RICHMOND -- Searching for signs of scientific enthusiasm at Richmond's East Bay Center for the Performing Arts on Thursday night, evidence could be found in the work of five Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory scientists. Or, in the words of a 10-year-old child.
Casting the experts' academic achievements into shadow, fifth-grade Making Waves Academy student Vanessa Lopez had this observation: "I love all science, but I've started narrowing it down to genetics. Isn't it fascinating how genes combine to make a child look like the mother and father?"
Berkeley Lab is managed by the University of California for the U.S. Department of Energy. The "Science Remix" program was part of a lab initiative to improve science education in schools and to prove researchers are "real people with a sense of purpose and a sense of humor," according to introductory comments made by Jeff Miller, the lab's head of public affairs.
Jordan Simmons, the performing arts center's artistic director, suggested the combination of artistic minds and scientific methods was "a natural fit," and the shared tendencies -- asking questions and recognizing patterns -- made for compelling overlaps.
Indeed, unbridled curiosity was the theme running throughout the researchers' presentations. Biologist Sarah Richardson's obsession with Star Trek and aliens led to a lifetime devotion to bacteria. "Did you know that nine out of 10 cells in your body are bacteria?" she asked. "Once I knew that, I had to be a biologist."
Brett Singer, an air quality scientist, said his knowledge (and indisputable evidence) that cooking produces pollutants won't stop him from cooking. But it does make him want to prevent gas-burning stoves from filling his and other people's bodies with emissions of carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, formaldehyde and pernicious, ultrafine particles. His citizen scientist survey is aimed at improving ventilation in indoor settings. (To participate, visit, http://indoorair.lbl.gov/).
Life scientist Paul Williams and physicist Alex Zettl have devoted their research to human endeavors: staying healthy and traveling to Mars, respectively. Williams has conducted a survey including 153,000 men and women who have run or walked regularly for more than 20 years. Zettl is developing a boron nitride nanotube -- a chemically resistant fiber that holds its structure when exposed to high temperatures.
Williams' data, showing medical cost savings of nearly $300 billion if everybody participated in an optimal amount of exercise -- and Zettl's revolutionary material that may someday allow a human to travel to (and return from) Mars -- sparked a number of too-hot-to-hold questions from the audience.
Williams responded to concerns about aging knees and alternatives to running. He said runners in their 80s ran slower than they had when they were in their 20s but were not more injury-prone. "Running is a straight-line activity. It's not runners who are getting hurt, it's people who bend and stretch. It's carpenters more than runners."
Several questions directed to Zettl about Mars by young people revealed an underlying difference between adults and kids: Adults dream of being healthy on earth; kids dream of being healthy on Mars. Asked about possible detrimental effects of synthetic materials and how food could be produced on Mars, Zettl lay the groundwork for future exploration and said, "We have to keep paying attention to it."
Materials scientist and graduate student researcher Ashley Gibb, describing her habit of looking at things too small to see, was rather like the 2-year-old who never stops asking "Why?" She's also a person who thinks about things too big to imagine. In other words, she is a scientist.
Counterintuitively, Gibb said she spends most of her days in the murky middle of her world's small and big extremes. "Most of the time, in science, things don't work. It takes a hundred tries before we get an experiment that works. Then we have to repeat them. What differentiates scientists is that we keep going."
Vanessa's mother, Helida Solorio, asked whether her daughter would forever ask questions, offered her prediction -- and the best hope for the future of science: "Yes."