Merging Informal Science Education with Live Theatre

"Ask a Physicist" Panel at QED in Springfield, Illinois
Professors John Martin, Joanne Budzien, and Brian Carrigan

Dynamic Patterns Theatre recently launched their first production in the new Science at the Theatre SeriesQED: A Play. This funny, touching, and educational show featuring a day in the of life Nobel Laureate Prof. Richard Feynman is written by Peter Parnell and stars central Illinois actor Al Scheider.

With their combined background of art, literature, and physics, Matthew and Michelle Dearing have wanted to develop a unique and interesting theatrical experience that merges quality live entertainment with an element of informal education that is primed for a broad public audience. Interestingly, there is a significant library of great theatre that revolves around scientific themes and ideas, and dynamic patterns theatre explores this genre in its new “Science at the Theatre” Series.

“I believe it is critical for a broader public in our culture to have an increased general appreciation for science. By using creative venues for informal education opportunities, which is currently a major goal of the National Science Foundation, we can reach out to audiences searching for quality and memorable theatrical entertainment, while exposing them to inspiring and exciting ideas from science,” said Matthew T. Dearing, co-producer of dynamic patterns theatre and director of QED: A Play.

Al Scheider stars as Richard Feynman
Al Scheider stars as Richard Feynman

In the show QED, which stands for quantum electrodynamics, the physics model that describes how light and matter interact for which Feynman was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1965, the script weaves Feynman’s professional biography, including the Manhattan Project and the Challenger inquiry, and provides a window into many of his personal emotions and challenges. All the while, the story integrates several great discussions of physics ideas presented for a general audience.

Through a collaboration with local physicists and teachers from regional academic institutions, dynamic patterns theatre developed a new educational and entertainment outreach program. Patrons experienced an informal forum highlighting aspects of Feynman’s life, career and featured science topics discussed during the play. The forum was directed toward a general audience and the panel facilitated informal science interactions with the goal of increasing patrons’ appreciation for science and how the Universe works, if only just a bit.

University of Illinois at Springfield

Illinois College

Glenwood High SchoolThe panelists included Dr. John Martin, Associate Professor of Astronomy and Physics at the University of Illinois – Springfield, Dr. Brian Carrigan, Assistant Professor of Natural Sciences at Benedictine University, Dr. Joanne Budzien, Assistant Professor of Physics and MacMurray College, Dr. Jeff Chamberlain, Associate Professor and Chair of Physics at Illinois College, and Laurie O’Brien, physics teacher at Glenwood High School.

MacMurray CollegeBenedictine University

“My academic background is in physics, so I am personally excited to merge my theatre and science interests into a new cultural event that has not been attempted before in Central Illinois”, said Mr. Dearing.

During the opening weekend of the show at the Hoogland Center for the Arts in Springfield, Illinois, the live panel of regional physicists responded to outstanding questions posed by patrons. With two full-houses in attendance, inquiries from the infinitely large to the infinitesimally small were interactively discussed, and geared toward an informal and non-technical audience.

Supporting role, Miriam Field, portrayed by Lynexia Dawn Chigges
Supporting role, Miriam Field, portrayed by Lynexia Dawn Chigges

Over twenty-six questions in all were sorted through on the spot and selected to feature during each performance. From “how many galaxies are in the known universe?” to “why does warm air rise?” and “how is Voyager 1 able to communicate from outside the solar system?”, the panel was energized and tackled each question with their combined years of experience studying the field. Several questions even tested the limits of our current understanding in physics, such as “why is there more matter than anti-matter?” with the only response being: “if you could answer that one, then you’d have the Nobel Prize!” We aptly completed the discussion on Saturday night with an extended explanation on the many options to “how does the Universe end?”

Mr. Dearing said, “This experiment in merging informal science education with live theatrical entertainment has been so interesting to develop, and the lively interactions between the patrons and the panel was exciting to witness. People were truly inspired to dive right in and ask about our universe and wonder about it what it can reveal.”

Additional questions provided by the audiences during the opening weekend are listed below, and we invite you to respond by commenting after this article as to what you think about this experience as an informal educational opportunity.

 … …

“Why does the tail of a comet not end? How does it stay ‘alive'”?

“What is the physical difference between a living creature and the same creature when it is dead?”

“Is there any dark matter in the solar system? If not, then how likely is it that there is a huge quantity in the galaxy?”

“How is God in the ‘god’ particle?”

“Can you explain the new age theory that everything comes from nothing as made famous by Dr. Lawrence Krauss?”

“What is the ‘friendliest’ sub-atomic particle?”

“How many fundamental forces are there at last count?”

“Do atoms that are part of a living organism behave differently than those that are part of, say, a rock or a pool of liquid steel?”

“Please discuss the concept of a continually expanding infinite universe. How can something infinity small (the universe at the moment of creation) be uniform in extent? What does it mean to expand infinitely?”

“Did Feynman write a popular text book?”

“What are some of the great discoveries by physicists?”

“Politics and ‘public policy’ aside, what is the reality of global warming: is it real? If so, is modern man to blame?”

“Have there been any major errors discovered in Feynman’s work?”

“Space and time may not be fundamental… comments?”

“Is it true that slide rules are coming back?”

“If all living individuals are a pile of atoms, then how do we define life from non-living things?”

 … …

These are some rather impressive questions, and dynamic patterns theatre is honored to have been the first to bring such an IN-TER-ES-TING and unique experience to a general audience in Central Illinois.

QED: A Play from Dynamic Patterns Theatre

In QED: A Play from dynamic patterns theatre, Richard Feynman was portrayed by Al Scheider, a long-time regional actor from Decatur who has performed in over sixty community theatre productions in thirty-seven years, and has directed theater for twelve years. The supporting role of Miriam Field, a young Caltech student, is played by Lynexia Dawn Chigges, who is a LPN with Memorial Physician Services, and has performed on stages from San Diego to Springfield, Illinois. The show was directed by Matthew T. Dearing.

Watching Science Unfold Live

Powerful new science and technological advances are a hallmark of the human species. We have been watching and interacting as new advancements happen in real-time for decades. One of the most memorable moments was when the entire county was glued to television sets in 1969 watching the first human being step directly onto our Moon.

So, although this mass participation of witnessing new science as it happens is not a new experience, Dynamic Patterns Research has been experimenting with “live” commentary and interactions with our users through the social interface of Facebook. Earlier this year, we watched as the Mars Curiosity Rover landed on the Red Planet (read more), and on the day of the event, we hosted a live Facebook comment feed (view). We also created a photo review of live screen shots during the event to commemorate the historic moment:

Today, Dynamic Patterns Research took part in witnessing another important event in human technological achievements: the Red Bull Stratos Mission that sent a human being into the statosphere over 120,000 feet (23 miles) above sea level.

This brave human was Felix Baumgartner and he jumped out of a capsule in a custom fitted pressurized suit to free-fall reaching speeds above the sound barrier… the fastest human being — without a propelling system — ever. The interactive Mission Timeline provides an exciting, and awe-inspiring review of the stages of the flight.

Read the Facebook live comment feed during the Red Bull Stratos Mission

During the live feed event, we took screen shots to document some of the most exciting moments of the flight. With only one glitch of Felix’s helmet potentially not maintaining adequate heat, the entire operation appeared to proceed smoothly. Jumping from around 128,000 feet, you could almost feel the tension across the Internet from everyone watching the live feed together. It was incredible to see a man leap out of a tiny capsule so far above the planet.

 

More details about this wild and historic jump will be made available after the Red Bull Stratos team analyzes the valuable data collected through the jump. They’ll review what speed he reached, how his body handled the experience, and if similar approaches will be viable for offering safe emergency procedures for astronauts and space tourists of the future.

Watching these technological advancements happen live certainly isn’t citizen science in and of itself. However, the experience is an interesting opportunity for actively reaching out to support another fundamental goal of Dynamic Patterns Research: to bring a greater appreciation for science and a deeper understanding for how the Universe works to a broader public. We believe that everyone doesn’t need to earn a Ph.D. in a scientific field, but it is important that more citizens have a broader and greater appreciation for basic scientific ideas. We make decisions every day from local events in our personal lives to larger considerations that include national political and policy ideas. It’s important that we do not take for granted what we are told from the media and the political leaders of our country, and that we are able to critically evaluate what is happening around us on a daily basis.

Experiencing inspirational scientific events and participating in accessible scientific activities can provide great informal educational opportunities for the public. These experiences will increase our appreciation for the Universe, which is vital for our continued exponentially increasing rate of human advancement.

If you are would like to participate in a future live feed scientific event, become a fan of the Dynamic Patterns Research Facebook page to be notified or subscribe to our mailing list. If you are aware of an upcoming event that DPR should be aware of, please contact us right away.

Enjoy the Perseid Shower and Count Shooting Stars for Science

The Perseus constellation, viewing source of the annual Perseid meteor showing.

Earth is once again passing through left-over material from Comet Swift-Tuttle providing us with the annual stellar artistic show of the Perseid Meteor Shower. The best nights to view will be August 11 through 13, 2012 anytime after 10 or 11 pm. The dark sky far from city lights just before dawn is expected to provide the optimal viewing experience. To add to this celestial delight, will be a crescent Moon in alignment with Jupiter and Venus viewable in the eastern sky in the early morning hours.

Focus your gaze toward the Perseus constellation not too far up from the horizon in the north to north-east direction. (Review a detailed sky map.) In darker conditions it might be possible to observe as many as one hundred per hour. If you are in a safe location–in other words, not near a country road–take a blanket and lie down on the ground for a comfortable and relaxing night of sky magic.

If you are fortunate enough to see many meteorites, it’s always fun to count your way to a world record. However, for more than just personal entertainment, NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office is very interested in knowing precisely how many you see. In fact, they have developed a citizen science smart phone app called ‘Meteor Counter‘ for iPhone and Android to assist anyone in scientifically providing accurate observation counts to the NASA research team. With these crowd-sourced counts, NASA can further develop models of the Perseid meteor debris stream, which will guide future safety plans for orbiting spacecraft.

Perseid Meteor Shower Image from Spaceweather.com

Of course, not everyone in the Northern hemisphere will have optimal viewing experiences. However, online activities and live viewing of the shower will be available for those late night couch potatoes who would prefer to avoid the hot dog days of August. Courtesy of the great Spaceweather.com, a real-time Perseid Meteor show image gallery is available for viewing actual photos uploaded from amateur astronomers around the world. On the night of August 11 and 12, a live “Up All Night Chat” is also being hosted by NASA with astronomer Bill Cooke and colleagues where they will answer your questions and you will join them in a live video and audio feed of the shower. 

So, however you are able to view this spectacle–either interactively online or roaming in the countryside–the annual Perseid meteor shower is a beautiful moment that must be relished. We experience our days focused on the minutia of effectively living in our society, but it is so inspiring to step away, if for only an hour in the middle of the night, to remember that we are only a minuscule element in an amazingly massive and gorgeous universe.

  

 

Returning to the Red Planet

True-color view of Mars seen through NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope in 1999.

Within a few days (August 6, 12:31 a.m. Central), a robotic representative of humanity will once again return to Mars. As the largest rover to date, the Curiosity‘s exploration mission will further help us understand the neighbor planet, including how it might once have been capable of supporting microscopic life. In addition to Mars’ potential history of life, Curiosity will continue past rovers’ efforts to characterize the climate and geology all in preparation for the ultimate goal: sending our species to the red planet. (Read more about the Mars Science goals.)

Stepping a human foot onto the surface of Mars may be several decades away, at least, but I intently hope that my lifetime will be long enough to witness the event. It was a technological marvel when we arrived on our Moon, but it will be a technological inevitability–mixed with an extreme amount of guts–when we arrive on Mars. 

Why should we go?
Do we think we can just be lazy and not care for our home planet, and then be ready to hop over to the next when this one runs dry? This, of course, is nonsensical and is not in the back of anyone’s mind who is seriously working toward Mars. Getting to Mars requires extreme technological advancements, so many of which will benefit humanity at home. The potential for discovering new natural resources can benefit future generations of future generations. Discovering life on Mars, the historical footprint of life, or the lack thereof can each have important implications for understanding our place in the Universe. And, ultimately, successfully inhabiting Mars creates the opportunity for our species to survive if a planetary crisis of an extinction-level event occurs here at home.

We are a species who has evolved in such a way that we are now developing the technology to seed our own survival on another planet. This is not an endeavor for one country or one culture alone, but it is an experience for everyone.

You, one step closer to Mars
And, the time to participate in this experience is already here. This first thing to do is to take a stroll outside after sunset on the evening of August 5, 2012. Look west and observe a beautiful celestial triangle comprising Mars, Saturn, and Spica, one of the brightest stars in the sky, which is actually a binary system located only 260 light years away. Then, head back home and prepare for the online webcast presented by NASA TV, starting at 10:30 pm Central.

The Curiosity rover is much larger than the previous rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, so landing this puppy will be a harrowing experience, for sure. However, with a successful touch-down, proof of our technological advancement for sending larger payloads for future missions will be in the bag.

Once the landing is completed, the exciting new data collection can begin. And is there data! And where there is a lot of data to sort through, there are interesting opportunities for citizen scientists. From previous rovers, there are over 250,000 surface images currently being sorted and cataloged to create a massive topological map of the Martian surface. NASA has opened up this mapping project to citizen scientists through the “Be a Martian” online interface. Using your desktop computer or even your mobile device, including Windows Phone, Android, and iPhone, you can individually review images actually taken by a Mars rover and identify characteristic ground and sky features, help stitch together multiple images, count craters, and learn much more about the wonderful new science underway on Mars.

:: Participate in NASA’s Science on Mars ::

This is certainly an exciting time in solar system exploration (especially with the two Voyager probes nearing the edge of our system right now), and it is important that you take part in these scientific efforts. NASA really does need help from the masses: you don’t require any Congressional budgetary approvals to begin work. Our personal greater appreciation for what is happening on Mars and what potentials exist deep in its red dirt will help bring our planets closer together and the benefits that will soon be discovered closer to reality.

 :: Find more Citizen Science opportunities from NASA ::

Optical Illusions: Our neurons working out of our control

Looking at an image and seeing that something just isn’t quite right is always an intriguing experience. From past experience, we expect to see one thing, but often upon immediate observation we see something else quite different. Optical illusions demonstrate to us directly that reality is created by our perceptions of the environment and these perceptions are processed in our brain. So, maybe reality is just all in our heads?

“Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one” – Albert Einstein
(a popular misquotation extracted from “For us believing physicists, the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubborn illusion.”  Einstein: His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson (2008), p. 540)

Classic examples of optical illusions include the floor tiling at the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome and the “flashing” grid illusion first reported by Ludimar Hermann in 1870. The twentieth century artist M. C. Escher took the phenomena to an artistic level and created some of the most popular and aesthetically interesting illusions, and many more optical illusions may be viewed with an image search.

Rotating Snakes illusion, Copyright A.Kitaoka 2003

In 2003, Akiyoshi Kitaoka, a professor of psychology at the Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto, Japan, designed a new visual phenomenon called the peripheral drift illusion, or “Rotating Snakes” (read the original report, PDF). In this design, an apparent motion of the image is seen in the observer’s peripheral vision. The effect is strongest when the image contains clearly graduating sections of repetitive diminishing or increasing brightness and these sections follow fragmented or curved edges. A variety of examples of the design can be previewed on Kitoaka’s website of Rotating Snakes.

This visual phenomena has fascinated scientists with the challenge to explain how our brains process this image. It was not until quite recently that an answer may have been experimentally discovered (“Microsaccades and Blinks Trigger Illusory Rotation in the “Rotating Snakes” Illusion”, Otero-Millan, et al. The Journal of Neuroscience, 25 April 2012, 32(17): 6043-6051; doi: 10.1523/​JNEUROSCI.5823-11.2012, Read the abstract). Researchers from the Laboratory of Visual Neuroscience at the Barrow Neurological Institute in Arizona, lead by  Dr. Susana Martinez-Conde, presented “Rotating Snake” images to participants while recording their eye motion with high-resolution. Previously, it had been presumed that the eyes were drifting during observation to create the apparent motion. However, they instead found that when the observers acknowledged motion in the images, their eyes were undergoing small rapid movements called microsaccades. These mini-eye movements represent small jumps in a person’s gaze position that help to refresh the input on retinal receptors during the intentional fixation on an image (“Toward a model of microsaccade generation: The case of microsaccadic inhibition” Rolfs, et al. Journal of Vision, August 6, 2008 vol. 8 no. 11 article 5 doi: 10.1167/8.11.5, Read the full-text PDF).

It is quite amazing to gaze at an image that you consciously know is static, yet you unquestionably see an apparent animation. Your understanding of reality conflicts directly with your observation of reality. For a quick personal experiment to see if I could control this reality distortion, I was able to temporarily pause the motion with a very focused attempt to stare only at one corner of the Rotating Snake image. As I let my focus shift just bit, the rotation immediately re-appeared. It is only a guess as to whether I was inhibiting the microsaccades of my eyes, or if I was positioning the image in some “peripheral blind spot” where the retinal receptors taking input from the eye motions couldn’t receive the input. Nevertheless, I do still feel quite grounded in reality; however, I am reminded to maintain an appreciation of questioning what I directly perceive around me as my brain will continue to work in ways that is beyond my conscious control.

The 2012 Annular Solar Eclispe

 On Sunday, May 20, 2012, the Moon passed directly in front of the Sun offering a memorable view of an annular solar eclipse from southeast Asia into the western United States.

Path of Annular Solar Eclipse May 20, 2012 - Wolfram Alpha
Path of Annular Solar Eclipse May 20, 2012 - Wolfram Alpha

Here in Central Illinois, Dynamic Patterns Research was unable to witness the solar eclipse thanks to several nice pockets of severe thunderstorms, although we should have been able to see a sliver of eclipse just above the horizon at sunset. Fortunately, many others around the country did have memorable experiences with this special event with great photographs and informal educational experiences with their children. If you would like to re-live the full experience from your home computer, the team at CosmoQuest from SIUE provided a live three-and-one-half-hour feed with commentary and video covering the entire event:

The digital social world was filled with sharing of solar eclipse images, some quite aesthetically outstanding and awe-inspiring. Check out the album from Space.com and the album from Spaceweather.com to witness this great natural wonder of our solar system by talented citizen scientists and enthusiasts from all over the world.

Certainly, a solar eclipse can inspire adults into a greater appreciation of this wonderful universe, but an event like a solar eclipse can offer something a little more special to children. I seem to recall many years ago (well, not that many) during my pre-school days playing outside in the playground when the world grew a little darker and the teachers thoroughly reminded us to not look directly at the sun. The memory is mostly a haze, but I almost think I was a bit scared. Maybe I didn’t understand what was going on, or I was just afraid that I might go blind. What I didn’t have back then was a guided informal educational experience that I was certainly primed and ready for. Moments like these are brief, but critical, for exciting and intriguing young brains about science and helping them develop an appreciation for how everything around us works.

The Geesamans testing their home-made viewer before the eclipse - May 20, 2012Kate Cormeny Geesaman spent the afternoon experimenting with her children building a solar eclipse viewer and then giving it a try at their home in south-central Texas. 

“I think I may have seen a slight sliver “on” the sun, but it wasn’t the dramatic viewing I had imagined. But, Aaron was introduced to the idea and we had a great time in the beautiful Texas weather with our family and neighbors! After we went inside we got our SkyMap app open on our phone and observed how the moon was indeed in front of the sun…just below the horizon.”

Kate Geesaman and son observing the solar eclipse - May 20, 2012

Although Kate and her children were unsuccessful in creating a clear observable image of the eclipse, the experience was certainly invaluable for bringing a bit more curiosity to her young boys, and teaching them something about how to create tools to solve problems — an evolutionary essence of being a human. And, spending time with family, friends, and science makes for a perfect Sunday afternoon!

If you have any images that you would like to share, please post to the Dynamic Patterns Research Facebook page and we’ll be sure to feature your work to everyone.

Unfortunately, Dynamic Patterns Research missed out on making our own direct observations of the annular solar eclipse, but the next opportunity will be perfect, weather permitting of course. We’ve already set our calendars for Monday, August 21, 2017 when the path of the eclipse will be nearly directly overhead, so a “ring-of-fire” image should be possible.

The next annular solar eclipse over the United States, Monday, August 21, 2017 - Wolfram Alpha
The next annular solar eclipse over the United States, Monday, August 21, 2017 - Wolfram Alpha

Be sure to “Like” our Facebook page and subscribe to DPR to be the first to see our images of the eclipse in 2017!

Last updated May 25, 2020