Wavelength helps Penn students take their love of science out of this world

On the last Sunday in September, several rare events occurred all at once. A total lunar eclipse coincided with the moon’s closest point in its orbit of Earth. While this was happening overhead, Philadelphia’s streets were absent of cars and filled with people, due to a historic visit from Pope Francis.

Wavelength, a student group based in the Department of Physics & Astronomy in the School of Arts & Sciences (SAS), took advantage of this unusual conflux. With “#lunareclipse” trending on Twitter, they set up a telescope on the Walnut Street Bridge to give passers-by an up-close view of the moon, dubbed by some the “super blood moon,” and provide insight into the phenomenon.

Graduate students David Sliski and Rachel Wolf co-founded Wavelength last year as a way of galvanizing public outreach activities for fellow students. Their motivation stemmed from the idea that 21st century scientists need to do more than just keep up on the latest research with journal clubs and other inward-facing activities. Working alongside SAS’s Science Outreach Initiative, which helps faculty members fulfill the “broader impacts” requirements of grant funding, Wavelength helps students take their love of science into the community at large.

“Scientists are people,” Sliski says. “We don’t just want to hide in a building; we want to speak to the world. Connecting with the public is an exciting aspect of astronomy, regardless of your culture, education, or income. Being fascinated by the night sky is something that’s universal.”

Sliski, along with fellow Physics & Astronomy students, is actively engaging the public through a partnership with The Franklin Institute’s Night Skies in the Observatory series. Wolf, one of the coordinators of Education & Public Outreach for the Dark Energy Survey, writes features such as DEScientist of the Week, which shares the research interests and hobbies of the scientists working on the international dark energy project.

Other Physics & Astronomy graduate students have found different ways to get involved. Mehmet Noyan and Madeleine Phillips work with TRiO Veterans Upward Bound to prepare veterans for their return to college. Nathan Lourie and Tom Dodson provide mentorship for underserved students through the iPraxis program. Nicholas Galitzki conducts impromptu sky-viewing parties with his traveling #popscope telescope. Saul Kohn, Ashley Baker, and Christina Krawiec have participated in The Franklin Institute’s summer camp program. And all group members are also encouraged to build up a presence on Twitter and Facebook so that people outside of academia will have familiar faces to ask scientific questions.

Wavelength’s ultimate goal is to provide the public with a different way of looking at the world. Its members hope that by sharing their enthusiasm—even just by encouraging people to look through a telescope for the first time—they can increase scientific literacy in Philadelphia and beyond.

“Every time we have one of these events, I tell people, ‘Photons that leave the sun travel for 500 million miles to Jupiter, and another 400 million miles back to Earth, but the ones that hit your eye through the telescope are just for you.’” Sliski says. “That’s a change of perspective that’s going to stick with you.”