Saturday, July 20, 2013

Irish Pub-lic Outreach

Today, I found myself in the men's bathroom of an Irish Pub, helping a little boy wipe his butt while his grandma sat outside nursing a sprained wrist and bruised head. They're Charlottesville locals, who I met a couple of weeks ago.

What the heck was I doing in the bathroom with the kid, and what happened to his grandma?

Let's take a few steps back.

As some of you know, I give talks at the local McCormick observatory. It houses a 26-inch refracting telescope, which back in the day was the second biggest telescope in the country (it was built in the mid-1880s.)

Near the beginning of the summer, I gave a talk on pulsars, and two weeks later gave a talk on radio astronomy. At that second public night, I talked for about forty-five minutes with an equestrian and her grandson, who we will call Carl for anonymity. Carl has big blue eyes, blond hair, and a gigantic toothy smile (he's missing one of his front teeth.) He told me all about black holes, accretion disks around quasars (something about hearing a little kid say "accretion disk" made me smile a lot), planetary formation, supernovae, hypernovae. Classic Carl quote:

"I think that I could make a black hole."
"Really? How?"
"I'd just need...a lot of hydrogen, and a bottle. And soda."

He picked up a board marker and drew diagrams, to teach me about string theory. His grandma told me that she thinks that Carl will become a professor one day, because he loves to teach so much.

Carl just turned eight.

What do you do with an eight-year-old who gobbles up information faster than you can provide it? His grandma is eager for resources: I wrote down a list of authors, TV shows, facilities (like the GBT). She told me about Carl's imagination and his energy, about his horseback riding lessons and his desire to learn Algebra. I said that I wouldn't be around Charlottesville for much longer, but that I'd be happy to sit down with him sometime and teach him the basics. I figured that I could probably come up with some cute astro-related Algebra problems for him. I gave her my contact information, and open night ended.

The next week, I was in New Mexico (more on that in another post.) But I'm back now, so today Carl and his grandma picked me up from my house at 11am. We drove to an Irish Pub, where I used onion rings to teach Carl about fractions and percentages (he wanted to learn about percentages because he really likes the % sign.) We played equation hangman, regular hangman (I really stumped him with "telescope." Also, it BLEW HIS FREAKIN' MIND when he wrote down  _ _ _ _ _      _ _ _ _ and I immediately guessed "black hole." Carl: "HOW DID YOU KNOW THAT????")

I taught him and his grandma a little bit about the brain, and together we marveled that all of the elements in our body originated in the Big Bang, or stellar cores, or supernovae. In the meantime, Carl slurped down two gigantic cups of lemonade, which ultimately caught up with him.

Carl: "I need to go to the bathroom."

His grandma leapt up to let him pass, and stepped backwards -- into air.

We were in a booth against the window, and the line of booths were all on a raised platform. His grandma tipped backwards like a tree, sort of caught herself with her right arm, but still hit her head on a chair. She lay there moaning. I freaked out, jumped out and knelt down, while Carl stared with big eyes. "Ice," his grandma said. I got a couple bags of ice from the waitress, and iced the back of her head while she iced her sprained wrist. In the meantime, Carl ran off to the bathroom by himself.

When he came back, a man had helped his grandma into a chair. I continued to ice her head. Carl was nearly doubled-over, and looked very distressed. I thought that he was just freaked out about his grandma, but suddenly he said "I need to go to the bathroom again," and off he went. His grandma took over the ice pack from me, and I took off after him.

When I got to the men's bathroom, the door was locked. I banged on it a couple of times. "Carl? Carl, you okay?" Carl opened the door for me. He was sitting on the toilet, having just been struck by a bout of diarrhea. To keep his mind off the discomfort, I told him stories about my own personal injuries (there are enough of those to last any bout of diarrhea!) Finally, he was feeling better, so we wiped his butt together and washed our hands. His grandma was feeling better by this point as well; while she made a few phone calls, I taught Carl to play pool (which is kind of hilarious, because I don't play pool ever.) Carl (to his grandma): "I think she's so good at it because she knows physics!"

Hell, yeah.

Afterwards, Carl's grandma drove me home. I put my laundry in the washing machine and sat down to blog. This evening, I think that Raphael and I are going to do some work on his car, and maybe take a scenic drive.

It's been a bizarre day (when I was standing in the bathroom wiping Carl's butt I was thinking "WHAT IS MY LIFE???") But SUCH a rewarding, refreshing day. It gave me another way to think about public outreach -- I think that until now I've given it a very narrow definition. It's always meant standing up in front of an audience and giving a talk, or running a museum exhibit, or wearing a name tag and being an official scientist. But today I was a cool grown-up, and Carl and I hung out like friends (friends teach each other math, right?) When he sees me, he gets super excited and waves frantically with a gigantic grin. I think that outreach is most effective when you are another human being, with an interest in non-scientists as other human beings and not just as pre-scientists or, worse, non-scientists-who-must-be-enlightened.

Anyway, washing machine is beeping at me. Until next time! <3

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