Outer space was brought down to Earth on Sunday as Dubliners donned scuba gear to "dive into space", kicking off this year's Science Week in Dublin.
Ireland's only aquanaut, Dr Marc Ó Gríofa, was poolside at the National Aquatic Centre to explain the relationship between microgravity, space flight and submersion to children and adults alike. Dr Ó Gríofa recently spent eight days at the bottom of the sea as part of a Nasa mission testing tools and techniques to be used in future deep space exploration.
“Water has always been used to train the astronauts in what’s called neutral buoyancy, to experience that sensation and to teach them how to work in a zero-gravity environment,” he said. “It’s not zero-gravity per se, but the water allows us to mimic as closely as possible here on Earth, the conditions that you would experience either in space or on another planetary surface.”
The parallels between deep sea and deep space don’t stop at the science behind their environments, Dr Ó Gríofa added. Foreign, alien-like landscapes have long fascinated humans and inspired their curiosity.
“One of the things that’s intrinsic to human DNA is the desire to explore. That desire to explore either the world’s oceans, or deep space harkens back to the discovery of the new world by Columbus, by Shackleton,” he added. “There’s so much that we don’t understand about both environments, and so many lessons that we can take from them to really help drive them both forward.”
This intergalactic experience underwater is the brainchild of Dr Aoibheann Bird, who promotes public engagement with science education for the Insight Centre for Data Analytics at UCD and DCU. As a kid, she always wanted to be an astronaut and started scuba diving as a way to live out her dream.
“I studied physics at DCU, and then it kind of came to me – maybe that’s why I took up scuba diving,” Dr Bird said. “I kind of thought, well if I’m not going to become an astronaut, then maybe I’ll try to have this weightless experience underwater.”
Sunday's event is one of 120 running this week across the Republic aiming to bring the joy of scientific understanding to the general public. Volunteers say the interactivity of Ireland's Science Week engages people of all ages, highlighting research that is happening right now in Ireland and making it more accessible for everyone.
Passion for science
“One of the biggest criticisms that you hear of science and STEM education is that kids get bored – it’s words on a page,” Dr Ó Gríofa said. “But what we’re trying to do is to introduce people and students to what it all really means. Put them in the pool, let them actually experience it, then talk about it . . . really inspiring that passion for science that in some cases has been lost, opening it up to the general public, and maybe creating the pathway for some student out there to be Ireland’s first astronaut.”
For the next seven days, the public are invited to explore everything from the science behind high-performance sport and wearable technologies, to the physics of circus skills and the chemical composition of gin. Co-ordinated by Science Foundation Ireland, the State's 21st annual celebration of science is taking place nationwide with events and festivals in cities including Galway, Limerick, Kerry and Cork.
You can find more details about what else is happening in Dublin and around the country as part of Science Week at scienceweek.ie.