By Gail Jacobs
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The cosmos can be mysteriously alluring to all -- from the young in age to the young at heart. In particular, space science and astrobiology fill us with wonder, amazement and awe -- but the scientists who work in these intriguing fields may seem intimidating to the non-scientist. At the SETI Institute, we open our doors on an annual basis and invite the public to celebrate science with us at our Mountain View, California, headquarters in what is always an energizing and informative interactive science fair.
Science enthusiasts and those who are just curious are welcomed into an environment that exudes not only the visitors' enthusiasm, but also the scientists' passion towards their ongoing research and recent discoveries. According to Tom Pierson, SETI Institute CEO, "This year's Celebrating Science day was our biggest and best yet. It was a very large crowd, and everyone had a great time, both the scientists and our guests. And... it was fantastic to see so many young students and their families enjoying the wonder of the search for life beyond earth!"
This year, over 400 people attended the SETI Institute's Celebrating Science event, held July 23, 2011. Guests had the opportunity to speak with a number of scientists who represented the Institute's wide range of astrobiology and planetary science. Dr. Jill Tarter was on hand to provide an update on the Institute's search for extraterrestrial intelligence and the Allen Telescope Array.
The renowned Dr. Frank Drake was kept busy talking with a loyal group of admirers who were more than willing to wait in line for the opportunity to meet Frank and have him autograph their Drake Equation t-shirts and books. Dr. Doug Vakoch also signed several copies of the recently released Communication with Extraterrestrial Intelligence, which Doug edited and in which several Institute scientists authored chapters.
Dr. Seth Shostak entertained a standing-room-only crowd with a talk that described what would really happen upon first contact; and Dr. David Morrison, Carl Sagan Center Director, was on hand to dispel the many myths that propagate the Internet. Dr. Peter Jenniskens shared his fascinating stories about tracking meteors around the world. He even brought a meteorite he tracked down and located in the vast desert area of the Sudan. Many other scientists were also present to answer questions and talk about their interesting research into a number of different areas, including Saturn and Mars.
Dr. Jon Jenkins informed the masses who stopped by his table about the exceptional results of NASA's Kepler Mission at year two. He reported, "The Celebrating Science event was a blast! It's always energizing to talk to people who are jazzed about science and the work we do at the SETI Institute. I am consistently impressed by the questions I get about the Kepler Mission from young kids to senior citizens -- they keep me on my toes and make me feel good about my work and the value of it in their eyes. SETI Institute research scientists are pushing back the frontier of science all the time, and it's great to be able to share the thrill of discovery and exploration with the public."
Geoff Puckett, Founder and CEO of EffectDesign Inc., shared a walk-through nebula concept model he is working on for the Institute. The goal is to create a high-tech, museum-quality immersive experience for Institute visitors. Geoff noted, "A key element which got visitors of all ages excited was the ability to walk through one nebula and then come back to the entry to select a different nebula or other body. The ability to 'experientialize' scientific data seemed to be the biggest 'Wow' factor."
TeamSETI member William Phelps has offered to share his love of astronomy with event visitors by bringing his solar telescopes to the event for the past several years. This year he brought his very popular large h-alpha solar telescope. "I love setting up my solar telescope at the Celebrating Science event," said William. "When people first look through the telescope, most people just see red. Our brain is used to receiving all different colors of the visible spectrum. At first it doesn't really process such a narrow band image very well, unless you've been doing this for awhile. Often people take a quick look and then get up to leave. 'Wait,' I say, 'you have to give it at least a minute...' About 30 seconds later they start to see the details -- the texture of the chromosphere, the tiny (!) spikes around the edge of the sun that look like tennis ball fuzz, and finally a prominence or two. That's when they open their mouth and say 'Wow!' and I know they are getting a good look at our closest star; the one we orbit, the one that gives us life."
TeamSETI member Candace Cook traveled from Oregon to attend Celebrating Science. "What an enlightening event," she said. "I was thrilled to spend three hours with a group of highly intelligent people who, when asked to discuss a scientific subject, did not roll their eyes, look away and suddenly remember a previous engagement! My sincere thanks to everyone at the SETI Institute for celebrating the fact that many of the civilians out here, even those without a Ph.D, love learning and actually enjoy discussing science! Kudos!"
Rob French and Lisa Ballard's area was inundated with visitors throughout the afternoon. Rob said, "I was pleasantly surprised at the level of public interest in space science and the number of attendees. Our Cassini table was overwhelmed with guests for most of the day. Many of the people were clearly very interested in the subject and asked insightful questions. For many, I think this was the first time they had seen so much imagery from Cassini, and there was a general sense of awe that humans had really accomplished this. At a time when NASA funding is in such danger, it was great to be able to share our accomplishments with the general public and see their support."
In addition to sharing science in a way that is easily comprehensible to the general public, the SETI Institute also believes in the importance of cultivating a love for science in the next generation of young scientists. Around 80 children participated in educational, interactive, and fun science activities donated by Agilent Technologies. Kids were given the opportunity to build a catapult or create their own model of the earth, spinning on its axis and changing its seasonal position relative to the sun (Night & Day activity).
One college astronomy teacher commented that she wished her students came to class understanding the concepts that were introduced and easily grasped by the young folks engaged in the Night & Day activity. Younger children were able to dissect owl pellets; and one young girl was exuberant over the fact that her pellet contained not one, but two skulls, with the jaw and a few teeth intact. Moving the jaw, she exclaimed, "It works!" Many children proudly carried around the catapults they built, not realizing they also got a lesson in physics. Even the youngest children got to color and create sticker pictures that had a space theme.
SETI Institute REU (Research Experience for Undergraduates) intern Ross Cawthon thoroughly enjoyed leading the kid's catapult activity. He said, "Most of the kids started thinking about how to put the catapult together before I even began the instructions. We had a good conversation about why heavier or lighter objects would go further. It was nice to teach interested kids, and it was great to hear how much they like science!"
This was nine-year-old Lea's second time attending Celebrating Science. "There was a huge crowd there," she commented. "A lot of SETI scientists were there with a lot of different things to show and tell about space and science. I liked the activities that were there for kids. But what was most interesting to me was learning about how many different planet candidates have been identified by Kepler and how they decide whether they are good candidates or not. Next year I would like to learn more from the different scientists. All in all, I really liked Celebrating Science!"
The SETI Institute would like to acknowledge the almost 60 volunteers and its many supporters who helped make Celebrating Science a success. We'd also like to thank Steve Stubbs and Tom Pierson for capturing the event through their camera lens. If you'd like to see more, visit the Celebrating Science Photo Gallery.