Week 1: Meet and Greet

Share This:

Sunday, June 6, 2021


Maura Shapiro

Hi audience and welcome to my journal entry! Since you don’t know me yet, and since I was once a campus tour guide, allow me to introduce myself and then we’ll start with an ice breaker. 

Please read the following in the peppiest, most rehearsed, yet slightly tired tone possible: 

My name is Maura, like-Laura-with-an-M, and I’m originally from Arlington, VA, a city best known for its cemetery. I was a Physics and Communication & Rhetoric double major because I’m a nerd and love to talk about it. The University of Pittsburgh was founded in…

Now for our ice breaker: I think highs and lows of the week are appropriate. I’ll go first! Wow, this is really tough… my high would have to be meeting everyone (virtually) and my low is my apartment flooding. Audience, feel free to respond in the comments with your highs and lows!

The internship started Tuesday, after a much-needed long weekend from my summer break. It launched with an intern orientation complete with a show-and-tell ice breaker. Later, I met with the staff of the Center for History of Physics and Niels Bohr Library & Archives. Everyone was amazing to talk to, and despite the exhaustion of hours on Zoom, I had a really incredible day. 

Wednesday, I was briefed on my role: to make teaching guides about women and underrepresented groups in physics and to do outreach for the guides and potentially the NBLA more broadly. I really couldn’t think of a better job for me, researching and communicating about the story of physics. As much as the equations and derivations are important to physics, so is the history of how people came to those equations. Physics doesn’t happen in a vacuum (despite what the Physics 1, air-resistance-free, projectile motion problems may have you believe) and understanding the context for each discovery may help not only entice more humanities-focussed audiences, but also instill the idea that science is not about a straightforward solution but a combination of successes and failures. 

The idea that physics couples beautifully with humanities was reinforced Thursday, when the interns had a meet and greet with Dr. David Helfand who is committed to empowering non-scientists to understand scientific knowledge and thought processes. I really enjoyed the discussion we had about science communication, science misinformation, and academia more broadly. 

By Friday, I was more settled in my role and had begun my research in earnest. I attended a meeting for a reading group on the history of physics that discussed science racism and eugenics. It made me more committed to the importance of understanding historical context for science as we addressed how widespread the ideas surrounding eugenics were, scientists’ critique of other scientists, and the social responsibility scientists, commentators, and historians have in discussing racism and classifying it. 

In the age of addressing and renaming statues, streets, and buildings after problematic figures we discussed the scientific celebrity and the naming convention of equations after each figure. Robert Millikan was an unapologetically racist eugenicist. Because of this, CalTech is changing the names of buildings that honor him and other problematic scientists. Still, the Millikan oil drop experiment that measured the electric charge of an electron known by his name to every student who took an introductory electricity and magnetism course. The questions follow, should discoveries be tied to one person, especially a morally flawed one? Naming a discovery for one scientist ignores the potentially hundreds of years of foundation to the discovery and collaborations along the way. If we decide to detangle Millikan's experiment from his name, do historians force the change by reclassification and relabelling? 

This has been a busy but exciting week and I can’t wait for next week!



Maura Shapiro