Preposterous Universe

Monday, May 10, 2004

Any physicist knows the most common responses when you first tell someone what you do for a living -- "I hated physics in high school" being the consensus pick for number one. Which is not inconsistent with the fact that people are fascinated by the actual physics that we do, whether it's studying dark energy or the physics of crumpling paper. Our education system, for whatever reasons, tends to scare people away from science more than it draws them in.

Which is why the work of Project Exploration is so wonderful. Founded and run by Paul Sereno and Gabrielle Lyon, PE works to get children (especially girls and inner-city kids) interested in science by using one of the greatest draws we have: dinosaurs. Paul is an celebrated paleontologist who is our best living approximation to Indiana Jones; his wife Gabe is a professional educator who is really the soul of PE. In the short time they've been in operation, they've already made a tangible difference in a lot of people's lives; as just one measure, almost all of the children who work with PE end up going to college, while it's a good bet that almost none of them would have if it hadn't been for the project.

Their latest brilliant idea is to display dinosaurs in a good approximation of their natural habitat -- the Giants exhibition shows fossils and exhibits amidst the plant life at the Garfield Park Conservatory. It's an impressive exhibit, very worth checking out if your're in Chicago. I visited Saturday night for the Fourth Annual Dinosaur Dinner, a gala benefit for PE. It was great fun, including a benefit auction of items like a dinosaur-femur bench and a dinner with Paul and Gabe. (This is my new standard for success in life: when I can auction off dinner with myself in a reasonable expectation that someone other than my Mom would bid for it.)

Gabe is interested in expanding the purview of Project Exploration to include other types of science. We both think it would be fun next year to have a Dark Energy Dinner, where everyone comes dressed in black. Watch this space for updates to see if it will come to pass.

The other celebrity I got to meet at the dinner was Barak Obama, our Democratic nominee for US Senate from Illinois. In a thirty-second conversation, he came off as extremely intelligent and engaging (which is his job, I suppose). I mentioned that I had endorsed him on my blog, and he was curious about the blogging process -- how much time it took, etc. It's about time we get someone in government who has a UofC affiliation but is not a crazy neoconservative, so I'm rooting hard for him.

Ideas on culture, science, politics.
Sean Carroll

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