Anyone who's ever been involved in science education and outreach knows firsthand how resistant one's intended target audience can be to any attempts to broaden their knowledge of science. This is especially true of physics, which has a (not entirely undeserved) reputation of being inaccessible and, well, non-user-friendly. There will always be a certain percentage of the population with an innate interest in science, and that percentage keeps science museums, public lectures, and science fairs/competitions in business. But how do you reach the rest of the people, the ones who must be dragged kicking and screaming into anything that smacks of science education?
If you're Brian Schwartz, a physics professor at CUNY Graduate Center in New York City, you don't wait for people to come to you. You take science right into the streets. Schwartz heads up a popular science-and-arts program at CUNY, sponsoring public lectures, demonstrations, musical and theatrical performance pieces, all dealing in some way with topics in science. His latest effort, held just this past weekend, was the Amazing, First Ever, Science Street Fair. CUNY rented several booths in two planned NYC street fairs -- long a beloved mainstay of summer life in the Big Apple -- and invited numerous education and outreach organizations and individuals to man each one, all part of an effort to bring science to the people. On Saturday, the booths could be found on Third Avenue, between 12th and 13th Streets. On Sunday, the event moved a bit further uptown, to Lexington Avenue between 37th and 38th Streets. Just to make sure the event was recorded for posterity, CUNY hired a roving videographer to wander through the street fair, capturing "performers" in the act, as well as the delighted reactions of the crowds.
The New York Hall of Science showed passersby how to make their own green slime, and gave several live demonstrations of a dissection of a cow's eyeball, announcing each gruesome step via microphone. ("And as we peel back the cornea, just like the skin of an onion....") There was a chemist demonstrating why popcorn pops -- offering free popcorn in the bargain -- and a host of science-themed magic tricks by magician Bob Friedhoffer. Representatives of the American Physical Society were on hand as well, doling out free copies of a nifty Color Me Physics coloring book for kids, along with free crayons. (There's a downloadable version of the coloring book here.) Some of the kids started coloring right then and there, which was probably just as well, since the crayons began to melt around mid-afternoon, thanks to the first summer heat wave of the season.
Yours truly was also on hand for this memorable event, not as an observer, but as an active participant. Somehow I cajoled a few members of my jujitsu dojo in Brooklyn to brave the sweltering heat and spend an entire two days with me, demonstrating martial arts moves as a means of elucidating "the physics of the fight." The over-arching theme of the Science Street Fair, announced on all the bright yellow banners, was "Science is fun!" We paraphrased that just a bit: "Science can kick your ass!" It seemed to play well with toughened New Yorkers. And technically, I'd argue it's true.
On hand to showcase their respective martial arts skills were 16-year-old Amanda, a green belt who started training when she was 6 years old; our newest black belt, Dave Campbell (he literally just passed his test two weeks ago); and me. Notice how tiny Amanda is: just a hair over five feet tall, weighing all of 100 pounds. Don't let that sweet face and small stature fool you. The girl can do some serious damage. Taking the picture was my very good friend -- and one of my first instructors -- Jordan Dos Santos, who took the lion's share of the breakfalls over those two days, and never once complained. (Jen-Luc Piquant spent much of that time hanging out in cool air-conditioned coffee shops, only emerging whenever a media opportunity presented itself. She claims excessive heat and humidity is simply ruinous to her pixelated, purple-hued hair.)
Jujitsu is, to put it mildly, a high-impact martial art; you don't want to take those falls on pavement. So we dragged a bunch of wrestling mats into lower Manhattan and then took turns running through various techniques, stopping occasionally to explain to the gathering crowds some of the physics principles behind what we were doing. It proved to be a memorable and eye-catching way to talk about concepts like center of mass, momentum, energy transfer, leverage, torque, fulcrums, and levers, among other things. And talk about practical applications: using the principles of physics, a smaller person can overcome a much larger attacker. Case in point: here's Amanda tossing Jordan onto the ground, even though he out-weighs her by 100 pounds:
See? I told you she was tough. (Dave emailed me the next day, admitting he'd gone home and popped handfuls of Advil because "Amanda hits really hard!") Thanks to Amanda's inspiring example, we managed to coax a few passersby -- kids, mostly, but a few adults were brave enough to venture forth as well -- onto the mats, to try a few punches and kicks, and learn the fundamentals of a basic hip throw. It proved to be a highlight for at least one kid, who thrilled to the novelty of tossing Jordan over his back, and was heard to utter afterwards (at the APS/Color Me Physics booth), "I almost killed that guy over there!"
Well, no: Jordan is well nigh indestructible, it seems -- a good thing, since the kids just LOVED beating up on him, for some reason. We suspect his neck could be lined with adamantium, just like the X-Men's Wolverine. It's the only way to explain why he can just bounce right back to his feet after taking falls like the two pictured below.
One throw is called irimi nage, and is essentially a "clothesline" technique: it should be familiar to any Steven Seagal fans, since Seagal uses it to great effect in films like Down by Law. It's incredibly easy to execute -- note that I am already done with the throw and able to just stand there watching Jordan hit the ground -- but it's a brutal fall to take.
The second throw (tomoe nage) should be familiar to Star Trek fans, since it was a favorite of Captain Kirk's. It's a bit trickier to execute, but fortunately, Jordan's center of mass falls somewhere just under his chin. This means he flies quite prettily through the air, with minimal effort on my part, earning him the dojo moniker "Air Jordan" because of his extended "hang time." The throw looks really cool, and never fails to evoke gasps from onlookers, especially kids.
(Yes, to Jen-Luc's fashion-conscious horror, I am wearing a blue plaid flannel shirt, on a hot summer day. I needed something hardy, with lapels, that could get accidentally ripped without causing me great distress. The flannel shirt was less heavy than the traditional judo gi.)
Thanks in large part to the efforts of CUNY staff, the event got tons of local media coverage, including Channel 11 News and the New York Daily News. CBS News actually covered the street fair live (thereby forcing us all to set up our booths an hour earlier than originally planned, whether we were "morning people" or not). You can see the entire segment here. There's great footage of folks from New Jersey's Liberty Science Center having fun with liquid nitrogen, and of a scientist (David Maiullo of Rutgers University) lying on a bed of nails, even allowing the reporter to stand on top of him at one point. And the CBS camera crew captured the priceless moment when an Albert Einstein lookalike (Latif Rashidzada) perched himself atop a little go-cart powered forward by what looked like a fire extinguisher -- another of Maiullo's creations, designed to demonstrate the Newtonian principle of equal and opposite reactions, in a highly visual fashion.
Our little booth got some CBS air time, too, although the reporter seemed to think we were practicing tae kwon do instead of jujitsu. Still, it was gratifying to hear the shocked gasps of the anchors at the site of Dave slamming Jordan into the mats: "Yow, that must have hurt!" In truth, it doesn't hurt at the moment: breakfalls are designed to dissipate some of the impact energy, and we're trained not to land on, say, fragile joints. But there is a cumulative effect that takes its toll, and both Jordan and I were admittedly feeling the burn after two very long days of intense physical activity. From my perspective, it was well worth the pain and effort, just to see the smiles light up kids' faces as they successfully executed their very first hip throw, and realized physics could help them achieve something that they thought was impossible.
I'm not saying we changed the world in a mere two days, magically transforming every random passerby into an amateur armchair physicist, or every child into a budding young scientist. Let's face it, you're not going to get across much in-depth understanding of even simple Newtonian mechanics when you've got two minutes or less of peoples' attention. The very format of a street fair demo reduces everything to short, pithy sound bites, by necessity. But you can convey the simple message that science (biology and chemistry, as well as physics and astronomy) is part of our everyday lives, and perhaps ignite a desire to learn more.
Most importantly, you can counter the often negative stereotypes of science, and scientists, that prevail in the public consciousness. As one young boy (who had just thrown Jordan) enthusiastically declared as his parents led him away from our booth: "Science is cool!" Talk about a snappy sound bite....