Her eyes safely behind goggles and hands cloaked in thick work gloves, Madeline LeCuyer began shoving the 2-foot-long balloon into the flask of vaporous, surging, ultracold liquid.
Madeline and another spectator helped Drew Weisenberger, a Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility scientist, show just what liquid nitrogen, a chemical that boils at -320 degrees Fahrenheit, can do.
The cryogenics (supercold) demonstration, one of many beneath a white tent in a Jefferson Lab parking lot, was just one of several hands-on exhibits held beneath Saturday's sunny skies. Banners proclaimed that "Science is Cool" while many of the Lab's scientists had a little fun at their own expense, wearing T-shirts proclaiming: "It's all geek to me."
The lawn and street outside the lab's main building also featured booths and activities from other labs and museums.
As Madeline and her partner submerged their balloons in the frothing substance, the slender balloons shrank to their uninflated shape. After a few seconds, the balloons were removed and slowly regained their form as they warmed.
"It was pretty cool," Madeline, 11, of Newport News, said of working with liquid nitrogen. And about what it did to the balloon? "That was, like, really weird. It was collapsing under my hand."
Weisenberger and additional audience helpers also used liquid nitrogen to freeze flowers and crush them like potato chips, and rubber squash balls that shattered like pottery when dropped. He also poured the chemical into a teakettle, which began whistling from the escaping vapor.
Supercold liquids such as liquid nitrogen and liquid helium, with a boiling point of -456 degrees, are key to the work at Jefferson Lab, 12000 Jefferson Avenue. Liquid helium is used to cool the lab's accelerator or atom smasher to speed up an electron beam before it collides with a target atom. It's part of a process is called "superconducting": Electric currents run faster through wires or vessels that are very cold.
Separating atoms allows scientists to study how their particles behave. It gives them a better idea of how things are put together.
Next to the cryogenics demonstrations were 10 colored buckets filled with soapy water and plastic racquets and other devices to make bubbles, from the Children's Museum of Virginia of Portsmouth. No bucket was left alone for long and the air above them was filled with the clear orbs that reflected glimmers of sunlight as they rose.
Close to the lab's front entrance, other tents featured microscopes and face painting. Virginia Air and Space Center volunteers had kids don large work gloves or use spring-loaded claws and try to pick things up to demonstrate the difficulty of assembling things in space.
At the NASA Langley Research Center tent next door, Simeon Edwards, 9, of Hampton stuck his arms in two gray foam wing sections, held them out from his shoulders and stood in front of roaring fans.
The wind blowing over the air-foils kept Simeon's arms up.
"Congratulations," said Langley test engineer Frank Quinto, who helped run the exhibit. "Now you're an airplane."
Afterward, Simeon described the sensation as "really neat," he said. "I like airplanes, and I like flying."
Simeon's mom, Louise Pair, also was impressed with the open house. She's a special education teacher specializing in technology at Heritage High School in Newport News.
"We love science and computers, and we wanted to see what the computers here look like," Pair said. "I didn't know how huge and how much memory their computers here have.
"I'm happy they opened their doors today," she said. "Especially for the kids."
At one point, Quinto put the wings on himself and stood in front of the fans. Many times he's tested model airplanes and wings in research center's wind tunnels.
Now he was a test subject.
"Being the subject for a change," Quinto said, "is a lot more fun."
Submitted: Tuesday, June 1, 1999 - 12:00am