With the second round of 2016’s public engagements grants coming to a close, I had the opportunity to visit two projects we funded through the scheme earlier in the year in the Midlands region.
It’s often difficult to imagine what the finished outcome of a proposal will be. Certainly these two could not be more different in terms of complexity, target audience and execution. However, it brought home to me once again the power of physics to inspire and challenge anyone from any walk of life. The passion I feel for getting that message out there is one that I think is shared by all of the IOP’s members, staff and supporters. Hopefully, through public engagement, we will convince society as a whole.
Wolverhampton – It IS Rocket Science
The city’s BME Housing Consortium successfully applied for a grant to take rocket science to various hard-to-reach groups and parts of society that have little interaction with physics.
They ranged from a mental health support group, through men and women with significant learning disabilities, to newly arrived refugees and asylum-seekers.
Public engagement is about the IOP reaching out to all, not just those we hope to recruit as future physicists or influential supporters. It was planned for this project to share the power physics has to inspire people, no matter their personal circumstances or challenges.
Each group was visited by the project’s organiser, Arun Bector, and received a presentation on space themes including recent events, such as Tim Peake on the ISS, the high-quality images of Pluto, Philae and the comet, extrasolar planets and the recent discovery of gravitational waves. Then they were told more about rockets and how they work. After this, the groups were invited to produce exhibits for a rocket fair. It was this fair that I had the privilege to attend and see the finished results.
- A three-panel display board representing a three-stage Saturn V launch, with associated pictures and formulas for each stage of separation and final orbit
- Four different knitted rockets – one of the Space Shuttle with stud fasteners to demonstrate detachable fuel tanks
- Eight model rockets made from household items – kitchen roll tubes, water bottles, coke bottles etc
- Biscuits made in the shape of planets and stars
- Five plasticine rocket models with planets and stars
- A 4ft model representing a Saturn V Rocket with flashing lights made from household items, with a handwritten A4 page with the background to the Saturn V – cost, height, weight, purpose, etc
- A 1000-piece jigsaw of the internal schematics of the Saturn V
- A knitted and sewn blanket depicting the Space Shuttle, Rocket and planets in the Solar System in the correct order and colour – and without Pluto
- A symmetrical rocket collage – one large rocket and stars made up of about 250 smaller rockets
- A 3ft model of a rocket and a display board with rocket explanations
The results of this project showed that everyone can be brought to some level of understanding and people who have little or no contact with the physics environment can still bring something away from the subject. Two comments stayed with me after the day.
One was from a man who said: “I didn’t think science was for someone like me.” I loved the use of the past tense.
The other was being told that, in the refugee group, some had to be convinced that rockets were not an inherently evil invention. It served as a sobering reminder that, in outreach, we should always try to appreciate that our audience’s experiences and worldview can be significantly different to our own.
Grantham – Gravity Fields Festival – Project Sky Cube
This year is the 350th anniversary of Newton’s Year of Wonders, when the plague drove him out of Cambridge and back to his home at Woolsthorpe Manor.
Here he made his most significant advances in maths, light and gravitational forces. Yes, this is the place with the apple tree in the garden. The Gravity Fields Festival celebrates these achievements at the Manor and various venues in and around Grantham in ways from traditional lectures to interactive experiences and art exhibits. The IOP East Midlands Branch supported it with two lectures and a day of physics busking. In addition, Joanna White received an IOP Public Engagement Grant for a creative sound and visual installation called Project Sky Cube. This installation was then supported by lectures from the University of Lincoln.
It took as its starting point Newton’s ideas of the ether, an invisible medium and inertial frame of reference permeates the universe (which was later not found in the Michelson–Morley experiment that thousands of undergraduate physicists get to replicate every year in their lab work – ah yes, I remember it well). Joanna used her microlight aircraft to record electromagnetic signals from ground level upwards, filling a one kilometre cube of air above Newton’s Woolsthorpe Manor.
She then converted the signals into sound so that the cube became a layered audio soundscape. Playing these sounds from a series of phones hanging from the ceiling, the visitor could then move around and experience what the digital ether sounds like today above Newton’s home.
Vertically, the sounds were divided into four layers and the current noise layer was depicted on a large screen at the front showing the real scale volume of space being depicted.
Experiencing it first hand, there were some interesting points. Unsurprisingly, the ground layer had vastly more noise than the upper layers but it was interesting that there was a quiet shadow in one corner. I assumed that most ground-level noise was coming from mobile phone masts, so could this be due to line-of-sight obstructions or just distance from the tower?
The other surprise was in the exhibit itself. The screen at the front frequently flickered as if with interference. It took me a while to figure out that this became more pronounced as I took out my phone to start tweeting about the exhibit. Yes, alright, when I read the exhibition information it explained but hopefully I get some points for realising. Joanna had set up a receiver so that any electromagnetic signals in the room would disrupt the installation.
So, when listening to the sounds, I had the experience of trying to understand what was causing the patter I was hearing, as well as trying to imagine the difference between the modern world I was hearing and what Newton would have heard, had he the equipment. I then enjoyed the way the installation gently chided me – the very act of digitally telling the world about what I was seeing was adding to the cacophony.
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