IOP Physics Education

P EOPLE

Featuring relationships,personalities,interactions,environments and reputations involved in physics and education

March 2002

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IOP Physics Education Journal: http://www.iop.org/EJ/S/UNREG/ZJIiwJQsPVOEKxh7QuurdQ/journal/PhysEd

 

Physics, sex and politics

Kerry Parker talks to Lynda Williams, the Physics Chanteuse

The Physics Chanteuse in action.

High school ‘failure’ Williams grew up in California

and like many of her friends she messed about at school,

involved with too many other teenage preoccupations

to be bother with studies or classes. She began to study

when she got to Community College and eventually

got a BS in Physics and Maths. (She went back and told

her Math teacher about her success: she knew he would

remember telling her that she would never get any-where

in Math.) From university graduation she took

five years ‘off’ and worked as a video performance

artist, working in interactive installations, gradually

moving into performance with science themes. She

went back to university to do an MS with the intention

of moving into TV, but she went into teaching and developed

her act as ‘The Physics Chanteuse’: a sexually

provocative, politically barbed entertainment which

made her a popular after-dinner entertainer amongst

US physicists.

Reinventing herself again, Lynda moved to New York

and started to study for a PhD in the summer of 2001,

but the events of September 11 have changed her think-

ing. She gave up the PhD, and is now much more reflective,

hoping to write and teach back in California.

‘I’m still running from the towers… I want to see na-ture

before it is all destroyed’, she told me as we sat in

a bar during the AAPT winter meeting in Philadelphia,

where Lynda had been explaining how to create

Powerpoint Karaoke Physics.

What do you hate about physics?

Hate is such a negative word, one we need to hear less

of in this world, so I prefer not to use it. What I dislike

in physics is our lack of social responsibility or moral

conscience. We produce weapons of mass destruction

and nuclear power that endangers and pollutes the world.

We build billion dollar labs to do esoteric research projects

such as searching for the Higgs field, when there

are much more important problems to apply our brain

power to now, such as developing sustainable energy

sources or dealing with nuclear waste. We have a real

Frankenstein complex—scientific discovery at any

cost. But progress at any cost is too expensive. We

are technologically sophisticated but socially retarded

and we need to bring that into balance.

Physicists suffer from a ridiculous sense of superiority

and entitlement—the ‘rocket scientist’ complex.

The cancellation of the Superconducting Super Collider

was a mega-shock to the community. For the first time

since the Manhatten Project, physicists were told No.

So now they are running scared to the ‘outreach’ specialists

to educate the public about their research but it

really is more of a publicity campaign than an educational

effort. They want the people to support their re-search

without question. NASA doesn’t include

criticism or debate in its educational materials. There

is no environmental impact lesson plan about the risk

of launching plutonium-powered probes from Earth

or discussion of whether the search for life on Mars is

really relevant or a priority. I think physics is out of

sync with the real world. We need to educate people so

they are politically empowered, not ideologically

cloned ‘anything-goes’science sheep.

What is your biggest disappointment in physics?

My biggest disappointment is that physics is so dis-connected

from Nature. We say we study nature but it

has become so specialized that we can’t see the living

being through its atoms, and that has dangerous con-sequences.

We perpetuate the illusion that science is

objective and without social influence, and that is sim-ply

absurd! We have disdain for social sciences and lib-eral

arts, which is really stupid because it is all just

different ways of looking at and for truth.

We need to evolve out

of our addiction to

power and explosions

and weapons.

Physicists —just say

NO to Star War !

We have lost touch with our origins as Natural Philosophers and have

become narrow-minded logical technicians working

for the profit of powers who are often doing treat harm to nature. It is

really shameful. I am also very disappointed

in some of our research choices. For ex-ample,

we are spending incredible amounts of human

and economic resources trying to achieve

sustainable fusion when there is all the fusion energy

we could ever need coming from the Sun!

There is wind and wave power! We are obsessed

with our own selfish intellectual

pursuits. This is why it is critical that we have

a scientifically literate voting population: so everyone

can participate in making decisions about the direction

science takes and keep scientists in check.

We are at a very, very dangerous crossroads in the

world. The US wants to build a so-called Missile

Defense system, and guess who is going to build it?

Physicists! A Star Wars system in space is the wrong

direction for the world. Unfortunately we are a lot bet-ter

at building bombs than building peace. We need

to evolve out of our addiction to power and explosions

and weapons. Physicists—just say NO to Star Wars!

What turns you on about physics?

I’m a natural philosopher and I studied physics because

I wanted to understand how the universe came into existence.

I also think physics is the most powerful tool hu-mans

have for understanding the laws of nature and the

cosmos. It is amazing to me that we can study the origin

and evolution of the universe. Science fact is so much

more bizarre than science fiction. I love it! It makes my

brain go yum-yum. And I also like the thrill of problem

solving—the beauty and elegance of deriving Maxwell’s

equations. The best thing about physics is the training—

it really teaches you to think and reason. It gets your brain

into shape for the rest of your life. That is what I tell my

students, study physics and you’ll be smarter the rest

of your life! Physics is the ultimate mental gymnastics.

More information

The Physics Chanteuse has her own website at:

www.scientainment.com

and can be contacted by e-mail at:lynda@scientainment.com