2010 Annual Science Report

University of Wisconsin Reporting  |  SEP 2009 – AUG 2010

EPO Activity: Project 6B: Astrobiology Night at the Ballpark

Project Progress

On Friday, June 4th the Wisconsin Astrobiology Research Consortium took to the Madison Mallards Ballpark to teach the public about astrobiology and NASA research. PI’s, grad students and post docs all pitched in to staff various outreach tables. A few researchers even donned “planetary body” costumes and became Europa, Titan, Mars and Earth to communicate about habitability in our Solar System. Over 5,550 baseball fans were in attendance that night.

As fans entered the park, volunteers passed out 1,000 sets of “Life in the Extremes” trading cards. [FIGURE 1 – welcome to the ballpark] Each pack contained nine cards, each of which featured a different extremophile group (e.g. halophiles, thermophiles, barophiles). In the spirit of baseball trading cards, the front of the card has a picture while the back has more detailed “stats” on the microbes.

After making it through the gates, visitors to the park that night had the chance to learn about our team’s work at four different areas staffed by WARC scientists and UW Geology Museum volunteers. * At the “It’s A Bird… It’s a Plane….” station, fans could learn about meteorites and their influence on our understanding of the age of the Earth and the composition of the Solar System. This station also capitalized on public excitement surrounding the April 14, 2010 meteor seen over southwestern Wisconsin with over 70 fragments recovered. * “The Original X-philes” highlighted extremophiles using a “How Extreme Are You?” challenge where people could taste the salinity of three different waters: tap water, ocean water, and hypersaline water. WARC graduate and undergraduate students and Co-I Eric Roden staffed this table. [FIGURE 2 – Co-I Eric Roden at the extremophile table] * Roaming the entrance area were members of the station “Home Sweet Home – Habitability in the Solar System”. Wearing planetary body costumes for Earth, Mars, Europa and Titan, these post-docs and graduate students chatted with the public about what makes a particular environment habitable, and where we’re looking for life in our Solar System. [FIGURE 3 – a kid talks with “Mars” about the possibility of life being found there] [FIGURE 4 – kids talk with “Earth” and compare it to the other costume planetary bodies at the ballpark that night] * “Time… is on my Mind” addressed radiometric dating and Earth’s oldest rocks including a large piece of Morton Gneiss, a 3.6 billion year old rock from Minnesota. WARC graduate students and collaborator Aaron Cavosie from the University of Puerto Rico worked here. [FIGURE 5 – WARC graduate student Jason Huberty talks about Earth’s oldest rocks and impact events] [FIGURE 6 – Collaborator Aaron Cavosie from the University of Puerto Rico at the Earth’s oldest rocks table]

We invited another science outreach organization to join us this night at the ballpark. UW Space Place (University of Wisconsin’s space outreach facility) brought telescopes and did some stargazing with fans.

Once seated and before the game started, two NASA videos were played on the field’s video board. “Phoenix – A Tribute” and “Looking for Life in All the Right Places” were chosen to give context to the work that our researchers are doing. Incidentally, WARC Co-I Max Coleman is featured in “Looking for Life in All the Right Places.”

To kick off the game, WARC graduate students Liz Percak-Dennett and Jason Huberty threw out first pitches with the rest of the students and post-docs from the WARC team out at the mound with them. [FIGURE 7 – first pitcher with Storm Troopers]

During the third inning break, we had a habitability race where kids from the audience donned the Earth, Mars, Europa and Titan costumes to race the bases while the crowd cheered them on. The announcer introduced each child with brief habitability information about their respective planetary body.

As a final give-away for the night, green flying saucer frisbees with an astrobiology timeline on it were thrown into the stands by the WARC team. These had links to the NAI website as well as alienearths.org as places to go for more information about astrobiology.

After visiting our educational stations near the entrance to the ballpark, seventy-five people completed evaluation forms about their experience interacting with WARC personnel, learning about astrobiology. Responses follow:

“This event has helped me learn new things about the search for life in space.”
83 percent responded “agree” or “strongly agree”

“This event has made me want to learn more about the search for life in space.”
89 percent responded “agree” or “strongly agree”

“This event has increased my interest in science.”
82 percent responded “agree” or “strongly agree”