The boys and I went to the UH Mānoa SOEST Open House last weekend. I forgot to bring a camera, otherwise I’d post a few pictures. All the SOEST researchers had displays and presentations of one sort or another. They ranged from play-doh and paint activities for little kids all the way up to posters that were obviously re-used from the presenter’s last academic conferences, and lots in between. It was cool seeing the diversity of research topics that were being covered.
Tommy was fascinated by the guy in the courtyard who was offering kids a chance to burn scraps in the sunlight with giant 12-inch-square Fresnel lenses. Uh oh. Now I’m probably going to have to get the little firebug a Fresnel lens of his own. I remember spending many summer days carefully burning designs on wood with my little 4-inch magnifying glass, but these guys are way bigger and more powerful. And cheaper, too!
Chris and I met a professor who was measuring aerosols (airborne particles of liquid or solid matter) using a pickup-truck-mounted laser. He dimmed the room lights and turned the laser on, and it glowed a dim green and gave off a low buzz as it flashed 20 times a second, 800 nanoseconds per flash. Dust motes glowed and sparkled as they passed through the beam. Chris asked if it was dangerous, and the professor replied that yes, you could be blinded if you looked at it, but it wouldn’t injure you if it hit your body. He demonstrated by waving his hand through the beam. ZAP! The darkened room flared with bright green light as the laser suddenly had a solid object to shine on instead of just air. He chuckled, said that it only (only?) felt like a bunch of needles poking into his flesh, and noted that his hand was smoking a little from the couple of layers of skin cells that had just been vaporized. “It’d be worse if I were darker-skinned,” he commented.
I stopped to talk with a meteorology student who had a plexiglass cylinder of water that was rotating to simulate Coriolis forces. At first glance, I hadn’t realized that it was water; the moving surface looked so smooth and undisturbed that I had thought it was some sort of gel. He took a syringe and injected a dye cloud into the rotating water column, and we watched as it organized itself into an amazingly hurricane-like shape. Wow, cool.
The physics demonstrations were a big hit with the kids. Some grad students had a meeting room full of fun physics gadgets — the angular momentum demonstration where you stand on a rotating platform and hold a spinning bike wheel; a big electromagnet; a bunch of tuning forks; a hair dryer with a ping pong ball to demonstrate the Bernoulli effect. I learned something new while examining a display on refractive index: if you submerge a glass object in mineral oil, it virtually disappears because the two substances’ refractive indices are so close. One grad student circulated through the room passing out physics-related stickers. I proudly wore an “E=mc2” sticker on my shirt the rest of the day, to Chris’s embarrassment.
We peeked into a lab stacked high with thousands of culture dishes full of marine fungi. A Chinese student explained to me that they were doing a survey of the distribution of marine fungi in seawater and on beach sand around the islands. They’d take samples, culture them up, and gene-sequence them to get positive IDs. (I know that times have changed since I was in school because that last part — the gene-sequencing — wasn’t remarkable at all to this woman. It was just another tool. Wow!)
And there were cool geological samples to be looked at and touched. Rocks of all colors, shapes, and sizes. Of course there was lava of all kinds. Gossamer-fine Pele’s hair (nature’s own fiberglass!), lots of pāhoehoe and ʻaʻā, basalt blocks so vesicular that they looked like Swiss cheese, and even a lava bomb the size of a table. I have always had a fascination with iron meteorites. When I touch their cold and scalloped surfaces I’m amazed that these things fell out of the sky. And I’m always surprised by their density! They had a 30-pounder on display that visitors could pick up and feel. What a heft that thing had.
The last thing we saw that day, just before closing, was a goofy, messy demonstration of the difference between the eruption of effusive Hawaiian volcanoes versus the more explosive continental volcanoes, using plastic squeeze bottles full of shaving cream to simulate magma, dry ice to provide the dissolved gas pressure, and differing nozzle diameters to represent narrow and wide volcanic vent sizes. I glanced up, saw that pink shaving cream was spattered all over the ceiling above the table from earlier demonstrations, and decided not to stand too close.