnerships through scientific collaboration. It can mean different things to different people, ranging from integrating sciences in diplomacy to integrating diplomacy in science. To that list, we should add engineering diplomacy, which is to engineering what science diplomacy is to science. There is indeed a need to define science diplomacy, as many young scientists and engineers seem to be interested in contributing to that field. Questions still remain as to how to train scientists and engineers in the fundamentals of diplomacy and how to train diplomats in integrating science, technology and engineering in their day-to-day decision making.

As an engineer, I may not know exactly how to define science (or engineering) diplomacy, but I certainly know how to recognize it when I see it and/or am part of it. Over the past 15 years, I have had the privilege to work with younger people (mostly engineers) interested in development issues. I have been in the field with many of them, have offered lectures, taught classes, and contributed to workshops and seminars on the role of engineers in addressing the many technical and non-technical issues that contribute to human development and poverty reduction in general. In 2001, I founded Engineers Without Borders (EWB)-USA and co-founded EWB-International. The former now has more than 16000 professional and student members in the US alone working on 600 or so projects in 45 countries. In 2004, I also started a program on Engineering for Developing Communities at the University of Colorado, which in 2008 became the Mortenson Center in Engineering for Developing Communities. The center, which I co-direct, promotes integrated and participatory solutions to humanitarian development by educating globally responsible engineering students and professionals to address the problems faced by developing communities worldwide. In 2013 and 2014, I served as a US Department of State Science Envoy to Pakistan and Nepal, where I explored and initiated activities around Science, Technology, and Engineering for Development (STE4D).

All the aforementioned activities have shown me that science (or engineering) diplomacy is alive and well.

Closing the Physics Gender Gap

By Elizabeth Simmons

Dr. Simmons presenting at ICTP, 2015

 ICTP’s mission of affording scientists from developing nations opportunities to excel in physics and develop successful careers is laudable. A related area where ICTP is having a significant impact is in supporting women physicists around the globe.

In many nations, there are far fewer women than men in physics studies and careers. Across the US or Europe women typically make up only about 20% of professional physicists. In South Korea and Japan, the percentage is less than half this. A number of women from African countries whom I have met at ICTP have noted that they are the first to earn a PhD at or be employed as a faculty member at their institution.

What are the reasons for the gender gap? Some relate to family life: women are often expected to do most of the household and caregiving tasks within a family, even if they work outside the home. This makes it challenging to have enough time for studies or to advance in a career. Others relate to socialization: media stereotypes, peer pressure, and elders’ advice often discourage young women from being pioneers in traditionally “masculine” fields such as science or mathematics. Those entering these fields can find themselves isolated or excluded, with little access to mentoring and collaborative networks. Furthermore, a Global Survey of Physicists conducted by the American Institute of Physics in association with the IUPAP Working Group on Women in Physics has revealed that women physicists in every nation have less lab space and fewer opportunities for career advancement than their male colleagues (see follow­up articles from 2012 and 2015)

Living With Physics

This essay was originally published in One Hundred Reasons To Be A Scientist, a collection of essays published by ICTP in 2005. We’ll be periodically sharing some of the best essays from that book. Here’s the first one:

By Michael Berry

Berry2If you get your knowledge of science mainly from the TV, you might have the impression that it’s a weird activity, very far from what most people care about. But science isn’t remote at all: the world is connected in strange and wonderful ways. Think about this: many of you have a cd player. You can take it anywhere–on the beach, up a mountain, through the forests, in the deserts, at the North Pole, even–and listen to music reproduced almost perfectly. That wasn’t possible before in all of human history. In previous centuries, if you wanted to hear music, you had to go to live performances. But now we have this fantastic freedom that anyone, in any part of the world, can share the experience. In a way, it’s the ultimate democracy: making available to many what could previously be enjoyed only by a few. How has this come about? Strange as it seems: through a physicist’s dreaming.

Inside every CD player is a laser. Its light bounces off the bumps and pits on the disk, and electronics converts the signal into sound. The laser wasn’t discovered by accident. It was designed, by applying our understanding of waves and particles of light that comes directly from quantum physics, which gives our deepest understanding of the strange tiny world inside atoms and smaller. The laser works on a principle discovered by Einstein nearly a hundred years ago. It was pure theory–dreaming while you’re awake. He never dreamed that fifty years later other scientists would apply this principle to create bright pure light.

Is Earth Science Education Forgotten in Africa?

by Kenneth Muhumuza

students-377789_1280I had a rare opportunity to visit my old high school while I was in Uganda last year. I wanted to not only visit my old teachers, but also talk to students about my research subject and passion for Earth science. During my conversation with students doing science subjects at A-level, I was surprised that no student knew the approximate age of the Earth or even what causes earthquakes, floods and global climate change. As I tried to explain all this to them I was a little bit upset thinking about the future of these scientists, who do not understand the basic science of their own planet.

Unfortunately, it is a well-established fact that in lower levels of education (primary and secondary), Earth science has not gained the same status as mathematics, chemistry or physics. Earth science is an integrated science, bringing together biology, chemistry, mathematics and physics as they apply to the workings of the Earth.

In many African countries, Earth science appears for the first time at the end of secondary school, if not at university only. In fact, an assessment made by UNESCO in 2009 found that only 128 universities in the whole of Africa had a department of Earth sciences. This raises the question of whether Earth science education has been forgotten in Africa.

Economics And The Making of A Perfect Society

by Matteo Marsili

CC 2.0 NIH/NIAIDWe humans are the only species that makes the rules by which we interact. Animals don’t. They are subject to the law of the jungle, while we make laws that govern our behavior and design institutions with “laws of motion.”

So, in the same way as we can build airplanes and make them as efficient as possible, why can’t we also build efficient societies? Each of us has a different idea of what efficient means here, but there are minimal requirements we should all agree with. For example, a society should make collective decisions that are not self-contradictory and that cannot be manipulated by introducing irrelevant alternatives.

Sadly, there is no recipe for organizing a society in such a way as to achieve even these minimal requirements. The problem has no solution besides dictatorship. This is a theorem that Kenneth Arrow, the Albert Einstein of economics, proved in the fifties. Amartya Sen, another economist, argues that this is actually not a bad result. All it says is that individual opinion and interests are not enough to organize a society. You need discussion and a process by which people’s view converge on the common good. That’s democracy. The Greeks might have known this, because in times when they had no time to discuss, they used to turn to dictatorship.

If we can’t design a perfect society, maybe we can aim at understanding the ones we have.