Where’s the Wow Factor?

Where’s the Wow Factor? was a question posed at the Physics Meets Biology meeting in September in the context of teaching Biological Physics, as I discussed before.  I was reminded of this question while attending this year’s Institute of Physics Condensed Matter and Materials Physics (CMMP) Division meeting. The Division has held an annual conference close to Christmas, certainly ever since I was a graduate student (which is going back a bit now), but up till now I have never attended simply because at no point did its programme seem relevant to me.  This year three IOP groups – Biological Physics, Polymer Physics, and Liquids and Complex Fluids – have come together to ensure there is a new strand in the programme.  Traditionally it has concentrated on ‘hard’ condensed matter, things like metals, semiconductors and quantum solids.  This year, additionally, 4 out of the 7 Plenary Lectures also have some relevance to this ‘soft’ strand.  So I, and a fair number of my colleagues from this field have ventured to Warwick to see whether this meeting now has more relevance. (OK, I’m one of the Plenary Lecturers, so I don’t actually have a choice about attending, but I could have breezed in and out of again, but have chosen not to do so.)

Listening to the first talk in the Biological Physics Symposium, given by my Cambridge colleague Ray Goldstein, I certainly felt the ‘wow’ factor was there. It was a beautiful talk about cytoplasmic streaming, a phenomenon known about for more than a hundred years, but still barely understood.  It occurs in plants, in which there is a strong circulating flow within the cytoplasm of the cells, but the biological relevance of it has not been obvious.  Working on aquatic plants such as chara and nitella, which have huge cells maybe a centimetre or more in length, he has been able to image the flow in great detail, via both fluorescence microscopy and MRI, and begin to study how it varies from place to place within the cell; he has also studied the behaviour of the internal membrane, the tonoplast which surrounds the vacuole, in response to the circulation. He has shown that the tonoplast circulates too, and he had an amazing video to demonstrate this.  Although there is not yet a complete answer to why this cytoplasmic streaming happens, Goldstein argued persuasively that this is an excellent micromixer, predating microfluidic designs by many millions of years.

At the September meeting in Oxford the speaker who posed the wow factor question seemed to think that only topics like astrophysics would grab the imagination, particularly of the young who we need to entice into physics. I cannot agree. As ever it seems to me that it is horses for courses – some schoolchildren will doubtless look up at the night sky and be inspired to ask questions and demand answers which may indeed lure them into a physics/astrophysics degree; others will be less excited by this and want to know about totally different things. Astrophysics is only one facet of the joy of physics and it depresses me that some of these other aspects, perhaps more ‘mundane’ because closer to our everyday world, are so readily overlooked. As a teenager I quite explicitly turned my back on cosmology – having briefly flirted with it – because I wanted to study things that seemed more relevant to our lives, but which were still ‘physics’.  That has of course been the course I have followed ever since, as I have wandered through the study of metals, polymers, food, colloids, plants and ultimately cells (the header at the top of my blog illustrates three of these topics, but not in fact plants).  I am sure other school children also will find the ‘wow factor’ in things that are neither millions of light years away nor only to be found in the Large Hadron Collider (high energy physics being another subject that is assumed to hold the attention of the young).

This is one of the reasons I so welcome the broadening of what the CMMP sees as part of its remit.  Soft matter and biological physics are both subjects which touch upon our everyday world, both lend themselves readily as topics which schoolchildren can relate to, and so we need to ensure the physics they encapsulate is recognized and disseminated. It is no coincidence that Ray Goldstein’s work, coupled with his colleague Alison Smith from Cambridge University’s Plant Sciences Department, featured in last summer’s Royal Society’s Exhibition (Meet the Algae), a key part of the Royal Society’s outreach activity and attended by some thousands of schoolchildren.  Another example of using this topic to explain the excitement of science to the young was the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures given by the University of Sheffield’s Tony Ryan on ‘Smart Stuff’ in 2002. For too long our schools and our university courses have excluded so much potentially exciting physics in their teaching – and indeed (in the case of university departments), their research.

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6 Responses to Where’s the Wow Factor?

  1. Owen says:

    When talking to friends about the bits of science I see or hear about, the “wowiest” response I’ve got has always been to optical trapping. The idea that you can pick small things up with beams of light and move them around is an amazing one, even if we’ve been doing it for long enough now that it’s become “just another technique”.

    On the other hand, this is the reaction from interested science-literate adults. Would it still seem cool to someone younger? No idea…

  2. Stephen says:

    Your post struck a chord with me since I myself started out with a physics degree but migrated to more biological interests because I wanted to work on problem that would be seen as meaningful or potentially practical by most people.

    So I share your wariness of working in astronomy, though I understand the broad appeal of the subject (I have a telescope and am not afraid to use it!). But I think there are some genuine difficulties in getting the wow factor of cellular and molecular science across to a lay audience. This seems to me to be because the landscape at this level is so alien to the woman in the street (or the man on the sofa). As a structural biologist, I am constantly struggling to encapsulate the wonder of protein structures when talking to people who don’t know what an amino acid is.

  3. Jenny says:

    I had a ‘wow’ moment last week when Marc Kirschner told a rapt seminar audience about weighing the smallest object.

  4. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    my most recent “wow” moment is unfortunately unbloggable, because it occurred in a presentation by a pharmaceutical company with whom we collaborate, and is still very hush-hush. Early days, but if their in vivo work pans out in clinical trials (starting soon), it’s gonna be HUGE!

  5. ricardipus says:

    I am envious of people who do ‘WOW’ science. A colleague and friend of mine used to refer to things as having a high “gee whiz!” factor, which is I guess different dialect for the same sort of thing (she was born in Belfast, go figure).

    • ricardipus says:

      Also, I think I just had a ‘WOW’ moment when hovering over the link in Jenny’s comment above… I had no idea you could use a ‘title’ attribute in an ‘a href’ html tag.

      /geek