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Science Communication


Game night: Tabletop scicomm and Dorito dupes

by Brianna Barbu
August 27, 2023 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 101, Issue 28


Several polyhedram dice on a sheet of paper printed with information about batteries.
Credit: Skyler Ware
Li-ion tamer: Ware created handouts for her players to learn more about batteries.

Dungeons & Dragons & dipoles

In August 2021, Skyler Ware gathered half a dozen players at a game store in Pasadena, California, for a 3 h “one shot” game of Dungeons and Dragons (D&D). Some had played D&D before, some hadn’t. But they were all there to get a side of science with their magical adventures.

Ware, a graduate student at the California Institute of Technology who studies battery electrolyte materials, had inserted elements of her research into the plot of the role-play adventure she had planned. At the beginning of the session, the players found themselves stuck in a dungeon. They each had a battery-powered teleportation device from which the batteries had been stolen.

Participants had to search their surroundings to find replacements, fighting off monsters in the process. The party eventually found a stockpile of batteries with a variety of electrolyte materials: solid, liquid, and gel. Ware provided information for each type of battery, outlining their advantages and disadvantages—for example, flammability. Once each player had chosen a battery, they had to find a way to charge it and finally make their escape.

The idea started with a STEM Ambassador workshop Ware attended in 2021 that focused on engaging with communities and building trust through shared values. Given the polarization and misinformation circulating around science issues, it’s important to have “credible messengers” for science, she tells Newscripts. Ware and her fellow workshop attendees were encouraged to think about opportunities for science outreach in nontraditional venues, focused on showing people that scientists are “more than just lab coats,” she says. Ware, who has been playing D&D for about a decade, thought it would be a good fit with her science communication goals because the game, much like real-life science, rewards creative problem-solving.

The 2021 session went well enough that Ware ran a second science-themed session, with many of the same participants, in June 2023. That adventure featured the chemistry of rust and an accompanying rust-themed monster. To prepare for the event, Ware calculated the amount of electric current required to oxidize the quantity of metal that the monster can destroy with its rust powers. For the curious: it’s in the neighborhood of 100 million electric eels’ worth.


Chip-puter tomography

A CT scan of a bag of chips.
Credit: Lumafield
Snack scanner: When you want to know what you’re getting before you open the bag

Every good game night requires sustenance. But too often, we Newscriptsters open a bag of our favorite salty snacks only to be unpleasantly surprised by the quantity or quality of the contents.

Jon Bruner doesn’t have that problem, at least not when he’s at work. Bruner is the head of marketing at Lumafield, a company that makes industrial computerized tomography (CT) scanners, so he has easy access to the tech he needs to peer inside all manner of objects, including video game controllers, an inhaler, Barbie, a beetle—and snack food.

“I think everyone, at some point, had a childhood fantasy of having x-ray vision. . . . This is basically a fulfillment of that fantasy,” Bruner tells Newscripts. “There is nothing more fun to have in your office than an industrial CT scanner.” Plus, sharing scans of stuff on social media is a great way to demonstrate to potential customers how useful Lumafield’s technology is for engineering and product design.

Starting in summer 2022, Bruner and two of his interns used their CT scanners to scan bags of Doritos, Ruffles, and Cheetos, as well as representative samples of each type of snack to get an accurate picture of the texture. They then used the chip scans to make 3D-printed replica chips that intern Jessica Velasco, an art major at the University of California, Berkeley, lovingly hand painted.

The counterfeit chips were so realistic, Bruner says, that the cleaning crew threw them away when they got left out on Jessica’s desk overnight. “We had to sort through the office garbage and recover them,” Bruner says.

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