Because of the timekeeping implications of what we do in the lab and especially so because of the gee-whiz nature of table-top-ish atomic physics, I’m sometimes called upon to give (or assist with) lab tours to various visitors. Sometimes it’s scientists whom we’ve invited, and those are usually the best because you get to discuss interesting (to us) topics, and the value of the information exchange can be fairly high, exceeded only by workshops and conferences. But often enough it’s someone whose importance is on the bureaucratic side of the coin (i.e funding), or worse, whose importance is not at all apparent, though the powers that be have assured us that it’s necessary. Those can be more of a chore, especially with someone without a technical background and who is only doing it because (like me) they were told it was important. Then it’s an issue of how quickly one wants their eyes to glaze over. We can really shovel the geek.
So anyway, I helped give a lab tour on Wednesday. And let me tell you, it was NOT one of those that falls into the “chore” category.
We had astronauts.
The return crew* of the the recent shuttle mission, STS-124 (Discovery) stopped by the base to meet with the VP, and somebody arranged for them to give us some time. (I don’t know if this involved someday being called upon to do the Don a service. I don’t care. It was worth it). They did two presentations — one for the Observatory staff, which is largely populated by technically-minded folk, and then another for family members There was a ~ 20 minute video which they narrated, summarizing the mission and highlighting the installation of Kibo, the Japanese lab module, and then they took questions. As you might imagine, the questions the scientists and engineers were slanted towards technical things, but the kids asked some really great questions as well. And the astronauts were just awesome, especially with how they connected with the younger crowd. I got the impression that the sense of wonder they displayed was very much real. So when a kid asked, “What’s the neatest thing about being in space?” and one answer is “Being weightless,” followed by some descriptions of how that condition changes what you can do, you can tell it’s a sincere answer. Even though I’m sure they get similar questions from all the other groups to whom they speak, and some things are rehearsed or repeated, they aren’t playing roles.
And I can identify with that. When I complained about tours at the beginning it’s much more the lack of interest that makes it a chore, not the level of the science discussion. If I actually have an audience for a tour (rather than some passive observer fulfilling an obligation) I get excited, and have to remember to slow down and enunciate. I think I convey the same kind of “this is neat stuff” emotion to tour recipients who also think it’s cool. The point where my PR experiences diverge from the astronauts’ is that I’ve never been asked to pose for photos or sign autographs.
After the presentations, there was a short opportunity for those photos and autographs. I abstained; it was pretty clear this was intended more for the kids, but also because I was on deck for the lab tour, and that meant getting a much closer interaction with them (and the family members they had along for the later festivities). And that was way cool. I spoke with mission commander Mark Kelly on the way over to the lab, and gave my presentation while answering a few questions, and making sure I pointed out our atoms pull 400 g’s when we launch them (and refraining from calling people who pull a measly 3 or 4 g’s on launch pussies). I handed things over to my lab-mates to finish up, and added a few comments and a timekeeping joke (and they were polite enough to laugh at it). As they were filing out Garrett Reisman (the one who spent 95 days on the space station) asked me another question, so I talked with him for a few minutes as we walked toward the next stop on the tour. He kept asking questions and — especially when I’ve gotten up a head of steam during a tour — I don’t shut up until the questions stop.
Here’s some of the gang in the lab, while a colleague explains some details about trapping and launching atoms. From the left that’s Mark Kelly, Mike Fossum, Akihiko Hoshide, Karen Nyberg and half of (I think) Ken Ham.
To say I had a pretty good day is an understatement. I’ve given tours to Admirals, one or two fairly high-level advisors connected with the White House and a couple of Nobel Prize winners. In many ways this was the best.
*Greg Chamitoff stayed behind on the ISS, taking Garrett Reisman’s place, so Reisman returned with the crew.