The Physics Path – or: How outreach and toy model come together

Julian Miczajka brings physics to unconventional places. He talked about his research at a theater project for young students as well as at a workshop for Philosophy. Facts and figures are only a small part of his outreach activities. Julian enjoys getting into conversations with people and telling the stories that happen in physics – on the way to the fascinating questions about the nature of Nature. In our interview he tells us about playful outreach while using a toy model, and takes us step by step through the world of physics.

When did you start doing outreach?

In a sense, I had already started when I began studying physics. I really enjoyed talking about physics especially to non-physicists. Those were my first steps in outreach, talking to friends about what I was doing. But then I realized that I could continue this kind of dialog, bringing it to another level. About four years ago I began to do some more professional outreach at different kinds of events.

In what events did you participate?

One of my first outreach experiences was a dialog with a psychologist at the art workshop Betakontext in Berlin in 2017. The topic of our discussion was „Time and dream. Curved consciousness“. The psychologist spoke about the perception of time, and I talked about the concept of time in physics. It was quite an unconventional event and I really enjoyed the dialog format.

This is exactly the way I see outreach, not just informing about something, but getting into conversations with people in which they ask questions and I try to give some answers from the perspective of a physicist.

Another exciting event was a holidays project for young students at the “Junges Staatstheater Berlin”. The children took part in different labs, in which they played around with the concept of time, its origin, the myths about it, its daily meaning, and I gave a short talk from the physics’ perspective. The talk itself was by far not as rewarding as the discussion afterwards. We looked for example into the sky and figured out together that everything we see is actually in the past. The reason for that is the finite speed of light. The joy of figuring things out on your own is a big part of what I love about physics and it was amazing to share that and inspire others to do the same.

How do you prepare your outreach events?

My main goal is to present a story line and not only facts and figures. When I give outreach talks the preparation is similar as that for scientific talks. I first make sure to start on common ground. There is nothing worse than sitting in a talk and getting lost in the first five minutes! Additionally, in my presentations I make sure that each slide logically follows the previous one. Every slide should leave the audience with a pressing question that I answer in the next slide. In this way, I try to weave the central thread of the story, to convey the connections of the topic to the audience.

What is your motivation for doing outreach?

My main goal is to show people what physicists are really doing. Sometimes I have this feeling a lot of people think of us sitting in this big, shiny tower, until someone eventually asks: „Hey, what if everything around us is made up of strings instead of particles?“ And then the other ones happily cheer: „Hey, yes, that would be cool.“ Normally this is not the case. Of course, in physics a lot of seemingly crazy ideas arise, but they always follow a coherent path of thoughts, a logical sequence of steps that make sense and finally leads you to that one special question you want to ask. And this is the process I really want to make accessible to the general public.

Do you see this as a challenge?

Of course, I must confess this is not always easy because I can’t just show the mathematical arguments we follow in our day-to-day work. I try to help myself with a method from physics: We use toy models for complex problems, that explain special phenomena using quite simple examples. In my outreach, I aim to do something similar: I present simplified problems and the logical path to solve them, step by step. I do not include all mathematical arguments, but follow the same procedures. If the audience is able to figure out the toy problems on their own, or confirm that the solution I present is sensible, then I have managed to show how physics actually works.

Do you think the general public is too afraid of mathematics?

Yes, I definitely think that it seems to be accepted in society to be quite reserved when it comes to mathematics. Of course, math can be very abstract and complicated, but it does not have to be that way. In essence, it is the study of structure in a very general sense. I believe that most people are naturally attracted to understanding how things work but sometimes, they seem to have built some sort of barrier, especially when it comes to math. I try to let them glimpse beyond the barrier, to show them how mathematics makes physics and the world work.

How could you motivate your colleagues to engage in outreach?

I’d tell them how rewarding it is to leave the scientific bubble and to use the knowledge they have acquired in a totally different context. We talk a lot to each other as experts in our field, but many of the things we know are worth sharing with everyone, especially when you receive positive feedback for your efforts and people tell you that they have become more aware than before about how the world is connected.

Today it is common practice that scientists are expected to reach out to the general public. What do you expect from the public?

Please do not think that physicists only do things that are impossible to understand! Give them a chance. I have one message: There are fundamental laws of nature, that can be grasped, and they are quite cool.  

Thanks a lot, Julian.

Photo: Christoph Medicus/Betakontext 2017
December 2, 2022