Tuesday, 15 February 2011

A day at the science museum

A couple of weeks ago we took our little girls to the Science Museum. It was absolutely rejuvenating. My almost-two-year-old fell in love with the rockets. I explained to her how rockets launch things into space and then fall back to earth. She then ran around pointing at them, and kept telling me "rockets fall down"! She looked at the models with such intensity; she was truly amazed. Her excitement was contagious, and when we later saw the Apollo 10 landing capsule and a 1 million volt particle accelerator from the 1930s, I felt amazed too. I love that feeling. Lately we make lots of play-doh rockets, probably because I want to remind us both what awe feels like.

A friend of mine was recently accused of being a geek for wondering how much a person's head weighed. I don't think geek is the right word. The accused is one of the best scientists I know, probably because she spends her spare time wondering about things like the weight of her head. Scientists must be inherently curious people, as scientific discovery doesn't take a straight path and discoveries are often fortuitous. One of my favourite examples is restriction enzymes. Restriction enzymes are used in the lab to cut pieces of DNA and glue them back together in a different order. They are the cornerstone of the molecular biologist's toolkit. They weren't discovered by someone looking to cut DNA into pieces, but rather by a scientist studying the effects of radiation on bacteria. He received the Nobel Prize for this discovery. In his autobiography he writes, "When I started investigations on the mechanisms of host-controlled modification, I did not of course imagine that this sidetrack would keep my interest for many years. Otherwise I might not have felt justified to engage in this work because of its lack of direct relevance to radiation research." There's a message somewhere in there for those who fund scientists. Luckily for the rest of us his curiosity was piqued by this mechanism.

If you're ever looking for inspiration and don't have easy access to the Apollo 10 landing capsule, check out First Man in Space - Skydiving From The Edge Of The World on youtube. It's a video from Joseph Kettinger skydiving out of a helium balloon from 100,000 feet. As a reference, trans-Atlantic flight paths are around 35,000 feet. Performed in 1960, Kettinger's dive pushed our understanding and our expectations of human knowledge. There aren't many people with enough courage to get into a helium balloon in a space suit and wave goodbye, but I'm certainly glad those people exist. Since there's no atmosphere up there, he fell so fast he exceeded the speed of sound. Amazing.

Lately I've been lulled into routine and into the mundane. Maybe it's winter. Spring is on its way though, and I want to be amazed. Since I'm too much of a chicken to skydive from 100,000 feet, I'm going to go try to weigh my head.

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