Scientists will be taking it to the streets in spring

Derrick Pitts of the Franklin Institute listens to one passerby as another looks into his telescope at Second and Chestnut.
Derrick Pitts of the Franklin Institute listens to one passerby as another looks into his telescope at Second and Chestnut.
Posted: September 27, 2010

A man in a baseball cap parked a big telescope in an unlikely location recently: the sidewalk at Second and Chestnut Streets. He offered the nighttime crowd in Old City a chance to look at the heavens, but he was also on a scouting mission of sorts.

Derrick Pitts was testing the city's appetite for a serious avalanche of science.

It was just the merest taste of what is coming here next spring. On Monday, the Franklin Institute and two dozen partners plan to announce the first Philadelphia Science Festival, a two-week celebration of science starting April 15.

The festivities include an outdoor science carnival on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, a science night with the Phillies at Citizens Bank Park, movies, lectures, hands-on experiments, demonstrations, and quiz shows. Expect to run into scientists throughout the city where you'd least expect them: restaurants, bars, and, yes, sidewalks.

Pitts, the institute's chief astronomer, promised that sidewalk astronomy will be on the agenda. During his three-hour trial run Sept. 18, close to 200 people stopped to take a look at Jupiter and the moon, Pitts said.

"People were really jazzed about being able to see this," he said. "Groups of people would stand around and talk about it themselves, and then look again."

The museum started to think about the idea at the suggestion of an official from the MIT Museum. The two institutions then joined with two California universities - the University of California, San Diego and the University of San Francisco - in applying for a grant from the National Science Foundation.

The Franklin Institute's share of the $3 million grant is $550,000, which will help pay for planning and organizing the first two years of the Philadelphia event, said Dennis Wint, the institute's president and chief executive officer. Festivals also will take place in the three other cities.

Local participants include a dozen museums and universities, the Philadelphia Zoo, the city school district, and business partners, led by presenting sponsor Dow Chemical Co. In addition to boosting scientific literacy, the idea is to foster interest in technology careers as the world economy becomes increasingly global, Wint said.

Much of the agenda remains up in the air, but one confirmed event is a genetics lecture by Spencer Wells, explorer-in-residence at the National Geographic Society. He is to speak April 17 at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, in connection with an exhibit that will be under way called Secrets of the Silk Road.

Wells said he would discuss the mix of Asian and European influence in the genes of those who lived along the ancient Silk Road trade route. Two mummies from China's Tarim Basin are featured in the exhibit, including the "Beauty of Xiaohe," more than 3,500 years old.

"Our role as scientists, obviously, is to do the research, but we also need to communicate it to the general public, especially to kids," Wells said. "You're solving puzzles on a daily basis."

The school district is envisioning some sort of citywide science activity on April 15, the last day of school before spring break, said Nancy Hopkins-Evans, special assistant to the deputy superintendent.

One possibility is that all 161,000 district students would jump up and down at the same time, to see if their collective impact would register on monitors of seismic activity. When a similar exercise took place in England a few years ago, the result was apparently entertaining, though not terribly impactful.

The carnival on the Parkway is scheduled for April 16, with activities hosted by a range of museums and universities. Physicist John DiNardo, vice provost for academic affairs at Drexel University, said he wanted to have a demonstration of underwater robots, among other hands-on experiences. Drexel also will host a career-exploration session for high schoolers and their parents, he said.

The second week of the festival coincides with the Franklin Institute's annual awards week, during which the museum honors prominent scientists and engineers with medals for their lasting achievements. As in the past, awardees will be called upon to share their research with the public in some fashion.

Other festival events are to include "science cafes" in bars and restaurants, with researchers from the Monell Chemical Senses Center on hand to discuss the science of taste.

Wherever the event, hands-on involvement will be a key focus, said Wint, the institute's president.

"We know one of the best ways you learn about science is by doing it yourself," he said.

Or, perhaps, by eating it.

During his sidewalk astronomy session, Pitts handed out samples of "astronaut" ice cream - a freeze-dried treat that was originally developed for space missions.

"I don't exactly find it appetizing, shall we say," the astronomer said of the sweet and super-dry concoction. "But people seem to really love it."


Contact staff writer Tom Avril at 215-854-2430 or tavril@phillynews.com.

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