The Naked Scientists visit a Croatian high school

17 September 2018

What would it be like if The Naked Scientists visited your school? The students of MIOC high school in Zagreb, Croatia had the chance to find out. They learned all sorts of crazy things such as possible ways to die during a galaxy collision, the surprising usefulness of chocolate teapots and how fast you'd have to, erm, "pass wind" to achieve lift off!

Hi, I'm Dr Jacinta Delhaize. I'm an astrophysicist and recently had the pleasure of hosting the Naked Scientists' Dr Chris Smith when he went on tour in Croatia. During the trip, Chris and I had many adventures on our quest to share our love of science and science communication with the people of Croatia. This is Part Three of the story of the journey. (You can also check out Parts One and Two!)

During his time in the country, Chris was especially excited to meet the next generation of aspiring scientists and engineers. Chris and I got the chance to do so when we visited the 15th Gymnasium high school (commonly known as MIOC high school) in the Croatian capital city of Zagreb.

When we arrived at the school, we were greeted warmly by the school principal, Mrs Ljiljana Crnković, and led into a huge hall packed with 500 very clever and eager students. The students were bursting to ask all kinds of curious science questions and we wasted no time.

A tour of the universe

As a warm up, we went on a quick tour of the entire universe. (It was of course a virtual tour, since superluminal travel hasn't quite been invented yet!) First we discussed the Big Bang Theory. Yes, I'm referring to the beginning of the universe, but I'm also referring to the TV show by the same name! Perhaps you've seen it? The students correctly identified that the character of Raj on the show is an astrophysicist. But I pointed out that unlike Raj, most astrophysicists have no problem speaking to women...and some astrophysicists actually are women. Like me!

We also spoke about violent star deaths called supernova explosions and the neutron star or black hole that can sometimes be left behind as the 'star fossil'. The students were curious to know more about the recent detection of gravitational waves. So we talked about how the gravitational waves were generated by the dramatic collision of two exotic neutron stars, which caused ripples in the very fabric of spacetime.

Above: Jacinta talks about neutron stars, black holes and gravitational waves.

But it's not only neutron stars which can collide. Sometimes entire galaxies - each containing billions of stars - can collide with one another. The students wanted to know what would happen if the Milky Way collided with another galaxy. So we spoke about how we'd see some pretty impressive light shows in the sky as new stars burst to life, but then we'd be wiped out by supernova explosions when they died. We could also be destroyed by the powerful energy released by the supermassive black hole at the centre of the galaxy if it was 'switched on' by the galaxy collision and started feeding on the gas around it!

Naked Science

After that sobering experience, it was time for Chris to take the stage for the main event! Chris told us about the Naked Scientists radio show, podcast and website, but most of us were already big fans! He then explored several of the world’s most pressing questions, deliberated by ancient philosophers for centuries. Here are some of them.

Above: MIOC high school students in Croatia meet the Naked Scientists' Dr Chris Smith.

Exactly how useful is a chocolate teapot?

You've probably heard the saying "...as useful as a chocolate teapot," meaning that something is really not very useful. But is this saying actually justified? The idea is that if you put hot tea in a teapot made of chocolate, then it would simply melt to bits in seconds, leaving you with a mess on your tablecloth and a very empty teacup. 

The Naked Scientists wanted to know if this was actually true or not. So, naturally, they went right ahead and made a chocolate teapot! The students heard all about the hilarious experiment and the surprising results. If you too would like to know the results of the experiment, you can check it out here.

Can you achieve lift-off by farting?

Every action has an equal and opposite reaction, right? Well, what if you could make a gaseous bowel movement so powerful that it could overcome the force of gravity which holds you onto the planet? Chris and the students discussed exactly how powerful this toot would have to be to launch you even a fraction into the air. The trick is to consider your own mass, the mass of the gas you're expelling, and the force of gravity upon you. The answer is that you'd have to let rip at an incredible 17,000 kilometres per second, which is around 18% of the speed of light! The Naked Scientists give more details on the physics of farting here.

How fast is a sneeze?

Sometimes sneezes can be pretty violent, particularly during hay fever season! Chris and the students discussed an experiement set up by the Naked Scientists to figure out exactly how fast a sneeze is. The experiment involved a high speed camera, an A4 sheet of paper and some pepper. Can you guess what they did and what the answer is? Find out here.

The students get a turn

After these revelatory discussions, it was time for the students to challenge Chris with their most burning science questions. Chris has an impressive general knowledge of all areas of science, but even he was kept on his toes by the many creative queries of the students.

Above: Chris answers science questions from students at the MIOC high school in Zagreb.

Several of the MIOC students shared their impressions of the experience.

“It was amazing because the Naked Scientist was able to answer all the questions we asked, and the questions were very varied,” said Dan Udier. “For example, my friend asked ‘what came first – the chicken or the egg?’ Chris even had a persuasive scientific answer to that! He’s an excellent speaker.”

Jan Dragašević said, “I asked Chris why he became a scientist and he said it’s because he was always asking ‘why?’ to everything. I think that’s a pretty good reason.”

“We’re not used to a lecture format where half the time was for asking questions,” said Neva Dobrić. “I definitely found this format a lot more interesting and it helped me to remember more.”

Mia Perkovac said “I’ve never been to a presentation like this where you actually have the chance to talk to the international speaker. There were so many people asking questions during the presentation that I didn’t get a chance myself. But after the presentation there was the opportunity to go and chat one-on-one with Chris and Jacinta.”

Science with slinkies

Before we left MIOC high school, the students and teachers showed us a science demonstration of their own. Have you ever tied two pieces of string to a slinky and then held the strings in your ears while bouncing the slinky on the floor? Well I’m not going to tell you what happens – try it at home (carefully) to find out!

According to Chris, "The students at the school were seriously impressive. Not only were they cracking jokes in English, they were scientifically extremely literate too and asked bloody hard questions! I have one word for that experience that day: wow!"

Above: Chris tries out the slinky experiment at MIOC high school.

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