A joint Fermilab/SLAC publication
Image: Fermi Symposium 2012
Bob Kahn, Stanford

Social scientists: Far-flung physicists meet face-to-face


A tidal wave of gamma-ray scientists swept into Monterey, California, for the Fourth International Fermi Symposium, and despite the idyllic photo of a lovely local beach that graced the event poster, they didn’t come for the sun and surf. They came for science—and some face time.

More than 300 scientists who study the sky in the high-powered light of gamma rays came together last week for five days of presentations, meetings and the chance to compare notes at the Fourth International Fermi Symposium. Acronyms flew thick and fast: SNR (supernova remnant), TGF (terrestrial gamma-ray flashes) and AGN (active galactic nucleus) were only a few of the TLAs (three-letter acronyms) to be heard.

The symposium covered the wide range of science underway thanks to data from the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope, offering researchers exposure to new areas of study. "One thing I discovered here is the TGFs. I find them very interesting and I didn't realize it's possible to study them with the Fermi Large Area Telescope,” says Dmitry Malyshev, a post-doctoral researcher with the Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology.

But at a gathering like this, sometimes the most important work happens between presentations. As Malyshev explains, "Even with all the social media available, sitting next to someone and just chatting about research is so much more efficient at generating ideas. Email is easier if you have a specific question or already know the person." But the big steps forward, the big ideas, tend to come in face-to-face meetings, Malyshev says.

Warit Mitthumsiri, a KIPAC graduate student, also touted the conference's unexpected efficiencies. "I had a chance to talk to the internal reviewers of my paper," he says, referring to the Fermi collaboration members who are in charge of approving his publication. "It was so much easier than sending emails back and forth to Europe with one question at a time.”

Mitthumsiri also describes a chance meeting with another Thai astrophysicist, Siraprapa Sanpa-arsa, that will likely turn into future collaboration. Sanpa-arsa is currently at the University of Virginia at Charlottesville—essentially the other side of the country from Mitthumsiri, who currently calls California his home. But, according to Mitthumsiri, Thai astrophysicists are still rare, and he and Sanpa-arsa both intend to return to Thailand after finishing their educations in the United States. They now plan to join forces when they get back home. "We can start building a future astrophysics society in Thailand," he says.

In all, it was a week of non-stop gamma-ray talk and the subtle but profound rewards of human communication.

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