University City

April 5, 2013

Free talks at UNC Charlotte will explain intriguing research targets

People enjoy learning about science, when it’s hands-on and explained in a way they can understand.

Last April, when UNC Charlotte hosted its first Science & Technology Expo – joining the North Carolina Science Festival’s growing list of events held across the state during the month – organizers didn’t know how the general public would respond.

Would people outside the scientific community come out to launch steam cannons or peer through high-powered telescopes or cook up chemical reactions for fun?

The nearly 3,000 people who showed up for the four-hour event on campus gave them their answer. They also provided a working hypothesis they could continue to explore: People like science, when its hands-on and explained in a way they can understand.

This year, the university’s scientists have prepared a follow-up experiment, offering a lecture series geared for adult audiences on the latest scientific discoveries and trends.

“Gravity to Genomics, Google Maps to Germanium Stamps: Research Journeys” will consist of five free talks, each one specifically catered for the mainstream public.

The lectures, spread throughout the month, will cover science’s most current and intriguing topics – from the Higgs boson discovery to the real possibility of invisibility – all in easily manageable chunks that curious-minded members of the general public can easily digest.

“It’s definitely meant for the layperson,” Kate Popejoy, assistant professor of science education at UNC Charlotte, said of the series. The discussions will be nothing like the dry, stale lectures of stoic professors commonly characterized in movies and television, she said. “We all love what we do, and we want to help you understand.”

All the professors selected for the series have experience bringing their fields of research to the general public. That’s a relatively uncommon characteristic in most research scientists.

“This is an actual opportunity to explore something cool and in-depth by someone who understands how to tell ordinary people about it without using 14-syllable words,” said James Hathaway, research communications manager at UNC Charlotte.

Dr. Sean Carroll – a theoretical cosmologist who has earned a reputation as much for being a talented science communicator as for his work as a researcher – will explain the Higgs boson during “The Particle at the End of the Universe,” his April 10 lecture based on his book of the same name.

Carroll has been praised repeatedly for his knack at explaining with humor and clarity the importance of finding the elusive particle, and why it should matter to everyone.

The lectures are designed to pique interest in science and delve a little deeper.

On April 15, Dr. Greg Gbur, a theoretical physicist at UNC Charlotte, will share new advancements in the research into invisibility, a topic once considered only fodder for science fiction.

“For a long time it was thought that pure invisibility was impossible, that it just couldn’t be done,” said Gbur. “Research started in 2006 radically changed our view and made people realize it’s not quite as impossible as we imagined it to be.”

UNC Charlotte’s scientific community hopes the lecture series will reignite the spark for science in adults that dull, science textbook-style learning extinguished in them as children.

“We want others to share in that magical enjoyment of figuring out how something works, or maybe not being able to figure it out,” said Popejoy. “The mystery is a big drive for us. That sense of wondering why things are the way they are is a fundamental human trait.”

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