Meet a scientist, virtually

The video conference came off well, despite some minor technical glitches and the seeming inability of some teenagers to avoid talking altogether.

We were using iChat on an eMac, with a webcam I brought from home. The video quality was pretty bad, largely because of the equipment on our end. I suspect NASA/JPL has somewhat more sophisticated video equipment. Still, you could tell there were people on the screen, despite the pixellation and slow response time.

Audio was a different issue. The audio through the network was garbled, like those early webcasts using RealPlayer. I gave up on the iChat video finally, and just connected my desk phone to their teleconference line and put it on speakerphone. Then at least we could understand what they were saying.

So, we had blocky video from iChat and somewhat clear audio from the telephone. Not ideal, but it worked.

The format was straightforward. We introduced ourselves (not individually, by schools) and the four Cassini scientists introduced themselves. Then they opened the floor to questions from the students. Each school took a turn, until the hour was up.

From what I could gather, at least two of the conferees entered the contest individually. The rest of us participated as science classes. The individual students had fairly sophisticated questions about the moons of Saturn and the planet itself; the classrooms had less technical questions. One can assume the individual students were more interested in space exploration than the typical student, and had spent more time delving into the Cassini mission.

One of our students asked the scientists which planet was their favorite. The answer was Jupiter, which was greeted with whoops and hollers. Who knew?

Another student wanted to know if you could see all of Saturn’s moons from the planet itself. That gave the Cassini guys pause to reflect, since no one had ever asked the question before. It turns out some moons are really small and hidden in the rings, so finding them would be hard.

What’s the temperature of Saturn? another asked. Not an easy answer to give, since the cloud tops are at 80 K and the core is at 1,000,000 K. There are places in the atmosphere of the gas giant that are at room temperature (293 K), but of course there’s no breathable air. It would not be a fun field trip.

I would have liked to asked about the complex hydrocarbons detected in Titan’s atmosphere, since I’m writing a post about it. But we ran out of time.

Many of my students listened intently, despite the poor audio and video quality. They included students who I did not expect to be so interested. A few seemed incapable of being absolutely quiet, but I suppose in a small room packed with 34 classmates, it would be hard to refrain from chatting. Still, I was not entirely pleased, and I told them so after the conference ended. Quiet means quiet. What’s hard to understand about that?

Whether the outcome of the conference is as successful as I had hoped remains to be seen. It was hard to hear the conferees sometimes, until I made the phone call, so you had to concentrate to understand the questions and responses. I am hoping the NASA folks recorded the session somehow so I can share it with my students. At the very least, the Cassini people looked and acted like regular folks, and not like the stereotypic scientist portrayed in the media. Two were women, which I hope will encourage my girls to consider science as a career.

All in all, it was fun, but I’m glad it’s over. Herding cats is hard work.

[The essay winners were announced in a press release while I wrote this post. None of our entries were winners, but I hope to find out which (if any) made it to the finals.]

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