September 21, 2005

Talk on Rovers Kicks Off Science Cabaret

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The inaugural session of Ithaca’s Science Cabaret kicked off yesterday with mood lighting and tales of Martian explorations. The Science Cabaret, which was inspired by the European Cafe Scientifique, differs from more conventional lecture formats both in its location (The Lost Dog Cafe’s lounge) and its general atmosphere. Rather than simply acting as an audience for a public speaker, the attendees of the Science Cabaret are empowered to participate in group discussions on the topic at hand.

The topic of discussion for this months meeting of Ithaca’s Science Cabaret was the images and aesthetics of roving around Mars via the Mars Exploration Rover as explained by Prof. Jim Bell, astronomy. The presentation was entitled “Postcards from Mars: A Personal Journey with the Rovers,” which is also the working title of a book on the same subject which Bell is working on.

Staying true to the spirit of an informal, discussion-oriented format, the room in which the Cabaret was held was lit by colorful lamps and Christmas lights strung along the walls. In place of auditorium seating rows there were couches, armchairs and benches. In place of fold-up desks there were tables of various sizes and shapes. Sitting atop those tables were not notes and pencils, but numerous appetizers and glasses of wine.

“This whole event should be great for Ithacans. It’s a great science town,” Bell said at the start of his presentation. He went on to explain how “usually I get up and yammer on about the science like spectroscopy,” but that the goal of this particular presentation was to humanize the Mars rover effort.

Following this came a series of images from the two rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, which ranged from a Martian sunset to pictures of the Instrument Deployment Device (IDD), or the arm of the rovers. Each picture had a story behind it.

For example, the picture of the IDD had a plate with an American flag painted on it. Bell explained that this plate, present on the IDD of both rovers, is a piece of the World Trade Center.

Particularly noteworthy was the picture called “Blueberry Fields Forever.” This picture captured granules of iron-rich stone of a sort which can be found on earth due to water sedimentation.

The last picture shown was one of two pictures which were just received from the digital cameras of Spirit and Opportunity on Monday. This fact elicited a chorus of “oohs” from the audience. The image was of a stretch of Martian soil along which Opportunity will be traveling for the next leg of its adventure on the surface of Mars.

With the presentation finished, most of the sixty or so audience members departed, leaving about twenty behind to sit and discuss what they had just seen. Bell retook the stage, quieted the audience once more, and read the poem “Duet on Mars” by John Updike which was written shortly after the landing of the two rovers.

Jude Maul grad said the Mars rover pictures “are the quintessential fusion of science and art.” He went on to say “I plan on coming to future events. The format of integrating science and social activity helps to get the point of science across.”

The Mars rover pictures are available at several websites, two of which are and

Future meetings of the Science Cabaret will continue to be held on Tuesdays, though the specific week “will vary based on the schedule and needs of the speaker,” explained Shawna Williams. The specific dates for the next couple of months are Oct. 11th (a presentation entitled Science & Music of the Theremin) and Nov. 1st.

Archived article by Bryan Wolin
Sun Staff Writer