11 May 2011

Science Festivities in the City

By Pippa Wysong (May 2011) – On a sunny Saturday in early May an amazing thing happened. Scientists across Canada came out into the open with experiments, demonstrations and expertise in hand. They were there for anyone who was curious about they do. It was an event called Science Rendezvous.
In what began as a local science festival in Toronto in 2008, Science Rendezvous has morphed into an event which now takes place one day a year in cities across Canada. Laboratories on university and college campuses, and even some private labs, open their doors to the public.
This year, I went to the University of Toronto campus and started at the astronomy and physics section of the event. I chatted with an astronomy graduate student who told me her area of study was celestial motion – how planets and stars move around in space, and how they affect each other. She studies what happens in solar systems where there are two, three or more stars. It turns out that systems with multiple stars are very common. Our solar system, with its one star is not the most common model.
I also met a grad student who studies colliding black holes – an even more intriguing area since these are objects that can't be directly observed. I also met big-name astronomy professor John Percy who studies variable stars, and who was more than happy to answer any sort of astronomy question you could throw at him.
Down the street from the astronomers was a man in front of the chemistry building playing a strange instrument he called a hydraulophone. The man was none other than the clever and eccentric professor Steven Mann from the department of electrical and computer engineering. The instrument consisted of a series of containers filled with water. There were holes at the top of each container where some of the water burbled out. To play this instrument he slapped the tops of the containers – which created vibrations in the water and a tone.
The idea came when he thought about how musical instruments work, he said. There are wind instruments (which use air or gas), and instruments which rely on vibrations through solid materials (think drums, or even string instruments). He figured something could be done using vibrations through water. Of course, my question is – are fire instruments next on the list?
The physics department opened up its doors to it holographic lab. Here there were displays showing off some really impressive holographic images using at least four different hologram technologies. Very cool.
Then there was the grad student who studies flat worms – microscopic creatures that look something like leeches. He informed us that flatworms can not only regenerate body parts that are broken off, but the broken off bits grow into a new flat worm.
There was a second event in Toronto that day that was listed as part of Science Rendezvous– the Mini Maker Faire at the Evergreen Brickworks. A Maker Faire is where science, technology and art meet.
At this event were over 100 booths of 'makers' – mostly hobbyists who build strange and intriguing things in their basements and garages, or in co-operative studio spaces. There we saw mechanical Steampunk kinetic sculptures by Russell Zeid, hand carved wooden telescopes, and people willing to show you how to make your own small remote controlled toys.
There was also the display of apparently blank canvasses where the images on them could only be seen on pictures you took of them. How did that work? The canvasses had LED lights behind them which emitted infrared light – a frequency of light that our eyes can't see, but is picked up by most digital cameras.
So, keep eye on the calendar for early May next year. Science Rendezvous will be back, and is an event for people of all ages. Science might sound like something for geeks, but once you're at this event, it’s amazingly fun.

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