Spring DC Jaunt: Third Time's the Charm

This past week I flew out to the nation's capital for a three day trip to complete a long overdue public talk at the Sidwell Friends School and speak with visitors of the National Air and Space Museum.

For the past three years I have been invited to speak to the well-known upper school --- it is the private high school attended by the children of President of the United States and the school of one Mr. Bill Nye the Science Guy. The first invitation was scratched by a hurricane skirting up the East Coast (I salvaged some of the trip and spoke to a smaller group of middle school students a few days later). The second time, which was last year, a late snow storm lead to a snow day and a long snow-filled walk through DC. I met up with my host, a current Physics teacher at Sidwell, who is also an old graduate school buddy, and we talk about the logistics. (One does not simply walk into a school teeming with Secret Service agents.) We joked about events that might lead to yet another cancellation. Fortunately no such events unfolded and my visit went on as planned.

Sidwell Auditorium

My talk was in a light-filled space surrounded by pews and my slides projected on all four walls. I spoke about the Fisk-Vanderbilt Bridge Program, the fate of the sun, and my research. With all the hubbub surrounding the 25th anniversary of Hubble Space Telescope I decided to weight my talk with the breakthroughs made by Hubble with a teaser at the end that showed the breakthroughs made by the younger Chandra X-ray Observatory (celebrating its 15th anniversary). Of course, Hubble images of planetary nebula are spectacular and make it easy to engage the public! But from the scientific standpoint, Hubble really opened our eyes to the rich complexity of shapes and structures present in planetary nebulae.

Why so many shapes?

By all accounts my presentation was engaging and well-received. The questions I received at the end were great and on topic. Afterwards, my friend remarked that so much of the material was unknown to her and that she really liked how I included many "asides" that were somewhat related to my topic but interesting on their own. As an example she mentioned a brief digression I made on why stars twinkle while I was discussing the origin of the misnomer "planetary nebula". This is a funny observation because these asides are all impromptu, if you asked me before if I was going to explain why stars twinkle, I would say not at all. But I seldom rehearse my presentations. Don't get me wrong, I have an overall game plan for my talks and I have a clear message, but I deliver a very extemporaneous presentation. My slides, on the other hand, are heavily produced and I spend hours creating graphics with few secondary sources. I think this is why my talks are mostly successful despite the lack of rehearsal.

After my presentation I visited the Phillips Collection which had a few mathematically-inspired art exhibits: Man Ray's Human Equations and Hiroshi Sugimoto's Conceptual Forms and Mathematical Models. The shows involved geometric shapes and surfaces. The Man Ray show was larger and paired the geometric models that inspired Man Ray with his artworks.

Afterwards I took a long walk to El Chucho, a nice little mexican place with fresh roasted, dressed, corn on the cob (elote!). The DC-Area Science Writers were meeting there but I was early so I took a seat at the bar for a celebratory meal. Later I met writers from Scientific American, NASA, and World Wildlife Magazine. Initially I felt awkward, the scientist crashing their meeting, but I am grateful I got to learn about their lives, career trajectories, and life in DC.

The following day, my last on this short trip, I visited the National Air and Space Museum on the National Mall. I participate in an AstroChat at the museum, which is typically transmitted electronically from my office in Nashville to the museum exhibit floor or telescope. However, since I was in town, we decided to do the AstroChat in person! I spoke to a number of visitors over about an hour while a slideshow of beautiful planetary nebulae played behind me. Questions ranged from the possibility of traveling faster than light to the best schools for astronomy. Although I enjoy the electronic chats, engaging the public in person is much more fluid and easy. Also, as a perk of being present, I had a chance to chat with the museum staff and volunteers, including a good chat about careers over lunch in the museum staff cafeteria (great views!).

Overall, it was an eventful visit to DC that was a long time in the making!