Science Trivia Winners Enjoy the Meal of a Lifetime

by Amy Marcott on June 10, 2010 · 1 comment

in Modern Geekhood, Student Life

Guest blogger: Jacky McGoldrick, graduating senior from the Bromfield School, Harvard, Mass. McGoldrick was on the winning team in the Youth Gold Division (students 12th grade or younger) of the Cambridge Science Festival’s annual Science Trivia Challenge, hosted by the MIT Club of Boston. The prize was a meal with a Nobel laureate. Check out photos from the event.

High school seniors Mac Devlin, Jacky McGoldrick, and Dr. Wolfgang Ketterle.

From left, high school seniors Mac Devlin and Jacky McGoldrick dine with Dr. Wolfgang Ketterle.

On a Wednesday in April, my friend and classmate Mac Devlin and I arrived at the Stata Center, anticipating a night of wholesome scientific fun in the Science Trivia Challenge. Both of us enjoyed trivia competitions and we knew at least one of us excelled at science, while the other could score a few points on science-related general knowledge questions. In our minds, as a team of two (our other two prospective teammates couldn’t make the competition), we had no chance of seriously competing against five-person teams from several of the best-name schools in the Boston area.

Although the first round proved challenging, as the evening progressed, we found we knew more than we’d previously thought. Still, our goal wasn’t winning—we figured maybe, if we got really lucky, we’d place second. But much to our surprise, after a tie-breaking question, we found ourselves in the finals. Through the final round, we felt pretty confident about our answers even though we’d missed a few. At the end, when Professor Slocum announced second place and it wasn’t us, we joked that we must’ve placed third, and wasn’t that just our luck. As we prepared to congratulate the winners, we heard the cry of “Auk! Auk! Auk!” that Professor Slocum had been using to announce our team, Marzipan Albatross.

Devlin and McGoldrick, team Marzipan Albatross, won the Youth Gold Division by answering questions about a range of scientific disciplines. One, for example, had contestants match animals such as the cheetah and peregrine falcon with their top speeds.

Team Marzipan Albatross Devlin and McGoldrick won their division by answering questions about a range of scientific disciplines. One, for example, had contestants match animals such as the cheetah and peregrine falcon with their top speeds.

That was enough of a shock for us, so when it came time for us to choose a Nobel Laureate with whom to dine, we remained almost catatonic with awe and surprise. We selected Dr. Wolfgang Ketterle as he appeared friendly in his photo.

Dr. Ketterle proved just as warm and kind as in his picture. To break the ice, he asked us where we would attend school next year (me to McGill University and Mac to Carnegie Mellon) and what we planned to study. I think he understood that we were still having an I-can’t-believe-this-is-actually-happening moment, so he talked a bit about his experiences.

He explained the controversy of electron dipole moments and his pioneering work with Bose-Einstein condensates, for which he was a corecipient of the Nobel Prize in Physics, at mere nano-Kelvins above absolute zero. Then he shared the heartwarming story of his relationship with Dave Pritchard and how Dr. Pritchard helped him to arrive at his Nobel Prize. Dr. Ketterle had urged Dr. Pritchard to publish the paper with him, since he felt Dr. Pritchard had been absolutely essential to the discovery, but Dr. Pritchard refused. After winning, Dr. Ketterle gifted his medal to Dr. Pritchard, who proudly keeps it to this day.

Later, he excitedly shared with us, as one who simply cannot hold his silence out of anticipation, that he and his colleagues would soon publish a paper regarding negative temperatures, a mind-blowing theory previously considered impossible that he explained masterfully. Snatching the bendy straw from his lemonade, Dr. Ketterle modeled the concept, showing that negative temperatures are actually infinitely hot and that when temperatures sink below absolute zero, the straw flips and instead becomes more likely to be found in the highest energy state than in the lowest.

After a couple of hours, we said our good-byes, and watched walk away the man who probably could have answered any question we’d ever harbored about physics. While of course we could have thought of a million things to ask him, if he’d continued to shatter our concepts of reality with more notions like negative temperatures, our heads might actually have exploded.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

David Steele June 16, 2010 at 5:43 pm

Jackie,

Sounds like an awesome experience. I heard the brief story from your parents this morning, but was glad your dad sent me your version of it as well. I knew you were an excellent writer ever since reading a paper of yours about three or four years ago. But science trivia winner too? Many congratulations! And all the best as you head off to McGill this autumn.

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