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Physicist Chris Spitzer has 'Potomac fever'

November 18, 2011 | Author: Freelance Writer Laura Petersen
Chris Spitzer is a 33-year-old theoretical physicist who is currently a AAAS fellow at the State Department working on energy policy in Afghanistan. (Photo: Chris Spitzer)

What do pirates, particle cosmology, and energy efficiency in Afghanistan have in common? The varied interests and pursuits of Chris Spitzer, a 33-year-old theoretical physicist who is currently a AAAS fellow working at the State Department.

He also also writes fiction novels for fun, but more on that later.

Growing up in the university town of Riverside, California, Spitzer said he was always interested in how things worked and thought he would be an engineer building big machines. But one undergraduate course in quantum mechanics at UC-Berkeley changed that.

"It was like opening up a brand new shiny world that I hadn't seen before," Spitzer said.

Physics, he found, drilled down into how things work on the most basic level -- how matter hangs together -- and on the grandest scale -- how the universe works. Seemingly elusive questions like what happened in the first second after the Big Bang could be solidly tested with physics.

"Even though it's so far in the past, physics lets you get your hands on that and figure out what happened, what's happening in other galaxies," Spitzer said. "It's all stuff you can get a grasp on even though we're stuck here on Earth and can only look up in the sky."

Hooked, he added a physics major to his electrical engineering and computer science degree, and worked at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory in the lab of George Smoot, who would go onto win the Nobel Prize in physics.

Spitzer completed his Ph.D. in theoretical particle physics at the University of Washington in 2009. For his dissertation, he developed a theory about how to conduct experiments in the Large Hydrogen Collider (LHC) in such a way that might detect dark matter.

Throughout his 10 years in academia, Spitzer always felt that science in a vacuum doesn't do much good for the public. And while science has the power to address some of the biggest challenges society faces, he was concerned that the gap between scientists, policy makers, and the average citizen was widening.

So Spitzer took a AAAS Mass Media Fellowship at The Oregonian, the largest newspaper in Oregon. While learning the stark difference between scientific and news writing, Spitzer strove to show readers that scientists are real, normal people who just happen to discuss "invisible stuff floating around the galaxy."

Intrigued by journalism but disheartened by the job market, Spitzer decided to pursue another AAAS-administered fellowship, this time in Washington, D.C. working for Congress.

For the last year, he worked as a legislative assistant for Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), helping develop a bipartisan energy efficiency bill that is awaiting a vote by the full Senate.

His stint on the Hill was eye-opening. The partisan animosity he was warned about failed to materialize; behind the scenes, he found the halls of Congress cordial and open to science. But he learned facts are just one piece of the puzzle for passing legislation.

"Having good ideas isn't sufficient to advance anything," he said. "The whole place is built around relationships."

But major issues like climate change and energy efficiency require global action, Spitzer said, so thanks to a AAAS executive branch fellowship, he transitioned to his current position at the State Department in September.

In contrast to the lab and even Congress, the State Department works on a strict "need to know" basis. Spitzer couldn't share much about what he is working on, but said he is looking at energy policy in Afghanistan and "how can we build up an economy, when an economy runs on energy and they don't have any."

Sipping tea from his "theorem, lemma and conjecture" mug, Spitzer said he misses being in the scientific fray, discussing big ideas and working on the front lines of discovery. He checks the collisions occurring at the LHC daily and reads his Science magazine to keep up with the research advances.

But, he said, giving all that up for the policy world is a fair trade-off. This is where you have to be if you want to have a positive impact on the world, he explained, admitting he's caught "Potomac fever" and expects to stay in D.C., working on policy in some fashion.

The nation's capitol is also a great place for exploring his diverse interests outside of science, which range from art history and architecture, to playing and listening to live music, and yes, writing novels.

This month, Spitzer is taking on his seventh novel. November is National Novel Writing Month, which challenges participants to write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days. Spitzer, who stresses these are "not good" novels, has participated for the past six years, completing the challenge four times. Topics have included a resource battle between two societies living above and below the Earth's surface, and a pirate adventure story featuring a brave captain and his goofy engineer sidekick. 

"Pirate engineers, you don't hear too much about those guys," Spitzer said.