We’re excited to welcome David Zaslavsky (@ellipsix) to Real Scientists! David is a postdoctoral researcher at Central China Normal University in Wuhan, China, and also works on making the knowledge of expert physicists more accessible to anyone who has a physics question.
We had some important questions to ask ourselves, and here’s what David had to say:
How did you end up in science? Science is awesome! Why wouldn’t I end up in science? 😉 But seriously: in a way, it’s because I like stories. When I read a book or watch a TV show, I want to know the backstories behind the characters and the world the show takes place in. When I meet a new friend, I want to know the story of how they became who they are. Stories are how we understand each other better. And science tells the story of the universe.
Why did you choose your current field? I’ve wanted to study physics for as long as I can remember. Even as a little kid I was fascinated by the details of how things work at deeper and deeper levels, and I wanted to follow that drive all the way to its conclusion: understanding the most fundamental topics in physics. Naturally, I gravitated towards string theory. But it turns out string theory these days is a lot more abstract math than physics, and I wanted to stay a little more connected to real experimental results. When I was starting grad school, I saw a seminar from my soon-to-be PhD advisor about her work in computational quantum chromodynamics – the study of the most fundamental constituents inside atomic nuclei – and it captured my interest. I’ve been embedded in that field ever since!
Tell us about your work! For almost two years I’ve been a postdoc at Central China Normal University in Wuhan, China, studying the internal structure of protons and atomic nuclei – the things they collide at the Large Hadron Collider (and other places too). It turns out that protons and nuclei behave very differently depending on how hard you hit them: they act like they’re made of more and more particles the harder the collision is. In the hardest collisions, the number of particles is so high that they actually start interacting in interesting ways – or that’s what the theory says, anyway. We’re just on the verge of actually seeing this happen in experiments. My job involves using computer programs to get numbers out of the equations the theorists write. Then we can check whether those numerical predictions match what the experiments measure.
Why should the lay public care about your research? Isn’t it enough that “science tells the story of the universe”? No? Well then, one reason to care is that it’s just *weird*. My research is fully in the domain of relativistic quantum mechanics, where our intuition for the behavior of everyday objects utterly fails. And while that means you don’t *need* to understand it to live your life, if you know such exotic things are happening all around you and even inside the atoms of your body all the time, life suddenly seems a whole lot more mysterious and fascinating! Plus, it can be a great topic of conversation at parties because who else is going to know even the first thing about proton structure? (Or is that just grad student parties? Give it a try and let me know.)
Do you have any interesting extracurricular obligations? Yes! When I’m not doing research (or procrastinating my research), I serve as a moderator of Physics Stack Exchange (https://physics.stackexchange.com), a question-and-answer site about physics. It’s open to everyone but is targeted at people actively studying or researching physics. Putting a bunch of internet physics experts together without it erupting in arguments makes for quite a challenge! But the site has grown to be a great resource.
Any interesting hobbies you’d like to share? My #1 hobby is computer programming – not counting what I do for research – but that’s not so interesting, is it? On the fun side, I’ve played Magic: The Gathering, a trading card game, on and off since I was in middle school. I also love ultimate frisbee. (The real kind, not just throwing a frisbee around and calling it “ultimate” to make it sound cool.) Both are good distractions for when I get tired of work, and they’re social activities too – I’ve met some of my best friends through them!
How would you describe your ideal day off? Sitting at home and watching episodes of my favorite TV shows, hands down. But I wouldn’t mind meeting friends for dinner either! Especially here in China, the food is fantastic and I rarely turn down an excuse to go out to a nice restaurant.
Please welcome David to Real Scientists!