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TRIUMF | Vancouver, BC | Canada

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Does “the General Public” actually exist?

— by. T.I. Meyer, Head of Strategic Planning & Communication

I had two opposite-spectrum experiences in the past 2 days that required me to return to Quantum Diaries and @musquod.  Does “the general public exist” ?

What do I mean? I mean that often in science, in particle physics, and in science communications and outreach, we struggle to reach “the general public.”

I assert that the General Public does not exist.

There is no common, slow-moving, same-experience and same-consciousness and same-background banana slug called “the general public” that we aim to attract to basic science and particle-physics research.

Let me give two examples.

This past weekened, @TRIUMFlab supported a public-outreach booth at the local community celebration called Wesbrook Village Festival.  This festival involved about 10,000 citizens (parents and families) and maybe three-dozen local businesses, all located within 2 km of TRIUMF.

I was driving a souped-up golf cart with seating for 8 to head from the booth location to TRIUMF, a distance of about 6 city blocks.  One time, I was escorting a family including four children under the age of 12.  I asked them what they knew about TRIUMF and particle physics.  As I opened up the electric battery to full power of about 30 km/h, the young man next to me said, “Oh, we toured CERN last summer and I think TRIUMF is kind of like a mini-CERN.  Is that true?”

I was floored!  We were doing community-outreach tours and our communication was aimed at concepts like “What is an atom?” and this kid next to me had already toured the world’s most advanced particle-physics laboratory and wanted to know how many Higgs bosons we had stored on tape at the Canadian ATLAS Tier-1 Data Centre based at TRIUMF!  Wow…good thing I listened to him before I launched into my speech about why science matters.

Then, today, I was interacting with a senior professor from Canada’s Emily Carr University of Arts + Design who was leading undergraduate arts students in a class entitled “Black Holes and other Transformations of Energy.”  As part of TRIUMF’s Artists in Residence program, these folks were visiting TRIUMF from nearby Granville Island to get inspiration for art-studio projects.  They took a sloooooow-tour of TRIUMF and had to make artwork based on what they learned.  I was talking to the instructor, and she observed to me, “Tim, you know in that collaborative arts/science project we’re working on with international cultural funding from the Goethe Institut, we just identified a new random number generator.  Rather than roll dice or guess at how pieces of art should be transferred from one round of professional artists to the next, we tied the names of the artists to pieces of bread and spread them over our balcony.  The first seagull to arrive and steal the bread was selected to represent the first assignment of arts transfer!”  See Youtube.

I was floored!

How many particle physicists let alone computer scientists have been struggling with high-power random generators?  Has anyone ever tried the seagull-bread-crumb generator?!  Sure, it might be a bit slow for generating a 30,000 event Monte Carlo of neutral pions, but….wow!  I call that creative.

So, my conclusion after walking home on a wonderful autumn evening, was that the General Public does NOT exist.  We are surrounded by experts, experts at things different than quantum field theory or M-brane phenomenology.

Let us go forth and share our work, our wisdom, our quest, and let us get enriched by what others are up to, what they care about, and let us be aware and sensitive to what they already know…

Peace out.