“When I was a kid growing up in Philadelphia, my high school job was working at the Franklin Institute Science Museum. So, that sure beat flipping burgers at McDonald’s,” says Eric Wilcots, chair of the Wisconsin Science Festival steering committee, speaking of the famous science museum and the center of science education and research. “Thinking about how to convey science to the general public is something that I’ve been doing since high school. The Wisconsin Science Festival is a natural extension of that.

“I think it’s really important that we make sure that the public remains engaged in science,” he adds. “Not only what science tells us, but who scientists are. At the Wisconsin Science Festival, there will be scientists in front of people talking about science. People will realize that we are just normal, regular people.”

It goes without saying that Wilcots, associate dean for natural and mathematical sciences at University of Wisconsin-Madison, is extremely excited about the upcoming 2017 Wisconsin Science Festival November 2-5, a four-day statewide celebration where hundreds of venues throughout the state of Wisconsin participate in activities that connect people with science, technology, engineering, art and math.

Eric Wilcots, chair of the Wisconsin Science Festival steering committee.

The festival is now in its seventh year and Wilcots stresses that this is an event for all ages.

“When we started planning this back in the fall, we were thinking about what we really wanted to do and there were a couple of things that struck me. The Wisconsin Science Festival has a fantastic track record with reaching out to school kids,” Wilcots tells Madison365 in an interview in his office in South Hall on Bascom Hill on the UW-Madison campus. “During the Festival, you can see the school buses come up and just disgorge children. It’s fantastic. But I want to make sure that we have events that are geared toward an adult population, too.

Wilcots challenged the Wisconsin Science Festival committee to see if they could get 10 Science Pubs – brewpubs around Wisconsin that will host talks by UW-Madison scientists – going across the state. “Science and beer … what is not to like about that?” Wilcots asks, smiling. “And it looks like we will have 10 places around the state where there will be science and beer. We really wanted to reach out to adults, too.”

UW student Alex Chen (left) demonstrates how brain activity changes as young participants watch a computer readout at an information booth hosted by the Center for Sleep Medicine and Sleep Research at the Discovery Expo inside the Discovery Building at the University of Wisconsin-Madison on Oct. 23, 2015. The event was a part of the Wisconsin Science Festival, a statewide celebration of curiosity and science exploration held from Oct. 22-25, 2015. (Photo by Bryce Richter / UW-Madison)

Wilcots felt that another thing that they really needed to do at this Wisconsin Science Festival is to talk about climate change, science communication, and science policy. “Locally, those were important to talk about. We have a fantastic climate change panel that is looking at how a changing climate affects the things in Wisconsin that many of us hold near and dear. We‘ve got folks who are familiar with fishing. We’ve got folks from the Birkee[beiner] who will talk about what the impact of not having enough snow on the Birke. We’ve got somebody who’s talking about mosquitos. We have a mixture of folks who will talk about what climate means to the average Wisconsinite.”

New to the Wisconsin Science Festival this year will be campus-focused panels devoted to improving science communication and science policy.

The 2017 Wisconsin Science Festival headliner event will involve celebrating one of the great scientific “firsts” originating in Wisconsin — the birth of public radio — while gazing into the future of radio technology, including the search for extraterrestrial life. This will take place Friday, Nov. 3, 6-9 p.m., at the Discovery Building, 330 North Orchard Street. As part of the continuing celebration of the 100th anniversary of public broadcasting in Wisconsin, there will be a decade-by-decade interactive tour depicting broadcasting’s evolution, a working replica of the original transmitter built in 1917, and a panel discussion on the next 100 years of broadcasting.

“It was a device that Transistor created in our physics department,” Wilcots says. “So that Friday night, we will have a big splash locally about radio and what that means. As a radio astronomer, that’s going to be fun?”

Last year’s Wisconsin Science Festival
(photo courtesy of WARF)

What exactly is radio astronomy?

“The universe emits radiation at all wavelengths. Our eyes are just tuned to one tiny sliver of that. When you go to the doctor and get an X-ray, there’s radiation coming at you. It can go through your flesh, but it just reflects off your dense stuff like your bones … so you can see what happens,” Wilcots says. “The universe is emitting X-rays. When you’re driving your car and the radio is picking up a signal, that means that there is some broadcaster out there that is broadcasting … emitting waves that you are detecting. The universe is emitting all kinds of crazy things – there are jets, black holes, and all sorts of really interesting stuff that you see in the radio part of the spectrum that you are not seeing in the broad spectrum.”

The first detection of radio waves from an astronomical object was in 1932, when Karl Jansky at Bell Telephone Laboratories observed radiation coming from the Milky Way. “Jansky, who is considered the founder of Radio Technology, got his degree here at UW,” Wilcots says. “He discovered that it was coming from the constellation Sagittarius in the center of the Milky Way Galaxy. There’s a front page in the New York Times that has something about FDR’s New Deal, something about Japan invading China and then down in the corner is ‘Discovery of radio waves from the center of the galaxy.’”

The 2017 Wisconsin Science Festival also will include some of the favorite formats of past festivals, including a “Big Ideas for Busy People” segment on Saturday night focused on Big Data. “We hear all of this Big Data stuff and what does it mean? So we’re going to talk about that in a rapid-fire five minutes at a time. There are a lot of different perspectives on what that means.”

A young participant gets a closer look at a “What Makes Light Different” information booth hosted by the Madison Children’s Museum at the Discovery Expo inside the Discovery Building at the University of Wisconsin-Madison on Oct. 23, 2015. The event was a part of the Wisconsin Science Festival, a statewide celebration of curiosity and science exploration held from Oct. 22-25, 2015. (Photo by Bryce Richter / UW-Madison)

“One of the great things about the Wisconsin Science Festival is that it shows young people that they can do this, too.”

Women and people of color have been historically severely underrepresented in so many science-related fields. Wilcots says that the organizers of the Wisconsin Science Festival are well aware of this and have kept diversity in mind for the Wisconsin Science Festival.

Wisconsin Science Festival activities will take place all over the state.

“Absolutely, this is for everybody. Our panels are going to be very diverse,” he says. “We’re cognizant of the gaps that still exist and we are going to have racial, ethnic, and gender diversity.

“It’s a big event. There are lots of things going on. We have almost the entire state within an hour’s drive of a Wisconsin Science Festival event. We do try to touch on as many different areas of science as we can,” he adds. “There will really be something at the Wisconsin Science Festival for everybody … young, old, and everywhere in between. Don’t think that ‘That’s just for kids’ or “I can’t bring my kids because it’s just for adults.’ It really is for absolutely everybody. It’s all free and it’s a great chance to see the world in a different way.”

Written by David Dahmer

David Dahmer

A. David Dahmer is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Madison365.