Hundreds of children and their parents attended daytime event at the National Museum of the American Indian in September for hands-on activities and fun — and to learn about light and light technologies.
Earlier this month, as I crunched the crushstone and pounded the pavement on a sticky, late-summer Saturday, the singular thought occurred to me that the day had finally arrived. Nearly an entire year’s worth of preparation, countless contributions by a dizzying number of volunteers, weekly meetings over the phone for months, late night wrangling over last minute details, and it had all come down to this: hundreds of children having fun as their parents and caregivers watched.
As the half-day event called “Wonders of Light: Family Science Fun” was getting started at the National Museum of the American Indian, I was wandering the adjacent promenade, handing out fliers to families. Some of the same families I saw again later that afternoon, participating in the event.
Children floated from booth to booth making prisms out of pieces of scotch tape and glasses from glue and foam cut shapes. Parents beamed, alternatively bending over the displays to interact with their sons and daughters and then standing back, cell phones up, snapping photos and capturing videos — their own fun memories of this cornerstone U.S. events in the yearlong celebration of the International Year of Light and Light-Based Technologies (IYL 2015).
It was a steamy, rain-soaked afternoon in downtown Washington D.C. — the perfect day to spend at a cool, dry and gorgeous public space like the National Museum of the American Indian.
The Perfect Venue for a Fantastic Event
The museum is part of the Smithsonian, that beloved collection of galleries lining the National Mall, a grassy stretch of open park land between the Washington Monument and the Capitol Dome. It’s where American presidents stand to be inaugurated and where protesters gather from time to time to wave signs and shout slogans. It’s where families flock in the summer months to go to museums and take in special event like this one. It’s where you will find local hipsters sipping sangria at free Friday night jazz concerts.
Wonders of Light was sponsored by the National Science Foundation, and it was one of two events that took place that day. The other was titled “Light for a Better World: A Celebration of U.S. Innovation” and took place at the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) building. I described it in an earlier blog here. You can also read the blog from NSF Director France Córdova describing both events here.
Along with NSF and NAS, the other organizers of the two events included The Optical Society, American Institute of Physics, American Physical Society, IEEE Photonics Society and SPIE.
The National Museum of the American Indian generously agreed to host the daytime event, and it turned out to be the perfect venue. Its large central atrium is airy and impressive, and it has a large circular space on the ground floor where the participating organizations set up booths and offered hands-on projects, including holograms, interactive video games, infrared cell phone camera technology, laser transmitters and a green screen where aspiring young television broadcasters could practice their chops.
The organizations hosting booths included ThorLabs, Inc., AIP’s Society of Physics Students, Open Photonics, Inc., Opto-electronic and Light-wave Engineering Group from North Carolina State University, SPIE student chapter at the College of Optics and Photonics at the University of Central Florida, Michigan Light Project, IEEE Photonics Society, Distributed Electronic Cosmic-Ray Observatory, Center for Integrated Access Networks, Bio and Nano-Photonics Laboratory at the University of California at Los Angeles, Inside Science News Service, Full Body Physics, Laboratory for Advance Semiconductor Epitaxy University at the University of Texas at Austin, Laser-Tec, Midwest Photonics Education Center, NASA and the New England chapter of The Optical Society.
Finally, in the center of the room, an interactive light installation called the Radiance Orb entertained a line of children playing with its control panel and delighting in its dancing LED display.
Next Day Event at the “Torpedo Factory”
The next day I followed the orb across the Potomac river to Alexandria, VA where it was featured as a temporary installation at an event in a local institution called the Torpedo Factory, which bills itself as the largest collection of publicly accessible working artist studios in the United States.
This building has a strange history. It was an eponymous munitions factory built after World War I and soon shuttered but then recommissioned and sent into production overdrive during World War II. When the war ended, the building became a government warehouse, storing everything from dusty congressional papers to captured Nazi documents to newly-discovered dinosaur bones. Eventually ownership passed from the U.S. government to the City of Alexandria, and in the early 1970s, the space was taken over by a number of local artists who occupied it, built out small studios and gallery spaces and have worked there ever since.
As my family and I worked our way through the crowd, the thought occurred to me that this wasn’t just your run-of-the-mill throng of Sunday window shoppers sauntering from artist to artist and space to space. People were there to look at art and take in the entertainment — musicians, singers and dancers and of course the orb.
The group we watched was called The Alexandria Singers, who had just come back from Salzburg, Austria where they sang Sound of Music tunes in the same Alpine hills where the movie was set. In Alexandria, they sang a number of other Rodgers and Hammerstein tunes, and we watched nearly the entire hour-long set before wandering off down King street in search of brunch. As my seven-year-old son tugged at my arm to go, I looked at the Orb one last time. I had marveled at it in Paris, watched my kids play with it in the National Museum of the American Indian the day before and saw it share the stage with Nobel Laureates and captains of industry Saturday night and now said goodbye.
As we walked out into the bright northern Virginia afternoon, The Alexandria Singers were belting out the song, “Getting to Know You.”
Jason Socrates Bardi is the Director of News and Media Services at the American Institute of Physics. He is a writer, photographer and videographer with a background in basic biomedical research on HIV/AIDS drug resistance. He obtained degrees in English, mathematics and physics from the University of Hartford in Connecticut and two separate master’s degrees in molecular biophysics and science writing from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, and he has worked as a science writer and/or senior press officer at NASA, the National Institutes of Health and the University of California, San Francisco.