Experimental science meets entertainment at the Physics Slam

Plasma ball

Hundreds of sheep can move, as if connected, in one giant drove. It’s called “emergent behavior,” and it can be found all the way down to the interactions of single-celled organisms.

Sound confusing? How about phenomena like pair correlations, nematic order, noise, surface tension and flow? If that all seems like a bit much, you may want to attend the Physics Slam.

Six UO physicists will square off on Saturday, Jan. 13, in a battle to deliver the clearest and most entertaining explanation of a physics topic. Years of research may have gone into their topics of choice, but each contestant will have only 10 minutes to engage and inform the audience.

The event will take place at 7:30 p.m. in Room 156, Straub Hall. Admission is free and the event is open to the public.

“My hope is that every member of the audience will leave with a few new and thought-provoking concepts from physics, as well as questions that will make them think about phenomena that they see in the world around them every day,” said Tristan Ursell, head faculty organizer for the event. “Physics is, ultimately, about understanding what we see around us.”

Contestants will dip into the worlds of astrophysics, particle physics, optical physics and biophysics. Jargon will be thrown out the window as they attempt to capture the attention of an expected audience of 300-600.

The fate of the competitors, all assistant professors, will be in student hands. This year’s judges will be 150 visiting undergraduate physics majors taking part in the Northwest Regional American Physical Society Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics.

In addition to organizing the event, Ursell, an assistant professor in the UO Department of Physics, will be competing.

“I love spreading curiosity and making the joy of science accessible to everyone,” he said. “I'll be talking about emergent behaviors in biological systems, similar to flocking birds or the fact that thousands of ants, each obeying nearly the same program, somehow can build a complex nest.”

The competitors will be Ursell, Benjamín Alemán, Tim Cohen, Ben Farr, Laura Jeanty and Jayson Paulose.

Only one slammer will go home with the top prize — a prize kept secret from Ursell and the other contestants.

A live stream of the event will be on The UO Channel.

By Sarah Eddy, University Communications.