Expanding universe

MSU’s Science Festival does everything but implode


In spring, there are gutters to clean, windows to polish and leaves to rake. Feeling a bird’s heartbeat in your hand, listening to the sun’s nuclear furnace, watching thermite blow up and getting to know the personalities of trees are probably not on your to-do list.

Maybe they should be. With apologies to T.S. Eliot, April is the coolest month at MSU. This year, the university’s 6-year-old Science Festival reaches a mind-boggling critical mass, with hundreds of demonstrations, talks and activities spread across campus and beyond.

The festival takes in an astounding range of subjects, from classic blasts of chemistry, fluorescent bacteria, turtle meet-and-greets and MSU Observatory time (with a special telescope that lets you look directly at the Sun) to hot-button topics such as the future of autonomous vehicles and the efficacy of gun restrictions.

It’s impossible to list all the events in these two pages, but a visit with a few of the presenters is enough to infect you with their excitement at sharing what they know with a broader public.

“The thing I really like about the festival is that it gives scientists an opportunity to step back and think about the things that inspire us,” forestry Professor Richard Kobe said. Kobe tells people different tree species are like people — some, like aspen and poplar, live fast and die young. Others, such as the thriving sugar maple, invest in storing some of their energy in the winter, are tolerant of shade and grow slow.

“It’s not just a collection of trees, it’s a collection of all these players that have different personalities,” he said. The same could be said for the professors and researchers from MSU and beyond that throng the festival each spring.

Festival director Roxanne Truhn tries to balance the cutting edge weirdness and topical stuff with hands-on kids’ activities and “the old standbys where you blow things up and light things on fire.” A microbiologist by training, she’s excited about a Microbiology Lab demonstration of laser tweezers that can pick up a single bacterium.

On a larger scale, the Science Festival is going after the biggest catch of all: measurable, observable, objective reality, a tricky fish that’s trying like hell to squirm away these days.

“Science is for everyone, and there’s really a big need now to educate the public about the importance of science and how it’s going to affect our future lives,” Truhn said.

Low end theory A duet between a tuba and the solar wind is not something you hear every day, but get ready. The deep connections between science and art are a major part of this year’s Science Festival.

Waxing poetic about the “music of the spheres” is one thing, but Robert Alexander of the University of Michigan’s Solar Heliospheric Research Group captures sounds no one has heard and sends them right through you, using sub-woofers you feel in your neck.

Alexander is a specialist at turning raw scientific data into patterns of sound. At MSU’s Abrams Planetarium, he’ll conduct an immersive audio-visual tour of the sun and its surrounding domain, the heliosphere.

He’s done this work, which he calls “sonification,” for NASA and various research institutes and frequently collaborates with his fellow air vibrators — musicians.

He’s got some new tricks up his sleeve for his first visit to MSU’s Science Festival.

“I was floored by my first experience in the Abrams planetarium dome this past week, and now I’m generating new material specifically designed for the space,” he said. He’s bringing high-def visuals from NASA and ESO and adding more speakers to the planetarium’s sound system, which he found to be “already amazing.”

“Many people have seen high-resolution images and videos of the sun and the turbulent activity on its surface,” Alexander said. “Adding sound brings out an entirely new dimension.”

Alexander will “play” raw solar data gathered from sun-observing satellites, and music that is generated by these data sets.

“This demonstration will include new audio and visuals that have never been shared before,” Alexander said.

As if that weren’t enough, David Biedenbender, a composition professor in the MSU College of Music, will enhance the audio with live structured improvisation on the euphonium (a smaller version of the tuba).

“This is a level of sensory immersion that I’ve always dreamed of working with,” Alexander said. “It should be quite unlike anything people have seen or heard before.”

Sonification sounds off-the-wall to some people, but Alexander loves winning over the inevitable skeptics in the audience. After all, we are already used to hearing “sonified” scientific data, such as the beeps on a life support monitor, only not on the phantasmagoric scale of the sun’s nuclear furnace.

“It’s nice when an aspect of this work suddenly clicks for them,” Alexander said. “Sonification can help take a scientific concept that may be highly abstract and make it immediately intuitive and engaging.” That is the sweet spot the Science Festival aims for.

Bird in the hand Meanwhile, among the tender shrubs of south campus, Jennifer Owen, an associate professor in the College of Fisheries and Wildlife, will show how her team catches birds, weighs and measures them and bands them for tracking.

One of the goals of Owen’s MSU demonstration is to let people see birds up close.

After her team takes its measurements and puts a uniquely numbered band on a bird, they put it on a child’s (or adult’s) hand as kind of a launching pad for the bird to take off.

“That’s pretty profound for everyone,” Owen said. “You can see the bird up close and feel their heartbeat. It connects you with this amazing animal and makes you want to learn more.”

At Rose Lake, a tiny oasis in a sprawling agricultural landscape, Owen and her research team catch about 4,000 individual birds of 85 different species in a year, mostly in autumn. In five years of operation, they’ve caught about 19,000 birds.

Visitors are welcome at the Burke Lake Station, which operates during the spring and fall migrations.

“There isn’t a lot of habitat around us, so birds concentrate in areas where there’s a lot of fruiting shrubs,” Owen said. “The area we net in is phenomenal. I used to band birds on the Gulf Coast of Florida for years, and this rivals that area.”

The measurements and banding help researchers learn more about which birds are using the habitat and how healthy they are. The data also contributes to the study of larger patterns such as climate change, which is affecting migratory patterns and species distribution.

But in the shorter term, the expression on kids’ faces is pretty rich feedback.

“It’s pure joy,” Owen said. “People get this amazing look. They can’t believe a bird just took off from their hand. Sometimes it just stays there for a while. We let them pet the bird with their finger and the can’t believe how soft it is.”

Some species of birds, such as darkeyed juncos, are getting ready to fly north right now, eating everything in sight, and have doubled their body fat in the past two weeks. The phenomenon, called hyperphasia, is quite noticeable when you’re holding one in your hand.

“They get pretty pudgy,” Owen said.

Disruptive technology On Venus, science is never social. It’s mostly stinky, unbreathable sulfur. On Earth, people are involved, and that makes a big difference.

Social science, especially the impact of new technology, is the subject of several festival talks this year. Mark Wilson, a professor of urban and regional planning at MSU, has a unique perspective on a timely subject — the social implications of autonomous vehicles.

Wilson has long studied the disruptive effects of technology, including how the Internet affected employment and shopping patterns.

He’s noticed an unfortunate pattern in the way new technology infiltrates our world. Call it “tech and wreck.” Automobiles were well on the way to taking over the world before people began to take a second look at suburban sprawl, exhaust pollution and other secondary consequences.

After decades of oohing and aahing over the breathtaking pace of computer technology, only now, with recent revelations of Facebook’s use of personal data, has the full array of social, political and cultural consequences of the Internet and social media gotten a full blown discussion.

Wilson thinks autonomous vehicles are following the same pattern. “Here we are, about to introduce a new technology into society, and we haven’t really thought about what it means,” he said.

Wilson tugs at the central thread where ethics intersect with science— just because we can do something, should we?

He has a lot of questions and hopes citizens and policy makers will ask them while there is time. Will people share vehicles, saving energy and reducing congestion, or will everyone want their own vehicle and drive even more, with the added convenience of a robotic chauffeur? What will happen to public transit?

Will self-driving cars open up another gap between rich and poor? Will there be fleets of vehicles, in a shared ride model?

Wilson pointed out that somebody somewhere has to write the algorithm by which autonomous vehicles decide “who or what gets sacrificed” in an emergency situation.

“If there is a crisis, what does it hit?” he asked. “We can’t answer that easily and there may not be an answer. We saw that in the Internet as well. Who is going to control the new technology? Who will shape its introduction?” April Zeoli, an associate professor in MSU’s School of Criminal Justice, will tackle another ultra-hot topic in her Science Festival talk. Do laws that disqualify people from owning a firearm — mostly owing to domestic partner restraining orders — reduce rates of intimate partner homicides? In other words, do the laws work? (Spoiler alert: her research has shown that they do work.)

“People who come to my talks tend to be already convinced that these kinds of laws will reduce gun violence,” she said.

“It will be interesting to see if I get a broader swath of the public next week.”

Zeoli’s goal is the same as any scientist’s — finding things out.

“My job is to try to figure out what reduces homicides, so I really do want to know the right answer to that question. An answer that isn’t correct, even if it’s one that may please some people politically, is not going to reduce homicides, so I’m just not interested in it.”

Few studies are done, owing to low firearm research funding, Zeoli said. She is anxious for her findings to make it out of the academic journals and to the public, “so they learn what the research evidence is and not just what a particular political bias suggests.”

Ectothermic Science’s classic hits will not be neglected at the MSU Science Festival. Chemistry prof Jim Geiger will put on “several pretty dramatic demonstrations” of fundamental concepts in chemistry that teach on several levels.

“My demonstration goes ‘boom’ a lot,” Geiger said. “Thermite is very dramatic, with different colors of flame and stuff like that. They jump, they ‘ooh,’ they ‘aah,’ they crowd up at the front. Adults come up and tell me they learned a lot. You want to understand how that cool thing happens.”

What happens is electrons hop out of one element into another element. It’s called an ectothermic reaction, the chemistry equivalent of “extroverted.”

It seems like pretty uncontroversial stuff, compared to guns and autonomous vehicles, but public respect for well-established scientific principles is not exactly at an apogee these days, and neither is funding for science.

Ectothermic reactions aren’t limited to Geiger’s tabletop.

If the subject of climate change comes up, Geiger will be happy to tell the adults in the room the same thing he tells his students.

“I don’t consider global warming a political issue,” he said. “We’ve known it for 100 years. One kind of gas absorbs photons and turns them into heat. Another kind of gas does not turn them into heat. I’m sorry! Unless those molecules are really good at playing dodge ball with the photons they are going to get warmer.”

MSU Science Festival

April 6-22 For full schedule see Sciencefestival.msu.edu


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