Physics for Everyone

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By Meghan McCoy, English, '18

For most people on a Saturday morning, the top three activities likely revolve around sleeping in, going out for breakfast or lounging around while nursing a second cup of coffee. While those choices all sound nearly idyllic, there’s another option that deserves to be given a chance as a fun and informative alternative, the Physics for Everyone lectures. 

Often how the best times are usually the ones suddenly discovered, this lecture turned out to be just one of those occasions. Inclusively titled Saturday Physics for Everyone, these series of lectures are truly designed to be just that, Physics for everyone. Starting at 10:15am and running for about an hour, or an hour and a half if you counted the time spent drinking coffee and perusing the selection of pastries before hand, When Stars Attack! Radioactive Evidence for a Near-Earth Supernova Explosion kicked off the Saturday lectures in a manner accessible to anyone with even the slightest interest in the greater universe.

Led by Professor Brian Fields, PhD in both Physics and Astronomy, When Stars Attack! was more interesting, understandable and engaging than any Physics lecture most people probably experienced while in High School. Easily filling over half of the lecture hall, the audience ranged from parents with young kids to students and older members of the community.

Looking out at the audience as he began the lecture, Professor Fields opened the morning explaining the significance of this particular Saturday and brief history behind the morning lectures. “It’s exciting to note that this is the 25th anniversary of Saturday Physics, and by a conservative estimate about 15,000 people have attended these lectures over the course of 25 years.”

Started by Research Physicist Inga Karliner, who also is the Founder of Science on the Market in Urbana, the impact and service of these lectures to bring Physics to the public were shown before the lecture even began. Speaking to another attendee, who said his field of study was Speech Pathology, he explained that this lecture was “actually my first one, but my son was a Physics Major at University of Illinois and that was what got me interested in coming.”

Whatever the reason for why each person came, and whether or not they were experts in Physics, in the Humanities or still years away from even entering college, every level of knowledge was welcome and no question unimportant. Beginning the lecture with the all encompassing, and thankfully true statement, “we are all citizens of the universe,” Professor Fields went on to explain both the history and science of supernovas. Aptly calling them the “celebrities of the cosmos,” supernovas are revered because of their brilliance and awe-inspiring nature at the time of their explosion.

With only two ever recorded supernovas, one in 1054 AD and the other in November 1572, the rarity of a supernova to be recorded by humans only seems to add to its grandeur. Caused by a star’s eventual loss of fuel, a supernova occurs when the star collapses, condensing the core that can sometimes become so dense it “bounces,” and then massively explodes from its own restriction. Able to “outshine the galaxy by the amount of light emitted,” Professor Fields explained, these awesome occurrences none the less need to be a minimum of 30 light years away from the earth for humans protection, a “just in case” fact that likely makes many of us wish the inventions of Star Trek had already been made into reality.

A fun, interesting and informative way to spend the morning, when Professor Fields finished everyone seemed to have genuinely enjoyed the lecture, with the majority of the questions coming from the youngest members of the audience. Counting five more lectures to take place this semester, the next one focusing on Visualization in Science, Technology and the Arts, Physics for Everyone was what anyone with an interest in how the world works could wish for, while​ ​still​ ​being​ ​engaging​ ​for​ ​those​ ​with​ ​a​ ​more​ ​comprehensive​ ​background​ ​in​ ​the​ ​Sciences.  

As everyone gathered their belongings and prepared to head out to whatever activity they had planned next, my thoughts drifted back to the beginning of the lecture and Professor Field’s opening statement “we are all citizens of the universe.” In addition to cool science and fun demonstrations involving liquid nitrogen, this lecture reminded me how it’s important that we all be reminded of that universally possessed citizenship, and do our best to pass it along at every opportunity. I look forward to seeing what new things we learn and discover at the next Saturday​ ​Physics​ ​for​ ​Everyone. 

Saturday Physics for Everyone is located at 141 Loomis Laboratory of Physics, 1110 W. Green St.,​ ​Urbana.​

The final event for this semester is on December 2nd at 10:15 AM and titled: Understanding Nature's Micro Swimmers. Speaker: Professor Yann Chemla.

For more information, visit: https://physics.illinois.edu/outreach/saturdayphysics/