Science Festival Launches with Laser Show and Carnival

Science Festival Launches with Laser Show and Carnival

By Karen Klinger

With a science-themed laser show accompanied by a thumping rock beat and scores of exhibitors eager to talk about subjects ranging from dinosaur footprints to robots, worm composting, designing and building race cars, Newton's laws of physics, fruit flies as "model organisms" and much more, the nine-day run of the 2010 Cambridge Science Festival got underway April 24 with a "carnival" at a new site adjacent to the main library on a picture-perfect day that drew throngs of visitors.

Mostly, it was a day for kids, as tomorrow's scientists, engineers and researchers were able to clamber into a sleek black racing vehicle designed and built by MIT students, pilot a computer-operated robot, don lab coats and glasses and peer into microscopes, gingerly touch a batch of red wiggler worms, press their hands on molds of dinosaur tracks from the Connecticut River Valley, experiment with circuit boards, look into a kaleidoscope and pose for pictures with MIT"s mascot (a rather overgrown beaver), among other activities.

In front of the library's glass-fronted new addition, MIT undergraduates Joy Lee and Andrew Carlson talked about the Formula SAE (for Society of Automotive Engineers) car they had on display. The budding mechanical engineers said it was actually one of several race cars members of the university's motor sports club had created over the years, with the most recent model--currently undergoing a final tuneup--slated to be shipped to California for a competition in June involving other student-built cars.

As kids lined up for their chance to climb into the driver's seat, Lee was asked to assess their chances of winning. "Well, we're a young team," she hedged, "but we're improving every year."

Not far away, Robinson Farrar was holding tether balls suspended from a frame that was essentially a large version of the "Newton's Cradle" desk toy (the one with colliding steel balls) that he and two other students at Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School built for a physics project. "This is about the transfer of potential energy to kinetic energy," he explained, inviting the kids gathered around to try their hands at making the balls collide. "Newton's laws are demonstrated quite thoroughly with this."

Farrar, a senior who likely is heading to McGill University in Montreal in the fall, said the students put the contraption together mostly with material they found by "spending time at Home Depot," then decided that using tether balls got the point across, although because "they are rubber, they compress, so they don't transfer energy," the same way the toy's steel balls do. But he added that they made the frame so that it could easily be disassembled and taken around to primary schools as a traveling display, so "around small kids, you want to use balls that are soft."

In a nearby booth, the big attraction for kids were molds of footprints--big and very old. Sarah Doyle of Ichnology Rocks was talking up the myriad opportunities that exist in central and western Massachusetts for people to see impressions left by dinosaurs that roamed what is now the Bay State some 200 million or so years ago. While people tend of focus on findings of dinosaur bones in the western United States, she said the first significant dinosaur-related discoveries in North America included the discovery of footprints in the flood plain of the Connecticut River in 1835.

Doyle said today, the Amherst College Museum of Natural History in Amherst has the country's largest collection of dinosaur footprints and people can learn about the ancient environment of sediment deposition where the dinosaurs tread by taking a "geologic walking tour" of Turners Falls (for information, go to She said another good place to go on a dinosaur "quest" is Barton Cove, located on Route 2 in Gill, which a brochure she handed out describes as a place with waterfalls and a number of fossilized tracks. An article about other places where dinosaur footprints can be found appeared last fall in the magazine "Special Places" of the Trustees of Reservations (

From the big to the very small, some children were captivated (others a bit repulsed), by the red wriggler worms MIT staffer Ryan Gray held in his hand, asking them to touch. At the MIT Food and Agriculture Collaborative's exhibit, Gray--wearing a t-shirt that said "I love worm poop"--explained how, in six months, the hard-working worms had transformed some shredded newspaper and food scraps he kept in plastic container in his kitchen into compost, ready to enrich soil for a planting bed to keep nature's growing cycle going.

For folks who might want to make their own compost, Gray explained that his wrigglers were "indoor worms" that can be found a fishing bait shops, rather than the more familiar, and much larger, outdoor garden worms. The point was that just as there is indoor and outdoor composting, there are also worms that are best suited for the different environments as they go about their jobs. Gray described the collaborative as an "advocacy group" that among its other activities, aims to prod the MIT administration into becoming more proactive about doing things such as productively recycling food waste.

Inside the cavernous Frisoli Field House, where the laser show had taken place, there were also a number of exhibits designed to get children inspired by the possibilities of scientific discovery, including a "Model Organism Zoo," where kids could look into microscopes and learn about what Leah Liu called the organisms that scientists rely on to serve as models yielding information about cellular biology that can be extrapolated for information, ultimately, about the human condition.

Liu, a Harvard graduate student, said model organisms can range from yeast to roundworms, fruit flies. and mice, but what they have in common is that they have a short lifecycle, allowing scientists to conduct faster experiments. In addition, they are relatively inexpensive to grow and they have DNA genomes that have been sequenced, or documented. She said her student organization, "Science in the News" (, aims to inform the public about hot topics such as genetically-modified food and stem cell research and sponsors an annual seminar series in the fall at the Harvard medical school.

For something just sheer fun, Watertown resident Mike Zollers of the local section of the Optical Society of America had little people waiting to peer into a kaleidoscope made out of a cardboard tube, beads and what he said was a converted cake pan that he rotated manually to show just how cool optics can be. He and a partner had a sign up describing just what a kaleidoscope is--a device using light, mirrors and rotated colored objects to create images--but really, words fail, in this case. You had to see it.

At an exhibit next to the kaleidoscope, Greg Ciccarelli, a member of the community outreach team of MIT's Lincoln Laboratory, was showing kids how to use a hand-held device to move a wheeled, computer-guided robot made partly with Legos forward, backwards and so on. Meanwhile, his teammate Wendy Birdsong instructed youngsters in how to negotiate a maze using an algorithm. Algorithm? Weren't they a little young? "Not when you tell them they just need to follow a list of instructions to solve the problem--that's what an algorithm is," she said.

The Cambridge Science Festival continues through May 2, with over 200 events at 30 locations. For more information, go to:


Nice write up and a great photo.

I just had an interesting email exchange with David Harris, Editor at the Cambridge Chronicle. I was curious about why there was no story on their site about this event. He said that his photographer was ejected from the library for attempting to cover the event. Interesting...

They got plenty from the outside and are working on a story, but you got the scoop.

Thanks for the kind words! It was a blast!