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A New Bar for Science
Julie Krugler Hollek, Fellow, Hackbright Academy, San Francisco, CA, and Sigma Pi Sigma Member, MIchigan State University, Class of 2008
Nerd Nite is a monthly event that takes place in cities across the United States. Experts, hobbyists, and enthusiasts gather to give short, informal talks covering a wide array of topics. These events take place at casual venues such as bars and coffee shops, and presenters are usually Nerd Nite patrons who have attended a few times and volunteered to share their knowledge.
When I heard that Nerd Nite Austin was putting together its first astronomy Nite, appropriately entitled “Space Jam,” I jumped at the opportunity to give a talk. At the time I was an astronomer at the University of Texas, Austin, where I studied the chemical composition of the oldest stars in the galaxy. With a friend of mine who worked in a related field, I gave a joint talk telling the story of the early universe, from the big bang to the stars that are observable today.
“If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe,” astronomer and science popularizer Carl Sagan famously wrote. Borrowing from Carl (and the general agreeability of baked goods), we framed the talk in terms of a pie. The metaphor helped to tie my esoteric field of study to something that was understandable and relevant to the audience.
One of the most appealing aspects of participating in Nerd Nite was being able to discuss topics that, though important to my research, never make appearances in my professional talks. As I laid out the ingredients required for pie baking, I needed to talk about supernovae, which are responsible for the creation and distribution of many of the elements that make up the periodic table. I showed the crowd a supernova demonstration that I find particularly enlightening; I placed a tennis ball on top of a basketball and dropped the pair. The energy transfer that happened between the two balls upon impact with the floor was obvious, causing the tennis ball to shoot upward! This is a good illustration of the mechanics of a supernova, in which the expansion of an inner layer (the basketball) transfers momentum to an outer layer (the tennis ball), causing material to shoot outward into space. It also never fails to entertain a crowd!
Demos like these don’t often find their way into colloquia or plenary talks at conferences, but they are engaging ways to present information.
At Nerd Nite I shared knowledge with a general audience that was actually interested in science. Giving a public talk was a mutually beneficial experience; it helped me to better understand my subject matter. I had to simplify the explanations I gave of my studies by omitting the jargon and hand-waving. In fact, the slides I developed for my Nerd Nite talk were so thoughtfully put together that I was able to use a few of them in my doctoral defense.