Tuesday, September 23, 2014

First Friday: Ask a Scientist

Soon after moving to Tallahassee my wife (Debbie) and I were encouraged to check out First Friday, an eclectic, once-a-month gathering of local musicians, artists, food trucks, and performers. Located in a lumber yard-turned-art park known as Railroad Square, First Friday is a wonderful opportunity to see locals celebrating their hobbies and personal interests. Following this spirit, Debbie and I decided to contribute as well – and our Ask a Scientist (AaS) booth was born. We gather 4-5 scientists–predominantly FSU faculty—from across disciplines like chemistry, physics, engineering, psychology, medicine and biology and stand by a tent with a sign proclaiming Ask a Scientist. What follows is ~3 hours each month spent drinking beer and talking science with people passing by.


Below is a time-lapse of our August AaS event. The evening featured the following scientists: David Meckes (virology and biomedical sciences), Brian Miller (biochemistry), Tom Albrecht-Schmitt (nuclear chemistry), and myself (Ken Hanson, energy/material chemistry). We try to rotate a new batch of scientists every month.



There are four types of common interactions/questions:


1) Most people are genuinely excited to ask questions, many which are prompted by current events. Our virologist was asked about Ebola in August and our paleontologist was asked about the colossal dinosaur in September. Other examples of general questions include: How are memories formed? How accurate is the chemistry in Breaking Bad? And my personal favorite as a photophysical chemist: Why is the sky blue?


2) Some people interpret our “Ask a Scientist” prompt as, “Stump a Scientist.” At best these questions come from fellow scientists who good-naturedly know what is difficult to answer (like how do you cure x?). At worst, these questions come with sarcasm or a prepared (dare I say egotistical) lecture on what our answer missed.


3) The third type of question is political: How do you feel about fracking? Is global warming real? These questions usually lead to long conversations.


4) The final type of question seeks to understand who we are and why we created the booth: Who is coordinating this event?” Who is sponsoring this? When we share that we’re unsponsored and just having fun the response is usually something along the lines of, “This is very cool” or “Keep up the good work.”


So, if you happen to be in Tallahassee during the first Friday of any month, please stop by Railroad Square and our AaS booth. We’re always happy to say ‘hello’ and talk science. We also try to post ‘example questions’ each month to help prompt participation. So I welcome any accessible, general science questions you’ve heard as well.






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