Expanding the Big Bang: A New Crowdfunding Platform for Physics by Donna Spangler

 
I recently interviewed theoretical physicist and entrepreneur Dr. Mark Jackson. Jackson spent 15 years researching superstring theory and cosmology and has now turned his energies towards solving the funding crisis facing physics. His new company, Fiat Physica, is a physics fundraising platform similar to Kickstarter but specializing in physics research, education, and outreach. 

 

What is Fiat Physica? 
 
Fiat Physica is the world's premiere physics fundraising platform - you can think of us as "the Kickstarter of Physics." Our campaigns are international physics projects seeking funding, ranging from researchers wanting to study wormholes, to a Romanian school teacher wanting to create a children's astronomy course, or a comic book about gravitational waves. Each project has information on why the work is important, and offers opportunities for the public to become involved. Our blog highlights topics of interest, with a focus on explaining how physics is relevant in people's daily lives. We get the public engaging with physics on a social level through our social media presence.
 
How is this different from conventional fundraising?
 
This is the first time that the public - anywhere in the world, of any financial background - can become directly involved in making physics happen. Each donation level offers different amounts of engagement: at lower levels this might be some nice digital pictures or a cool physics coffee mug, but at higher amounts one can meet researchers, attend events, and even create endowed positions named after yourself. Imagine reading about the Higgs Boson discovery, or measuring the first light from the Big Bang, and knowing that you were a part of that!
 
 
Doesn't the government support physics?
 
Some, but it's not enough. There have been huge cutbacks in government funding of physics - just this year, the Department of Energy's total funding of high-energy physics has declined by an average of 23%, and funding for junior researchers fell over 30%. Government support can only sustain the most predictable and lowest-risk research. The real breakthroughs in physics come from riskier research, which is not being supported. Brilliant young scientists have worked hard to get their Ph.D.s in physics only to find that there are no jobs, and have to find alternative careers. It's such a waste of talent - instead of rewarding curiosity, we are punishing it.
 
How would theoretical physics affect me?
 
The technology you use every day uses physics. The GPS system you used to navigate home uses Einstein's Theory of General Relativity. The PET scan you used to detect cancer early uses particle physics. The computer in front of you uses quantum physics in each of its billions of transistors. Our technology is completely based upon physics - it's sometimes just hidden beneath the surface. Today's research will produce the technology we will be using in 20 years, things we can't even image today. But we still need to invest in today's research.
 
 
What was your biggest surprise in creating the first physics crowdfunding platform?
 
I expected the challenge to be in convincing the public that physics was interesting and useful. But this was not the case at all: the public is already fascinated by physics - look at the success of The Big Bang Theory TV series and the movie Interstellar. The problem is that physicists have gotten lazy about having to explain why their work is important. It's been a challenge to get some of my colleagues to communicate why their work is so incredible - they take for granted that because they think it's fascinating and important, that everybody else already does, and so make no effort to communicate this. Fiat Physica is working with physicists to make their work accessible to the public. As a positive example of this, in 2006 the Hubble Space Telescope was saved because of the public's support - people had seen how awesome its space pictures were, and knew this was something worth keeping.
What do you hope to accomplish?
 
I want Fiat Physica to be the primary means by which physics is supported. When people read about some cool development in physics, they check out Fiat Physica to learn more and become involved. Our motto is "We make physics happen. You can too."
 
How can people get involved?
 
Check out our website, FIAT to learn more about our campaigns. You can also follow us on social media - we are very active on Twitter (@fiatphysica), Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram and LinkedIn.
 
Tell us more about you personally. What is your favorite physics concept?
 
As far as physics discoveries go, Black Holes are the gift that keep on giving. We have learned so much from their paradox of needing both quantum physics and gravity. Einstein's gravitational equations suggest that the Black Holes just quietly sit there in space, but that's not what actually happens! Quantum mechanics tells us that near the surface of a black hole - the "Event Horizon" - there are violent quantum particle interactions taking place which actually cause the black hole to evaporate! We are continuing to use Black Holes to see what happens when quantum physics and gravity are combined, especially at the Black Hole's center, known as the 'singularity'. String theory might solve this but the jury is still out. 
 
I recently heard about an experiment taking pictures of the Big Bang. How did scientists do that?
 
During the Big Bang - almost 14 billion years ago - the Universe was so hot that not even atoms could form, meaning that light particles could not travel very far without bumping into one. This means that the Universe looked cloudy and there is no possibility of 'seeing' the Universe at this time. After about 400,000 years things cooled down enough that light could finally travel - and it's been traveling in outer space ever since! This "Cosmic Microwave Background" is very faint but has been all around us this whole time, we just haven't had the technology to measure it until very recently. What's even more amazing is that we can even see small 'fingerprints' in the light, made by quantum physics during the Big Bang! The Planck satellite recently sent back breathtaking pictures of these details in the light, showing in extraordinary detail what the Big Bang looked like.
 
Do you think we will ever solve the mysteries of Dark Matter and Dark Energy?
 
We have some pretty good theories about what Dark Matter is, and some ongoing experiments designed to test these. One is the Large Underground Xenon experiment, or LUX, at the former Homestake gold mine in South Dakota’s Black Hills. The first set of LUX data was inconclusive, but the next batch should be available in 2016. It is entirely possible that within ten years we could have understood the basics of Dark Matter, and maybe even created particles at CERN. Dark Energy is much more mysterious - we know that it comprises about 70% of the Universe, and that it's causing space to speed up its expansion, but we don't have any good theories on what it really is! I think an explanation for this is a ways off.
 

 

Credit: NASA/Hubble Space Telescope

 

 

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