Space, Snails & Quanta: Getting My Geek on at the World Science Festival

I spent theWorld Science Festival 2015 last week of May doing something very cool: volunteering at the World Science Festival. And by “cool” I mean getting up close and personal with squid guts.

First up was a lecture by Ellen Stofan, NASA Chief Scientist. Did you know that the Chief Scientist at NASA is a woman? Neither did I. In one way I think that’s terrific; in another way I hope we’re getting past the “oh my gosh it’s a woman” phase and can just focus on her long fascination with space and science.

We have something in common, Dr. Stofan and me: we inherited our interest in science from our parents. In Stofan’s case it was her father, who worked for NASA during its early days; in my case it was my Mom, who was fascinated by the space program and watched every liftoff and splashdown on TV. To me it was as natural as watching a favorite TV series or sports team.

Poster for Dr. Ellen Stofan's talk at #WSF15
Poster for Dr. Ellen Stofan’s talk at #WSF15

In third grade our teacher thought it would be a good idea to watch an early (pre-moon landing) Apollo liftoff during class time. When a boy in my class expressed amazement at watching a liftoff for the first time, I replied, “But they’re on all the time!” In my house, they were; not everyone had the same experience.

So, really, it’s because of Mom that I was sitting in a cafe at the New School, watching the live stream of Dr. Stofan’s talk from the packed auditorium nearby. The audience was an invited group of high school and middle school students from around New York City whom we’d checked in as they arrived. (I particularly remember a Summer program called “Mathematical Problem Solving”–because that’s so much better than solving problems with guess-work and wishful thinking?)

You can watch Dr. Ellen Stofan’s WSF talk here: Pioneers in Science: Ellen Stofan

Mandë Holford, Ph.D., and students using microscopes. #WSF15
Mandë Holford, Ph.D., and students using microscopes. #WSF15

Next up was a hands-on Apprentice program in biochemistry. Our instructor was Mandë Holford, an Associate Professor at Hunter College who studies “killer” snails. She led a group of middle schoolers through lab work using microscopes, dissecting squid, and examining the proteins that make up toxins in animals that have beneficial applications in medicine.

My official role was to stand in the lobby and direct families to the laboratory, but once it got started all of the volunteers ended up helping in the lab. Confession: I haven’t worked in a lab in a very long time! But I think I carried it off rather well and certainly enjoyed it.

Squid Guts. Apprentice Biochemistry Lab. World Science Festival 2015.
Squid Guts. Apprentice Biochemistry Lab. World Science Festival 2015.

This is the day I got my hands on squid guts. After a few moments of reluctance by both students and volunteer assistants, we all got into the joys of squid anatomy. It’s nothing like human anatomy: squid have no bones, eight arms, and unusual anatomical parts such as an ink sac, which makes them quite different from most animals we know. (Especially city kids!)

The last day of the Festival I drew a great assignment: a late-afternoon lecture at NYU’s Skirball Center, on the edge of Washington Square Park. So I arrived early to check out the Science Street Fair happening around Washington Square before going to my volunteer post. Maybe it’s Mom’s influence: I went straight to the NASA exhibits, including a model of the Mars Rover.

Model of Mars Rover at World Science Festival 2015.
Model of Mars Rover at World Science Festival 2015.

Then it was time for Quantum Mechanics!

This was the largest audience I’d seen, but I’ve done work like this in my non-profit career so it was easy. We directed the crowd into the auditorium and then were able to snag some empty seats for the discussion.

I took a few physics courses in college, but never got to quantum theory, so this was mostly unfamiliar territory. I’ve read about the wave/particle duality and the metaphor of Schrodinger’s cat, but entanglement was new to me. (Even Albert Einstein called it “spooky.”) And I’ve never quite resolved the intellectual conundrum that if observing a phenomenon alters it, how can we be sure we know what’s happening?

You can watch “Here, There & Everywhere: The Next Quantum Leap” here: The Next Quantum Leap.

Near the end of the lecture, I tweeted:

I finally understand how Schrodinger’s cat feels. I am simultaneously smarter & dumber tonight.

And maybe that’s what it really means to “get my geek on” now. It’s been years (decades, really) since I took a formal science course. I do read about science and technology, and I’ve attended some lectures and panel discussions now and then. But much has changed since I studied chemistry and Newtonian physics in college! So I experienced the World Science Festival as a knowledgeable layperson, sometimes surprised at what I remembered and sometimes baffled by new information. My head didn’t explode; but it’s possible my brain stretched a little.

If you weren’t able to attend the World Science Festival, most of the lectures and panels are available for viewing here: World Science Festival 2015 videos

If you did attend, let us know in the comments what you saw, what you enjoyed, and what you learned.

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