For PPPL scientist Andrew Zwicker, science has aesthetic value

Dr. Andrew Zwicker of the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory presented a TEDx talk on the subject of “Future Utopias” this past March in which he envisioned a future powered by green energy. After he finished speaking, he was approached and admonished by a curious young student.

“That bit about the right-hand rule didn’t seem quite right,” the boy told Zwicker.

“I know,” Zwicker replied with a conspiratorial wink. “But this talk was for laypeople!”

Zwicker’s informal demeanor is well-known and appreciated in his capacity as both a physicist and a zealous science educator.

“He was very different from the stereotypical scientist,” PPPL colleague Dr. Arturo Dominguez said of his first impressions of Zwicker.

“What makes Zwicker exceptional,” Dominguez continued, “is that he has a great combination between being very technically knowledgeable and having the right tools for communicating. It’s very comfortable to talk to him … and the love for what the mission is — it permeates throughout.”

Dr. Stephanie Wissel, a post-doctoral research fellow at UCLA who collaborated with Zwicker during her time at the PPPL, expressed a similar view. “I think he’s really inspired by the people around him,” she said. “I think that’s one of the things that really drives him with science education — he wants to see people learn science. He wants to see people achieve goals in science. He’s a very inspiring guy to be around.”

Zwicker met members of The Daily Princetonian staff late one afternoon in the quad outside of Rockefeller College, out of breath and clutching a bicycle helmet in the crook of one arm and a windbreaker under the other. One leg of his dark jeans was rolled up to his mid-calf and revealed dusty black non-slip sneakers, the kind one would normally see worn by a crew member at a fast-food restaurant.

When asked his opinion of the recently proposed High Quality Research Act, a bill in the U.S. House of Representatives that would do away with the National Science Foundation’s current model of peer review during the grant funding process, Zwicker said that he disagreed with the bill’s stipulations. The current model would be replaced by criteria that would allow the NSF to only fund projects that are “in the interest of the United States to advance national health, prosperity or welfare … and answers questions or solves problems that are of utmost importance to society at large.”

“There’s not a scientist I can imagine that would possibly agree with him,” Zwicker said of the bill’s sponsor, representative Lamar Smith (R-Texas). “The Congressman who proposed the bill is not a scientist, does not understand how science — or progress — occurs. It’s a narrow-minded way to guarantee results, which has more often than not been shown not to work at all. It seems to me it’s a move done out of fear and out of ignorance.”

Zwicker added that Congressman Smith’s proposal was reflective of a systemic failure to develop scientific literacy in the general American public. He is the leader of the PPPL’s Science Education program and is involved in the PPPL’s community outreach program.

“The cliche is that U.S. public education is a mile wide and an inch deep,” he explained. “It’s hard to say. But if you look at the overall level of scientific understanding, if you look at the debate over climate change — the fact that there is a debate at all — and if you look at the fact that we are still discussing evolution being taught in school, at least in a few places…”

The root of the problem can be found in the low-performing American school districts in highly urban areas, Zwicker said. “I don’t worry about the top third of math and science students, the prep schools, the suburban schools,” he said. “The bottom third, too, is obvious, but I’m also worried about the middle third, who are potentially the scientifically literate people.”

The bottom line is that American students are slipping in international rankings of science and math capability, he said.

“He was really the perfect adviser,” astrophysics major Tomer Yavetz ’14 said. “He always knew the right way to assist balancing the hard academic life that an astro major entails with enjoying Princeton and making the most of all the other amazing resources on campus. A really great easy-going guy who at the same time pushed me to achieve the most I could at Princeton.”

Earlier this spring, Zwicker gathered students in Rockefeller Dining Hall for a scientific demonstration. He unpacked a boom box-sized machine with one completely transparent side and plugged his iPhone into the top of the contraption amid a tangle of coils and conductors and pressed “play.” Suddenly, an inch-long lightning bolt began dancing in the top left corner with the rhythm of the heavy metal music. The notes and pitches were generated by the expansion of air created by the bolt of plasma.

As the device played, Zwicker explained that unlike speakers in a movie theater or concert, the type of speaker he was demonstrating would not be vulnerable to interference between sound waves because the music emerged perfectly in all directions, adding that anyone interested could come visit the PPPL campus to see a much bigger version of the device, large enough to fill an entire room.

The informal presentation simplified the complicated subject matter and was derived from a paper Zwicker had recently co-authored. The paper advocated the introduction of plasmas as a teaching tool for low-budget undergraduate curriculums.

“You can study plasma like I did, because you think it’s interesting and complex and challenging. And that’s fine,” Zwicker said. “But that’s not what the paper’s about. The paper is about the fact that a plasma is an object that glows different colors, and it moves, and it wriggles. Yet it is incredibly complex. You can use a plasma to get students who are junior-level undergraduates into the curriculum in a new and different way.”

Zwicker currently uses the project in the plasma physics sessions that he and the PPPL host for the benefit of high school teachers over the summer.

“Our emphasis has been — can we get it into a small college who has been looking to bring modern physics into the curriculum, who is working with little equipment, he explained. “That’s our goal.”

Zwicker also said he is proud of his involvement in Trenton Central High School’s Classroom Leadership Operative in the Micro-Gravity Discovering Science program, a mentoring program jointly run by the PPPL and NASA.

Under the program’s auspices, Zwicker mentors students in devising their own experiments to be conducted in a low-gravity environment. The students are then invited to come aboard NASA’s “Weightless Wonder” microgravity aircraft — also known by its affectionate moniker “Vomit Comet” — to perform the proposed experiments in person.

 “It wasn’t necessarily an idea that he came up with by himself,” Wissel said. “It was an idea that a student of his had; he just nurtured it and let it grow.”

Zwicker said his enthusiasm for creative methods of science communication stemmed in part from his involvement in Princeton’s Art of Science competition.  

Before entering the competition for the first time, Zwicker said he tried to take pictures of dusty plasma, an issue at the forefront of fusion research due to concerns about impurities such as dust contaminating the plasma. He explained that he had been unable to get a good photograph to document the project and finally hired a professional photographer to assist him, who told him about the Art of Science competition. He said he decided to enter the photograph and wrote a short blurb to accompany it.

Zwicker’s photograph, "Plasma Table," first prize at the competition, but he was so surprised that he had won that he asked a photographer on the judging panel what the photographer saw in his submission, Zwicker said.

“He talked about perspective, he talked about some historical photographs that had been invoked in it, he talked about it in a way that was … completely shocking,” he explained. “And I vividly remember the conversation. I saw little red dots, and a photographer saw many other things…”

Zwicker said it dawned on him that scientific images had an aesthetic value that he had not realized before. He said he then went back into his laboratory and found that his own perspective had begun to change. He added that he was so moved that when the competition disappeared the next year, he sent an email inquiring about what had happened.

“The response I got was basically, ‘Thanks for volunteering to bring it back,’ ” Zwicker said, laughing. The Art of Science competition is now an annual event, and Zwicker serves on its judging panel. “One of my favorite times of the year now is when people start submitting — to be able to open up the emails I get with the link and to be able to see the amazing and beautiful images coming in from all over the University.”

This year’s opening of the Art of Science exhibition will be held on Friday at 4:30 p.m.

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