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Ideafest: Making science accessible and fun

A Lego model of a large particle accelerator is just one Ideafest contribution from the University of Victoria’s Department of Physics and Astronomy.
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John Willis, associate professor in UVic's department of physics and astronomy.

A Lego model of a large particle accelerator is just one Ideafest contribution from the University of Victoria’s Department of Physics and Astronomy.

“It’s really accurate,” said John Willis, associate professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Victoria.

The model, built entirely to scale, is a facsimile of the Large Hadron Collider built near Geneva, part of the Centre for European Nuclear Research. An undergraduate student in astronomy and physics built the model. “And we hope that will get the young kids involved, that they see Lego and they will immediately get hooked,” Willis said.

The real thing in Geneva is being used by UVic graduate students to collect data to further their own research.

Willis said he hopes those graduate students can make presentations at Ideafest to excite the audience with their enthusiasm.

“I give a lot of public presentations,” Willis said. “And it’s almost like when people see me, they view me as some kind of authority figure and they think: ‘Oh, I could never to that.’ ”

“But when young members of an audience see 25-year-olds give a presentation about their research and show pictures of themselves next to a large particle collider in Switzerland or going up in a telescope in Chile, they think: ‘OK, I could so do that,’ ” he said.

For Ideafest, Willis’s department wants to demonstrate the wide breadth of science it is conducting. That’s why the session is called From Quarks to Quasars.

“Quarks to Quasars,” said Willis. “We thought: ‘Let’s go from the smallest particles we know to some of the furthest objects in the universe.’ ”

To start, the session will feature, in rapid succession, presentations from seven graduate students who will discuss their work. The presenting graduate students come from a wide variety of complex scientific disciplines — astronomy, particle physics and medical physics.

These grad students conduct their research using facilities and equipment all over the world: The large particle collider of the Centre for European Nuclear Research near Geneva, giant telescopes in Chile where the thin, dry atmosphere and clear nights make for great viewing, or at the B.C. Cancer Agency.

But their presentations are limited to just six minutes each and two slides.

“We want to give the audience this rapid-time blitz, a survey view of that it’s like to be a graduate student at UVic in physical science, physics and astronomy,” Willis said.

After those presentations, people can wander out to the foyer and encounter a trade-show style exhibit of booths and displays, erected by students from all levels, from undergraduate and up.

It’s there that people can see the Lego model of the Large Hadron Collider.

In another booth, a student will take some of the enormous quantities of data from that particle collider and use it to create music.

In another, visitors will be able to use virtual-reality headsets to spend two minutes flying over the surface of Pluto.

The planet’s surface details were derived from data collected from the New Horizon spacecraft, the scientific probe that encountered Pluto in 2015. The New York Times has produced a computer app to display the images using a smartphone.

Another exhibit will take a viewer to the edges of the (celestially speaking) nearby Andromeda galaxy and “zoom” into the scale of a single star. It’s all done using images derived from data collected by the Hubble Space Telescope.

“It’s almost like you are suspended above the galaxy and then go diving in,” Willis said.

“These are the exhibits that I really geek out on,” said the astrophysicist.

From Quarks to Quasars: Your Universe One Discovery at a Time is on Friday, March 10, 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. at the Bob Wright Centre.