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Ivo van Vulpen is Professor of Science Communication in Leiden

As of January 2022, Ivo van Vulpen has been Professor by Special Appointment of Science Communication at the Leiden Institute of Physics (LION). Van Vulpen will be researching science communication in general and will aim to underline the value and importance of science communication.

The position, one day a week for a period of five years, was initiated by the Netherlands’ Physical Society (Nederlandse Natuurkundige Vereniging, NNV), which is celebrating its centenary this year. Simultaneously, Eindhoven University of Technology has appointed an NNV Professor of Science Communication, physicist, writer and science writer Margriet van der Heijden.

‘The NNV attaches great value to good science communication’, says NNV director Noortje de Graaf. ‘To communicate clearly what science is, and what its results are, deserves attention. With these two NNV professorships, the NNV hopes to contribute to science communication over the next years.’

‘It’s good that Leiden took this initiative’, says Ivo van Vulpen. ‘It shows the scientific community that they are taking science communication seriously’.  Van Vulpen (1973) has a position as a physicist at the University of Amsterdam, and the particle physics institute Nikhef. As a researcher, he is a member of the ATLAS experiment, part of the LHC (Large Hadron Collider), the large particle collider at the CERN institute near Geneva. 

Ivo van Vulpen (photo Bob Bronshoff)

How to Find a Higgs Boson

In 2018, Van Vulpen published a successful popular science book in Dutch, later translated into English (‘How to Find a Higgs Boson--and Other Big Mysteries in the World of the Very Small’) and into Croatian. 

Together with Leiden physicist Sense Jan van der Molen and artists from the Tegen-Beeld foundation, Leiden resident Van Vulpen is the initiator of the Leiden wall formulas, a project which sees famous physics equations painted on Leiden inner city walls. Van Vulpen is a frequent lecturer for general audiences, and is working on a series of animation videos about particle physics.

‘Because I think it is important’

‘There are many people in physics whose heart is in education and communication, and I am one of them. It’s because I like it, but also because I think it is important. Often, special professorships are tailor made for one person, but this was not the case here, he says. ‘A position was advertised. I noticed that, the more I thought about it, the more I thought I really should be involved. It gives me great joy to have been awarded the position.’

Research in science communication

As a researcher of science communication, Van Vulpen wants to investigate how the physics community itself considers its (ideal) communication roles, in addition to substantive questions such as the use of metaphors in explaining scientific concepts.
‘Metaphors are often used in explaining science, and they are generally considered as illuminating, but there are many unknowns: how to people arrive at metaphors? Which metaphors will survive in the long run, and which ones are forgotten quickly? When does a metaphor work to illuminate a point? I would like to research matters like that, and provide feedback to physicists and science communicators: what works? And what doesn’t?’

How to Find a Higgs Boson—and Other Big Mysteries in the World of the Very Small
How to Find a Higgs Boson—and Other Big Mysteries in the World of the Very Small

Ideal environment

Leiden University provides an ideal environment, Van Vulpen thinks. There are connections with the Julia Cramer’s research group Quantum and Society, which 
focuses on education and societal aspects of quantum information. In addition, there is the Science Communication and Society research group headed by Ionica Smeets, which researches communication about several fields of science.

In addition to research, Van Vulpen wants to promote the importance of good science communication by contributing to projects, and by teaching. ‘I want to show students how powerful it can be. Leiden has a master course in science communication, but only few physics students choose this specialisation. This has to do with a certain scientific culture, but I also think it is due to unfamiliarity. I would like to direct their attention to it.’

Recognition and Rewards

This does not only concern students, Van Vulpen says. ‘In all of academia, there is an ongoing discussion about recognition and rewards, and about the practice that mainly scientific research is rewarded, in comparison to other activities such as teaching, science communication and building to scientific communities.’ That will have to change, Van Vulpen thinks. ‘I hope to instill in students as well as in others, that science communication is serious, it is important. You have to be able to tell people outside physics what it is you are doing.’

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