Brackenridge Fellowship: Communicating My Research

Communication is quintessential to research. It enables us to share our findings and questions with groups both within and outside our areas. At the same time, successful communication can be relatively complicated; sometimes being able to speak about a project to a certain audience may wind up being a challenge itself.

I think that presenting and discussing physics reveals many of these communication obstacles. The primary struggle is straight forward: physics knowledge. So much of physics research assumes deep knowledge of fundamental topics such as energy, momentum, and calculus. The issue here, of course, is that most people outside the field don’t have this knowledge. Thus, when presenting physics to a general audience, it is necessary to return to the roots of the research and ensure everyone understands the basics. For example, in my project, I use this quantity called missing transverse energy (MET). MET stems from energy conservation, which states that energy of a system is constant. In introductory physics, energy conservation is often used to solve problems such as finding the speed of a ball dropped from some height or the compression of a spring. MET is different, but it still comes from the concept that energy is simply transferred within a system. By drawing connections between simple situations and more complicated ones, I’m able to ensure that my audience understands where confusing quantities and problems come from.

Another obstacle is abstraction. It’s rather hard to walk up to someone and explain that the Large Hadron Collider turns energy into mass but also all this mass is probabilistic and most of it decays almost instantly. This sounds like gibberish to most of the non-physics people I talk to. So, instead, I often rely on simple analogizes to explain each aspect, and I rarely explain everything. For example, my Brackenridge project can be explained by just the probabilistic nature of particle physics and the insanely high rate of data, which I can compare to a piñata filled with random candy, some being more common than others. For my purposes, we really only care about the rare candy.

Looking to the future, I’m considering graduate school, but I could also see myself teaching. In either case, I’m going to need to know how to communicate with others, both inside and outside my field. I’ll likely need to communicate with students, whether they’re in college or high school. This presents a whole different set of challenges, as I’ll need to continue learning how to explain complex concepts with the mathematical rigor that most of my current communication does without. I also expect to communicate with fellow physicists and engineers doing similar work to me, which requires an understanding of the importance of my work in the grand scheme of physics and technology. Lastly, I hope to communicate with many general audiences, either formally or informally, perhaps just in passing. I hope to use my continually growing skill of communication to share my deep love and awe for physics with as many people as I can.

A plot of various MET algorithms versus the truth (true) values. The higher MET valued events are signal events (the ones we care about) and the lower valued events that peak around 5 or 10 on the x-axis are background events (the ones we don’t care about).

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