Physicists Neil deGrasse Tyson and Brian Greene, well-known for their efforts to bring physics to the masses via television and new media, may soon have another "popularizer" amongst their ranks. Meet theoretical physicist and AAAS member Mark G. Jackson, who recently traded in equations and theorems to devote himself to promoting physics and research on a global scale.
The 37-year-old physicist is among a rare breed of scientists who can deftly break down complicated physics theories and principles for a layperson—and he does so while exuding an enthusiasm for discovery and learning that's infectious.
Jackson is a natural as he talks about everything from string theory to quantum mechanics to particle physics. He was featured on Huffington Post's Talk Nerdy to Me blog and currently is working with the Meetup group XPrize Think Tank NYC to record his lecture, \"The Physics of Space Travel," which will be posted this fall on YouTube.
"In biology, you ask, 'Why does this happen?' and the answer has to do with chemistry. But then you ask, 'Why does this happen in chemistry?' and the answer is physics," he says. "Really big questions about what things are made of or about the universe are explained with physics."
Jackson also is founder of Fiat Physica, a new, online physics community and crowd-sourced funding platform. The mission of Fiat Physica, which is Latin for "make physics happen," is twofold: "to make physics accessible, enjoyable, and relevant" and to give scientists working on crucial physics projects an opportunity to connect with potential donors who believe in their research.
Jackson didn't set out to be a crusader for physics or physicists. Like most physicists, he wanted to work in a lab and teach students. He spent a decade in postdoc research at top labs around the world, including Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, in Batavia, Illinois, and the Institut d'Astrophysique de Paris, in France.
But even with his excellent credentials, Jackson faced an uphill battle in securing a permanent position. "It was frustrating to work so hard and not yet have a tenure-track job," he says. Jackson wasn't alone. Many of his physicist colleagues found they were unable to even get interviews for positions. And, says Jackson, it was "psychologically difficult" to see scientists doing good work but not getting rewarded or supported with funding for physics research due to drastic budget cuts.
Last year, while helping the University of Paris with some fundraising, Jackson discovered that he took naturally to the process of meeting with potential donors and helping raise money. Inspired by this experience, and by entrepreneur friends whom he saw were "always thinking about how to solve problems and find solutions," he decided to fuse this newfound aptitude with his continuing love of physics. The result, his revolutionary fundraising—and awareness-raising—platform for physics, Fiat Physica.
In a video explaining the site's mission, Jackson notes, "Everybody loves physics. Many just don't realize it yet." For instance, PET scans are possible because of particle physics and research that was done 50 years ago, before scientists even knew what it could be used for. And without Einstein's theory of relativity, we wouldn't have GPS. Hit movies like Interstellar and The Theory of Everything make it clear that the public is interested in physics.
Jackson says that he hopes he can be a face for physics and that Fiat Physica can be that concrete connection between interested members of the public and other potential sponsors with important research. "What's missing is a way for the public to engage with the scientists," Jackson notes.
The other component of Fiat Physica's mission is fundraising. Some of the ways individuals or businesses can support physics projects and research is by giving donations to help with operating expenses or travel, or organize international conferences or educational programs. Contributors also can help create endowed research or faculty positions. "The great thing about being on the Internet is that we can target small groups and specific issues and get people involved in conversation," says Jackson.
The website features a blog, news updates, and resources, and also hosts regular presentations featuring recent research accomplishments of clients. Some recent posts include, "8 Things You Didn't Know Were Invented by Women" and "A Message to the Stars, a Message to Earth." The latter is about One Earth Message, which is partnering with Fiat Physica to create an interstellar message to other life forms that is slated to be uploaded to the Pluto Mission's New Horizons spacecraft in 2016, much like the Golden Records that were sent via the Voyager missions.
Some of the challenges Jackson has faced include concern that private donors will discourage government funding. But Jackson points out that the government is already cutting spending anyway. He's also faced some reluctance from scientists who aren't sure if they want the public involved in their research. "I thought the only challenge would be persuading the public, but I was wrong," says Jackson. "At least half the challenge has been convincing scientists why physics should be palatable to the public."
His hard work is paying off, and members of the physics community are starting to reach out to him. "We have had over 90 groups express interest in setting up projects on our site, about half of which have just been in the past two months," he says.