BY ED CULLEN
Advocate staff writer
July 19, 2012
“Astronomy Night” calls to mind the 1950s, the high school rocket club, plastic pocket protectors, slide rules and no girls.
A hot night in late June finds a theater-style lecture room at LSU jammed to the ceiling with more than 100 students, high school kids from across Louisiana, LSU undergrads and undergraduates from other Louisiana colleges, as well as undergraduates from around the country.
About a third of the running shoes and flip-flops crowd are young women.
The idea is to expose students to science with demonstration chestnuts such as the Ruben’s Tube, Tesla Coil and Van de Graaff generator as well as the current work of LSU physicists and graduate students.
Tonight’s students have seen many of the classic science experiments on YouTube, but crack wise in your bedroom and you crack alone. Make wry observations in a room full of fellow future scientists, and you get laughs in real time.
An LSU physics professor named T. Gregory Guzik, assistant director of the Louisiana Space Consortium, invites freshmen and high school students to spend hundreds of hours building balloons and, then, sending those balloons with student-designed payloads to the edge of space.
“I want an academic career,” said Abi Polin, 20, a senior in physics at New York University doing summer research at LSU on a National Science Foundation grant obtained by Kip Matthews, associate professor of physics, deputy director of the medical physics graduate program at LSU, chauffeur, friend and parent-in-residence for out-of-state students studying at LSU this summer.
The $280,000 grant supports 8-10 students a summer for three years.
“That’s about a $10,000 investment in each student with more than 90 percent of the money used directly on that student for travel, housing and stipend,” Matthews said.
The Research Experience for Undergraduates program, the physics professor said, lets students from smaller schools see what bigger universities have to offer.
That’s not always the case. Sometimes, students are exposed to things they might find at their schools but REU makes it more convenient.
Some students in the program work in offices at LSU that are outside their scientific fields.
“The job market’s bad, actually,” Polin said. “At home, the physics majors get jobs on Wall Street and with Google. They’re good with numbers.”
“Physics majors are jacks of all trades,” said Matthews. “They’re good in math. They’re computer scientists. That’s the perception.”
They also yell and laugh a lot when their space balloons leave the Earth.
Guzik narrated a film that includes scenes of balloon launches in Antarctica and Texas.
“You work five years on these payloads,” Guzik said. “Suffer the breakdowns. Getting everything right. When it goes up, you’re pretty effervescent.”
Around braces in a big smile, Markita Lewis, 20, carefully articulated her feelings about her summer studies at LSU.
The Gonzales nutrition sciences major is heading for a career as a dietitian.
“That’s pretty much determined,” she said.
A program called Innovation Through Institutional Integration (I3) is why a future dietitian is watching — and enjoying — a film about balloons that reach the edge of space.
“The I3 helps you expand your general knowledge about the different areas of science,” Lewis said. “You see science programs across the campus coming together.”
At LSU, about a third of physics students are women, Matthews said. “Nationally, it’s about 25 percent.”
Myron Peters II, 12, wearing his Park Forest Middle School uniform shirt, was looking for ice cream made with the help of liquid nitrogen, not a wife.
“I came for Astronomy Night,” he said. “My dad told me about it.”
Myron’s parents, Cheryle and Myron Peters, are engineers. “My mom’s electrical, my dad’s mechanical,” said the middle schooler. Young Myron was standing in line in a lab where the ice cream was happening.
Myron was impressed by the ballooning film and an experiment using a much smaller balloon to demonstrate the heavier-than-air properties of sulfur hexaflouride.
Patricia Stevens, 21, a chemistry major at Norfolk State University in Norfolk, Va., was following the experiments in another lab and listening to the running commentary of students sitting behind her.
“There are a bunch of us from all over,” she said.
Demonstrators were having trouble getting a Tesla Coil to work.
“Tesla would be so proud,” a student said.
Nikola Tesla, a Serbian-American physicist, invented the coil that bears his name to produce high-voltage, low-current, high-frequency alternating current electricity.
Intended to transmit electrical energy without wires and used until the 1920s in sparkgap, wireless telegraphy radio transmitters, the Tesla Coil is now used mainly for entertainment, educational displays and attempts to lure students to LSU and into a life of science.