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SHS students get taste of scientific humor

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Mariana Cardenas studies a magnet floating over a piece of material cooled by liquid nitrogen. The levitation trick had to be viewed up close by students, who also got a sense of how cold the liquid nitrogen was by watching it boil in room temperature air.

When the phone rang in Joyce Stark's science classroom and played a snippet of the theme from the Batman TV show from the 1960s, Dale Ingram told the two classes of science students that Batman's mother used to drive his school bus.

"Drive, Batman's mom, drive!" he joked later when the phone rang again.

Ingram was a special guest speaker to the classes, telling them about his work in astronomy and also giving a practical demonstration of the phases of matter using both dry ice and liquid nitrogen.

Ingram told the group of Sunnyside High School students that he is part of a group that is working to invent an entirely new field of astronomy, and that part of that project is based 15 miles west of Richland on the Hanford reservation.

The project he's involved with is called LIGO, which stands for Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory. The goal of the LIGO Hanford Observatory is to detect vibrations in space. He compared his work to the work of seismologists who work with earthquakes and oceanographers who measure wave heights.

"It's different, but there are certain unifying features," he told the students. "If two black holes collide, they make space itself shake. We try to measure that shaking."

He told the students the LIGO Hanford Observatory is funded by the National Science Foundation and is a collaboration of the California Institute of Technology and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Ingram said his work mostly involves physics and a lot of mathematics. For his demonstration, however, he planned to show some chemistry.

He then gave a demonstration of the phases of matter using wax, water, ice, solder, dry ice and liquid nitrogen.

He explained how water is an odd type of solid because it floats on its liquid form, while most types of solids, including wax, sink. Then he compared ice melting at room temperature to needing a blowtorch to melt solder.

He used a large piece of dry ice to demonstrate sublimation and then showed how much colder liquid nitrogen is by refreezing dry ice with it.

He finished his presentation with a demonstration of levitation made possible with the cooling properties of liquid nitrogen and stayed a short time after the class was over to boil some raw hot dogs in liquid nitrogen, then shatter them with a hammer.

Throughout the presentation Ingram used humor to keep the students interested while answering every question, often with a demonstration.

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