It’s an unspoken rule of most fields of science that experiments should take place in a lab, yet for the past three years Dublin’s Science Gallery has been hosting public experiments where visitors can both observe and take part. Not toy experiments either, but ‘real’ research.
One example is an experiment on the lifetime of soap films performed by Trinity College Dublin’s foams and complex systems group, the results of which are due to be published in the American Journal of Physics. The experiment was part of Bubble, an exhibition that the gallery, an interdisciplinary science and art centre, put on in 2009.
In 2008 the Science Gallery launched a series of ‘lab’ exhibitions with Lab in the Gallery, an attempt to recreate a research lab within the gallery space. A number of experiments on attention were carried out, using gallery visitors as subjects. Professor Ian Robertson of Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience, one of the curators of the exhibition, told the Euroscientist that experiments were designed to fit the environment, including a specially constructed booth for collecting EEG data.
Lab in the Gallery was a success, attracting thousands of visitors, and data was collected from over 2,500 subjects. Robertson says that this is an immense amount of data, normal lab experiments of this type typically having tens or twenties of participants. This highlights one of the main benefits of these public experiments, that by combining experiment with entertainment, participation numbers increase by orders of magnitude. PhD student Aaron Meagher, one of the researchers involved in the Bubble experiment, believes that the amount of the data they collected more than compensates for any noise created by the busy gallery environment (and control experiments were carried out to check the results).
Another bonus is the interaction between scientists and gallery visitors. “I think it’s a great opportunity for scientists to explain in practical hands-on terms how it is that we go about investigating problems” says Professor Shane O’Mara, director of Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience, and curator of the recent Memory Lab, which investigated various aspects of memory. Then there are the experiments that do not work out, which are also an important part of how science works. As it says on the Science Gallery page for one such experiment in 2009, “welcome to the highs and lows of research!” As O’Mara says, “Interesting problems tend to be complex, and we don’t do anybody any favours by pretending that things are any simpler than they are.”
So far so good for the Science Gallery’s public experiments then? The foams group experienced some difficulty getting their paper published, which Meagher believes is due to the non-laboratory environment. However, it is now being published in a higher ranked journal than originally planned. Asked whether they would do the whole thing again, O’Mara and Robertson answered with a definite yes, but Meagher would prefer to stick with his usual lab. That’s understandable though, given that during Bubble his iPod fell out of his pocket and was gleefully stamped on and broken by a small child. The highs and lows of research indeed.
Featured image credit: CC BY-SA 3.0 by Infoeco