John Pazmino
 NYSkies Astronomy Inc
 2010 March 21
    The new York City Science and Engineering Fair this year was 
deliberately put in March. In previous years it was menaced by winter 
storms and was cancelled completely on its 2006 run. March in New York 
is not free of winter storms, there being a massive attack on the 12th 
and 13th that caused extensive damage and killed 6 people in the City. 
However, the  chances are far lower than for a fair in February.
    So the Fair was set for Sunday the 7th of March at City College of 
new York. The fair was held there for the past many years, except for 
one when it was convened in the world Trade Center. I, as a judge, got 
notice to show up at 10:00 for instructions and breakfast. I inquired 
about details for the projects because in some prior years the 
projects were assigned to the judges before the event. This time the 
projects were distributed at the briefing meeting. 
    I and my colleague Steve Kaye of James madison High School and 
Megan David yeshiva, arranged to meet at the Kings Highway station of 
the BMT Brighton line at 08:00 EST. Steve teaches at both schools and 
mentors science fair contestants from both. 
    The hour was later than the usual 07:00 because the procedure of 
registering and judging was revised. Each year has a new procedure. 
This year's allowed us to start off for the Fair an hour later. 
Kings Highway 
    This station is under a complete rebuild with many entrances and 
platforms closed. This work is done under full train load with minimal 
interruption to service. The main entry, however, was more or less 
intact, so that's where we gathered.
    I traveled by bus to the Brighton line and train to the very 
station. i got there at about 07:30. I didn't have breakfast yet so i 
stopped in a Mc Donald's a few doors down the block from the subway.
    I met Mr Harvey, Steve's coworker at his city high school. I 
recognized him but forgot his name. I joked that he was from Steve's 
yeshiva. Others sitting nearby were startled! Mr Harvey is black. 
    I had a muffin thingie that for all the world tasted like a 
regular McDonald's item, with egg and ham in it. The area around the 
train station is glatt Jewish Orthodox. I imagined that the 
restaurants would offer only kosher items. In this case there should 
be no ham with the egg. 
    At first I thought the ham was really veal, a close substitute for 
ham in kosher meals. But meat and dairy, the eggs, still don't belong 
together in a kosher meal. 
    Later, at the station, Steve explained that most fast-food chains 
don't consider local customs and serve the same standard items at all 
their branches. This McDonald's does good business because it's near 
the station and receives customers from outside the Orthodox district. 
Observant Jews simply pass it up. 
    Mr Harvey had some of the high school kids with him, all chowing 
down breakfast. We finished quickly, still before 08:00, and walked 
back to the subway. Steve showed up with two of his yeshiva students 
and a third, final, one arrived a moment later. The gang of us with 
the eight kids in tow boarded the train to the City at about 08:10. 
    Typicly the weather for the Fair is winter. A heavy coat and hat 
are needed. This time the sir was really mild! i wore a thin hooded 
jacket. All the others, too, wore light outer jackets. The Sun was 
brilliant, just about all snow from storms of weeks past was melted 
    As the train rolled across Manhattan Bridge on the way to the City 
we all admired the deep blue clear air and dazzling Sun. All riders in 
our wagon wore only light jackets, no hats or scarfs. 
    On the City College campus when Steve, Mr Harvey, and I had to 
cross from the Fair's office in one building to the exhibits in an 
other, we went with no jacket. We left them under an exhibit table.
Train to the City
    Due to reroutings on this weekend, we rode the Brighton train all 
the way to Herald Square and changed to a Concourse train there. The 
transfer went smoothly without too much straying. With three adults 
for the eight students, herding was pretty easy.. 
    We were whacked by a reroute we didn't know about. All trains were 
running local in 8th Av along the way to City College! By the normal 
express route, the trip would have been some ten minutes quicker. So 
we clunked along stop after stop until at last we arrived at 145th St 
station in Hamilton Heights. It was then almost 09:00, about within 
time to get the students gonged in at the registration desk.
    We reminded the students that if they go to City College this is 
the trip they'll have to make every day. i recounted how i did this 
when I had 8 o'clock classes. I had to be IN MY SEAT at 8, so LEFT MY 
house at 6 in the morning! In winter this was a very trying chore.
    I explained I preferred this early hour over taking a class late 
in the afternoon. At those years it was not a good idea to hang around 
the campus after dark, like when a late class lets out. The College 
was at the ground zero of the Harlem civil rights unrest. 
Hamilton Grange 
    City College sits on a bluff in Hamilton Heights, Manhattan,  
overlooking St Nicholas Park on its east flank. The park is a hillside 
about 30 meters tall, beyond which, to the east, is the Harlem Plains, 
abode of the Harlem district of manhattan. 
    On the crest of the bluff, in Convent Avenue near the College 
stood the house of Alexander Hamilton, Hamilton Grange. It was moved 
to this location ages ago when the local streets were laid down.The 
house is part of the national park Service property with tours and 
cultural events. In front stood a statue of Hamilton.
    The house was partially cut back to make room for a newer church 
next door, but the bulk of its structure remained intact, if not all 
that well maintained. When I was in school the grange was in full 
decay with vandalism and graffiti. 
    In 2009 the National Park Service and the NYC Department of parks 
relocated the entire house from its street location to inside St 
Nicholas Park. It is visible from the patio of the College's Steinman 
Hall on 140th St. It is set low enough to look over its roof to the 
valley beyond and has new paths and entries at 141st Street and 
Convent Av. 
    Steve photoessayed the move. He with hundreds of other history 
buffs watched a gigantic mobile gantry enclose the house, lift it off 
of its foundation stones, and crawl it around to the new spot in the 
park. Convent Av was closed to traffic for the move, which Steve said 
took a couple days. He did not see it in its final site since then. 
    We detoured the students to see the house. First we stopped at the 
old site, now vacant with only the foundation stones and, curiously, 
the statue. Then we walked over to the Steinman patio to inspect the 
new location. The kids were impressed by the sight, looking like a 
colonial residence surrounded by wooded land.
At City College
    Like in previous years the fair was staged in Great Hall of the 
College's Shepard Hall and the fair office, with breakfast and lunch 
were in a newer academic center across Convent Avenue. We herded the 
students into Shepard Hall to muster them in and get them to their 
exhibit tables. They had plenty of time to set up their exhibits, it 
being then only about 09:15 and judging didn't begin until 11:00. 
    Mr Harvey, Steve, and I went across the street for the breakfast 
and briefing. There were about 350 judges filling the whole faculty 
dining room. All were wolfing down plates heaped with hot and cold 
food and going back for seconds. I took a second helping of some items 
and wrapped a few muffins to munch on later.
    The briefing was, ahem, brief with sketchy instructions about the 
judging process. The main point was to gauge the exhibit by several 
categories, listed on the scoring sheets. SInce i worked the Fair for 
several years, i knew what was meant, if it was not clara mente 
stated. Same with Steve and Mr Harvey. 
Project assignments 
    We were asked to shift to tables labeled with our judging 
categories. Since many judges were given two or more categories, they 
had to pick a principal one and sit at its table. We found later that 
this made the judges miss projects from their other topics!
    Fair crew dropped on each table a package of papers, explained by 
the barker by microphone. The package had project scoring sheets and 
descriptions for each topic, one per table, which we should divvy up 
among those at the table. There were in my pack for 'Earth and 
planetary science' three copies for each of six projects. But there 
were only four of us at the table! 
    An agent explained that each project has to be visited three ties, 
once for each copy of the scoring sheet, so please make sure each 
person at the table has a full set of different projects. Well, 
(6project ) * (3 copies) / (4 judges) is not an integer. We divided 
the sheets into 4 or 5 per judge. Each project would be visited by 3 
judges but not the SAME 4 judges. 
    We asked about projects for other categories, like in my case 
Engineering. the crew said that we're stuck with only the projects for 
the table we're sitting at. There are judges already at the 
engineering table. 
    Judging is form 11:00 to 14:00. Then there is a public viewing of 
the exhibits from 14:00 thru 16:00. Students must remain at their 
booths thru the public visits, but may take a break to get a boxed 
lunch from a room near Great Hall. 
    Judges turn in their score sheet at a nearby room in Shepard Hall 
and then go to the faculty hall for lunch. After that they may go 
home. We three had to stay until 4 o'clock to shepherd the high school 
and yeshiva kids back to Brooklyn. 
The judging
    We three nailed one of Steve's students to mind our coats and 
bags. We slided them under his table and left them there until we went 
home. The weather was warm enough to walk around outdoors without the 
jackets. For taking pictures, I carried my camera in my pocket. 
    Each judge made the rounds of his projects as they were open to 
receive him. If a project was occupied by a judge, we skipped it to 
come back later. There was no prescribed order to circulate among the 
projects. So long as all of the exhibits assigned to us were visited 
and scored we id well.
    We did not have to combine or compare score after the judging. In 
certain prior fairs, the judges for a given category assembled in a 
work room and did up a combined score for their projects. this time we 
each handed in our individual sheets. 
    Because the projects were assigned at the last moment before 
judging, at the tables in the faculty dining room, there was no prior 
screening for conflict of interest. The barker advised us to pass up a 
project we personally helped with by exchanging it for an other one 
from an other judge. In my case there was no concern because i did not 
assist any project this year. 
    Along with the project material, we got stickers for each judge. 
We affixed one each to our score sheets so the score and judge can be 
correlated by the Fair office. By this procedure the student had no 
inkling of who will judge him, only that he better be on hand for 
three visits. After the third visit he may go out for lunch. 
The exhibits
    Apparently there were far fewer exhibits this year due to stricter 
qualifications. Only students who did lab or project work were 
admitted. This excluded most high school freshmen and sophomores, 
Example of 'project work' is an Intel application. This is the 
nationwide science compo that was formerly run by Westinghouse. 
    I guess there were 500 booths in Great hall, assayed by the fill 
factor of the tables and the width of aisles between them.
    There seemed to be looser rules for the exhibits. The boards were 
of far more varied size, some with headsigns. SOme exhibits had props, 
usually a gross no-no in prior years. Lettering and signs were more 
erratic in quality from scrawled crayon to neat computer typography. 
    Offsetting this seeming decline of exhibit quality was the greatly 
enhanced caliber of the students. at all of my projects the students 
showed excellent knowledge of their work, answered questions fully and 
carefully, even corrected me when I made a 'mistake' in understanding 
the work. 
    All of my projects related to terrestrial science with nothing for 
other planets. There were astronomy projects elsewhere on the floor, 
mostly for the Physics category. 
Time flow
    For our table of earth and Planetary Science, we had too few 
projects for a full load for our judges. We split the projects 4-5-4-5 
with me having five projects. I had three hours to inspect five 
exhibits, a pace that allowed me to dwell at each for about 20 minutes 
still lots of slack time to take pictures or look at other exhibits. 
    I looked over the scoring points and then discussed the exhibit 
with the students. i made sure that I weaved these points into the 
dialog to extract a score for them. As it turned out, all of my 
projects were quite good, the main variation being in the 
presentation. A couple dialogs or the display were a bit weak. 
Otherwise, I scored them pretty high. 
    One of my exhibits concerned the earthquake in Spitak, Armenia. I 
visited this earthquake in the 1980s! The student's eyes opened as 
wide as dishes!! He never heard of any one from Armenia except for 
Aremenian immigrants! I explained that i was an astronomer on tour to, 
among other places, Byurakan Observatory near Yerevan and saw the 
devastation of the earthquake at Spitak. 
    We chatted about Armenia, Soviet Union, Georgia, and such. Of 
course, I scored him solely on the integrity of the project, which was 
q clever one about monitoring certain outgassing in the soil at the 
quake site. This effect could be a potential clue to a oncoming quake. 
New observatory in New York City? 
    I took my slack time to study other exhibits. Because i was 
wearing a judge's badge, the kids took me for one of their judges and 
flipped into spiel mode. I put them at ease so they could relax and 
discuss their exhibit without fear of scoring. 
    One was a very intriguing one that comes back to me from about 
fifteen years ago! One way to detect cosmic particles ('ray' is being 
eased out of use for particulate radiation) is by scintillation. When 
a cosmic particle hits a dense medium, like water, it slows a bit, 
releasing energy as light. 
    This light emission is also slowed in the medium due to the 
refractive index. refractive index is in fact the ratio of the 
lightspeed in air, or vacuum, to that within the medium. For water 
this is about 4/3.
    The particle slows only a tiny bit, so it is within the medium 
travelling faster than its emitted light, the Cherenkov radiation 
effect. This luminance is detecter by a scintillation counter or 
photometer mounted in the medium. 
    In Argentina there is a large array of these scintillation 
counters built into tanks of water deployed over about a 100km radius. 
The tanks were built specially for this cosmic particle observatory 
and are functioning quite well in monitoring the influx of particles.
    New York University on and off had interest in cosmic particles 
going back to the 1920s. In its present revival the idea of building a 
scintillation network at the campus is under study. The detectors and 
monitoring apparatus are easy enough to buy or build, but what about 
tanks of water?
    The notion sprang up to avail of EXISTING tanks of water ALREADY 
deployed over a large area all over the City. There are some 15,000 
wood tanks of municipal water on the roofs of just about every mid to 
high rise building on manhattan. Can these be fitted with photometers 
to watch for cosmic radiation?
    Studies are underway to determine the feasibility and safety of 
converting roof tanks into cosmic particle observatories! NYU figures 
to assemble a grid of about 500 tanks spaced about 1/2 km apart all 
over Manhattan. 
    The instant student's exhibit was to test the geometric placement 
of scintillation counters for best coverage of the sky and for 
capturing the most particles. 
Public viewing 
    Steve, Mr Harvey, and I planned to assemble at the back of Great 
Hall at 1:30PM for handing in the scores and going for lunch. We all 
had only a few projects, with Steve having about ten. He was busily 
visiting exhibits until quite 13:30 before wrapping up his work.
    we turned in our papers, collected a thank-you gift, and piucked 
up a lunch voucher. This was in addition to snacks provided in the 
    we headed for the faculty hall with stern instructions to the 
students to be at their tables at 16:00. They were free after the 
judging for their own lunch and for the public viewing, but they had 
to fall in for the ride home. 
    Lunch was a selection of combos that fit within the voucher value 
of $7. Steve and I took a chicken cutlet sandwich with potatos and 
soft drink. Mr Harvey took a hamburger meal. Back in Great Hall we 
scooped up some of the snacks to munch on until 4 o'clock. we 
separated to cruise the exhibits or take a stroll in the balmy air. 
    The exhibit hall now was an olio of noise and crowds. The place 
was filed wall to wall with adults milling around and clogging the 
aisles! I suspect most were parents or teachers coming for their kids. 
They bunched up in gaggles here and there. Te students horsed around, 
played games, took naps. 
    By 3:30 the exhibits were coming down. First one, than an other. 
By 3:45 most were dissembled. Mr Harvey gathered his students and left 
a bit early. Steve and I collected our set of kids, helped them pack 
their exhibits, fetched our jackets and bags. 
    At quite 16:00 we saddled up for the ride home, retracing our 
steps to the subway at 145th St station. The ride home was just a 
quirky as the ride to the College, yet comfortable with no time 
Celestial finale
    I got off at Av J station, near my house, while Steve and students 
continued to Kings Highway. The sky was clear, amazingly so. By the 
time I arrived at my house the twilight was waning into full night. 
Stars of 2nd magnitude were plainly seen, including the whole Winter 
Hexagon in the south. 
    I was annoyed by a persistent white speck low in the sky to the 
west. As I walked I realized it was not some local lamp or reflection. 
What was it? I took alt-azm measurements and noted the hour.
    At home I scooted to an upstairs room facing the west, with a 
lower skyline and less tree and wire interference. The speck was still 
there, now in open sky. A planetarium program verified my hunch. It 
was Venus! I saw venus hundreds of time before low in the west but I 
can't recall seeing her so low and so close to the Sun. After a few 
more minutes Venus sank behind houses to cap off a long tiring, but 
happy, science fair.