Scientists Battle for Physics Slam Crown

You may have heard of a poetry slam, but this weekend Fermilab will present its fifth annual Physics Slam in downtown Chicago.

The free event, hosted by WGN meteorologist Tom Skilling, challenges five physicists from around the world to present a performance that makes their field of research sound the most appealing and compelling to the assembled audience.

Last year's winner was Chris Marshall—aka MC Truth"—who rapped his way to the crown while explaining the science of neutrinos.


Marshall is back to defend his title, but he faces some stiff competition.

Among those hoping to take his title is Mariel Pettee, a Ph.D. candidate from Harvard University and currently a researcher at Fermilab.

Pettee combines a passion for physics with her love of performance art and dance. For her senior thesis at Harvard she created a performance piece that focused on the ground-breaking discovery of the Higgs Boson.

“Chicago Tonight” caught up with Pettee and asked about her love of physics and performance:

Chicago Tonight: Tell me about the Physics Slam. Have you taken part in this event before?

Mariel Pettee: I have not, that’s why it’s a new and exciting adventure for me.

CT: What makes you want to take part?

MP: Well I’ve actually been an actress and a dancer for a number of years, and when I found out about this opportunity that allows me to combine my love of teaching, my love for this exciting research that we are doing that not a lot of people know about – so it’s an opportunity to talk about physics in a new way.

CT: Tell me what you are going to try and to convey to the audience on Sunday?

MP: Well I’m coming at it with sort of two different tacks. Firstly I want to explain what the research that I’m doing is and also what’s the significance in the world of physics and in our world in general. But I’m also going at it from this larger perspective of how do we imagine these physics events happening in the first place. Because I think what many people are surprised by is that as particle physicists we can’t just take pictures of these particles, so we can’t see these interactions that are happening. We have theories that describe them but at the end of the day we are using our imaginations. And so my performance will be playing on the idea of the different ways that we imagine how physics happens and sort of the power of a created picture in our heads in allowing us to interpret and understand some of this information.

CT: So will your performance incorporate dance?

MP: It will incorporate movement. We have recruited some students to come and help us out. So we have bodies that are representing some of these particles and interactions as well as imagery and text--we are sort of fusing all that together.

CT: How does your experience as an actress and a dancer inform your work?

MP: I have always managed to have it be alongside my work in physics. I know for many people the arts can be a great outlet from their work. For me, I’ve always insisted … they very much use the same part of my brain, at least that’s how it feels. I think about my physics work from the perspective of a dancer and I feel like I’m engaging my choreographic thinking when I’m thinking about equations. I’m very conscious of how they interact.

Video: Mariel Pettee's senior thesis combing dance, performance and particle physics.


CT: What is the importance of these events for you? What make you want to participate?

MP: To me I think it’s the importance of showing that you don’t have to think about science in just one way. I think too often we imagine that only a certain type of person or a certain type of thinker is capable of being a scientific genius and I think the true value of something like this is that it says you can think about science in all of these different ways. And as long as your passionate about the material and willing to work hard you can still make incredible advances. It shows that you can be creative and do science and that shouldn’t hinder you from going into the field.

CT: Many young women still don’t think of themselves as having a future in science and it’s still a male dominated sphere--for someone like you as a woman who’s coming at physics using your dance and arts background--do any of your male colleagues look at you a little askance?

MP: I have gotten that a couple of times before--and it’s actually not just from male colleagues--even some good friends of mine will say to me they just don’t get it. I see it as an opportunity to show people another way of thinking.

Being able to work with abstract concepts (like particle physics) is a skill that as a choreographer and a dancer, thinking about how things move in an abstract sense and having a sense of motion is something that we practice all the time.

Physics isn’t always inherently a visual thing. What we do know about physics is that it’s all about capturing motion and how things influence each other and to me that’s completely in the realm of choreography which is why it feels so relevant to me.


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