The public perception of people who are good at or — gasp! perish the thought — actually enjoy studying science used to be quite negative. You’re a dweeb. You’re a nerd. You’re a socially inept dork who cannot function around normal people. Thankfully, attitudes are definitely shifting and public interest in science, even if you have absolutely no ambition to pursue science on an academic or professional level, is growing. And the #VanScienceSocial field trip I took earlier this week is further evidence of this growth.
A group of us social media types were invited to spend a day exploring science and touring some of the facilities where real progress and real innovations are being made, right here in our hometown of Vancouver. The goal was to share “the sciencey side of the city with [our] friends and followers.” I’d say we achieved that goal, earning a spot as one of the top 10 trending topics in Canada on Twitter.
Science World and Anecdotal Evidence
Our day started out at Science World where the Body Worlds: Animal Inside Out exhibit is currently being featured. Prior to getting together with the rest of our group, we were encouraged to explore the galleries at Science World. Some people played with the learning games on the main floor. I opted to see the insides of ostriches and camels.
It was great, since Science World was closed to the public on Monday. We had the whole place to ourselves. Unfortunately, we only had about half an hour to look around, which isn’t nearly enough time to take in everything that the galleries have to offer. The cross-section of a human head was certainly something to behold though.
After grabbing our gourmet box lunch, we gathered around the main stage at Science World for a couple of unique stories from the people at Anecdotal Evidence. One involved volunteering at a farm in France, only to turn into a tale of strange UFOs and awkward sexual advances. The other involved a parasitic worm who lived in the master’s student’s foot for nine months, part of which was spent in a remote village in Kenya.
Accelerating Particles at TRIUMF
We hopped on board our trolley and made our way out to the University of British Columbia, which just so happens to be my alma mater. A lot has changed in the decade since I graduated. Our first stop was at TRIUMF, home to Canada’s largest particle accelerator. We took a rather comprehensive tour of the 12.55 acre facility, learning that the on-site cyclotron is capable of accelerating particles to 75% the speed of light!
Most of the science here, unsurprisingly, went right over my head. Nonetheless, it was fascinating to see the kind of equipment and machinery used for the various experiments taking place at TRIUMF. Some of these are academic, some are commercial, approaching a range of different industries. There are systems here for measuring the weight of subatomic particles, for example, and other machines for colliding particles together at unbelievable speeds. They all have fun acronym names too, like TIGRESS and DRAGON.
We also had the opportunity to visit the machining shop at TRIUMF where many custom and one-off parts are produced for the various machines and equipment. It’s true; they can’t just order these parts out of a catalog. We got to see CNC routers, an electron bean welder, and even a rig that focuses a jet of water with so much pressure that it can cut through up to three inches of stainless steel with laser-like precision. That’s what they used to make the keychain shown here.
DNA Extraction at UBC’s Michael Smith Labs
Our next stop was with David Ng at Michael Smith Laboratories, also on the UBC campus. He told us that his primary focus was on exploring the intersection between creativity and science, as well as on promoting scientific literacy. Indeed, Ng is a frequent attendee of PUS conferences… that stands for Public Understanding of Science, which is the official field of study.
A very important lesson that he imparted upon our group is that “you don’t have to be a scientist to see the merit in being able to think like a scientist.” We were also given the opportunity to extract our DNA from a cheek tissue sample. No, it wasn’t invasive. It just involved a saline rinse and a soapy solution.
One of the stories that David shared with us involved a conversation he had with a little girl some ten (or more) years prior.
When asked whether unicorns are real, he responded that there is no scientific evidence to support their existence. When asked if unicorns could be real, he stated that a horse with a horn may be possible, but a magical unicorn that could leap over rainbows and expel glitter defied the first law of thermodynamics. When asked how he would react if he did see a rainbow-leaping, glitter-expelling unicorn, he was stumped.
These three questions illustrate the three levels of scientific inquiry and thought. We ask if there is evidence to support a claim, whether a theoretical hypothesis fits within currently accepted laws, and how to handle observations that defy our current state of knowledge.
Stargazing at HR MacMillan Space Centre
Our final stop of the night was at the H.R. MacMillan Space Centre, known unofficially around these parts simply as the planetarium. While enjoying some snacks and beverages, we looked around at some of the exhibits. There was a scale model of the Mars Rover, explanations of what would happen if we were struck by a giant asteroid, and so on.
We were also shown what would happen if Barbie removed her helmet while floating around in the vacuum of space. Using shaving cream as a substitute for real human innards, we watched as the white foam oozed out of her eyes, ears and other orifices. It’s not pretty. If you ever make it out in space, try not to lose your helmet.
Taking the elevator upstairs to the domed theater, we were then treated to a virtual journey through our solar system, our galaxy and our universe at large. Did you know that Jupiter can contain all the other planets in our solar system within it? And that its Great Red Spot has been shrinking substantially the last few years?
Public Understanding of Science
Science isn’t just for geeks and nerds. Truthfully, we don’t want to be surrounded by stupid people and basic scientific literacy is tremendously important for all aspects of our lives, particularly as they pertain to public policy decisions.
The #VanScienceSocial field trip furthers the growing notion that science can be fun and accessible by the masses, something that we see growing on the Internet thanks to charismatic scientists like Neil deGrasse Tyson and Dr. Michio Kaku. You don’t need to be a scientist to think like one and to benefit from scientific knowledge.
Find more photos on Flickr from our day of science. If #VanScienceSocial becomes an annual event, I sincerely hope that I am invited again next year. It was great fun and there’s always more to learn and explore.