Frozen Aliens and Superpowers

One scientist’s approach to STEM outreach

by Jessica Spurrell, postgraduate research student, Institute of Cryogenics, University of Southampton,

Liquid nitrogen is cool. That’s a classic (and therefore hilarious) pun I like to get in before my audience does, but it’s also true. Liquid nitrogen is dramatic and a little bit dangerous, and its startling effects on everyday objects are immediate, making it a fantastic tool for science education and outreach.

When I tell people I work in cryogenics, the first thing they ask is whether or not I freeze dead people—or aliens. Of course, I immediately tell them that what they’re thinking of is “cryonics,” a completely different and much less exciting discipline (and if they ask about aliens, I ask if they’ve been watching a lot of The X-Files recently). This is the first advantage cryogenics has in engaging people in STEM subjects: It is already intriguing and otherworldly. Depending on the audience, you can describe the world of cryogenics as, for example, another, hotter planet where water is naturally found as a gas and has to be cooled by hundreds of degrees to be the liquid we recognize, or as a trip through Alice’s Looking Glass to a place where everything is similar to the world around us but a little bit skewed, and that to understand it you need to think a little bit sideways.

Typical high temperature superconductivity experiment often used in outreach demonstrations. A Nd-Fe-B magnet is levitated above a high temperature superconducting pellet cooled by liquid nitrogen. Image: Dan Goods

Typical high temperature superconductivity experiment often used in outreach demonstrations. A Nd-Fe-B magnet is levitated above a high temperature superconducting pellet cooled by liquid nitrogen. Image: Dan Goods

But as I often say to the people I’m wowing with science, let’s freeze something! That is the second brilliant quality cryogenics, and particularly demonstrations with liquid nitrogen, has in public engagement: If in doubt, freeze something and you’ll have the full attention of your audience straight away. Whether it’s a piece of rubber tube you can use to demonstrate the ductile to brittle transition of materials at low temperatures, a balloon that demonstrates both this transition and the reduction in volume of a gas on cooling, a banana you then use to hammer a nail into a piece of balsa wood, or one of those squishy aliens in eggs that freeze surprisingly well (and that help justify the headline “Frozen Aliens and Superpowers”), the very fast cooling means that even those with the shortest attention spans can see and be inspired by science in action.

What’s more, being able to explain the fact that cryogenic freezing is much more interesting than putting things in your freezer at home is due to both the very low temperature and the increased heat transfer of liquid contact opens the doorway to many more interesting and enlightening discussions.

Which brings me neatly to the third and probably most abused reason I have for feeling thoroughly privileged to be able to engage in public outreach as a cryogenic engineer: cryogenics’ versatility. With a dewar of liquid nitrogen and a bag of props—or even without these things, as I found out when asked to give a talk in a local café as part of a new Researchers Café initiative in Southampton—you can discuss so many topics, including the very basics of solids, liquids and gases; heat transfer, material properties and engineering design principles; and all the way up to the very in-depth topic of superconductivity, which I generally make an effort to get into any talk so I have an excuse to get out my favorite demo, the levitating magnet. There’s nothing quite so satisfying as seeing jaws actually drop on children, teenagers and adults alike as you use the superpowers of science to defy gravity—except, perhaps, the act itself of making that little bit of magic happen.

There are so many ways to get involved in public engagement and outreach and so many reasons to do so. It’s not just a case of increasing your “impact factor” or making sure your Research Excellence Framework report is better than those of competing institutions. It’s not about reeling in the customers or students (though of course that doesn’t hurt). I could talk for hours about creating a more educated society, about engendering interest in the STEM subjects that are often left to “someone else” to do but upon which most aspects of our lives depend, or about inspiring the next generation—indeed, as a researcher, there’s little point in me doing what I do if there isn’t someone after me to carry on where I leave off and take it to the next level. I could talk for even longer about the importance of all of us reaching out to all the members of society that STEM subjects have traditionally bypassed, and here again cryogenics is particularly demonstrative, with fantastic female role models such as Dr. Amalia Ballarino of CERN, Professor Lene Hau of Harvard University and Dr. Melora Larson of NASA Jet Propulsion Lab, to name but a few.

Outreach and the mysterious world of cryogenics go hand in protective-gloved hand for a simple reason: What we do is, in more ways than one, very cool, and it’s part of human nature to want to share that with people. And with ice-breaking topics as great as frozen aliens and superpowers, which we can physically demonstrate as well as discuss, we’re lucky in that people generally want to share it with us, too.