April is prep month for “How will we live tomorrow?” I’m preparing for the trip and asking locals my question. The only official training I am doing is that I now ride my bike everywhere, in all weather. That’s no easy feat given the terrible weather we’ve had this spring. Dastardly potholes lurking beneath puddles caused back-to-back blowouts during downpours. However, I have learned that my Marmot parka is truly waterproof.
This week was the Cambridge Science Festival, and, since so much of science is focused on the possibilities of tomorrow, I participated in several events. Not all communities engage science with the fervor of Cambridge. Although Seattle may be have the highest proportion of college graduates of any major city (53%), Cambridge leaves the majors in the dust. Seventy-four percent of adult Cantabridgians have at least a four-year degree (which may be how we get away using terms like ‘Cantabridgian’). Still, the Cambridge Science Festival is an excellent indicator that our community is diverse and our thirst for knowledge strong,
David H. Koch Institute for Integrated Cancer Research at MIT – Open House
The Koch Institute’s slick new building with generous galleries makes a great place for demonstration tables staffed by eager graduate students and technicians in blue T-shirts with swirling DNA logos. The place was flooded with kids eager for science and the presenters focused on making cancer research accessible to all. A mouse trap game illustrated how cancer cells absorb more glucose and bypass the Krebs cycle, a Lego construction site showed how radiation breaks the DNA strand, Velcro attached to ping pong balls became ‘target cells’ when stuck to cotton balls, and children strained DNA from strawberries.
The real appeal of this open house, from the perspective of interesting children in science, was how each child could identify with the presenters. More than half were women, at least half people of color. MIT graduate students today look nothing like that did when I was there 40 years ago, and school children look nothing like my classmates of fifty years ago.
Sustainability unConference – Earth Day at District Hall in Boston
This was my first experience with an unConference. I was intrigued by both the concept and the subject matter. I wore my “How will we live tomorrow?” bike shirt for the first time. Cocktail hours are uncomfortable for me, especially when I am wearing bright yellow.
I wandered into the hall where organizers posted topics on a wall. “Write down what you’d like to talk about” a volunteer said. I added a note about how Boston might prepare to mitigate rising tides. I didn’t realize that my scribbling constituted offering to facilitate a workshop. Sure enough I got a bunch of votes and, in the spirit of an unCOnference, led a session. I drew a giant wave and some cool lettering on the white board, had people guess their home’s elevation above sea level as an ice breaker, led a brainstorm of the issues rising tides present to Boston, and outlined opportunities we could use to combat them.
Facilitating a workshop, even on the fly, is easier for me than cocktail party mingling. I know how to curb the inevitable monopolizer and make sure everyone gets to talk. Next time I attend an unConference, I’ll know what I am in for in advance.
Harvard Observatory – Open House
It seemed odd to visit an observatory in the middle of the afternoon, but throngs of people climbed Observatory Hill on a sunny afternoon. The parking area was littered with solar telescopes, each staffed by T-shirted scientists keen explain the mysteries of sunspots and solar flares. People from 3 to 83 fixed their eyes into viewfinders to observe the wild choreography that was just another day on the sun. I arrived too late to take any of the tours offered, but wandered through ‘Ask an Astronomer’ hall, teeming with children and parents quizzing geeks about black holes and dark matter.
In one classroom, three different volunteers demonstrated Microsoft’s Worldwide Telescope on immense screens. This is a free program anyone can download. It turns your laptop into a telescope, Goggle Earth for the stars. The clarity is amazing; the scale and scope of the program is phenomenal. It enlarged my understanding of what it means when we say the Internet puts the world at our fingertips. The children in the audience, mostly eight to ten year olds, a good mix of boys and girls but more heavily Asian than the population as a whole, asked question after question. The adults sat on the sidelines, dumbstruck.
One little boy asked, “Does the Universe ever end? Mary Patterson, the Harvard Observatory Ambassador replied, “Well, these images are three billion light years away. At the speed of light, it would take us three billion years to reach them. And nothing in this image indicates it will end. So, realistically, the universe is infinite.”
That may be true, but Microsoft Worldwide Telescope illustrates that the universe is also intimate; that we each carry it around with us in our laptop; that we can view it at our leisure and manipulate our relationship to it. Science teaches us that the universe is vast, but science also makes us feel powerful within it.