SPS Chapter Inspires Love Under the Stars

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Interactions - SPS Chapters in Action

SPS Chapter Inspires Love Under the Stars


SPS Members, University of Nebraska - Lincoln

University of Nebraska-Lincoln

A view through the dome at Behlen Observatory. Photo by Mike Machian, Shoot To Fill.

About 40 miles from the University of Nebraska - Lincoln (UNL) sits Behlen Observatory, housing a 30” Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope. While this telescope is most commonly used for research, the UNL Department of Physics and Astronomy hosts open-house nights that enable the public to find awe in the vastness and beauty of space. Attendees span from children, to high schoolers, to couples who are there for a romantic evening under the stars.

In February, we structured Behlen Night around the theme of love because it was close to Valentine’s Day. Events included a talk by our own UNL astronomer, Michael Sibbernsen, titled "Venus, the Planet of Love ... Or Is It?!"

Continuing with the theme, our SPS group did a variety of demonstrations related to the planet of love. This included a pressure demonstration in which visitors attempted to lift a plate off a table. However, no matter how hard they tried, a pressure difference made it impossible. This highlighted the immense atmospheric pressure on the surface of Venus. Our February open house was a fun way to combine science with the holiday.

 NASA.Venus is the namesake of the ancient Roman goddess of love and beauty. This ultraviolet image of the could-covered planet was taken by the Pioneer Venus Orbiter in 1979. Credit - NASA

Not only do attendees at our open houses enjoy looking at the starry sky, they also enjoy learning a little bit more about how the world around them works. Our SPS chapter always engages visitors with a variety of demonstrations on topics that range from angular momentum to spectroscopy to the Meissner effect. We hope to show people how important the sciences are. Generally, about 10–20 volunteers come out and help with these events, which are attended by up to a few hundred people.

One of our most popular demonstrations involves serving liquid-nitrogen-cooled marshmallows. Dipping the marshmallows in liquid nitrogen causes the long chains that make up the polymer structure of marshmallows to constrict, turning the usually pillowlike marshmallows into hard, chewy candies. This is an easy and quick demonstration, as we simply dip marshmallows in liquid nitrogen and give them to visitors on toothpicks. The kids especially love getting a treat while learning how cool science can be.

As a chapter, we genuinely enjoy inspiring kids to continue learning about science. In fact, some of our SPS members remember going to these open houses when they were little, and they are now on a path towards a degree in science!

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