By Leonie O’Sullivan, September 25 2023—
Since its liftoff in 2013, Beakerhead has been welcoming Calgarians with open arms to both the strange and exciting elements of science. This nerd-loving festival employs the ingenuity and beauty of the arts to entice a broader audience into science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). From Sept. 14 to 17, Beakerhead’s brain masterminded Contemporary Calgary, while the body of Beakerhead kicked off at Shaw Millenium Park and Telus Spark Science Centre hosted robotics challenges.
The Brain, Contemporary Calgary
Of all the instalments I had the chance to visit, Alberta Lung was unexpectedly my favourite. Walking into this workshop, I had no idea I would be getting the opportunity not only to see an actual pig lung demonstration but also to be able to roll up my sleeves, pop some gloves on and squeeze the lungs with my own hands as a scientist hand-pumped them full of air. There is no better definition for hands-on science. They had two sets of pig lungs; one set was from a healthy pig, while the other set had been soaked in the chemicals found in vapes and cigarettes. Compared to the pink and delightfully squishy healthy lungs, the grey colour of the unhealthy lungs along with the hard feeling of its tar deposits would surely be enough to turn any smoker or vaper off.
As I stepped out of this biology-fueled workshop, I was immersed in an 80s era, as festival goers roller skated around Ken Hacke’s Forest Guides to beating music and rainbow-coloured lights. The glowing sculptures, featuring bears to bunnies, were crafted using cast acrylic. They were innovatively designed to look like ice to “Bring The Spirit Of The Animal Alive.”
I made my way to the Maker Multiplex, where the Schulich School of Engineering from the University of Calgary demonstrated high-speed 3D printing of nine-gram Dinos by layering melted plastic. To make it even better — you could fish out your favourite print from a tub full to the brim with different coloured Dinos by controlling a robot claw arm. I set my eye on a Barbie-pink Dino and used an Xbox-like controller to carefully pluck it out of the collection.
In the old planetarium, the Dome Theatre welcomed Flint — TELUS Spark Science Centre’s resident robo-dog — to demonstrate the incredible worlds of robotics and artificial intelligence (AI). Flint showed off their knowledge and skills in an unrehearsed, on-the-spot obstacle course. Their handlers also shared that Flint uses she/her pronouns and hopes to encourage more girls and women to consider careers in robotics.
The Body, Millennium Park
A theatrical night-time display of the human body brought out Calgarians in droves — and the 45-minute wait was certainly worth it. After making it to the front of the line, I began at the brain, and our senses tingled as electrically buzzing, interweaving neurons glowed around us. Just a few steps in, I had already learned that I have more brain cells than the number of stars in the Milky Way — a positive affirmation for this point of the semester.
Following on, I passed the bubbling blood-brain barrier. It was a truly immersive experience as guests held out their hands to pop the glowing red bubbles overhead. After crossing, I heard a pounding beat. I looked up to see a larger-than-life metallic heart sculpture with synchronized flames emerging with each beat — an inspiring feat of engineering and biology. At the heart, I learned I could serve 1.2 million mosquitoes a suck of blood before being totally drained — something I definitely didn’t need to know.
I visited the ol’ factory to take my nose on a journey as a marvellous piece of equipment, reminiscent of stage lighting, puffed out beautifully pungent cloudy rings to trigger some olfactory memory. After a walk down memory lane, I saw a small room with a chair beside an identical but upside-down room to learn how the lenses in our eyes work to focus an image upside down onto the retina.
I exited the body with Breathing Airways through a beautiful, colourfully lit-up tunnel — only to be loudly sneezed out at the end. I definitely was not expecting the splash of liquid I hoped was water — an apt ending to a wonderfully weird festival.
If you didn’t get the chance to visit the Beakerhead festival this time around, you don’t have to wait a whole year to get in on the fun. Beakerhead holds events throughout the year, such as Hack the House — a challenge for those aged from 14 to 21 years old interested in engineering, to transform an old piece of furniture into a rideable vehicle powered with sustainable energy.