Opening Our Doors to the World
By Kathryn Wiese
Keck’s Open House welcomed more than 1,800 people to the telescopes’ headquarters in Waimea. Supported in part by a grant from the Hawaii Tourism Authority along with contributions from many local businesses, the free event featured 37 hands-on activities and displays about science, technology and astronomy. Professional staff developed the exhibits within their own departments and, with the assistance of area high school student volunteers, staffed the event. Each activity station was busy, many with lines or waiting lists.
Flashing Pins and the Electric Circuit
A particularly popular activity for young participants was “Flasher Pin Fabrication,” which Keck Observatory’s electronic engineering department organized. Electronics engineer Jason Chin and other staff members constantly questioned participants allowing them to discover how a basic electrical circuit works. Once they understood how it worked to make a light bulb shine, the students then moved to another station. There they could decorate their pins, which would flash when the metal latch on the pin was closed to complete the circuit.
At the station, eight-year-old Kieran Gibson, a student at Waimea Country School, enjoyed his first attempt at soldering together two metals. He did so under the watchful eye of 16-year-old Teahi Ah Quin, one of several student volunteers from Kanu o ka Aina, a charter school in Waimea. Additional volunteers came from Parker School, Honoka’a High School, Hawaii Preparatory Academy and Kealakehe High School.
While the engineering department was at full capacity introducing youngsters to soldering and electric circuitry, Keck support astronomers Jim Lyke and Greg Wirth manned exhibits in the courtyard that introduced their guests to solar spots, solar flares and the size of planets relative to our Moon and Sun.
“Do you know how big the Sun is?” Lyke asked while students and parents gathered around. “The Sun is huge. You could fit one million Earths inside of it!”
Across the way, Wirth was handing out special cards through which guests could look at the Sun. He also helped man the two solar telescopes—one showing the solar flares and the other showing a sunspot. “These spots don’t last that long because the Sun rotates about once per month, but we’re lucky today,” Wirth said, as he encouraged visitors to observe one through the telescope.
Screaming for More
Not all the exhibits and activities were exclusively hands-on, however—some were designed to entice the senses.
Keck electronic technician Steve Doyle and support technician David Lynn played a culinary duo as they hammered nails into wood with a banana. The fruit, frozen by liquid nitrogen, served as the precursor to the flavorful main event—making chocolate ice cream on the observatory grounds. Kids clamored around the exhibit all day to watch the two pseudo-chefs pour liquid nitrogen into a mix of milk, sugar and cocoa to produce their sweet treat.
“At Keck, our instruments must be kept cold to work properly, so we use liquid nitrogen to cool them. We chill cameras down to liquid nitrogen temperature so they don’t detect background heat,” Lynn explained from inside the booth.
As he and Doyle handed out the liquid nitrogen ice cream to eager customers, interferometer scientist Julien Woillez and optics technician Tim Saloga ushered visitors into darkness for the “3D Stereoscopic Projection” demonstration. Movie-goers donned eyewear that polarized light and as a result the visitors “ooohed and aaaahed” as they watched the Solar System and Milky Way galaxy move to choreographed orchestral music and burst into three dimensions.
“That was the best!” six-year-old Hawaii Preparatory Academy student Mikela Parris said to her mother as the lights came on after the show ended. “Can we see it again?”
Other visitors were extremely intrigued to see themselves in a different light with “Infrared Picture ID.” At this station, support astronomer Randy Campbell answered a wide range of questions as people waited in line to have their portraits taken. The images showed, through vibrant variations of color, the differing temperatures of their skin, hair, clothes and surroundings.
Campbell explained that astronomers obtain information from every part of the electromagnetic spectrum, including infrared wavelengths. Infrared light actually transmits through dust much more efficiently than visible light. The technology to observe at these wavelengths therefore helps astronomers see through the dust and take better images of the center of the Milky Way. Sharper images enable astronomers to more accurately measure the properties of stars and also measure how fast they are moving. Based on the speed of the stars, astronomers have gathered proof that a black hole sits at the center of the Milky Way. “That discovery and others could not have been done without infrared technology,” Campbell said.
“Kids couldn’t get enough of the infrared exhibit,” said Taft Armandroff, Director of W. M. Keck Observatory. “There and elsewhere, I saw our staff engaging young people one-on-one and sparking their inquisitiveness.” He said he hoped the event fostered young people to take an interest in science and technology and encouraged all participants to appreciate astronomy and the discoveries Keck has added to the field.
Transforming our View of the Universe
“Thanks to our telescopes and astronomers, we now know of more than 300 exoplanets, of black holes, of early galaxies and much more. Our astronomers have made discoveries that have forever changed our understanding of the Universe,” he said during one of the 30-minute public talks he and other senior Keck Observatory staff members, Hilton Lewis and Robert Goodrich gave throughout the day.
Curious about what goes on atop Mauna Kea, visitors in the audience quizzed Armandroff about the research the Observatory’s astronomers were doing and what makes the dormant volcano such an excellent location for the Keck telescopes. He explained that Mauna Kea has many advantages for observing compared to other telescope sites around the world. At an elevation of 14,000 feet, 40 percent of the atmosphere sits below the summit, so there is less turbulence in the atmosphere and the sky is clear during most nights of the year. Those strengths coupled with the ingenuity of the Keck employees make “Keck the most scientifically productive observatory in history,” Armandroff said.