This past weekend was extremely busy for me, between two barbecues, the Hellrush event in Hellgate, and, most importantly, the SOEST (School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology) Open House. As a graduate student in the Oceanography Department, I was obligated to help out with this biennial extravaganza in which professors and lab groups in SOEST set up displays, demonstrations, and interactive exhibits catered to the general public both inside and outside a cluster of ocean- and Earth science-related buildings on campus. Some local organizations (e.g. Waikiki Aquarium, Bishop Museum) join in the fun by setting up their own tents, and thousands of people attend. Friday is mostly groups of school children K-12, with more family crowds on Saturday.
Open House is nuts, but it's pretty fun. I bounced back and forth between my own lab group's exhibit (a wave tank demonstration) and helping out with that of another lab group that I frequently associate with (density demonstration--how a glider controls its own density--and internal wave tank). I was also able to see some of the other exhibits--more than I saw at the Open House two years ago. There was fish painting and other cute little crafts. There was a demonstration of the effects of pressure, where you use a syringe-type mechanism to pump air out of a little chamber with three or four mini marshmallows in it: they get noticeably bigger, which is pretty cool. The flashiest exhibit was the Explosive Volcano demonstration, where they explain how gas coming out of rising magma builds up pressure under the surface of the Earth until it's great enough to burst out (this is how Krakatoa and Mount St. Helen erupted, but not the way that the volcanoes on the Big Island are erupting). For the demonstration, they poured liquid nitrogen into a plastic water bottle, capped it, then quickly duct-taped it to two bricks, dropped it in a plastic trash barrel partially filled with water, put a beach ball on top for good measure, then gave it some space. We covered our ears, and about 10 seconds later BOOOOOM!!! Water splashes out of the barrel, beach ball flies up a couple stories, sound is heard across a large part of campus, and they show us the mangled remains of the water (nitrogen) bottle. Fun stuff.
Still, the COOLEST thing at the SOEST Open House 2011 had to be the remote-controlled fish balloons. I'd never seen one before, but the moment I laid eyes on the big, cute clownfish balloon swimming down the hallway, it was like Where have you been all my life? On Saturday, I tracked down the exhibit where the fish was living (apparently the dean had bought them, so they didn't actually belong to just one lab group), and I had my turn flying it around the room. It was so fun, and the novelty never wore off. Sadly, I didn't have my camera, so I have no video footage of my flying fish balloon encounter. So I'll give you this video from the fish balloon website so you know what I'm talking about:
Apparently they're called "Air Swimmers", which seems pretty appropriate. The balloons are filled with helium, but given the weight of the items attached to them they are very nearly neutrally buoyant. Ah, the magic of neutral buoyancy. With the remote control, you can make it flap its tail left and right to propel itself forward, or make it turn right or left with a single flap right or left, respectively. A weighted device on the underside of the fish slides forward and back, also controlled by remote, to make the fish tip forward or up, allowing you to make it "swim" down or up. And with that, you have a simple yet ingenious and fascinating toy that swims through the air.
They do have a few limitations. First, they'll deflate after a while (their makers claim they'll stay inflated maybe two weeks), though you can just get them refilled, I suppose. If they pop, you'll have to buy a replacement balloon. Also, they don't compete well with any sort of breeze. They're probably best indoors in places with high ceilings and lots of space to move around.
Seriously, everyone loved these balloons. Children, adults, visitors and scientists. In the short time that I spent with the balloon, I heard several children suggest they wanted one for Christmas--and several scientists say they wanted one too. I was one of them. They're available on Amazon for $39.99 (both the clownfish and shark designs), but so far I've refrained. I'm still trying to picture how well it would work in my own house, which isn't very big and doesn't have high ceilings. But I'm very tempted. I swear I'm not affiliated with Air Swimmers and do not mean this to be an advertisement for their product but... these are so AWESOME! Everyone should have one! That is all.