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Friday, July 14, 2017


Mary Ann Mort

Let’s sneak bits of science into places people aren’t expecting it so that they learn things (or at least get exposed to them) without them knowing! Random shout out to Guerilla Science!


The silvery, sleek expanse showed my reflection as I searched for imperfections in the patterned surface. After two weeks of painstakingly cutting the intricate design into plastic, I was done and the mirror was finished. The tracks of the decay products of a positive kaon spiraling in the magnetic field of a bubble chamber stood boldly before me.

There are many aspects of this hobby that require one to learn and understand a spectrum of science. Etching mirrors can be done by a few methods, but I choose to use a commercialized, diluted, paste form of hydrofluoric acid. Hydrofluoric acid (HF) in its full glory is highly corrosive towards glass, some metals, and skin, but not of plastics or other polymers. Skin contact with concentrated aqueous HF can cause nasty burns that can initially go unnoticed because it immediately interferes with nerve function as it kills cell tissues. HF is not technically a strong acid (like hydrochloric acid(HCl)), since the bond between the smaller (than chlorine) fluorine atom and the hydrogen atom is longer, and thus weaker, which gives HF a smaller dissociation constant. When HF comes into contact with the glass of a mirror, the oxides in the glass react with the HF and as the surface is eroded away it becomes microscopically bumpy. As light travels, it’s reflected by the silvered side of the mirror, but when it passes through the part of the mirror that has been etched, the uneven surface causes a scattering of the light, making that portion seem opaque.

As you can see there is a lot of science that goes into just making an etched mirror. Add in the fact that I typically etch designs of mathematical, physical, chemical, or natural phenomenon brings the science full circle. While science is at every step of the way, the final product is still art. Who’s to say that science isn’t an art, though?


This week had a tour of both NASA(National Aeronautics and Space Administration) at Goddard and NIST(National Institute of Standards and Technology). In many ways, the two institutions were quite similar. Both had many buildings separated by sprawling lawns. Both had security clearances to see research labs. The hallways in NASA seemed a bit brighter, while the labs, hallways, and buildings at NIST had a very precise nature to them. But the biggest differences between NASA and NIST were the reactions I got from people afterwards when I told them where I toured. NASA is very public and space exploration and that whole frontier is celebrated and excites society. Everyone knows what NASA is, even if they don’t know what it stands for. However, the general public has no idea as to what NIST even is, when I personally think it affects us much more directly. The standards that NIST sets are quite tangible and affects the production of many companies. No one wants to discuss boring standards and technology when they could daydream about the sexy science that has exactly three people in outer space right now. I am definitely guilty of being a daydreamer, but the standards and other research produced by NIST can be just as interesting to the public, we just need to improve our communication of what it is that they do.


The mirror I etched of a positive kaon decay in a bubble chamber. I gave this piece to my mentor, Crystal Bailey.
Me exploring lavatubes that have been mapped using LIDAR data via the HTC Vibe at the NASA Science Jamboree.
The SPS interns at the NASA visitor center.
The SPS interns about to eat from the apple tree of knowledge, AKA a descendant of the apple tree that inspired Sir Issac Newton.

Mary Ann Mort