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WSU physics faculty competes for scientific improv supremacy

By Mark Saal, Standard-Examiner Staff - | Nov 12, 2017

A mere eight seconds into his scientific lecture titled "Optical Clocks: Towards 10-18 to 10-19," Weber State University physics department chairman Colin Inglefield was already in trouble.

"How am I on time," he asked, eliciting laughter from the standing-room-only lecture hall crowd.

"You're good," came the answer.

But Inglefield was anything but good. Because he still had seven minutes and 52 seconds remaining in a riveting eight-minute slide lecture on something about which, frankly, he knew absolutely nothing.

What's more, Inglefield would go on to ask "How am I doing on time?" "How am I on time?" and "Where am I there on time?" at the three-, five- and six-minute marks of the lecture.

It may very well have been the longest eight minutes of the physicist's life. And the most fun.

Welcome to the "Physics Five-Slides" seminar/competition, an annual mostly-for-fun event that pits five scientists from the WSU department in a contest of scientific improv supremacy. This year's competition took place last Wednesday afternoon at the Tracy Hall Science Center on the university's Ogden campus.

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Although the precise origins of this odd little tradition are forever shrouded in the mists of time, most everybody in the department agrees on the same basic story: About 10 years ago a few profs sat around a table at lunch talking about how they might help students learn to give lectures and presentations. Talk soon turned to how terrible some scientific slide lectures could be, and how they might teach students the finer points of scientific lecturing by showing them how NOT to do it.

Thus the annual Five-Slides lecture contest was born.

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Some of the aspects of the competition have evolved over the years, but the basic idea has remained the same. Five members in the department, in advance, prepare five lecture slides each. On the day of the competition, participants are given eight minutes apiece to present a five-slide mini lecture on a scientific topic. But here's the catch: Each presenter uses the slides from one of the other five competitors -- slides they've never seen until the moment their lecture begins.

Which is how Inglefield ended up stalling for time in a lecture about optical clocks. Or how Stacy Palan's "Fashion: A Physicist's Perception" lecture featured slides with intriguing titles like "Parachute Pants and Air Resistance," and "Socks, Sandals and Entropy." Or how John Armstrong expertly bluffed his way through "Cocktail Thermodynamics: An Experimental Study" with a lecture about making the perfect martini under laboratory conditions.

The winner each year takes possession of a small, cheap, plastic trophy that seems to mean a whole lot more to the possessor than it ought to.

"I take care of it like it's the Stanley Cup," gushed John Armstrong, the professor who won this year's traveling trophy. It was his first time winning the lecture competition in nearly half a dozen tries.

Right now, the trophy is ensconced on "the highest shelf in my office," Armstrong said, but he plans to move it to a ledge in the glass wall of his office. There, it will act as a sort of trophy case where the award will be visible to all who pass through the physics department.

Just how important are the bragging rights that come with winning the Five-Slides prize? Asked if the little plastic trophy was better than winning a Nobel, assistant professor Kristin Rabosky, who was last year's winner, deadpanned: "It's pretty close."

And like the Nobel, Five-Slides now comes with a cash prize as well. At this year's competition, 10 judges were given 10 pennies each. Each of the five participants had a plastic cup with his or her name on it, and judges were free to divvy up their pennies according to those lectures they deemed best. At the conclusion of the five lectures, participants counted up their pennies, and the one with the most pennies won both the cheap plastic trophy AND the 100 pennies.

"One hundred pennies. That's something like a dollar," said emeritus professor Brad Carroll, who basically owned the competition in the early years by winning the trophy five or six times. "You can get a vanilla cone at Burger King with your winnings."

WSU professor Adam Johnston, organizer of this year's Five-Slides, says it's the department's best-attended lecture of the year.

"People from all over campus come and see the talks," he said.

In case you missed the contest, you can catch all the action on YouTube.

As much fun as it is, the physicists believe there's a serious side to the annual "Five-Slides" competition.

"I think it's good for us as a faculty. It helps us become more comfortable talking on the fly," Rabosky said. "And it's also good for the students to be able to make fun of us."

Johnston agrees.

"We've all had stories where we've learned something important from Five-Slides," he said. "It makes us better educators."

Even undisputed Five Slides legend Brad Carroll says victory isn't the end goal of the annual competition.

"It's like 'Whose Line Is It Anyway' -- the 'why' is not the points or the winning," Carroll said.

He then thinks about it for a moment before adding:

"But I really treasured that cheap plastic trophy."

Contact Mark Saal at 801-625-4272, or msaal@standard.net. Follow him on Twitter at @Saalman. Friend him on Facebook at facebook.com/MarkSaal.

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