NM Tech Professor Lighting Up Radio Waves with Research

by Tiffany Chisum

SOCORRO, N.M., Aug. 16, 2007 – New Mexico Tech Associate Professor of Physics Richard Sonnenfeld will soon have his lightning research featured on the Pulse of the Planet’s Science Diaries radio program.

Richard Sonnenfeld, who also is an atmospheric physics research scientist at New Mexico Tech, will have audio samples of his research activity aired on public radio stations throughout the nation.

Sonnenfeld conducts most of his current research into lightning at New Mexico Tech’s Langmuir Laboratory for Atmospheric Research. His research focuses on fundamental questions concerning lightning, including lightning’s charge, channel length, propagation speed, and radio waves.

Pulse of the Planet is a two–minute radio program that runs daily, mostly on the National Public Radio broadcasting system. It is broadcast over 300 public and commercial radio stations nationwide, and is carried internationally on occasion.

The program, according to Pulse of the Planet’s website, "has been bending the ears of listeners for several years now.” The goal of the program is to offer people an insight into the world of science during the scientific discovery process, and to get listeners involved before peer-reviewed articles are written and results have been determined.

Pulse of the Planet’s Science Diaries has been running since December 2006 and is now airing about six times a month. Science Diaries includes audio excerpts from 25 scientists, 15 of whom are currently still active in their respective fields.

The audio diaries are previously recorded and then aired on the radio.

Through the Pulse of the Planet website, listeners can ask the scientists and others questions on online blogs. The featured individuals include professors, citizen scientists, and even some students. If one of the Science Diaries is missed, there is no need to panic since all of the diaries are archived and are readily available on the Pulse of the Planet’s website to educate listeners and get people talking about science.

Pulse of the Planet’s Associate Producer Lara Ratzlaff selected the scientists and material that would be aired on Science Diaries. Decisions, she said, were based on articles, scientists suggested by the National Science Foundation (NSF) — which also supplies the grant for the program — and, on people who were excited about their work and were able to translate the technical jargon used into layman terminology.

While research was an important deciding factor, Ratzlaff said ambient sound also had to be considered since the radio is the medium being employed.

“We really hope that this will be a way for people to ‘see’ behind the scenes and people will really understand what it is like to be a scientist,” explained Ratzlaff.

Pulse of the Planet producers first heard about New Mexico Tech’s Sonnenfeld and his lightning research at Langmuir Laboratory from NSF.

Ratzlaff described Sonnenfeld as “…very excited about his research, a good translator, good with the time constraints, and able to capture lots of great action.”

Sonnenfeld will have at least six of his audio diaries broadcast, possibly more. His upcoming diary broadcast dates are scheduled for August 27 and 28, September 3 and 4, and September 10 and 11.

Recorded broadcasts of Pulse of the Planet can be listened to locally over the air on Albuquerque’s KANW–FM radio station (89.1 on the FM dial), Tuesdays through Thursdays at precisely 8:28 a.m.