You may have noticed that instead of delivering the summary of Quark Matter 2012 I promised in my last post, I disappeared from the blog for a few weeks. Unfortunately I got involved in some research work immediately after coming back, which left me with zero time for blogging anything longer than 140 characters.
Well, all that ends now. I've already written about the main results from Quark Matter, and that post already encompasses much of what was presented over the rest of the week, but I do want to mention a couple of significant activities that weren't part of the conference proper.
First, on Thursday evening we were treated to a banquet in the Omni Shoreham's main ballroom, followed by a popular science talk from Phil Plait, the guy behind the Bad Astronomy blog. In sharp contrast to the dense technical talks of the rest of the conference, this one was incredibly entertaining. If you ever get the chance to see him talk about his new book on cosmic disasters, I highly recommend it. I mean, how can you not enjoy half an hour spent making fun of the bad science in Armageddon? (also the subject of yesterday's BA blog post)
After the talk, I stuck around for a little while and had a very interesting conversation with Dr. Plait, about the difficulties of communicating science to a popular audience. Here's the point that really caught my interest: when you're talking to nonscientists, you can't make a convincing argument with facts. People are hard-wired to respond to emotional arguments, to intensity, to confidence — so the person who sounds right is more believable than the person who is right. That's a problem for scientists, of course, because science is about discovering, establishing, and communicating facts. I don't have a magic solution to this, it's just something we need to think about more and more as the boundaries between research-level science and the general public break down.
The other thing I want to bring up is the subject of a post-conference meeting that was held on Saturday afternoon. As you might guess, all sorts of government-sponsored programs are having to deal with reduced funding because of the economy. The problem is particularly extreme for RHIC, the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider, which is now the only major particle accelerator operating in the United States. Traditionally, the amount of money allocated to RHIC experiments has slowly increased from year to year, but for the next few years, that budget may be holding steady or actually decreasing. Coupled with the ever-increasing costs of doing frontier science, this is going to make it increasingly difficult for RHIC to continue operating. And if it has to shut down, that will be a huge blow to high-energy physics in the United States.
With this in mind, the Nuclear Science Advisory Committee, an advisory board to the NSF and DOE, has been asked to prepare a report on how to most effectively fund nuclear science research in the US over the next several years. As part of this process, the NSAC subcommittee writing the report is going to be hearing arguments from certain leading physicists who were also present at Quark Matter. On Saturday afternoon, they held a town meeting to collect input from the heavy-ion community on how best to make the case for the continued operation of RHIC. The recommendations from the meeting will be incorporated into a report that is going to be sent to the subcommitte, then passed on to NSAC, then to the DOE and NSF, which are in turn going to advise Congress on how to incorporate nuclear physics in the next several years of US budgets.
Now, why do I bring this up? If you have an interest in high-energy physics, you should care about keeping RHIC open. While this is mostly up to the NSAC subcommittee at this point, it's also going to be important in the future to show that particle physics has public support. So keep doing whatever you do to help as many people as possible understand why high-energy physics is important. And stay tuned to this and other sources to hear about what happens with RHIC in the future!