Watching water dance and seeing music as lights at family science expo

The American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting offered science activities for young and old

water spout

Scientists at Howard University show off a water spout, which uses resonance to vibrate water in a dish and make it dance. 

B. Brookshire/SSP

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Scientific meetings can be stuffy affairs. Scientists present their work on posters with incomprehensible titles and give lots of talks with black and white slides full of data. But at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, each year, the public gets to see another side of science. Called family science days, it offers dozens of speakers and performers a chance to fascinate the public with science. 

GOOD VIBRATIONS Scientists from Drexel University show off the tin bowl water spout. B. Brookshire/SSP

Kenneth Hersey, a student from Howard University in Washington, D.C, demonstrated some good vibrations this year. Hersey was a volunteer at NOAA’s National Center for Atmospheric Sciences. He had a large metal bowl with a brass handle on each side. The bowl was filled with water. As Hersey rubbed his hands against the bowl’s handles, they vibrated. Those vibrations then spread, resonating throughout the entire bowl, and making the water inside ripple and dance. If he rubbed hard enough, he could actually make the water dance right out of the bowl! People could watch or — with a little practice — make the water dance for themselves.

SEEING SOUND Physicist Nate Harshman from American Unversity demonstrates a machine that turns sound into beautiful waving patterns of light. B. Brookshire/SSP

Have you ever wondered what sound looks like? Nate Harshman is a physicist from American University in Washington, D.C. He demonstrated “Laserjus”, a machine that turns the sound of someone’s voice into a light pattern on the ceiling. The machine works by comparing the frequency of a sound — its wavelengths, or cycles, per second — to a fixed frequency of 120 hertz (meaning 120 cycles per second). The fixed frequency is a straight line. Sounds that differ from that frequency created pretty waving patterns. 

ON THE HALF-SHELL Biologist Brian Featherstone wears a fake leatherback turtle shell to teach the public about these threatened animals. B. Brookshire/SSP

I couldn’t help stopping to gawk at three scientists wandering around wearing giant turtle shells. Brian Featherstone was dressed as a leatherback. He is a graduate student at Drexel University in Philadelphia, Pa., where he works with the school’s Central Africa Programs studying monkeys in Equatorial Guinea. But in Washington, he wore a turtle shell to show visitors just how big these animals can get — up to 1.8 meters (6 feet) long. By wearing the life-size paper shells, these scientists hoped to inspire people to conserve and protect the majestic sea turtles.

These were only a few of the many educational and entertaining groups at the family science days. And when the AAAS meeting comes to your part of the United States (next year’s stop: Boston, Mass.), bring your friends and family by for an afternoon of science fun.  

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Power Words

(for more about Power Words, click here)

frequency The number of times a specified periodic phenomenon occurs within a specified time interval. (In physics) The number of wavelengths that occurs over a particular interval of time.

hertz  The frequency with which something (such as a wavelength) occurs, measured in the number of times the cycle repeats during each second of time.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA     A science agency of the U.S. Department of Commerce. Initially established in 1807 under another name (The Survey of the Coast), this agency focuses on understanding and preserving ocean resources, including fisheries, protecting marine mammals (from seals to whales), studying the seafloor and probing the upper atmosphere.

physicist  A scientist who studies the nature and properties of matter and energy.

resonant frequency  The natural rate at which something vibrates or makes waves.

resonate   To reverberate, like a ringing bell, producing a clear tone or frequency of radiating energy.

vibrate To rhythmically shake or to move continuously and rapidly back and forth.

Bethany Brookshire was a longtime staff writer at Science News Explores and is the author of the book Pests: How Humans Create Animal Villains. She has a Ph.D. in physiology and pharmacology and likes to write about neuroscience, biology, climate and more. She thinks Porgs are an invasive species.