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Physics a Hot Topic at AAAS

This year's meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, or AAAS, reflected a recently increased public interest in physics due in good part to the recent startup of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. Several physicists and science writers from SLAC and Fermi national labs helped make tough physics topics accessible to scientists working in different disciplines, journalists and the general public.

The annual AAAS meeting is the largest interdisciplinary conference in the world, normally hosting about seven thousand attendees and covering all major disciplines of science. The 2009 meeting, held in Chicago from February 12 through 16, hosted a noticeably high number of sessions dedicated to accelerator, high energy and particle physics.

Fermilab Office of Public Information Head Kurt Riesselmann co-organized a session titled "Beyond E=mc2: Unveiling the Early Universe with High-Intensity Accelerators." The session examined how low-energy phenomena explored at accelerator laboratories can be extrapolated to predict how the universe behaved just after the Big Bang. SLAC physicist and former BaBar computing coordinator Gregory Dubois-Felsmann discussed the study of the matter/anti-matter asymmetry in the universe. The low-mass particles produced by the BaBar experiment and PEP-II storage ring can help physicists investigate why the regular matter that makes up stars, planets and humans persisted past the early universe, while antimatter did not.

SLAC physicist and director emeritus of the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource Arthur Bienenstock reminisced about the birth of synchrotron physics—showing many slides illustrating the lifetime of SSRL—and its strong link to high energy physics. Later, Bienenstock commented that while synchrotrons are now used in many fields, such as archeology and microbiology, he hopes and believes that accelerator science will remain tightly linked to high energy and particle physics.

SSRL physicist Uwe Bergmann kept busy leading a family day exercise, then speaking at a press conference that complemented his presentation, in a session titled "Casting New Light on Ancient Secrets." The session explored the many applications of synchrotron lightsources. Bergmann spoke about the ancient Archimedes palimpsest that he and SSRL scientists helped to reveal. He noted the importance of bringing up these exciting discoveries—instead of technical details—when teaching the public about synchrotrons.

Finally, Symmetry magazine Deputy Editor Glennda Chui acted as a discussant on a panel titled, "Quest for the Perfect Liquid: Connecting Heavy Ions, String Theory, and Cold Atoms." Not a scientist herself, Chui participated in the session to provide questions from an outsider's perspective, and she blogged about one of the session talks on Symmetry Breaking. Many other sessions featured similar discussants helping to make the talks clear for non-specialists.

—Calla Cofield
SLAC Today, February 20, 2009