scientist talks to tourists

Ask a Scientist creates connections and understanding

Program provides unique opportunities for the public, scientists to engage in wide-ranging one-on-one conversations

It was a miserable day in April as Julia Delgaudio first set up her “Ask a Scientist” station at the Sanford Lab Homestake Visitor Center (SLHVC). But the day brightened considerably, when the experiment support scientist for the Sanford Underground Research Facility began interacting with guests. She answered questions about the science taking place a mile underground and helped kids gear up like the scientists do as they prepare to go underground.

“She brought personal protective equipment for kids to try on to make it a more interactive and fun experience,” said Kelly Kirk, director of the SLHVC. “That’s what this program is all about. Ask a Scientist provides the public with unique opportunities to have one-on-one conversations that are informal and wide-ranging and really connect them to the work at SURF.”

Delgaudio will return this week as the feature scientist, along with a Ph.D. student from the University of Sheffield, Jo Orpwood, who is working with the LUX-ZEPLIN (LZ) experiment. The event takes place at the Visitor Center on Aug. 10 from 1 to 3 p.m.

“I love the pure curiosity I see from people,” Delgaudio said. “Folks who come to the Visitor Center might be locals who already have some knowledge of what we do, but we also get travelers. People from all backgrounds exhibit this child-like delight over the chance to ask questions, to engage with scientists. In a way, Ask a Scientist events allow the public to understand that Science belongs to all of us. It makes the science accessible to them and lets them see us as real people.”

The Ask a Scientist program is rounding out its first year. In that time, nearly a dozen scientists and engineers from SURF and the experiments hosted nearly a mile underground have participated. Mark Hanhardt, an experiment support scientist at SURF, and the SLHVC team developed and implemented the program. What Hanhardt finds most important about Ask a Scientist, and outreach in general, is the “personal connections” that happen as people talk to each other.

“We are a part of this community, and this is one way we can share our experiences, knowledge, and personalities on a human level, face-to-face with our neighbors and visitors to Lead,” Hanhardt said.  “They get to see the real humans behind the amazing science being done underground, which makes it less abstract and more personal.”

Matthew Szydagis, a researcher with LZ and professor at the State University of New York, Albany, and Flip Tanedo, a theoretical particle physicist from the University of California-Riverside, also were featured scientists for the program. We asked Hanhardt, Szydagis, and Tanedo to share their insights about the Ask a Scientist program.

What was your best experience at Ask a Scientist?

Szydagis: I was talking to a large group of people standing in a semicircle, all asking intelligent questions and hanging on my every word. It was a humbling experience.

Hanhardt: A bus group, the Keystone Mission, asked me tons of questions. They were from Mexico, Puerto Rico, Columbia, Ivory Coast, Uganda, and other countries. We used Google Translate to translate questions and answers, a unique experience that worked surprisingly well. They were incredibly excited about what we are doing in the lab and what it can teach us about the universe. They were all so sweet, sincere, and excited. It was definitely one of my best Ask a Scientist memories.

Tanedo: It was fantastic. I’ve spent most of my life in California. You know, scientists talk to each other in a certain language. When we talk to the public, the language needs to be the same as you would use to talk to your mother, neighbor, or visitor. From a cultural point of view, it was refreshing to meet people from the community—and tourists from all over the place—to talk about what it is about physics I really love. I was touched by how welcoming and how genuine they all were.

Why is a program like Ask a Scientist important—for SURF and the public?

Szydagis: There are so many misunderstandings out there about different sciences and math, yet so much interest. It is, therefore, of the utmost importance to engage with the public and answer their sincere questions. For SURF, this is particularly significant because of its location, given its significance for the local indigenous community.

Hanhardt: SURF is a part of the community, and this is one way we can share our experiences, knowledge, and personalities. Science can seem cold and impersonal when it’s words on a page or images on a screen. But when you can talk to a person, science becomes something personal, something internal and real. That’s why outreach is so important.

Tanedo: It is our role as scientists to share our science with the people who are investing in our work. Most physicists can trace their interest in science back to an event like this—to the first time they met someone who opened their eyes. It’s really engaging on a human level. We can’t always answer the questions because they are outside our area of expertise. But we connect in our curiosity and that’s the real heart of science. That’s the real magic.

What is the most interesting question you have been asked?

Szydagis: There are so many interesting questions. It would probably be the question of whether neutrinos could be dark matter because that combines facts from multiple experiments at SURF, including LZ and the Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment (DUNE).

Tanedo: Is the universe created? Is there a grand plan? How could something like this just emerge? Well, there are things science can answer and there are things science cannot answer. These questions turned into a conversation about complexity and what it means for us as very humble human beings to see a complicated universe and find ways to make order out of it.

Hanhardt: A pair of young scientists, a sister and brother, about 9 and 7 years old, respectively, asked if there was weather in space. We talked about solar winds and planetary magnetospheres and how these things affect satellites and navigation on Earth. This led to one of the greatest and most earnest questions I’ve been asked: Are there space tornadoes? We concluded that, yes, as a consequence of the turbulent interaction of solar winds with magnetospheres, they must exist. They are natural-born scientists, who will someday revolutionize our understanding of space weather.

Is there question you have never been asked but would love to answer?

Szydagis: ‘Are we alone in the universe?’ is a question of extreme cosmic importance. Given the discoveries of countless exoplanets, the answer is probably, ‘No!’ And if intelligent non-humans exist out there, I would love to ask “them” what dark matter is.

Tanedo: Why do you assign homework? Scientists constantly ask questions. They are curious. To become curious—the way a scientist is curious—requires practice. It’s about exercising that part of your brain, training it to ask questions that lead to more questions and, perhaps, the answer. That’s why we give homework. And that’s what I think is really beautiful about Ask a Scientist—people asking questions that get to the core of science.

Hanhardt: I’ve always wanted to get into a dedicated discussion about the epistemological basis of science. Why should we expect the universe to make sense, to follow logical rules? Why should we expect, as most scientists do, that there are fundamental laws to the universe that can be understood or described or that are consistent?  I'm no more qualified to answer those questions than anyone, but those are the sorts of discussions I really love to get into.