Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The USA Science & Engineering Festival DC (2012)

I did not originally have plans to write up on my visit to the USA Science & Engineering Festival, but there was so much cool stuff that I was feeling particularly inspired.  Maybe it will help me get back into blog-writing after some of the heavy load from work and home in recent weeks.

The event was held in the Washington DC convention Center in downtown DC.  This was the first time I'd ever been to an event at this venue - apparently the last time I was in this area of DC, it was still under construction with nothing but a giant hole in the ground.
A view of the showroom floor.
The exhibit floor was huge.  One of the vendors even had a small jet aircraft on the showroom floor.  Markings on the plane indicated it was from the Air Force Thunderbirds squadron (wikipedia).

When we first arrived (about 11AM), there was already a very long line for something which turned out to be a line to get signatures from one of the special guests, Bill Nye (wikipedia).

There were loads of displays covering robots and robotics, technology, physics, astronomy, chemistry, mathematics biology, medicine, even the social sciences.  Many of the displays encouraged visitor participation, with things like people running through (on?) a tub of a non-newtonian fluid (wikipedia) and angular momentum demonstrations with bike tires and rotating platforms.  Various space and automotive technologies were displayed, virtual reality simulators covering everything from flying helicopters to Daedelus-style personal flying.

Since my own Ph.D. was in nuclear astrophysics, I had to check out the very cool exercise sponsored by the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams at the University of Michigan, (link) where they were simulating nuclear reactions using nuclei built of colored magnetized ball-bearings.  They would assemble a 'nucleus' with these parts (I had carbon-12), then use gravity and a tube to guide your 'nucleus' to collide with another in a plastic tub.  They'd collect the fragments and identify what components came out.  This group is apparently responsible for the Rare Isotope Rap (YouTube). There was also an intriguing nuclei card game (link) nearby at the booth of the Joint Institute for Nuclear Astrophysics.

There was also a vendor that builds those fantastic wind turbine systems.  I asked one of the spokespersons for the company an engineering question - these turbine systems are so large and act like gyroscopes, I wondered if they dealt with the torque created on the system due to the Earth's rotation.  The spokesperson was kind of surprised by the question, speculated that the effect might be small, but I'm not so sure.  It is possible that the forces created by small changes in wind direction might totally overpower the effect, but over time the load might show up as uneven wearing on some of the components.  They say they will certainly ask some engineers when they returned to their offices.

In addition, a number of other science 'celebrities' were in attendance.  The Mythbusters (link) presentation attracted such a crowd that it created quite a bottleneck in the middle of the showroom. 
Jamie Hyneman is barely visible on the big screen
We skipped that one since we'd seen Adam & Jamie the previous month when they were on tour (link).  Mayim Bialik (of "Big Bang Theory", wikipedia) gave a very well attended talk about her life from acting to science and back to acting.
Mayim Bialik speaks to her fans
The NASA section was significant, but far from the largest section of the showroom floor.  Many current and planned missions had booths there.  I got to meet Camilla, the SDO mascot (blogspot), only weeks after her recent trip into space (NASA).

I also got to meet Pamela Gay of AstronomyCast, 365 Days of Astronomy, and StarStryder, promoting a new citizen science project, CosmoQuest.  We had met at DragonCon in 2009 but we've only casually crossed paths at an AAS meeting since then.

I ran into a number of others whom I knew from other professional meetings.  I even got to 'fly' a portable planetarium show.

By 5PM, we were approaching exhaustion, so we enjoyed a dinner at  local seafood restaurant and headed home. 

A wonderful event and I hope they can continue doing it.  It would be even better if they could expand these events around the nation.  They didn't have stuff like this available when I was growing up in a small farm town.

Credits: All of the photos here were taken by myself or my wife.

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