Week 6: Capitol Idea

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Sunday, July 6, 2014


Caleb L. Heath

Highlights of this week include birthdays and the next generation. The birthday is of course America's, but the next generation was somewhat more interesting. Regular readers will be aware of the National Institute of Standards and Technology one of our most celebrated national laboratories (Five Nobel prizes if I'm not mistaken.)

It has a ballistics testing range, a million pound force machine, and an exceedingly sensitive apparatus that may allow us to define the kilogram without recourse to a hunk of platinum-iridium.

I don't know why it should surprise me that they have a daycare, but it does.

They're precocious little ones too. It's not often I see an 8 year old who is trying to stumble out that light consists of propagating perpendicular electric and magnetic fields. Amazing what you can pick up from mom or dad, huh?

So, we brought science to the children, a collection of activities from this year's SOCK. I miss working on that project, but at least I got a little taste. It's very gratifying when you see the smiling, happy faces. And hear the shrieking.

It's not generally advisable to let first graders have sticky notes, mirrors, or LEDs. I don't think it's specifically advisable either, but you must accept some measure of chaos if you want to do outreach.The point is after-all to instill wonder. The scientist around the dinner table that night can take over the teaching.

We got to spread physics the next day too, on the Fourth of July. We spent hours camped out beneath the shadow of the Washington monument. It was a beautiful day, bright and windy. Perfect parade weather. I found this out because one stopped me on my way to meet up with everyone. I have learned that the Falun Gong have a marching band. At least I'm pretty sure that's what I saw. Also a mobile temple went past. You could smell the incense.

Anyway, we brought two hundred pairs of diffraction glasses with us. Regular readers know about these already. They will split light sources into their continuous spectra. Your blue flashlight is really more of splash of blues and greens, sunlight a near rainbow, etc. It is the height understatement to say that they are a spectacular accessory for watching fireworks.

I took fifty of the glasses to hand out; Kirsten, Stephen and Mark went off with the rest. At first I had to explain what they did to the people on the Mall. But then children started looking through them and then the cries of joy began. Soon people were calling out with hands outstretched. I prioritized children, insisted that adults would have to share. My supply ran out in about three minutes.

We could have brought a pallet full and still not made a dent in the crowd. Maybe next year.

It was easy to identify who had the diffraction glasses later. Everywhere around us were cheers and exultation. But those who had they glasses were experiencing a whole other level of amazement. Shrieks of delight. Loud cries of "Cool!"

Music better than any National Symphony, which was excellent this year as always.

Stars and stripes forever.

Caleb L. Heath