July 1999

The public face

Tony Mezzacappa wants to tell you what his field of science can mean to your life

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Tony Mezzacappa

“A better public knowledge of science could result in better funding and break science free from politics. In our programs, I’d say about half of the proposals that are submitted are very good, but only 20 percent are funded.”

Tony Mezzacappa’s field of science is astrophysics, which often involves unfathomable theories of indescribable forces occurring at incomprehensible distances. And he just loves to talk and talk about it.

Mezzacappa, however, is not the type of cocktail party guest you bolt and run from. He has a knack for channelling his bottle-rocket enthusiasm into very sincere and convincing conversation on why the study of these celestial events is important to us all. In fact, the American Physical Society tabbed the Presidential Early Career award winner as one of about 20 physicists (only two others were from national labs) to participate in its “Public Face for Physics” program.

APS sent the group to Chicago for a half-day media training course by the Edelman Group public relations firm, which has trained numerous politicians and other public figures on how to present themselves to the media.

“I had doubts,” says the Physics Division researcher. “It was very intense and I wondered how much they could do in four hours. It was very good, though; they chewed us up and spit us out.”

The Edelman course included most media: TV, radio and print. The scientists were first put through what many would consider the hardest—television.

“We were filmed twice; once talking to an interviewer and once looking straight into a camera. It is very difficult not to be self-conscious. It takes time and effort and training to dig down and be yourself.”

What he took away from the course could be helpful to any scientists who might someday find themselves staring into the business end of a TV news camera.

“They taught us useful things,” he says. “For instance, it’s very important to stay in control of an interview. You always have the option to pull back to what you want to discuss. If a question is off-base, ask your own question.”

The training gave Mezzacappa a new appreciation for the talking heads on TV. “It’s amazing now to see that dynamic. Some people are really good at keeping the upper hand. It’s a matter of experience; it’s hard to think on your feet when you’re on the spot. You have to go through it.”

Practice makes perfect, and Mezzacappa says the APS group’s progress was noticeable even after the short course. The society hopes these scientists and others who follow in the program will be able to turn what they’ve learned into a better public understanding of the importance of scientific research, even at its most basic. Mezzacappa wants to drive the bandwagon for astrophysics.

“It’s important to break down these barriers,” he says. “Physics impacts daily lives. We wouldn’t have lasers if some good ol’ boys in the 1920s hadn’t gotten into quantum mechanics, which was bizarre, arcane and theoretical, and known by only a handful of people on the planet. But quantum mechanics defines much of our current technology, from lasers to solid state devices.

“That’s why people should know more about what’s going on in science. A better public knowledge could result in better funding and break science free from politics. In our programs, I’d say about half of the proposals that are submitted are very good, but only 20 percent are funded. The United States invests a much smaller percentage of its wealth in science than almost any other western country. I think public knowledge would go a long way toward fixing that.”

Mezzacappa is itching to put his training to use. Media skills are helpful in a national lab’s multiprogrammatic setting he says, because he has to communicate ideas to people with various backgrounds.

But he would like to see himself and his scientist colleagues turning up on TV and in magazines more often. “I want to tell why what I’m doing is important. Our origins trace to supernovae; the carbon that makes up your body is formed in a supernova explosion. And the same techniques we use to model neutrino radiation transport in supernovae are also being used in the next building to develop cancer radiation therapies.”

If a supernova should appear one night in the skies overhead, as one did in 1987 in the southern hemisphere, don’t be surprised if you also see Tony Mezzacappa appear on your TV set. Astrophysics will be in the news, and that will be the moment he’s been waiting for.—B.C.

Tony’s tele-tips
Should you find yourself in an on-camera interview, here are some tips Tony Mezzacappa took away from his day of media training sponsored by the American Physical Society as part of its centennial celebration.
  • Don’t look down. Look straight ahead. Looking down makes you look guilty.
  • Don’t rock in your chair or squirm.
  • Don’t slouch. Sit up straight like your mother told you.
  • If you have the option, conduct the interview with a person instead of looking into a camera, which is much harder.
  • Stay in control of the interview. If you lose control of the interview, you could appear angry or defensive. “It’s very easy to look bad on TV.”
  • Before the interview begins, check your setting carefully and make sure you are comfortable with it. Request that any necessary adjustments be made.
  • You can walk away, but do it before the cameras roll.
  • In describing your work, think of a good metaphor. “Make an intuitive association; tie it to something in everyday life. A supernova’s power is 1045 watts, which means nothing to most people. It’s an unfathomable number. But if you say that a supernova is like a light bulb in space, only it’s radiating neutrinos instead of light and it’s radiating at 1045 watts instead of at 100 watts, most people can relate to that.”


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