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Ingredients for a black hole: 1. Hydrogen 2. Soda 3. Bottle by Anna H. '14

Irish pub-lic outreach

“I think that I could make a black hole,” Carl says. I raise an eyebrow. “Really? How?”

He rubs his hands together and squints. A lightbulb goes off, his hands come apart, and when he beams I notice that he’s missing one of his front teeth. The typical eight-year-old’s look. “I’d just need………..hydrogen.”


“Yeah, hydrogen. And soda. And a bottle to mix them in. And then…BOOOOOOOOOOOOM!” He whisks his hand around in a circle, to mimic an accretion disk.

*     *     *

I met Carl two weeks ago, at a McCormick observatory public night. McCormick’s 26-inch refracting telescope was the second largest telescope in the world, when it was built 128 years ago. After an illustrious career of astrometry, UVA now uses it primarily for teaching and public outreach. On the first and third Friday every month, the refractor slews to Saturn or the moon or a globular cluster or a double star system. If it’s clear outside, well over a hundred visitors flow into and out of the building. They cluster in the dome, waiting for their turn to climb up the wooden steps and stretch to meet the lens. I once saw a woman squint a Saturn, and without taking her eye from the lens, reach out her right hand as though to close her fingers around the planet.

Adjacent to the dome, there are three little exhibit rooms, with posters of Saturn and its moons, and glass cases of meteorites. At the end of the hall, there’s a room with a projector and around 60 chairs, where UVA graduate students take turns giving talks.

I give talks, too. Getting this gig took a little bit of madness. Knowing that I needed to get in touch with someone named “Ricky” (I didn’t have a last name or contact details), I wandered around the crowded observatory grounds yelling RICKY! until some guy raised his hand, then approached him and said I wanted to give talks and volunteer at the open nights. He looked a little bewildered, but said sure. A highlight of my 20 years on this planet was when the man at the grocery store salmon counter looked at me and said “Hey! You gave the talk, right? About the pul…, uh…, plusa…”

“Pulsars?” I offered.

“Yeah, pulsars!”

Close enough.

I gave my pulsar talk this summer as well, and two weeks later gave a talk on radio astronomy. There are some repeat visitors who have learned my name (yay!) as well as new friends. After my radio astro talk, I talked for about 45 minutes with an equestrian, who had brought her grandson to the open night for his eighth birthday. Carl has big blue eyes, blond hair, and loves physics and astronomy; he told me all about black holes, accretion disks around quasars (something about hearing an eight-year-old say “accretion disk” makes me very happy) and planetary formation. He picked up a board marker and drew diagrams to describe string theory. His grandma told me that she thinks Carl will become a professor one day, because he loves to teach.

What do you do with an eight-year-old who gobbles up information faster than you can provide it? I tried to brainstorm some resources; I made them a list of authors, TV shows, documentaries, and facilities to visit. Apparently, Carl really really wants to learn Algebra, but they’ve been struggling to find an “Algebra for Kids!” book. I said that I would be happy to teach him the basics, sometime, and gave his grandma my e-mail address. Eventually, the observatory closed and it was time to leave.

The next week (last week) I was in New Mexico (more on that in another post.)  But I’m back now, so today Carl and his grandma picked me up at 11am. We drove to an Irish Pub, where I used onion rings (does anyone actually know what an Irish Pub is?) to teach Carl about fractions and percentages (he wanted to learn about percentages because he really likes the % sign.) We played equation hangman, regular hangman (I really stumped him with “telescope.” Also, it totally blew his mind when he wrote down _ _ _ _ _    _ _ _ _ and I immediately guessed “black hole.” Carl: “HOW DID YOU KNOW THAT????” He thinks I’m a wizard.)

We talked about the brain, about learning and elasticity, about the two hemispheres controlling the opposite sides of your body. I was suddenly glad and proud that I’ve taken classes and read about lots of different areas of math and science, and not just astronomy.

After we marveled that all of the elements in our body originated in the Big Bang / stellar cores / supernovae, I taught Carl to play pool (a challenge, since the pool cue was probably taller than he was.) Carl told his grandma that I’m good at pool because “she knows physics!”

Heck, yeah. Physics! REPRESENT!

On that note, we sank the last ball and walked back to the car. When we pulled up to my house, Carl’s grandma thanked me profusely, while I turned around and thanked Carl for his company.

I’m not sure how to think about my day. It was refreshing and rewarding and all the things you would expect ‘hanging out with an enthusiastic brilliant adorable little kid’ to be. But it also made me feel sad, because I can’t hang out with every little kid who’s into science; most don’t get the chance to spend time with scientists.

It also made me think differently about what it means to do public outreach. The purpose of public outreach is not to just emerge from our labs every couple of months to give a talk, teach some science, spread some knowledge, then retreat again. The goal is sustained engagement with a community. Also, outreach isn’t necessarily something you do wearing a nametag. Whether we like it or not, we are representing the scientific community all the time. I realized during lunch that Carl thought of me as A Scientist, even though I was sitting in front of a chicken sandwich and a pile of onion rings, instead of standing in front of a podium with PowerPoint slides lighting up my face. What a privilege to be able to teach and inspire people, inside and outside the lab and the office and the obsevatory, in jeans and a t-shirt as well as more presentable attire! And what a privilege to share excitement with people like Carl. One day, I hope that some lucky kid and his grandma take Professor Carl out to lunch.