Q&A with Physicist Tristan Smith

Tristan Smith

"[Physics] is full of so much amazing creativity and wonder and excitement," says Smith. "I want to help the students build the skills they need to share that with other people."

There was a time when science was more immediately accessible to a general audience, says Assistant Professor of Physics Tristan Smith. Scientists were eager — and able — to explain their findings to everybody. With the way the field has become more specialized, though, that’s no longer the case. But Smith is doing his part to change that, co-presenting an interdisciplinary workshop with Associate Professor of Theater Elizabeth Stevens that uses the techniques of improvisation to help students communicate the splendor of science with others.

Foremost on Smith’s mind, though, at the end of the spring semester was the publication that he co-authored in response to a “game changing” first detection of a gravitational wave. Below, he discusses that research, an exciting national search for pulsars to which he and his Swarthmore students are contributing, the childhood passion that still informs his work, and more.

Given your academic background at large research institutions, how did you pivot to the liberal arts?

I had an epiphany of sorts, realizing that the liberal arts perfectly fit my interests. As a theoretical physicist and especially as a cosmologist, the physics that I’m interested in are really varied. My interests extend beyond the canon of scientific questions to try to connect the things I’m working on to other disciplines. Being at a place like Swarthmore, that’s encouraged. I have a community of like-minded scholars and students who help me express that part of myself. That just doesn’t happen at a large research university.

What led you to introduce the workshop on communicating science?

These days, the average science student doesn’t spend much time thinking about ways to really engage people in their communities about what they’re studying and what they care about. It’s alienating. The improvisation workshop typically happens right before Thanksgiving, and I frame it as, OK, you’re going home to be with friends and family who will ask what you’re studying. A lot of those people will say they hate physics, or had a bad experience with it, even though it’s full of so much amazing creativity and wonder and excitement. I want to help the students build the skills they need to share that with other people.

How do the students tend to react to being pushed out of their comfort zone?

It’s all over the place. I had one student who’s interested in going into science journalism who found it extremely interesting. Others, I can tell, are thinking, ‘This is a science class -- what are we doing thinking about communication?’ But my goal as a teacher is to bring these students to a point where they can appreciate that it’s our goal, and our responsibility, to share the things we’re learning about and studying with the broader community. Especially here at a liberal arts institution like Swarthmore.

Along that line, what would you tell a general audience about your recent publication on gravitational waves?

This recent first detection by LIGO is a game changer. It’s something people have been working toward for 30 years or more. The research that I co-authored points out that we have multiple ways of detecting gravitational waves, and that there are many types of gravitational waves that come in different shapes and sizes. LIGO detected a wave equivalent to visible light, a shorter wavelength wave. But there are other ways to detect waves with longer wavelengths. The paper highlights what we learned by using multiple techniques, from the longest wavelengths we could possibly see, by using the afterglow of the Big Bang, all the way down to what LIGO was able to detect. It’s stitching together all of these different length scales and articulating what we learned by doing that. It was also stitching together the co-authors’ various specialities and perspectives to find a common language. The collaborative spirit it took to figure out how we were going to explain this research to all of our communities was a lot of fun.

What else are you working on?

There’s a really exciting effort going on now that Swarthmore is a part of. Scattered through our galaxy are special stars called pulsars. They’re rapidly rotating stars with light coming off of them that appears as a cone. As the star rotates, the cone of light passes by Earth, and we see a little flash. They’re very much like a lighthouse that way, or accurate clocks. If a gravitational wave were to pass by between us and these pulsars, it would change when that pulse gets to Earth. Therefore we can use that to infer the existence of gravitational waves. It’s yet another technique, and we’ve joined the effort to detect more of these pulsars. I had to students working on it [in the spring], as part of a national network of institutions that are remotely using radio telescopes to search for the pulsars. One of the radio telescopes we used is the well-known Arecibo scope made famous in the movie Contact.

Is there something about you that would surprise your students and colleagues?

From elementary school through junior high, I was an actor. I had some exciting opportunities to be in plays in New York, where I grew up. So I have a strong background and interest in that.

Does that inform your work at Swarthmore?

There is that connection to improvisation. On the other hand, some people, including my dad, assume that with my acting background, I don’t get nervous when I give academic talks. That I must be calm and collected. My response to that is, 'Nope.' As an actor, you’re saying someone else’s words, but at a lecture, those words are all mine, and it’s a two-way dialogue in which audience members can ask questions. I’m always nervous and hyper-aware of whether what I’m saying is true and the audience is engaged.

What do you do for fun?

Anyone who comes to my office will notice I have a lot of cameras displayed. I love taking film photography. I built a little dark room in my basement. When I’m not here and want to relax, I’m often down there developing film and making prints that I can hang in my office. Every fall, I’m exploring the Swarthmore campus, taking color photos. But most of what I do is black and white photography that I can develop myself.