My research group recently exhibited in the Space Dome at the Cheltenham Science Festival. This is one of the UK’s larger science festivals and the Space Dome alone saw over 10,000 visitors. Those that came were an eclectic mix of organised school’s visits, families and the interested general public. We had a great time, we talked to lots of people, but what did we really achieve?
Our exhibit was about the uses of ultrasonic technology in space and we had two hands-on demos. In one, the visitors had to use ultrasonic array imaging to find hidden defects in an aircraft wing mock-up. The idea was to get people thinking about how ensure safety in space missions (and it’s the same for other things such as aircraft and nuclear power stations). My group work on developing better ultrasonic imaging so this relates directly to what we do. In the other demo we showed acoustic levitation. This is used in space missions to hold objects gently in place in various space-science experiments. Visitors could try putting small objects into the sound field with tweezers to see if they could get them to levitate. I have to admit this is quite a fun game and somewhat addictive. My group does use similar techniques, so this was also relevant to our work.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the wow factor of seeing things levitate proved to be the big draw of our exhibit. Few of the visitors had ever seen or heard of an acoustic levitator. This demo seemed particularly appealing to children, although the majority saw it as just an amusing game. But there was often some genuine excitement when they heard it was used in space – courtesy of the Tim Peake effect. Only a handful were at all interested in thinking about the physical principles involved. Similarly, the most common questions from the adults were about what it could be used for? This is a great question as it leads into us discussing our own research, which is one of the things we think we should be doing at these events.
Having got some visitors interested in levitation, it was then relatively easy to guide them gently towards the find a defect demo. And, whilst this was not an immediate wow, it did seem to have hidden depths and both the children and the adults appeared to find it interesting. There were definite moments of realisation in some when they thought about how anybody really knows if anything is safe? We tend to take it for granted that planes are safe and not many had really thought about the processes behind this. Such moments were very satisfying. So it seemed like the two demos worked well together, the levitator drew in the visitors and the ultrasonic imaging gave us something else to talk about.
The undisputable result of our efforts was that the visitors that came to our exhibit know a little more about what ultrasound is used for. How about the idea that we inspire some to take up STEM subjects, physics and engineering in particular? From my perspective it’s impossible to say, my best interpretation is that science festivals are one of many influences and are probably not the critical ones. The other certainty is that my group and I got significant personal satisfaction from talking to the public about the subject we love. This is often fun and sometimes quite enlightening for us. As research engineers and scientists we should be able to explain what we do in terms that are understandable. If we can’t, I question the worth of what we do. This also means that we are ‘out there’ making us a bit more accountable to the public that fund research through their taxes.
Science festivals are a growth industry. No major city can be without one and more people are attending them. They are undeniably fun to attend. The above discussion outlines some of the possible benefits. But I have to admit to having significant sympathy for one of the most nebulous benefits – I see science festivals as part of an effort to embed science (and technology) in society. It would be great to think that it could be as common to read a book on science as it is to read fiction or a biography. My fear is that as technology progresses, people are losing a sense of how things work. But there is change afoot, science festivals and related things like hacking clubs are helping us recapture the sense that things are, at heart, still understandable. Only when we understand can we claim to be in control of technology, not the other way around.