Announcing the Winner of “Why Particle Physics Matters”

At a major particle physics planning meeting this summer, a few dozen physicists volunteered to speak on camera about why they do what they do. We at symmetry chose our top five explanations and asked you to vote for your favorite.

The results are in: Breese Quinn, a physicist from the University of Mississippi, is the winner of the very first symmetry “Excellence in Science Communication” award, affectionately known as the “Symmy”. On Monday, he agreed to pose for an awards-themed photo with his award.

University of Mississippi associate professor Breese Quinn accepts a Symmy for winning the “Why Particle Physics Matters” video contest.

Photo by Reidar Hahn, Fermilab

Quinn says the contest made him step back and look at the bigger picture to put into words what makes him so passionate about particle physics. “It’s the excitement of learning something new about the world that no one has ever experienced before,” he says.

“I think there’s a tremendous amount of wonder and beauty in what we do,” he says. “And that, I think, really needs to be shared.”

Quinn, who grew up in Arkansas, says he had a good idea from around sixth grade that he wanted to be a physicist. But what solidified that decision, he says, was being chosen during his senior year of high school to participate in a program that brought a student from every state to the Department of Energy’s Fermilab to two weeks of lessons and activities.

“It was just fascinating,” he says.

These days, Quinn tries to share that same wonder with students by giving physics presentations to classrooms from preschool through high school. The demonstration that works for audiences of all ages, he says, is one in which he lies on a bed of nails and another protester bangs a cinder block balanced on his stomach with a hammer. Besides looking damn impressive, this stunning display helps teach students about inertia, conservation of energy, and how pressure relates to force and area.

Quinn is at home in the classroom. He spends much of the year teaching particle physics and conceptual physics (or, as some call it, “physics for poets”) at the University of Mississippi. Quinn says he especially appreciates feedback from students who are learning the concepts of particle physics for the first time.

“You get more of the, ‘Oh wow!’ reaction,” he said. “They’re just blown away by it.”

Quinn is taking a break from teaching this year after winning another, slightly more prestigious award: he is one of the first recipients of Fermilab’s new Intensity Frontier Fellowship. This will give him more time to devote to the particle physics experiments in which he collaborates: DZero, Muon g-2 and ORKA, a proposed experiment on the kaon. He says that once he gets back to Ole Miss, he’ll find a good place in his office to display his Symmy.

Watch Breese’s award-winning entry on symmetryfrom the YouTube channel or below.

Video on why particle physics matters: Breese Quinn

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