Sunday, July 22, 2007

The Astro Wizard

I bet you thought this would be more Harry Potter, right?

No, the Astro Wizard is a Bay Area scientist who finds time to serve as program director at Chabot Space and Science Center while entertaining at kid's birthday parties on the side. We saw him for the first time last year, at Hidden Villa's stargazing party, and the kids enjoyed it so much we decided to go again this year. We've seen science entertainment for kids a couple of other places, and the Astro Wizard is nowhere near as polished. What he lacks in showbiz, though, he makes up for with genuine enthusiasm for science and kids. "Isn't that cool?" is a favorite expression. And judging from the crowd of kids dogging his every footstep, they thought yes, indeed, that stuff was cool.

Which is funny, because a lot of his presentation consists of toys anybody could buy in a store or on the internet. And he'll tell you that too, not just where he got it but also why and how much it cost. Have you all seen the little black container that will project a hologram on the top of an object placed inside? An excellent illustration of parabolic mirrors. An odd contraption that sets a magnet to spinning so that it floats in the air? Magnetic fields and conservation of angular momentum. A device that shoots a string out into a loop and lights it with UV light? Well, that's just fun.

Some of his material is more spectacular, though -- the rocket fuel explosions are something I haven't seen anywhere else. And even though you can see the Mentos and Diet Coke fountains on the internet any time you want, it's still fun for everyone to see them live. He also burns magnesium and gun cotton in a pyrotechnic effect he calls the Big Bang.

Apparently he also has a portable planetarium, but of course it would have been silly to bring that along. When it was time to look at stars we just stepped outside, where he pointed out constellations, galaxies, and planets with his laser pointer. That was my favorite part.

There were telescopes set up out in the field, too, but very few of the kids wanted to tear themselves away from him to go look through them.

And even though it was getting late, he still had time to focus on each individual child to answer their questions and hear what they had to say ("I have a red flashlight!" "Cool!") and sing them little songs about astronomy, and explode some more rocket fuel for them. We were exhausted when we finally left.


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