Eindhoven University of Technology: New professor of science communication wants to show beauty of ‘abstract’ physics

Science journalist Margriet van der Heijden has been appointed professor of science communication at the department of Applied Physics of TU/e for the next five years. The endowed chair is an initiative of Netherlands Physical Society (NNV) on the occasion of its centenary. In her new role, Van der Heijden hopes to contribute to effective communication and an effective and fruitful ‘conversation’ between physics and society.

“Especially since the 17th century, the natural sciences have produced impressive knowledge about our place in our cosmos, and at the same time they have drastically changed our lives,” says Margriet van der Heijden, herself a trained physicist.

“This growing body of knowledge has brought with it an enormous degree of specialization, which makes it increasingly hard to understand one another. This applies to scientists among themselves, but also to scientists and non-scientists. At the same time, the mutual conversation is absolutely vital. It is therefore important that we investigate what works in communication and what doesn’t. It’s my aim to contribute to this understanding.”

Van der Heijden hopes especially for more continuity in the conversation, to ensure that the bond with the outside world is sustained over a longer period of time. “So it’s not just a case of doing a podcast, once in a while, and then a fun interactive game. It also means that you show what doing research entails.” According to her, physics is often still considered an abstract and difficult subject. “I want to show that it can also be beautiful and wonderful!”

The new professor, who formally started on 1 December, is looking forward to the next five years in Eindhoven. “With my background in particle physics and science journalism, TU/e is a new world for me. The technical university has its roots in the heart of society, and it employs people who really want to build a better world. I am happy to be able to contribute to that with my research and teaching. But in the coming time, I’m going to be mostly listening!”

Dean Gerrit Kroesen of the department of Applied Physics at TU/e also emphasizes the societal significance of the new chair.

“As a university we not only have the task of educating students, but also Dutch society. Science communication plays an indispensable role in this. Margriet van der Heijden has an extensive track record in communicating scientific research. She also has good ideas on how we as a department can move forward in this field, including in the area of talent development. We are therefore very happy with her appointment!”

The chair is part of a broader outreach program by the Applied Physics department, which aims, among other things, to get Dutch schoolchildren and their parents interested in physics.

Margriet van der Heijden has a background as a particle physicist. During her PhD research she worked for four years at CERN in Geneva, where she obtained her PhD on quarks and their mutual interaction.

After more than two years in particle physics as a postdoc, she chose a career in science journalism. She worked for the Dutch quality papers Parool and NRC, where she wrote about mathematics, physics and astronomy. For years she also took care of the children’s page at the back of the science section of NRC.

In 2021, her double biography about physicists Paul Ehrenfest and Tatiana Afanassjewa was on the shortlist for the Libris History Prize. This year she also wrote a series of portraits of female physicists for the Dutch Journal of Physics. In addition to teaching at TU/e, Margriet also teaches at Amsterdam University College.

In addition to Eindhoven, the Netherlands Physical Society has also established an endowed chair in communication science at Leiden University. There, physicist Ivo van Vulpen, known among other things for the scientific formulas that have adorned various buildings in Leiden since 2015, will take up the position of associate professor.

With the chairs, the NNV wants to motivate physics students to build a bridge between the world of science and society. “Good science communication is of great importance. Clearly communicating to society what science is and what the results of science are therefore deserves attention,” says NNV director Noortje de Graaf.

Van der Heijden and Van Vulpen will explore ways of collaboration between the two chairs. Both are appointed for one day a week for the next five years.