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Chemists and Space

Trisectional event wows crowds with chemistry and astronomy activities

May 24, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 21

(top) Local section volunteers ran experiments and answered questions for almost 3,000 museum guests. (bottom) Former astronaut Lousma signed posters and chatted with attendees before and after his talk at Astronomy & Chemistry Day.
(top) Local section volunteers ran experiments and answered questions for almost 3,000 museum guests. (bottom) Former astronaut Lousma signed posters and chatted with attendees before and after his talk at Astronomy & Chemistry Day.

Working across disciplines is becoming as commonplace in chemistry today as a Starbucks on a city block.

"It's one of the things we [at ACS] feel quite strongly about," Nina I. McClelland, ACS director-at-large, told the crowd at a special trisectional event in Michigan this April. "The lines drawn in the sand around other sciences have all been blown away."

Thanks to a joint effort between the ACS Detroit, Toledo, and Huron Valley Sections, approximately 2,800 curious visitors were introduced to cross-disciplinary science at Astronomy & Chemistry Day. The Cranbrook Institute of Science in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., hosted the event as part of its Centennial Day celebration, which drew thousands of community attendees in addition to ACS members and their families.

Kevin L. Perry, chemist at General Motors and chair of the Detroit Section, led the efforts of the three local sections together with the Warren (Mich.) Astronomical Society to host Astronomy & Chemistry Day. The team's efforts included hands-on activities, a chemistry trivia game show, and a talk by retired astronaut Col. Jack R. Lousma.

Mary Kay Heidtke, Magni Industries chemist and member of the Detroit Section, worked with Edith P. Klingberg, visiting assistant chemistry professor at the University of Toledo and Toledo Section member, to choose experiments from existing ACS literature that would appeal to children and would highlight aeronautic or earth science chemistry.

Volunteers from each section staffed the experiment tables for three hours. Among the activities, participants could synthesize a polymer by making Silly Putty from Elmer's Glue and could make volcanoes erupt by mixing baking soda and vinegar. Joseph A. Grappin, chemist at Monarch Analytical Labs and vice chair of the Toledo Section, demonstrated to visitors how dry ice behaves in a closed environment and what happens as it dissolves in water.

"The parents were just as much involved as the children," Grappin says of his experience. The adults asked just as many questions and were often "amazed" by the demonstrations, he says.

Concurrently, the astronomical society hosted a table where children could make their own star charts and staffed a viewing area outside using various types of telescopes. Volunteers also led discussions in Cranbrook's observatory, which features a 6-inch refracting telescope that allows viewers to safely examine the sun's surface.

In addition to recruiting member volunteers, the ACS trisectional team approached local student affiliates to participate in the event. Under the direction of Detroit Section member Mark A. Benvenuto, professor of chemistry at the University of Detroit Mercy, the school's Chemistry Club developed and hosted a trivia game show that gave audience members a chance to win prizes by answering questions in five chemistry-related categories. Students from the University of Toledo were also on hand to staff tables and pass out learning materials.

For many attendees, the highlight of the day was the talk by Lousma and the chance afterward to meet and greet him and his wife, Gratia. Lousma, a Michigan native, was a reconnaissance and attack jet pilot for the U.S. Marine Corps before being selected as an astronaut by NASA in 1966. He piloted Skylab-3 in 1973, and he was the spacecraft commander of the third orbital test flight of the shuttle Columbia in 1982.

As part of his talk, Lousma showed what he called "home movies from space," an edited version of video taken by the crew during the Columbia test flight's eight-day mission. In a question-and-answer session after the talk, Lousma told the audience he supports continued efforts to send humans into space.

"This is a risky business," he said, "but there's very little in life worth doing that has been achieved without some risk." He added that he and other astronauts have signed a petition being sent to President George W. Bush asking that a human-operated flight be sent to fix the aging Hubble telescope. NASA canceled future Hubble service missions in the wake of last year's Columbia disaster (C&EN, March 1, page 24), a decision that has provoked considerable controversy.


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