Op-ed: Why Government Funding for the Sciences Matters

What has government-funded science ever done for us? Besides for the space program and all the spinoffs it produced (LASIK eye surgery and properly preserved food with nutrients intact, anyone?), astounding leaps in particle and neutrino physics, medical advancements beginning at the basic level, research programs at universities that both provide the breeding ground for the next groundbreaking scientists and generate new approaches to age-old problems, and a whole plethora of developments that fall under the umbrella of “blue sky” ideas that would never be undertaken by a private sector as they aren’t near completion and immediately profitable, anyway.

Monty Python references aside, it would take far more room than I have to rattle off every modern thing we take for granted that owes its existence to government-funded programs stumbling upon a practical, exciting application that was then taken and ran with by the private sector. That’s how scientific research in America works, really: the government funds the basic and broad research that seeks to understand the why, and once that why is understood the private sector can then run with it to make it profitable and (ultimately) vital to every-day life.

No private sector could do what government-funded research labs do because it isn’t immediately profitable. Does that mean the research isn’t worthwhile? I don’t have a way to put in written words how absolutely wrong that assumption is. It’s quite the opposite. Government-funded research has the ability to look into those “technologies of tomorrow” that the private sector will ultimately utilize and the public will want to use in everything from the next generation of smart phones to more efficient, safe and affordable ways to heat and cool their homes. Research labs funded in this way don’t have the looming pressure of “will this be profitable?” that the private sector does, so they can focus on doing good science and actually making strides in our understanding, rather than making it work so a product can be out in time for some deadline.

What would budget cuts to scientific research look like? In a word, stagnation. When we as a country are concerned about our standing in the global sphere, concerned about preserving our position on the cutting edge of science and technology, how can we even think that science funding and education is a thing we can cut? How can we think it’s not vital when it feeds into everything from defense (something we know the government is a fan of) to medicine to the economy (science-related industries provide vast quantities of jobs, including the private sector, but those jobs can’t exist if the science that enables them isn’t done!).

PhysicsFest 2012!

If the ice cream cones are anything to go by, approximately 200 people attended this year’s PhysicsFest (give or take a few people that couldn’t resist going back for seconds of our fantastic liquid nitrogen ice cream, anyway). The annual event held by the W&M Physics Department is planned by students and professors alike and is aimed at the broader community of Williamsburg, particularly kids in grade school, and utilizes interactive hall demos, a poster session, lab tours, a playroom and a demo show led by the department’s personal Bill Nye the Science Guy (according to many of our guests) as a way of not only giving the department a chance to show off a bit, but more importantly to instill a love and interest of science in kids of all ages. This year, the particular theme was the electromagnetic spectrum. The demos spanned everything from radio to gamma waves and ran the length of the first floor of Small Hall, anchored by the playroom at the starting end.

Your humble blogger and my father, setting up the radio demo station. While my dad is a licensed amateur radio operator, I am not (much to his constant teasing). This station also had a radio handmade by one of the PhysicsFest planning team!

Arguably the most popular demo from the spectrum was the microwave. Volunteers were able to entrance kids and adults alike by using a standard, if a little out of date, microwave and common household items. Small light bulbs flickered on and off when popped in the microwave for a few seconds, grapes almost cut fully in two arced plasma, soap and marshmallows expanded rapidly in size and CDs gave off a spectacular (if brief) dancing spark show that revealed the pattern of microwaves utilized by the specific device. While some of the demos could be a bit finicky (I myself never really got the trick of making the grapes work), it was still a crowd-pleasing demo that drew a constant audience.

Graduate student Valerie Gray shows just how interesting things can get with the right items and a microwave (disclaimer: as we said all day at this demo station, do put random things in your microwave to see what happens, unless you have adult supervision and don’t intend on using that microwave for food ever again.)

Not only is this cool because you can see our fantastic photographer Joshua Hill reflected in the microwave door, but you can actually catch a glimpse of what happens when you microwave a CD. Spoilers: it’s a fantastic light show that also holds the secret to how your specific microwave works!

Other demos gave visitors a glimpse of famous science experiments such as the double slit experiment (visible light) or the cloud chamber (gamma rays). Some took over entire rooms almost like secondary playrooms with a specific theme (infrared and ultraviolet). All of them gave visitors the chance to interact with student volunteers and ask them any questions they might have, both regarding the demos before them and regarding being students of physics at W&M in general. For Reed Beverstock, an undergrad volunteer that helped with planning the event (the UV room in particular), this was particularly interesting when alumni were visiting his stations. “I really enjoyed talking to the alums and hearing about what they did while they were here and what they do now,” Beverstock explained. He also noted with amusement that one man he spoke to had the same Quantum Mechanics professor that Beverstock currently has when he was a student. Interacting with alumni, particularly more recent ones, is an incredibly useful thing for undergraduates and graduate students alike wondering where their post-W&M life could lead, and PhysicsFest provides a way to both share with the alumni and learn from them in turn.

For visitors looking for a glimpse into the world of academia and research, the poster show held in the morning and the lab tours that went on throughout the day were the big hits of the event. Four labs were open to the public, where the professors that run the lab and their students, both undergraduate and graduate, explained their research. Many visitors were getting a look at experimental for the first time, so these lab tours provided a new look into one of the many ways that physics is done. The poster session gave a more specific look into research by focusing in on specific projects that had been carried out by the students. Students had the chance to gain experience delivering talks on their work (an essential skill, as any student will tell you) while sharing their work with the community and fellow students. The eleven students that presented their posters were also entered into a competition, won by Elana Urbach (Class of 2014) with her poster on extracting DNA from carbon nanotubes. Four talks were also delivered throughout the day by professors on topics as diverse as the Enigma machine and how the structure of things alters their visible properties such as color. These talks were lauded as being fascinating looks into scientific concepts that were very accessible to people with little to no science background.

Grad student Anne Norrick at the poster show, talking to (who I believe to be) an undergraduate presenting his research.

Professor Irina Novikova (left) and undergraduate Elana Urbach (right) at the poster show. Both of them were also essential leaders in planning and organizing PhysicsFest!

According to fellow W&M students, alumni and the looks of the faces of the kids in the audience, the true stand-out of the event was the hourly demo show. Tim Milbourne (Class of 2014) astounded visitors with larger demos utilizing liquid nitrogen to shatter flowers, lasers to pop balloons, a Halloween candy bucket as a pendulum, and a tube of fire to demonstrate how waves work, among others, all while keeping up a clever and engaging rapport with the audience. The finale was a demonstration of a hovercraft built by the Society of Physics Students that some guests even got the chance to ride themselves. Guests left declaring him “the next Bill Nye”, and not just because of his nigh-trademark bow tie. Earlier in the day Milbourne had also delivered a poster talk about reworking the way physics is taught at the grade-school level, a personal project of his. His goal is to make physics “phun”, and if the comments from his demo show audience are anything to go by he is well on his way to achieving it.

Tim Milbourne and undergraduate volunteer Deborah Wood set up for the Demo Show, an always-popular and exciting event at PhysicsFest. Note how Tim is one of the few volunteers who did not sport our bright green Physics Department t-shirts (he just couldn’t give up his jacket and bow tie!).

Professor Mike Kordosky (left), Tim Milbourne (center) and undergraduate Em Pierce demonstrate the Rubens’ tube, a device that uses fire to show how sound waves behave by showing the relationship between sound waves and sound pressure. Professor Kordosky is on hand with the fire extinguisher just in case (and, unlike Professor Nelson later on, he never abused his fire extinguisher privilege!)

Of course, it’d be remiss to ignore the PhysicsFest signature item- liquid nitrogen ice cream. There’s something about eating a sweet treat made with science that just excites everyone, kids and volunteers alike. There’s a reason attendance was partially measured in ice cream cones; it’d be a shame to come to PhysicsFest and miss out on it.

Two undergraduate volunteers artfully prepare a batch of liquid nitrogen ice cream.

Those of us involved in the planning for PhysicsFest never seem to get enough of it- we’re always discussing new demos that we find that we might want to incorporate into the next year’s event. We can’t help it- PhysicsFest is our chance to show off just how absurdly cool physics is, and we constantly strive to make it the best, most entertaining and informative event we possibly can. The PhysicsFest team, led by Professors Irina Novikova, Wouter Deconinck and Tricia Vahle (plus input and help from so many more, including Mike Kordosky, Ale Lukaszew and Jeff Nelson), is always a dedicated, imaginative and passionate bunch. If you missed out this year, don’t worry- as I said, it’s an annual event, and it just keeps getting better and better.