Visit to McMaster

I recently helped organize a small field trip to McMaster University for the staff of the York University Astronomical Observatory. Both of the Physics and Astronomy Departments at York and Mac are home to a thriving program of outreach efforts. The undergraduates, graduates, post-docs, and faculty all participate in one way or another in the various programs offered to the public. As both departments are heavily engaged, this automatically makes them great resources for each other. By travelling to McMaster, we hoped to get a glimpse of some of the things they do, learn some new ideas, as well as keep open a line of communication with the great people working there.
Here is the a pic of the group who travelled to McMaster:

The group from the York Observatory standing in front of the Burke Science Building.

Our day (thanks to Rob/Sara, our hosts) consisted of 3 major portions: a planetarium show, a tour of the McMaster Nuclear Reactor, and a demonstration of the 3D theatre on campus. Before we got to all that, however, Rob treated us to a very great game/activity you can do with big/small groups of all ages, with the very smallest of equipment/set up. The activity requires a vertical stick (in this case a dustpan), popsicle sticks, and the Sun. Here is Rob setting up the activity:

Rob setting up our activity wherein we guess the motion of the Sun. The Burke Science Building in the backgroun.
Rob explains the activity

The pole was set up in a relatively open area, and then Rob used one popsicle stick to mark the end of the shadow of the pole on the ground. The challenge to us was to then mark with our own popsicle stick where the end of the shadow will be in some given length of time; in our case 10 minutes. In the picture below Rob is explaining the activity, you can also see where all our guesses were. This is such a simple yet powerful activity that can be done in so many different situations. The longer the time frame, the harder the guess will be. It teaches not only the basic motion of the Sun across the sky, but also the act of empirical investigation. Loved it, plan to use it.
After our activity outside we headed into the McCallion Planetarium. The dome seats 35 people, here is us getting comfy right before the demonstration started.


I was very impressed by the content of the show, and it’s software’s versatility. Rob and Sara have created a space that can be very audience driven, responding to questions such as ‘can we go look at Saturn?’ WIth the touch of a button Rob could take us to exactly what we wanted to see. A very flexible program.

After the planetarium we went to check out the McMaster Nuclear Reactor. We weren’t allowed to take pictures inside the reactor, as security and regulations of reactors is very tightly controlled. However, if you check out this link, you’ll see some of the stuff we got to see. Specifically, we were able to peer down into the 15m deep light-water tank where the reactor was fissing enriched Uranium. We were actually able to SEE the Cherenkov Radiation created by the reactor. It had this beautiful blue colour that was mesmerizing. As a result of our hour long tour through the reactor we were irradiated by the same amount of radiation we’d normally absorb over a 3 day period. I highly recommend this xkcd comic on that subject. Also, on a side note, Randal Munroe of xkcd writes a blog weekly called What If? In the blog he answers questions from his fans. Check out his answer to the question: What if I took a swim in a typical spent nuclear fuel pond?
Our day ended with a demonstration of the Origins Institute’s 3D theatre, specifically the show ‘Einstein’s Universe.’
All told, I had a great time learning about McMaster’s outreach efforts, I definitely plan to take more advantage of them as a resource.