Outreach at the 2015 Cambridge Science Festival

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Members of the Summons Lab represented Foundations of Complex Life in force again at this year’s Cambridge Science Festival. We brought our research to the general public at two of the countless events during the festival, the “Science Carnival and Robot Zoo” held during the first Saturday of the festival, and “Soaring into Sky and Space” at the MIT Museum during the second Saturday. Turnout for both events was excellent—with a constant stream of curious minds, young and old, piling up several faces deep at our booths for the duration of each event.

Coffee filters were among the most popular parts of our booth at the MIT Museum. Why coffee filters, you ask? Well, our booth featured many of the physical objects of our research, from the rocks we collect in the field and the hammers we use to collect them, to the glassware and pieces of analytical instruments we use to extract and identify organic chemicals within those rocks. An important part of the process from rocks to chemicals is chromatography, the separation of chemical compounds. To illustrate this process, we gave visitors to our booth the chance to do a quick, hands-on chromatography experiment themselves, separating the pigments in an ink marker using a coffee filter and few drops of water. The demonstration was a hit, and it was a pleasure to see so many delighted “aha” expressions on the faces of both children and their parents over the course of the day.

At the “Science Carnival and Robot Zoo”, we debuted a multiplayer version of our successful iPad game “Earth in Sixty Seconds”. The game compresses four and a half billion years of Earth history into a single minute, letting players become high-speed time travelers and race through the geologic ages at breakneck speed. Using iPod touch controllers, player guessed the timing of key events in the history of our planet, and the life that evolved on it. When did life originate? When did dinosaurs go extinct, and humans evolve? Although many visitors to our booth had an inkling that human history occupied a short time at the end of our countdown (much, much less that one second!), many were surprised at how recently animals (just the last seven seconds) and even oxygen in the atmosphere (only the second half of the minute) appeared in our planet’s history.