Today, (8th September 2013) was the first day of formal science events at ACS Fall, the American Chemical Society’s annual autumnal conference. This year the host city is Indianapolis, and Emma Stoye and I have come along to cover the action. From now until the 12th, I should expect to see more chemistry in the news than is normal, as the press team here are working hard to get stories from the conference into the headlines.

So it may sound a little odd that I decided to board a shuttle bus away from the conference centre, away from the press room with its free coffee and bagels, and away from room after room of scientific discussions where researchers share ideas and chew over the new results that will go on to generate headlines that we’ll publish in Chemistry World. It may almost sound like dereliction of duty when I tell you that the bus was headed to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, home of the Indy 500. But while the conference centre and nearby downtown hotels were hosting the scientific programme, the speedway was taken over by Celebrate Science Indiana, an annual event that ‘demonstrates the importance of studying science and the joy of discovery, the economic value of science, and its significance to society’.

Planned to coincide with the sudden influx of chemists to the city, this year’s Celebrate Science Indiana was essentially a one-day science festival. Flash-bang demos and classic extract-DNA-from-fruit type hands-on events jostled for attention amongst exhibitions of solar powered vehicles and high-performance tyres. Sarah Fisher, a former Indy 500 driver who became the first woman ever to take the podium back in 2000, hosted a Q&A session on the science of speedway racing, discussing the G-forces involved, the need for the right tyre design and explaining how a turbo charged engine works. In all, it was a great mix, engaging all the family through a diverse programme, which even included the opportunity for adults to be a passenger in a 100mph trip around the track.

One thing that really struck me was a demo I’d never seen at this sort of event before – a demo so simple and unassuming that it wouldn’t occur to many to include it. But there it was – on a table surrounded by rapt children was a man doing a titration. If any of the encircling children go on to study chemistry, they’ll have to do hundreds of these before they even collect an undergraduate degree, but in this context it was fascinating to them – a brand new way of answering questions about the world around them, using coloured liquids and esoteric bits of glassware. One of the presenters, whose name I didn’t catch before he vanished back into a crowd of kids, said ‘if even one of these children go on to study science and work as a scientist, we’ll have done our job today.’

Back at the conference centre, it seems the ACS couldn’t resist the opportunity to work the speedway into its scientific programme. They’ve devoted two sessions to the chemistry of racing, focussing on the development of green racing fuels, the advances in battery chemistry that will power future electric races and even the materials chemistry of asphalt. (It may surprise you to hear that atomic force microscopy, gel permeation chromatography and thermal gravimetric analysis have all been applied to study the surface of a race track.)

Many conferences have an ‘…in the community’ element, intended to reach out beyond the delegates and engage the lay public. But by combining their event with the speedway, which is culturally and historically so important to Indianapolis, the combined forces of the ACS and Celebrate Science Indiana managed something quite extraordinary. An enjoyable, educational and genuinely exciting day.


Some more pictures from Celebrate Science Indiana:


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Conference and Community – Chemistry and the Indy 500, 9.5 out of 10 based on 2 ratings
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