'Science on Saturday' series to open at Bankhead
By Lou Fancher
If Saturday morning lectures about shale gas, electricity, hydrology or seismic activity sound a tad weighty, try fishing, wandering in the woods with a favorite grandparent, gazing at clouds in wind-swept skies or wondering about waves.
After all, these are the early forces that attracted four top scientists at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory to their professions.
At "Science on Saturday," a four-week series of free, one-hour lectures geared for middle and high school students and copresented with local high school science teachers, Livermore's Bankhead Theater becomes a virtual lab.
Livermore Lab scientists Roger Aines, Jeff Mirocha, Andy Thompson and Arthur Rodgers will speak during the month of February on subjects relating to fire, wind, water and earth. Clustered under the umbrella of elemental sciences, the foursome share an enthusiasm powered by childhood experiences.
Aines said in an email that his grandfather had a Ph.D. in horticulture and introduced the deodar cedar and other plants to the United States.
"He always wanted to know what was new and fascinating in science," Aines recalled.
The 31-year Livermore resident holds 15 patents and has focused mostly on carbon-based fuel production since joining the lab in 1984. He says science and engineering can be used to resolve negative problems like the environmental risks and challenges of natural gas energy production while retaining the positive gains made in safety and developing clean fuels.
His talk Saturday will address the general energy system -- the carbon dioxide generated by the amount we use, for example -- and explain the pros and cons of the controversial practice known as fracking as America moves away from coal to natural gas.
"Our goal is to get kids thinking about where their energy comes from, the choices they have in using it and the challenges for their careers in coming up with environmentally appropriate energy methods that meet the world's needs," he said.
Mirocha, discussing "green power" on Feb. 14, has been fascinated by the dynamic atmosphere as long as he can recall. Its elements are always in motion, whether peaceful on a calm day or howling with the fury of a tornado, blizzard, or thunderstorm.
"I think kids are often more informed about issues related to the environment than many adults, due to them not feeling like they have it all figured out already," Mirocha said.
Naturally creative, eager to find solutions themselves, able to adapt to the rapid rate of scientific discovery in a global, Internet-connected world, he said the role of an educator is "to guide that innate desire" of students.
Mirocha has been at the lab for 10 years, and his talk will explore life "outside of the cave" on a planet where burning fossil fuels for energy is enhancing the "greenhouse effect." Applying the "precautionary principle" by obtaining more energy from wind and solar, he will use animated slides and physical demonstrations to help students visualize renewable energy models needed to protect our planet.
On Feb 21, Thompson will present an "ant-less" ant farm hydrology lecture that harks back to his early interest in water in the West.
Growing up in Nevada before pursuing a degree in civil engineering in New England, a Christmas break fishing trip at a desert lake near Reno sparked a question--often the first tease a budding scientist follows to build a career.
"The lake and its history got me to thinking about water in Nevada and its future in the West," Thompson said.
After 28 years at the lab, he said many people have fundamental knowledge about aboveground water -- coming from rain, water taps, reservoirs and leaky roofs -- but "groundwater" is a foreign concept slowly shedding its mystery.
"We know and have heard about wells," Thomson said. "We talk about "mountain springs" and read about "artesian well water," but what, really, are they?"
To answer that question and explain groundwater movement and pollution, Thompson will use a model showing a cross-section of under-the-surface earth that resembles an ant farm.
"There are no ants moving around in tunnels. Just water moving around in the pore spaces of the sands, gravels and clays," he explained.
Wrapping up the series with a bang (and some shaking), Rodgers' Feb. 28 demonstration will explain a phenomenon all too familiar to people in California: earthquakes.
A seismologist at the lab since 1997, it's likely the Oakland resident lives close to the Hayward Fault. Attracted to waves and an expert in why they occur, Rodgers said kids always have lot of questions about earthquakes.
"In Northern California, earthquakes are deeply tied to our history, so even if kids have not experienced them, they are curious," he said.
The manner in which energy is transmitted across space by waves -- resulting in forces powerful enough to move the earth, cast sound across great distances or impact other processes in nature -- he said helps him to understand how the world works.
Examining their histories, considering their careers' work, the four scientists will complete a cycle -- or continue a wave -- by fostering young minds eager for answers at "Science on Saturday."