ScienceFest puts the fun in science

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By Arin McKenna

Even those whose eyes glaze over when someone starts talking science could find something to love at the Los Alamos ScienceFest. Crowds flocking to last week’s event could play with robots, learn what produces the colors in their plasma TVs and challenge themselves on a drone obstacle course.
ScienceFest, an event produced by Los Alamos MainStreet, has become the county’s signature event. A Los Alamos County Council proclamation declaring July 14-17 as “Los Alamos ScienceFest Weekend” states that “ScienceFest provides an opportunity for the community to take pride in its science heritage, to celebrate its unique relationship between science and creativity, to inspire the next generation to carry it forward, and to celebrate the evolution of the Manhattan Project National Historical Park.”
“It’s an outstanding event with a great organization led by Suzette Fox (MainStreet executive director) and others,” said council Chair Rick Reiss. “It’s a wonderful opportunity for visitors to become acquainted with our community, and for us to show off what a wonderful community we have. Local businesses enjoyed a steady stream of out-of-towners and the community will benefit from the dollars spent here.”
Saturday’s fun started at the newly renamed Los Alamos Project Main Gate Park, where visitors could get event info and take their photo in front of the new “Los Alamos Main Gate” façade. Two 1939 vintage vehicles parked in front of the façade, one a red 1939 Buick owned by Ken Uher and the other – a 1939 Chevy – was the same make and model as the car in the iconic photo of the Manhattan Project’s main gate.
Visitors flocked to the robotics demonstrations, including those by UNM-LA and the Los Alamos Mountain Elementary School Robotics Club’s display at the Los Alamos Public Schools Foundation booth.
UNM-LA had robots created by Don Davis, who teaches robotics at both the university and Los Alamos High School, and another made by one of Davis’ high school students. Children were able to take turns operating the two robots.
Several Lego robots were available for hands on maneuvering at the First Lego League Robotics booth. Five teams from Los Alamos competed in this year’s First Lego League competition.
The Drone Zone was another popular feature. Participants could practice maneuvering drones around an obstacle course. Kids could also run an obstacles course for “training future spies” at the “Spy Academy, Secret Agent Training Center.”
Other displays were less high tech, such as the Department of Public Utilities booth, where Pajarito Environmental Education Center (PEEC) Educator Kate Cleveland showed children how hydropower works with a bottle of water and a toy waterwheel.
Exhibitors included several from high tech companies located in Los Alamos.  Tibber Plasma Technologies – which is using plasmas to make electrical transformers – brought  a ping pong ball launcher with them to the event. The simple-seeming device catapulted a ping pong ball through a tube to smash tin cans in an instant.
UBiQD’s display of jars with different colored liquids did not have the “wow” factor of the robotics or gravitational displays, but Founder Hunter McDaniel and Director of Nanocomposites Aaron Jackson held visitors’ attention with their explanation of the nanoparticles creating those colors and how they are used to create the colors in plasma TVs. The company is working on using nanoparticles for window applications that will create electricity.
This year’s theme was “The Secret City Unlocked,” and included several spy tours highlighting espionage during the Manhattan Project, offered by the Los Alamos Historical Society (LAHS) and Buffalo Tours. Ellen Bradbury Reid also gave a spy tour of the Santa Fe Plaza. LAHS also offered a walking tour title “WGN’s ‘Manhattan’ – Fact or Fiction.”
According to reports, the tours were very successful.
“They went very, very well,” said LAHS Executive Director Heather McClenahan. “I think our docents really enjoyed the challenge of coming up with a new script for their tours and trying to fit in the history of Los Alamos along with the spies.”
The weekend also featured several spy-themed movies and a performance of “Spies” by the Los Alamos Little Theatre.
PEEC hosted a Smart Art contest and exhibition and Trinity Urgent Care sponsored a projecting particles lab for teens.
ScienceFest events began Thursday evening with Disruptech, sponsored by Los Alamos National Laboratory’s Richard P. Feynman Center for Innovation, which featured entrepreneurial-minded scientists introducing groundbreaking technology from LANL. Other events included a a panel discussion on espionage, a talk on “The Science of Brewing” at Bathtub Row Brewery, the science behind the movie “The Martian” and NOVA segment on black holes.
Saturday’s event included s libations tent with local producers and music by Higher Ground and Bus Tapes.
ScienceFest ended Sunday with a demonstration and launch by the Zia Spacemodelers Rocket Club north of Española and an open house at Tibber Technologies.
MainStreet is still collecting data on sales and attendance numbers from ScienceFest programming, but Fox wrote, “Los Alamos ScienceFest 2016: Mission Accomplished! The Spies theme was such a big hit that the Los Alamos Historical Museum is going to continue giving the Spy Tours as well as the WGN Manh(A)ttan Fact or Fiction tour.
“Thank you again to all of our sponsors and partners for making ScienceFest 2016 such a success.”
MainStreet has already put out the dates for ScienceFest 2017: July 13-16. Next year’s theme will be the 100th anniversary of the Los Alamos Ranch School.