On Moon Deniers (And Other Stories of Science Communication At Burning Man)

The moon over the mountains in Gerlach, NV. Photo credit @natha_ttack on Instagram.

It was a warm desert night and I was on a walk with my campmates down the main drag of Black Rock City. Burning Man 2019 had opened its gates less than 24 hours before, and we were taking a break from our camp build to enjoy the first official night of the event. At around 2AM we stopped to admire a beautiful, orange crescent moon rise just above the Man. Standing in awe, we excitedly shouted at passersby and pointed towards the horizon.

“Look at the moon!” We insisted. A man on his bike stopped next to us and complied.

“That’s not the moon”, he said, incredulous.

“What do you mean that’s not the moon? That is obviously the moon!” we responded.

“No. That’s a fake moon—it’s one of the art projects! Why else would it be so big and just coming up this late at night?” The passerby’s friend exclaimed as he pulled up on his bike.

To the credit of the participants, there actually was a fake moon art project the year before.  It confused a lot of people. But what we saw here was a different misconception—that the moon comes up when the sun goes down. This was exactly the kind of conversation my campmates and I had come to Burning Man to address.

We carefully explained the difference between the Earth’s orbit around the sun and the moon’s orbit around Earth, helping our fellow BRC citizens understand what they were seeing in the sky. By the end, they understood that it was in fact the real moon. The passersby were not only grateful, but also genuinely excited for the clarification.

“We had just told another group that it was a fake moon”, they said. “But now we’ll know how to prove that it isn’t the next time someone asks.”

This was the first of many interactions my campmates and I would have over the course of the week. Our crew of fifteen scientists, engineers, and science enthusiasts were part of a new camp we called Wonderland, whose goal was to bring the wonder of science to the playa. Not only were we excited to host “Ask a (Sober-ish) Scientist” events, we had also come prepared with daily interactive science demos to engage people from all ages, backgrounds, and levels of sobriety.

For some context, Burning Man is a week-long event that happens in the Black Rock Desert near Gerlach, Nevada in August of every year. While it started as a small gathering in the late 80s, it has since grown to attract over 80,000 participants who build a temporary settlement known as Black Rock City (it’s official enough to be on Google Maps) that is famous for art, music, and parties, among other things. These participants come from all over the world, giving Wonderland a unique opportunity to reach a diverse audience for our science communication project.

The playa certainly provided us with that audience. While BRC may has more PhD’s per capita than any other city in the US, there is also a concerning amount of pseudoscience that gets tossed around in daily conversations. While I know scientists who consider this the last place they would want to talk about their research, I have never been one to turn down the challenge of communicating science in unlikely environments.

This year was my fifth year at the burn, which is how I came to be a co-lead for our group of eleven newcomers and three veterans. Not only do I have experience going to Burning Man, but my science degrees and science communication background made me a good fit to bring our vision to the playa. Our group was determined to share our love of science with our community, and I was going to do everything I could to make that happen.

We spent six months planning our demos and building our infrastructure. This included a 16’ diameter geodesic dome we called the Wonderdome, an art project we called the Wonderwall, a small demo space, and a very special swing set. After two days of building pre-event, we opened our doors to the city on Monday with a “Science Museum Open House” in the dome.

Wonderland Frontage
Me standing in our frontage. You can see the edge of the Wonderwall on the left, next to the Wonderdome, our demo space, and the swing set.

We were a relatively small camp nestled into the 3 o’clock side of the city, so we didn’t get a ton of traffic. But among the crowd we did attract by barking “We’ve got science! Come get you’re science here!” over a bedazzled megaphone included everyone from a pair of children dressed as Alice and the Cheshire Cat to drag queens to leathered veterans to probably high ravers in beaded headdresses.

Our Wonderwall, where participants could both ask and answer “burning” questions.

We welcomed each newcomer to our camp and invited them to write a “burning” question on our Wonderwall, then come back later to see if anyone had answered it. “What does this have to do with science?” I heard one participant ask. “The first part of being a good scientist,” explained Amanda, the art lead on the project, “is learning how to ask good questions. You can’t be a scientist if you’re not curious!”


Bismuth necklace
A necklace made with low-melt bismuth alloy in one of our demos.

After the Wonderwall, we’d bring our guests to the demo table where we had rotating activities from psychedelic trivia led by our resident psychiatrist, low-melt metal forging with bismuth alloys that could be used to make jewelry or figurines, and cyanoprinting in which participants harnessed the power photochemistry to make permanent images with shadows.

Especially curious participants were asked if they’d like a “shocking revelation”, at which point we would turn on our Van Der Graaf generator. This machine produced static electricity that could be used to shock a neighboring participant. Most people chose to share that shock with an electric high five. My favorite was when a newly married couple leaned in for a kiss, a zap of electricity momentarily visible between their lips before they jumped back with delighted smiles.

After the participants had had enough of the ferrofluid and magnets, phi tops and hand boilers, we’d finally ask if they wanted to ride our swing set. The swing itself was about 16 feet tall and wrapped entirely in mylar foil. At night, it was illuminated with chase-effect rainbow LED strips. We called it the giant coupled oscillator companion kinetic swing. (There’s a joke there if you can find it.)

In order for the demonstration to work, one participant would sit in each of the two hammock-style seats. We would then instruct them to move as little as possible, especially not to try to make themselves swing. Then one of our campmates would start pushing the first of the two participants.

As the first participant began to swing, the second would also move. This in itself caused a lot of surprise. But after a few seconds, both participants would look up and see that there was a small twist in the ropes between the two swings. This knot is what coupled their oscillations.

As the two participants swung back and forth, the first would start to slow down as the second absorbed all of their kinetic energy until they had almost the full reach of the original swinger. The moment of amazement came when the person who was first pushed came to a full stop, the second participant still swinging. And then the second swinger would start to slow down, eventually to a full stop, as the first began his swing again. This would go back and forth until the full system lost its energy and both swingers stopped completely.

“How does this work?!” The swingers would question us, excited and curious. We’d explain that the two swings used ropes that were exactly the same length and had been twisted at the top. The mass of the swingers was not a huge factor. Because the ropes were the same length, the swings could oscillate back and forth with the same frequency. This meant that each swing had almost the perfect amount of energy to transfer to the other, allowing for a smooth transfer of that kinetic energy between the swingers.

“I’m stealing your energy!” A woman in a leopard bodysuit giggled at her companion in the other swing.

“You can’t steal my energy if I’m giving it to you willingly!” He shouted back, holding onto a sequined captain’s hat.

“Technically, the energy belongs to the whole system,” I explained. “The two of you are connected, coupled actually, by that shared energy for as long as you stay in the swing.”

The two smiled and laughed. Then they got off the swing to hug each other and go off again into the night.

Occasionally, another trained scientist would visit our camp. One day, a man with face tattoos, a clean vest, and bachelor’s degree in physics asked to ride the swing. We gave him the basic explanation, but then the project lead joined in. MJ had used his PhD in physics to blow up a common desktop physics demo into the swing set that was now the centerpiece of our camp.

“If you want to get really complicated,” MJ chimed in, “not only are you equal pendulums, but you are also giant electrons!”

Because electrons are quantized, or can only have specific energies, only photons of a particular energy can excite a given electron. In the case of the swingers, the first participant to start swinging was basically emitting energy through a photon (the twist in the rope) that was of the exact right energy to excite the second electron i.e. the second swinger.

This was my favorite of the explanations, and I used every opportunity I could to share it with our visitors. I even tried it on a girl dressed in a princess costume who couldn’t be more than seven years old. I wasn’t actually expecting her to understand it completely, but was still delighted by her response.

“I love energy!” she proclaimed.

“I love energy, too!” I told her. “And I’m so excited to share that with you.”

Of course we had other more challenging conversations—sometimes about vaccines, sometimes about climate change, often about making illegal substances. More than one conversation about quantum mechanics took a sharp turn into metaphysics. This was to be expected. We never had any illusions about the limits of our outreach. That didn’t stop us from trying to make meaningful connections with strangers through our love of science.

Every person who walked away from Wonderland thanked us for teaching them something new. Many of them said that they had never thought science could be fun because of bad experiences they had had in the past. Yet here they were, riding a swing and learning about electrons.

I’m not claiming that we are going to change the world. Nor am I claiming that our efforts are unique. We are certainly not the first camp centered around science outreach in BRC. While it’s not clear if Wonderland will return to playa in 2020, I am still proud of what we did in the one week we had.

If anything, I’m glad to know that one less person believes the moon is fake.

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