Last Friday I was invited by the University of Padova to talk about particle physics to the general public, in occasion of the "Researchers Night", a yearly event organized by the European Commission which takes place throughout Europe - in 280 cities this year. Of course I gladly accepted the invitation, although it caused some trouble to my travel schedule (I was in Austria for lectures until Friday morning, and you don't want to see me driving when I am in a hurry, especially on a 500km route).
The idea of bringing general public and researchers close together for one evening is of course a very good one, and the success of the initiative (now at its 10th edition) is there to testify it. The talks, the stands in city centers, the astronomical observation sessions, the open museums and other events organized for the occasion allow scientists to reach out to and connect with those who should be the ultimate recipients of the technological and scientific advancements, the improved understanding and knowledge we achieve with basic and applied research. 

Whether this occasion for a close contact is a significant step in bridging the large gap that exists between science and the taxpayers, or whether instead it is a nice-looking but still ineffective tool, I have no way to judge. I tend to believe that nowadays the most effective methods to interact, to communicate, and ultimately to foster a positive mindset on scientific research are all connected with the world wide web - social networking, that is. But the human contact with interested laypersons has other benefits: it gives researchers more motivation for their work, and allows them to get a positive feedback which is not so frequent in their job.

Anyway, let me describe my own experience here. My lecture was held in Palazzo Bo, the University headquarters, in the Padova city center. The ground floor of the building, which has extended porches, was brimming with stands and demonstrations as I arrived, and hundreds of enthusiasts crowded them. But I had unfortunately very little time to spend there. I could only manage to participate in a statistical test at the stand on Statistics (where else would you want to see me, except physics ?), where I had the task of deciding whether a sample of beer I could taste was of a definite brand or not (I got it right).

My lecture was well-attended by a rather disuniform crowd. I could see people of all ages and from the feedback I inferred that their background -I mean their knowledge base- also varied quite a bit. The material I usually employ for a 1-hour public lecture is a first part where I describe the history of particle physics, and a second part where I discuss the present status of things. This time the title was "Particle physics after the Higgs: what lies beyond". I thought I'd paste below a few representative slides - the text is in Italian so I will try to make a point or two in the comments.

Above, I bring home a point made earlier - that spectroscopy is one of the master keys we have to understand nature at its most intimate level. Earlier I had explained how emission spectra gave a barcode of atoms, and also explained what positronium was and presented its energy level histogram. Here I compare it to the one of the excited hadron states found in 1974-75, showing it must belong to the same physical system, i.e. two bodies of equal mass juggling around one another.

And above is one of my slides on SUSY. Here I am indebted to Greg Landsberg, who showed the cat joke in his lecture at Traunkirchen last week. The slide first shows the first line of text ("it is hard to find a black cat") and a black cat in the lower left of the slide; then the second line comes ("in a dark room"), and the black box comes in overlying the cat silhouette, but leaving it visible. Finally the third sentence comes in ("especially if there's no cat there"), and the cat silhouette correspondingly disappears. It all means that we are looking for SUSY at the LHC, and it would already be tough, but the absence of SUSY makes it even tougher!

All in all I was very happy with the outcome. The audience paid attention and I do not think I lost many of them along the way, despite the many explanations of physics I had to entertain them with. I have been giving similar lectures for 15 years now, and I think I am getting good at it.