Postgraduate wins Early Career Physics Communicator Award

27 November 2014

A PhD student who created a dance workshop based on the life cycle of a star has won this year’s Early Career Physics Communicator Award.

Early Career Physics Communicator Award

Claire Le Cras explained the stages that a massive star can go through from formation to collapse into a black hole to a group of seven young dancers, who then choreographed a dance to portray the sequence of events. The whole process, from Le Cras giving an overview of the star’s life cycle and answering questions, to the dancers creating their three-minute dance routine, was accomplished in just three hours.

Le Cras showed a video of the performance as part of her presentation at the final judging and prizegiving for the award at the IOP’s London centre on 25 November. The annual award, which carries a prize of £250, is given by the IOP’s Physics Communicators Group.

The runners-up, who also gave presentations at the event, were Meriame Berboucha, a second-year undergraduate at Imperial College London; Jasmin Evans, a first-year undergraduate at the University of Central Lancashire; and Michael Hodgson, a PhD student at the University of Surrey.

They were each presented with certificates by the judges, the IOP’s curriculum and diversity manager (pre-19) Clare Thomson, and Prof. Jon Butterworth, a leading physicist at CERN and head of physics and astronomy at University College London, who gave a keynote talk on science communication at the awards ceremony.

Prof. Butterworth (pictured with Claire) described the excitement of communicating the discovery of the Higgs boson at CERN, but warned that communication was not always risk-free. “You have to take the rough with the smooth and answer the questions that people are asking,” he said, describing how he found social media such as Twitter “enormously useful” in enabling him to get his point across without this being filtered through hostile questions.

Claire Le Cras

Le Cras was originally from Guernsey and studied for a four-year master’s degree at the University of Sussex. She is now in the third year of her PhD at the University of Portsmouth’s Institute of Cosmology and Gravitation, where her outreach activities have included work in schools and with the general public at a BBC Stargazing Live event. The dance workshop was her own original project, she explained. Having trained as a classical dancer between the ages of five and 18, she thought “why not combine my love of storytelling through dance with my passion for physics?”.

She first explored the idea through participating in the Famelab competition with a dance portraying the differing temperatures of stars. Then she went back to a dance school in Guernsey to work with a group of girls aged 12-17 on the project. The piece was choreographed without music as she did not want to influence the girls’ interpretation. Music was added later, and she would also like to add a voiceover so that it could be performed without the need for an astronomer to be on hand to describe the sequence.

Her ideas for expanding the project include creating workshops based on other astronomical phenomena, taking performances to wider audiences and trying to interest professional ballet companies. Thomson said the judges would be interested to see if the project could be scalable in some way.

After receiving the award, Le Cras said: “It’s absolutely wonderful. I felt as if this project started as a half-baked idea in my head and I was not sure if it was going to work. To get this kind of response is really satisfying and it’s incredible that there are people seeing the value of the work and the possibilities that it has.”