Week 6: A fantastic week for outreach

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Sunday, July 6, 2014


Stephen Skolnick

This was a fantastic week for outreach. Thursday afternoon, a few of the other interns and I headed to NIST, under Kendra's supervision, to talk to the children at the institute’s daycare about light and optics. We did demonstrations involving fluorescence and invisible ink, as well as diffraction and standing-wave experiments. I was assigned the standing microwave experiment, in which one measures the distance between hot spots on a piece of chocolate or other melty material that’s been in a microwave without a turntable. From the distance, which tells us the wavelength of the microwaves, and the frequency of the microwave, we can calculate the speed of light. While the kids were a little young to be doing the kind of math required (some weren’t even familiar with multiplication yet), they all seemed excited to learn about light beyond the visible spectrum. I did learn, however, that this demo should be done with wax or another inedible material if performed for a young audience—it becomes very difficult to get children focused on science when your demonstration involves chocolate chips and marshmallows.

LED streetlights have a spiky, unusual spectrum. Though it peaks in the orange, this firework clearly radiates all wavelengths of visible light.Before we left for NIST, though, I made sure we grabbed a few hundred pairs of diffraction glasses from a box on the 2nd floor. The next day, the fourth of July, we set out for the national mall early. We set up camp near the base of the Washington monument, and spent most of the day lounging on the lawn in the sun. As sunset drew near, we began walking around the vicinity and handing out pairs of diffraction glasses, explaining the physics behind them to people who were interested. When the fireworks finally commenced, the show was spectacular. Music swelled from the speakers as clouds of sulfurous smoke drifted over the crowd. The diffraction glasses turned every burst of light into three, a stretched duplicate made of strobing colors on either side of each flash. You can tell we’re nerds, we joked. Everyone else is watching fireworks and we're doing spectral analysis.

When the display ended, with the night air beginning to cool, the family in front of us turned around before leaving and thanked us. In the slow stampede toward the perimeter exits, I looked up at a rainbow-flanked moon and reflected on how lucky I am; that it’s part of my job this summer to help make the fireworks a little brighter.

Stephen Skolnick