Grab a free beer and let the science sink in

POSUSBy Elise Byun
May 21,2014

Originally posted on Medill Reports – Chicago

Free beer and science research sounds like an unlikely combination. But it’s just what Chicago needs, according to organizers of the first annual Pint of Science Festival. The Festival makes science fun and easy to digest.

David J. Hofman, physics professor at University of Illinois at Chicago, kicked off the Tuesday night session at Bar Louie with a trek back to the Big Bang. “State of the Universe, less than a second after the big bang,” gave audiences a glimpse of his research reconstructing the universe’s earliest moments. 

“We really are trying to build up what the cosmologists are saying that the early part of the universe could be,” Hofman said. “Can we make that in a laboratory now and study it?” Essentially, they want to go back in time and re-create the first microsecond of the Big Bang, but without leaving the lab.

Hofman puts gold nuclei in a collider that makes each nucleus travel at 99.996 percent of the speed of light in hopes that two will hit each other. Most of the time, they miss. But once in a while, two will collide. And when they do at this speed, it creates heat of a trillion degrees Kelvin- 100 times hotter than the center of the Sun, which is how hot the universe was one microsecond after the Big Bang, Hofman said.

At that temperature, “the protons and neutrons melt away” and all that’s left is the primordial soup – a quark-gluon plasma. “We think they are the major building blocks of which everything else is made,” Hofman said. 

UIC physicist David J. Hoffman describes the first one-millionth of a second after the Big Bang.

UIC physicist David J. Hoffman describes the first one-millionth of a second after the Big Bang.

UIC physicist David J. Hoffman describes the first one-millionth of a second after the Big Bang.

He and other researchers are working to make quark-gluon plasma in the lab. “We want a large volume of that and see how it behaves,” Hofman said.

If cosmologists are right, Hofman said, the universe at one microsecond after the Big Bang was made up of quark-gluon plasma. Quarks are “the smallest things that can exist” and gluons “are these other entities that we’ve given a name to” that are “used to understand how quarks interact

and how they hold together,” Hofman said.

Hofman presented his research in a way that was engaging and understandable for people with no science background. The goal of Pint of Science is to create a bridge between scientists and nonscientists as well as invite more people into science careers. 

The festival continues tonight at Bar Louie with Peggy Mason’s talk, “What rats can teach us about empathy” and Moria Zellner’s “Improving the environment doesn’t take that much.” Mason is a professor of neuroscience at the University of Chicago. Zellner is an associate professor in the urban planning and policy program at University of Illinois at Chicago. More information can be found atwww.pintofscience.us

“We see that there’s a big problem with STEM education. That basically the US is falling far behind,” said John Conrad, vice president of Illinois Biotechnology Industry Organization (iBIO). STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and math. “We’re not filling STEM positions that are needed for our companies.”

Conrad stumbled upon tweets about Pint of Science and saw that coastal cities, including Tampa, New York and San Diego, were hosting the festival but no city in between.

“We just couldn’t let that happen and not have Chicago on the map. Because we have so many great research universities right here,” Conrad said. 

He reached out to the head organizers of Pint of Science US, expressed interested in hosting the festival and became the Chicago coordinator for Pint for Science. 

Scientists from Northwestern University, University of Chicago, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the Chicago campus are participating in this year’s festival.

“We purposely selected speakers who are able to have a general discussion about what they’re doing,” Conrad said. “It’s science-focused but it’s not a science talk. Anybody that’s here can understand what they’re saying.”

Festival attendee Kristin Swanson said she believes in the importance of festivals like Pint of Science that bring scientists and non-scientists together. Swanson is a neurosurgery and applied mathematics professor at Northwestern University and has to communicate ideas of one field with those studying in the other. 

“Everyone wants to solve a problem, but maybe not everybody understand the science involved,” Swanson said. “You need to have people who are willing to bridge across interfaces. If we’re not willing to bridge or figuring out means of bridging the two places we’re sort of doomed to fail in solving these big problems.”

The Pint of Science festival began in the United Kingdom in 2012, organized by volunteers to provide a space for accessible science discussions. The festival occurs over the same three days in all cities. The final evening of events takes place tonight at 5:30 p.m. at Bar Louie, 335 N. Dearborn St.

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