Fermi Hosts Sigma Pi Sigma

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Publication date: 
25 November 2008

The fifth Sigma Pi Sigma Quadrennial Congress met this month at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) in Batavia, Illinois to discuss the importance of “scientific citizenship.”

Sigma Pi Sigma was founded as a physics honor society in 1921 to encourage intellectual interest in the field, a sense of public service, and to provide a community for students who have shown exceptional merit. Since 1968, Sigma Pi Sigma is housed within the Society of Physics Students (SPS), a component of the American Institute of Physics. SPS functions as a professional association of students, and while an interest in physics is a prerequisite, students of chemistry, computer science, geology, mathematics, and other fields are welcome.

The topic of scientific citizenship is in many ways a follow up to the previous congress where professional ethics were discussed. Proponents of scientific citizenship argue that policy decisions will be made on scientifically relevant issues with, or without the input of experts in those fields. This may be true at the local science education level, or at the national level in terms of climate change or energy policy.

Sigma Pi Sigma's Quadrennial Congress began with an evening presentation by Jill Tarter, Director of the Center for SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Research at the SETI Institute. Tarter gave a brief overview of SETI's history, emphasizing that SETI's mission continues after NASA's contribution was zeroed out in 1993. After discussing the likelihood that SETI will ever detect signals from another civilization, Tarter took questions from the audience. One student noted that Tarter is the 2009 recipient of the TED Prize, which in addition to $100,000 grants the recipient one "wish" that the network of TED sponsors pledges to work towards. When asked what her wish would be, Tarter said that she had yet to make a final decision.

Young-Kee Kim, Deputy Director of Fermilab and Professor of Physics at the University of Chicago opened the first day at Fermilab with an overview of the laboratory before groups toured 14 various facilities including a control room with remote access to the Large Hadron Collider, and the magnet factory. Kim would later lecture on her contributions to physics, including her participation in the discovery of the sixth and final quark called the top quark.

Other notable speakers on day two included Fred Jerome and Rodger Taylor, co-authors of the book, “Einstein on Race and Racism.” Jerome and Taylor argue that Einstein was sensitive to racial injustice and that he was friends with a number of African American notables, including civil rights activists Paul Robeson and W. E. B. Du Bois.

The final day at Fermilab featured discussions on the demographics of physics students, energy efficiency, running for public office, and ended with a talk by Leon Lederman, Physics Nobel Laureate and Director Emeritus of Fermilab.

Congress attendees were given an opportunity after most lectures to break into small working groups and review the information they had just heard. Groups were asked to consider if there were any statements that SPS should endorse in those fields, for instance to encourage physics students to be civically active. Attendees will soon be asked to rank according to preference a list of 15 distilled items before a member of the SPS Council, a governing body of SPS and Sigma Pi Sigma, has the opportunity to make a motion to endorse a statement. In 2006 SPS recommended that “physics departments include a “professional ethics” education component in their programs…” Some possible statements suggest SPS provide resources on interacting with differently-abled groups, promote policy opportunities for undergraduates and recent bachelors, and encourage scientific citizenship among chapters at the local level.

The sixth Sigma Pi Sigma Congress will convene in Cape Kennedy, Florida in 2012.

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