Are you inspired by science? Yes, but not when it means slaving over a computer for hours on end editing a journal article that nobody will ever read. Can you explain this to a seven year old? Probably, with a big sign saying “Don’t do this at home”.
That wasn’t actually what went through my head before volunteering to create an inter-active Geology exhibit for Celebrate Science, an annual three day science festival held in a giant marquee on Palace Green. Celebrate Science challenges many of the University’s departments to explain and demonstrate what they do, to a family audience made up of mostly primary school age children.
I had put together a similar exhibit for my last event; a selection of volcanic rocks from Iceland, some pictures of volcanoes, a plastic cross section of the Earth and a good few bottles of lemonade (more on that later). I also ended up with a box of sand and some fossils. I hadn’t planned to use the sand box, but as it turns out they were great for the up and coming geologists who wanted to dig about and generally make a mess.
Tom, Josh, Sarah and Corrine (all forth year students) who had also volunteered to help out were running a demonstration on a seismometer at the end of our bench. Great for encouraging visitors to “Explore how earthquakes work”, when my voice was running a bit low.
So, first thing was to set up the exhibit. Corrine and Josh had got the seismometer running earlier, and I was left to display a few rocks around the table and hope for the best. After a brief wander around the other exhibits, I wondered if a table of dirt and lumps of grey rock would whet the appetite of our young scientists. I was surrounded by zapping lights, robots, skulls and a TV screen that could bend light. We weren’t exactly a tech savvy stall.
As it turns out, Geology (and some good arm waving) captivates people. From the doors opening on the first day, until after closing, we had people guessing the anatomy of volcanoes, unearthing extinct creatures and measuring their seismic waves. The lemonade came in handy for demonstrating how and why volcanoes erupt. Adding salt crystals to a bottle of lemonade allows bubbles in the lemonade to nucleate, producing an “eruption” of foam (a bit like lava and pyroclasts).
It was hard work, we had over 6,500 visitors over the three day event. At times I felt I should have recorded my voice on loop and hid under the table. Other moments I just wanted a cup of tea and some peace and quiet. But it is so rewarding. Having an audience that is enthralled and inspired, inspires you. It reminds you of the driving fascination that forces you into the library at 3a.m. to read on minerals with names like superheroes. It reminds you of being seven years old with a niggling urge to solve puzzles behind the sofa on Christmas day. It reminds you of how it all fits together.
Pete is a member of Trevelyan College and in his second year of a PhD in Earth Sciences.
For more geology related outreach activities follow Pete via @venturetectonic on Twitter.