Reaching out to the Stars

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Vicky Kaspi on the rooftop of the Rutherford Physics Building

By Shannon Palus
One afternoon in May, Ryan Lynch, wearing a name tag featuring a doodle of the planet Saturn, is standing at the front of a room full of Fourth Graders at the Akiva School in Westmount.

This is not a typical Lynch day: on any given workday, you’ll find him sifting through data in the Rutherford Physics Building at McGill University, looking for a type of star called a pulsar. Lynch is a postdoctoral researcher in Vicky Kaspi’s astrophysics research group.

Today, Lynch is at Akiva with other members of the McGill Astrophysics and Cosmology Outreach Committee—a group he co-founded with graduate student Sebastien Guillot in January—along with his wife, Clarissa, who has a background in chemistry and has come along to volunteer. They are putting on a Science Day at Akiva—their first ever.

“Who knows what black holes are?” he asks the room.

“Awesome!” says one student.

“Awesome. Who knows what a comet is? Comets are like dirty snowballs,” he says, launching into a short powerpoint presentation.

After, the room diffuses into a mini Andy Goldsworthy factory: students are given plastic bags filled halfway with garden soil, to which they add Windex, corn syrup, tap water, and finally, dry ice. The students fill the room with giggles and shrieks as the science experiments—organic molecules, not unlike the things you have in your kitchen cabinet, it turns out—slosh around on their desks.

In other rooms, students are making 3-D styrofoam models of the warrior constellation, Orion,exploring the effects of sunscreen on UV-sensitive beads, and drawing sketches of the solar system on ribbons of paper. First they guess the spacing between the planets (or, in scientist-speak, forming a hypothesis), then check.

Here, as grad students Robert Archibald and James Kennedy field questions about Pluto’s status as a planet, giggles are heard when someone mentions the name Uranus. Kaspi, one of the top astrophysicts in the world, is glimpsed for a few moments. She’s been darting between rooms all afternoon, and generally seems to be having a good time.

But it is not, despite Lynch, and the rest of her students’ cool enthusiasm, always easy: for one, a day doing outreach means sacrificing a day of working on research projects. Additionally, McGill lacks a specific dedicated science outreach fund, so the committee scraped together the money for the supplies from a sundry of other places – the Lorne Trottier Chair in Astrophysics, the Department of Physics, the Vice President of research, and Kaspi’s own funds. 

The outreach committee’s Web presence includes a Twitter account, and a podcast on iTunes where members of their team interview visiting researchers. They hold a public telescope night every third Thursday of the month, and even teamed up with Université de Montreal scientists for a transit of Venus viewing, which saw 700 people come out for the show.

They used to have a sound guy do the podcast work on a volunteer basis, but now they are paying him—it’s becoming a regular thing. Currently for public telescope nights, the main expense is juice and cookies—but the nights are getting bigger, and more popular. The group is looking to purchase additional telescopes, and is hoping to have the roof of the Rutherford Physics Building outfitted with railings, so they can bring people up there to watch the stars. The whole wish list clocks in at several thousand dollars.

“As scientists, we have a responsibility to to this kind of work,” says Kaspi.

As astrophysicists, perhaps duly so: as the groups mission statement reflects, astronomy is often viewed as a “gateway science.” Outer space is cool. Teaching students and the public about outer space serves the dual purpose of educating them about the world beyond Earth, and encouraging a general appreciation for science and facts that sticks long after the day (or night) is ove—even if participants never end up specifically spending their days in a physics lab.

I ask Kaspi for her own origin story. She explains that she grew up watching Star Trek—a glamorized version of astronomy—but things really took off when she arrived at McGill as an undergraduate and realized that you could study this stuff.

And then she half shrugs: “I’m just curious. My work literally keeps me up at night.” In a good way, it seems. And every astronomer I’ve ever talked to gives a version of this answer: a smile, a shrug, a glimpse that while brains and perseverance and long hours in the lab are of course crucial to research, that there is something more powerful and necessary driving all of that, something that is perhaps childlike.

Back in Lynch’s classroom-turned-comet-lab, kids are cracking open their dry-ice concoctions with a mallet. The insides are, like a real comet, somewhat hollow and porous—think of a geode, made of ice.

When it is time to clean up, there are repeated pleas to keep the comets. (One student, holds his ball of organic matter and ice above the trash can ceremoniously and says, “Goodbye comet, I am going to miss you.”) Kids scramble to write down the recipe. They eagerly take home UV beads and models of Orion, and pocket maps of the solar system.

By the end of the day, there is a thank you email in the inboxes of the outreach team from the school’s principle: “Today, because of you, our kids learned, questioned, wondered and dreamed.”

The first science day was a success, of course. Lynch tells me that they’re going to offer the program to schools in the fall. Its not too expensive, and especially since they have a routine down it wouldn’t be too hard to take a day off from research once a month.

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