Saturday, October 23, 2010

National Science and Engineering Festival

Today I spent two hours wandering among white tents on the National Mall, visiting just a few of the 1500 exhibits there for the National Science and Engineering Festival. It was one of those days when being on the Mall lifts the heart. Wide avenues, full stately trees, the grass rich and well-kept, one small band of soldiers marching with their banner rippling, white monuments on all sides - and I think how optimistic and insightful were the men who laid this all out for the ages.

There was one booth I meant to look for, and I wandered into the first tent hoping to find some sort of directory. Instead I looked up and saw in front of me # 117, the Rockville Science Center, the very booth I was looking for. I asked for Charles Gale, and there he was - science teacher extraordinaire, son of my father's dear mentor and physics professor, Grant Gale. We chatted for fifteen minutes about sensors and science while I tried unsuccessfully to build a cantilever bridge with blocks that reached farther and farther over a gap.

Then I wandered past the FIRST Robotics competition, where two large robot cars were preparing to shoot volleyballs at a target. In a series of tents belonging to the Energy Department and the National Labs, I fingered a roll of solar battery-printed roofing material; used rare earth magnets to shoot a steel ball off a ruler; watched a toy car use solar energy to split water into oxygen and hydrogen, supplying its own hydrogen fuel; and raced model maglev trains down a track. I wished Damian were with me. Kids and parents of all sizes and colors were exclaiming, conjecturing, and trying the activities.

In one demonstration, a string hung between two poles had two weights hanging from one. Setting one end weight swinging led to the other weight swinging and the first weight damping down, until the cycle oscillated the other way. This, I was told, represented how two forms of neutrino are linked, and one turns into the other. Hmm. I have to go read about that one.

I fished for termites like a chimpanzee and tried my primate fingers at sending a candy through a maze until I could grab it in my greedy hands as other primates in captivity do. I dodged an actor demonstrating something with an alien head made out of styrofoam. I fingered shark teeth and didn't get a fluorescent tattoo, matched hominid bones and catapulted a ping-pong ball toward a toy castle. I was still only a short way down the Mall when I had to turn back to get ready for a Lexicon reading. All day, I told everyone I met to take their children down to the Mall to participate in the fair.

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