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Young scientists popularize physics
An inspiring example is a group of graduate and doctoral students from the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), who have been making efforts to change the face of physics by dressing it up, reassembling its fun parts and putting it all online
By Yuan Yuan  ·  2019-10-15  ·   Source: NO.42 OCTOBER 17, 2019
Liu Guangxiu (right), Ji Yu (left) and another team member host in Beijing a live-streaming show on Bilibili on September 25 (YUAN YUAN)

As arcane physics theories buzz around the world after the 2019 Nobel Prize in Physics winners were announced, physicists and physics majors continue to try to popularize the mysteries of the world.

An inspiring example is a group of graduate and doctoral students from the Institute of Physics (IOP) of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), who have been making efforts to change the face of physics by dressing it up, reassembling its fun parts and putting it all online.


In 2014, Cheng Meng, a doctoral graduate from the institute, had the idea to make physics more fun through IOP's official public account on WeChat, a popular social media app in China. Li Zhilin, an IOP doctoral student and winner of a campus contest to write an interesting article promoting physics, joined Cheng to form the initial team.

In the first year and a half, Cheng was in charge of updating articles to the account. "I spent every day looking for and editing articles to feed the account," Cheng said. "It was a lot of work."

Li remarked, "Our initial goal was to make the institute's public account more creative, doing away with the boring routine release of regular IOP news."

Their work proved fruitful as the number of IOP account followers has grown steadily over the past five years and now stands at almost 1 million.

Li Xuanyi, 24, a doctoral student at the institute, followed the account when he was an undergraduate student. "The account had already gained some fame in its first two years," he said. "When I joined the team in 2016, we already had over 200,000 followers."

Liu Guangxiu, a 25-year-old IOP doctoral student, was also an early follower of the account. "I knew the institute through its public account," Liu said. "I was an undergraduate student at the time, making plans for further physics studies. I really liked the WeChat account and I would say it was the reason I chose this institute for my advanced studies."

Right before Liu arrived at the institute in 2017, she got an email asking whether she was interested in joining the team in charge of maintaining IOP's WeChat account. Ji Yu, a 24-year-old graduate student who enrolled in 2017, received the same email.

They proceeded to become the new blood of the team and quickly began editing articles. The team works out of a studio in the lab building and holds a meeting every Wednesday night. With the growing number of followers, the members decided to start expanding some of the columns.

"We had many followers asking a variety of questions, some very interesting, like why instant noodles are curly instead of straight," Li said. "Some questions were quite similar, like what is fire."

By answering these questions, they also help clear up rumors that circulate online. For example, whether it is necessary for pregnant women to wear radiation proof clothes, which they clearly answered: absolutely not.

Eventually, they collected the questions and opened a Q&A column. "We compiled over 1,000 questions and related answers into a book titled One-Minute Physics," Liu said. "The book was published this year."

Now, there are more than 20 members on the team. In March, the team decided to explore a new road—live streaming—on Bilibili, a popular Chinese video-sharing platform.

The idea grew from another column that teaches primary and middle school students how to conduct simple physics experiments.

"We normally made short videos for the experiments," Li said. "While we were making the preparations, we suddenly had the idea to live stream the preparation process. We thought it would be more dynamic and allow us to have more interaction with our followers online."

Liu and Ji were chosen to be the hosts of the show. "This was a challenge for me as I am an introvert," Liu said. "We didn't know how to talk with the online audience and for the first several videos, we finished within half an hour."

Now, they are veterans and quite animated and confident. On September 25, their online show lasted for more than two hours. The experiment was on the light-absorption of liquid of different colors.

Today, they have half a million followers on Bilibili.

Liu Guangxiu (second left) guides primary students through an experiment in a lab at the CAS in Beijing in August (COURTESY PHOTO)

Serious fun

"What we popularize with our platforms is not limited to physics, we promote all science knowledge," Li Xuanyi said.

He recalled the first article he wrote on the IOP account about Italian physicist Ettore Majorana. "He made extraordinary achievements in physics, but disappeared in his 30s and was never heard from again," Li Xuanyi said.

For him, mystery is the charm of physics. "You can always find something unknown. That is why it is so attractive to me," he said.

Li Zhilin compared physics learning to treasure hunting. "You know there are treasures, but you don't know exactly where they are," he said. "You have to work hard and look for them."

For Cheng, physics can provide an objective view of the world. "There are actually various misunderstandings about physics. Some think that it is super complicated and has nothing to do with them. That is why there are many organizations and people trying to popularize physics," Cheng said.

But this can also lead to another extreme: Is physics as interesting and simple as shown in the group's articles and videos?

"Of course not," Cheng said. "For those who have spent years in labs, we know that the real face of physics is very serious. We just put some makeup on it and present it online to make it look more interesting to bring more people into the world of science. But this is far from the true picture."

Cheng warned that those who plan to make physics their profession should be well prepared for this reality.

Yu Lu, a physicist and academician with the CAS, agreed with Cheng. He wrote the preface to the team's book. He explained that most of the questions and answers in the book can be read in one or two minutes, but people have to be clear that it's not enough to understand the theories behind each phenomenon thoroughly; the short answers can't possibly cover every aspect of the theory.

"A good question is like the start of an exploration, a good answer is like a key to the world you are curious about but it is hardly the end of the exploration," Yu wrote in the preface.

(Print Edition Title: Fun With Physics)

Copyedited by Rebeca Toledo

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