Yesterday at JPL

jpl_open_house_2009_1I had a lot of fun at this year’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) open house. I’m happy to report that there were, once again, lots of people wandering around looking at the displays and demonstrations, asking questions, hanging out, and so forth, and an impressive turnout of JPL staff answering questions and being very enthusiastic about the science (something which is easy to do because it’s such an excellent topic!). I’ve made a video for you that is coming up at the end of this post. (Click on stills for larger views.)

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There was the usual huge emphasis on planetary exploration with rovers and robots and so forth – this seems to capture the imagination of everyone, so why not? – but I was more than a little surprised to find virtually no showing for the Planck mission. There was one poster somewhere, but no booth, no model, no description of the truly amazing science that it will do in unlocking more about the origins of the entire universe. (At least, I hunted and did not find any. I asked several staff members who said there was no display for Planck. It is possible I missed it, but it was not in the obvious place, the “Universe Plaza”.) Why is this surprising? Well, besides the subject matter itself, it launches in about two weeks! (I’m not convinced that this is to do with it being a joint NASA-ESA project… maybe they’re just all busy putting on the finishing touches before launch?) Oh well. See a website here.

That aside, there was a lot to admire about the emphasis on missions such as the search for extra-solar planets (there were two quite lovely models showing the two principal detection methods in action – a planet dimming its parent star by passing in front of it, and a planet causing its parent star to wobble while orbiting it), and of course missions to study earth and its environment as well. There was a lot of interest in this latter too, and the following picture sums it up best for me:


One thing that’s always amusing to me about this open day is the regular sighting of academic-looking/sounding parent or parents with their child or children. jpl_open_house_2009_3 There’s a sort of charming earnestness in the eyes of the parent(s), with an evident keenness to make this event really count in the influence on the interests of their young charges. I’d be the same way myself, I’ll admit. It must be really hard to get the balance right between trying too hard and not hard enough. The most successful-looking operations (which might have little to do with actual success) are the ones where the parents are clearly just enjoying themselves for real, with the children observing this and joining in naturally. This alone, while clearly a good dynamic to strive for, is harder to achieve than it looks. But yes, the best way to show someone that something is fun and interesting to do is to simply been seen having fun doing it and being interested in it. If they already care about you, and have a healthy relationship with you, they’ll take notice in either the short or the long run.

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Overall, I’m just pleased to go to anything that is well attended that has to do with learning more about the world and using one’s mind, with lots of encouragement for both young and old to exercise their brains (whether it be the excellent LA Times Festival of Books last week or the JPL Open House this week – as well as late night Museum fun Friday night and Griffith Observatory late night last night (see report on that later I hope) ). They give me a little hope. These events help combat that atmosphere of anti-intellectualism so often found in the general culture these days (especially in this town sometimes), so I find them uplifting.

Did you go? What are your thoughts on what you saw?

I made a video of some of the clips and stills I took while wandering around. It’ll give you a bit of a sense of the day. I hope it might encourage you to go along if you’ve not been before. If you share nothing else from Asymptotia, please consider sharing this post (and/or the video) with someone you know, since not as many people know about this excellent and free event as one might hope for. They and/or their children could get a lot out of it.

Watch out for some fun things such as two extended clips of a Mars rover rolling over small children. No, really!



P.S. My report from 2007 is here.

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2 Responses to Yesterday at JPL

  1. Jim says:

    Your guess is correct. Herschel and Planck had a presence at Open House last year, and most likely will next year. However, this year everyone who would normally work Open House is already off in Europe prepping for the launch.

  2. Bruce Irving says:

    Nice post (and nice blog in general). I’m a JPL Solar System Ambassador (volunteer informal educator) from Massachusetts, and I went to JPL on Saturday to check out the open house in the morning and volunteer in the afternoon in the Mars Rover area. You happened to catch me at the start of your video (0:10 to 0:18, blue shirt, baseball cap).

    I have a lot of experience talking about space and astronomy stuff at local schools, museums, star parties, etc. but this JPL thing was a feast, just so many people – I loved the curiosity of the kids, but it was also liberating for adults to be able to ask as many Mars etc. questions as they wanted (since there were plenty of volunteers, mostly JPLers but a few Solar System Ambassadors here and there like me). Here’s my post about the experience: