The last couple of weeks have seen our Department teeming with the participants in the Penn Summer Science Academy. This wonderful program, now in its twelfth year, is run by Bill Berner, who can also pull together any demonstration you may wish for in your classes. Guided by Bill, a number of other staff members and a local high school physics teacher, the students (“academically qualified high school students currently enrolled in 10th, 11th, or 12th grade”) go through an intensive physics experience for four weeks, including mini-courses, demos, research lectures, lab work and field trips, finishing up with a panel discussion on careers in science, featuring professionals from research, education, and industry.
On Tuesday I got to play a small part in this by delivering a lecture on modern cosmology
I am repeatedly amazed whenever I do something like this by how eager people are to hear about cosmology, and by the great questions they come up with that get to the heart of what is known and what is at the edge of our understanding.
In Tuesday’s lecture I didn’t even get to any of the more esoteric topics, such as inflation, although we did talk about cosmic acceleration a little, and discussed dark matter quite a lot. Lots of times when one talks about dark matter, people are fascinated by the particle physics possibilities – sometimes they’ve heard of supersymmetry, for example, and want to understand what dark matter might have to do with it. But interestingly most of the questions I got yesterday were empirical in nature, concerning how we know what we know about dark matter, and why we think it behaves the way it does. This is, of course, as it should be. It might be a consequence of this being an experimentally focused program, but whatever it is, it is clear that Bill and everyone else is doing a great job.
It doesn’t take much time to take part in something like this – an hour of lecture and thirty to forty minutes of discussion afterwards. And it is immensely fun and rewarding. If the students enjoyed themselves half as much as I did then I’ll be delighted.