Our East Midlands local section joined Britain's first astronaut, Dr Helen Sharman, to launch this year’s Chemistry Week with a celebration of chemistry in space.
Local education coordinator Heidi Dobbs and a team of volunteers, including committee members Sarah Myers, Gwenda McIntyre and Catherine Smith, brought the chemistry of space exploration to around 350 visitors at the National Space Centre in Leicester. Dr Helen Sharman, the first British person in space and one of our 175 faces of chemistry, delivered a talk on how we use chemistry in space travel.
From the chemistry involved in making a space suit, to the reaction of kerosene and oxygen that propelled her crew to speeds of 400 km per minute, Helen showed that chemistry is integral to all aspects of space flight. She even explained how chemistry is used to turn waste liquids from space toilets into the oxygen that astronauts breathe. The waste is first turned to water, which is actually drinkable, but psychologists have recommended that astronauts don’t do that! Instead, the water is split using electrolysis into hydrogen and oxygen: the hydrogen is vented into space and the oxygen can be breathed.
Helen also believes chemistry will be central to future space missions and that it’s important to show young people the applications chemistry can have:
"The first person to walk on the surface of Mars is probably at school today. If you're at school and you fancy going to Mars, maybe being a chemist would be the best thing for you! Chemistry is going to give us new materials for space, whether we create them on earth to manufacture new spacecraft parts, or whether we mine asteroids and use those to help us get further in space – it might even enable us to create new fuel.
"It’s the pharmaceuticals that are being developed right now that will help us to resist the effects of radiation damage so that astronauts, when we go to Mars, will not die of cancer or get cataracts. And chemistry is in the new methods of propulsion that we’re developing, for example ion propulsion. Chemistry is just intrinsic to every little bit of space flight."
Visitors could also take part in a molecule hunt around the centre to find out more about different molecules associated with atmospheric chemistry and try our global experiment, Mission: Starlight, investigating how effective different materials are at blocking UV light.
Participants placed different coloured pieces of cellophane over UV-sensitive colour-changing beads and exposed them to UV light. They could then compare the beads with a colour chart to see how much UV light had passed through the cellophane. While simple to perform, the experiment has some surprising results and offered lots of opportunities for people to develop their own investigations.
"The experiment is brilliant, apart from the fact that I got it completely wrong!" said Andy McMurray, head of teaching and learning at the National Space Academy. "It’s so simple but so clever. It works at so many different levels: for my level but also for much younger people, it’s very engaging. It’s visual, it’s quick, it’s informative and it produces surprising results."
As well as being a hit with children, the experiment also fascinated older visitors, with many parents enjoying being able to join in and have their expectations challenged. "There were a couple of dads arguing over the results, so they went and did the experiment again to compare!" said volunteer Rachel Causey, a teacher at Lodge Park Academy in Northamptonshire. "Getting parents involved is really important because they inspire their kids. It empowers them with that little bit of knowledge to say 'actually, I can do that'."
Showing the real life examples and diverse applications of chemistry is very important in reaching audiences who don’t necessarily have many connections to the subject. "People who think chemistry isn’t relevant to them all of a sudden can realise that actually it’s part of our lives – it explains us, it explains the world around us, it explains what we can do" says Helen. "It helps us to improve our quality of life and it enables us to explore different parts of life and different places where life might exist. I think that’s really inspirational."
Rebecca Townsend, a research fellow at the University of Surrey, feels the process works both ways and believes it’s really beneficial for chemists to engage with different public audiences. "It gives you a perspective of how other people see chemistry and how other people see the world. You can see how other people feel about chemistry and it helps you to explain yourself from a different point of view," she says.
Our education coordinator Heidi Dobbs said the event was "the perfect start to Chemistry Week and a great celebration of our 175th anniversary" and thanked local section committee members Catherine Smith, Sarah Myers and Gwenda McIntyre, as well as the National Space Academy and the National Space Centre for their fantastic support.
As the oldest chemical society in the world, we celebrated our 175th anniversary in 2016. We wanted to mark this milestone by recognising the important contributions our community makes to the chemical sciences. We asked our members and supporters to dedicate 175 minutes to chemistry in 2016 and share their stories with us. We featured these stories throughout the year on our website, in print in RSC News, and on social media using #time4chem.
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