What Do Tie-dye Shirts and Desk Lamps Have to do With Science?

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Imagine turning a corner and finding two people in tye-dye shirts and pointing what look like futuristic ray guns at you.

Imagine turning a corner and finding two people in tye-dye shirts and pointing what look like futuristic ray guns at you. This is what greeted group six of the Youth Journalism Day at the Denver Post building in Denver. The two people pointing those “futuristic ray guns” were actually a part of Little Shop Of Physics. Their names are Sheila Ferguson and Brian Jones. Little Shop Of Physics is a program whose aim is to “make science visible for people and make it real for people,” as Jones said.

Today’s hands-on science experience was on thermal radiation and thermal energy. This is where those futuristic ray guns come in. They’re actually thermal cameras that show how much thermal radiation something is giving off. Thermal radiation is energy that is emitted by something above absolute zero (as cold as it can be).

There are three distinct ways that these cameras are used. The first is to determine if and where a building is wasting or losing energy. The second is finding defects in electrical systems, and the third is observing the natural world and tracking the rate of glacial melt.

We got some free time with the cameras in order to experiment with them. In doing so we learned that clouds emit more thermal radiation than the sky. This is because the clouds “bounce back” some of the thermal radiation coming from the earth. Jones termed this phenomenon “cloudshine.” “Cloudshine” is part of the reason why venus is so hot–because of the cloud cover that traps its thermal radiation.

Our next experiment consisted of four pieces of glass (Earth's atmosphere), one black plate (the Earth), and a lamp (the Sun). Our task was to hypothesize about which level would be the hottest. We measured the temperatures with small thermal thermometers which we got to keep afterwards. Most of us hypothesized that the middle layer would be warmest, so it surprised us when the highest layers were the coolest. We learned that this was because of how the the sun’s light does not interact with the gasses in the atmosphere but the thermal radiation from the earth did interact with the atmosphere’s gasses, therefore becoming “trapped” in the lower layers of our atmosphere.

When our time with them was almost up we received small, sealed pouches of fluid. Inside was a small metal disc. We were instructed to “pop” the disc. This caused the the liquid to freeze over, but also produced heat. Jones and Ferguson explained to us that this was because as the liquid froze it released energy, in the form of heat.

Both Ferguson and Jones are teachers, and at the end of their presentation they shared their favorite part of their job and the hardest part. For Jones, finding money was the hardest part, but he loves teaching others. Ferguson said “every day is different, I learn every day, and I get to work with people who are preschool through the elderly.”

Little Shop Of Physics is a twenty-three-year-old, grant-funded program dedicated to teaching people from preschool to retirement homes about science. Little Shop Of Physics also teaches teachers about science who then, in turn, teach it to kids. Every year Little Shop Of Physics visits about twenty-five to thirty schools and educates about twenty to thirty thousand people. For more information visit their website at littleshop.physics.colostate.edu.