Outreach: Two lectures for the price of one!

31 oktober 2011

By: Frank Linde, director Nikhef

Every week at least one Nikhef scientist gives a public lecture somewhere in the Netherlands. With 5-10 public lectures annually, I take my fair share. Last week I had my best public lecture experience ever.

It all started last July with (apologies for the Dutch):
“… ik ben lid van de Vereniging Mensa (u wellicht bekend).”
I replied:
“In ieder geval weet ik niet wat Mensa is (afgezien van een goedkoop studenten restaurant).”
Only to realize that I am not that smart as I thought:
“Vereniging Mensa is een (internationale) vereniging van en voor zeer intelligente (hoogbegaafde) mensen.”

Friday evening I went to a resort somewhere smack in the middle of the woods on the Veluwe. At the reception desk my host (a very nice young lady as opposed to what I had imagined from our earlier e-mail conversation) welcomes me and immediately makes it clear that I should not only talk about the agreed-upon topic (Large Hadron Collider) but also about the super-luminous neutrinos recently observed by the OPERA experiment in Italy. I.e. two talks for the price of one. And I can talk as fast as I want (Nobel prize winner Sam Ting and former spokesman of the L3 experiment at LEP always told me before I started my presentation: “I know you: you have to speak S L O W L Y”).

I first gave my neutrino lecture. I could not resist asking the Mensists how fast light (photons) from nuclear fusion in the Sun’s interior travel to Earth. Eight minutes was the enthusiastic and unanimous response… Indeed the correct answer for neutrinos which traverse the Sun unhindered to arrive on Earth. Photons, however, are absorbed, emitted, re-absorbed, etc. numerous times within the Sun’s core before they reach the Sun’s surface to race to Earth. This delays the photons by hundreds of thousands of years… The point was taken. Nevertheless, my lecture generated a very lively discussion and the audience flagged some errors on my slides and asked very deep questions e.g. on causality… And meanwhile I talked faster and faster… and nobody complained!

The neutrino’s warmed them up and they also wanted the Large Hadron Collider lecture. I think I never gave it faster than this time. And again many questions and a serious debate entering into various related topics followed. I do not think I exhausted the audience. At some time I proposed my host to wrap up… I was afraid I was getting tired. After she thanked me for the lectures, I even tried to become a honorary Mensa member. That failed miserably: I simply have to take the test and risk failing it which would completely ruin my self-esteem (I could do it incognito as Mr. Van Buren she suggested …). Anyway, I did get a very nice book with Mensa stories. I already read that one of my favourite authors (Yvonne Kroonenberg from ‘Alle mannnen willen maar een ding’; ‘Zij houdt van hem; hij ook’; ‘Kan ik hem nog ruilen?’, ‘Het zit op de bank en het zapt’) was a Mensist as well as Wubbo Ockels. I guess I should really take the test eventually and risk ruining my self-esteem.

Before I made it to the bar I had to answer many other questions. And nobody complained about the speed of my lectures. I fear they even would have loved to hear my lecture on Dan Brown’s “Angels & Demons”.