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3 October University: big science for small people

‘I already gave a talk about planets when I was five.’ With the theme of the 3 October celebrations being ‘Jong geleerd is oud gedaan’ (meaning something like, ‘You’re never too young to learn’), this year’s 3 October University was especially for children. Many parents came with their offspring to hear what fabulous tales the scientists had to tell.

3 October University 2019
A song and a dance to tempting passers-by into the tent.

Held in a tent in Van der Werf Park, 3 October University is an oasis of scientific calm in the midst of all the rowdiness outside. With the theme of this year’s celebration being Jong geleerd is oud gedaan (meaning something like ‘You’re never too young to learn’), this year’s 3 October University is especially for children. And to mark the University’s 444th anniversary the children can choose from four lectures.

As usual, co-organiser Augustinus student association has provided the compère – this year Annemijn te Velde – and its entire board is out in force. Again as usual, a group of young women in sparkly hats and waistcoats sing and dance their socks off to tempt passers-by inside. All reassuringly familiar, therefore, which makes the presence of so many children a breath of fresh air.

3 October University 2019

Zoey (8)at ‘Can orangutans fall in love?’

TV presenter Ajouad el Miloudi knows how to get a young audience fired up. He flies back and forth across the stage asking the children questions and throwing in the odd joke, some of which are more for the adults than for the children. Then it is time for psychology PhD candidate, Tom Roth, to answer the question of whether orangutans can fall in love.

‘I still don’t really know the answer,’ says Zoey after the talk. And she isn’t the only one. Orangutans definitely like some of their fellow apes more than others, but whether they really fall in love...?


3 October University 2019
Aljouad el Miloudi (r) introduces psychologist Tom Roth.

The big, desirable males climb a tree and produce a call announcing that they are ready for a female. The female that responds stays with him for a few days of intensive grooming. And more... Then the female leaves, often pregnant. They may meet again, but only a year later, in the same situation. Is that love? Tom Roth says: ‘It could be, but we don’t know.’

Zoey says she found it an interesting talk anyway because she learnt something. Even if it is only that scientists don’t know everything. She loves animals and that is one of the reasons why she and her mum have come to this lecture. And she knows that being in love is a nice feeling because when asked if she has ever experienced it herself she bashfully says: ‘Yes.’

3 October University 2019

Jaro (8) at ‘How do you dig up a dinosaur?’

‘No,’ is Jaro’s frank answer when asked whether he has come to the tent especially for the dinosaur talk. ‘It was my idea,’ calls his older brother Kai. Jaro does like nature though.

Anne Schulp, a dinosaur expert at Naturalis Biodiversity Center, races through the centuries and soil layers, ending up at the Cretaceous Period, when the fierce-looking, three-metres-tall Triceratops walked the earth. A team from Naturalis dug up the skeleton of one of these herbivores in Missouri, in the US. Schulp shows that ‘dig up’ is actually the wrong term here because the bones are generally in a fossilised layer. Part of this is excavated to see what kind of bone it is. Then large pieces of stone with bones and all are cut out and transported in a container to Naturalis where they are further ‘unpacked.’ Digging up a dinosaur skeleton is therefore more of a question of (life-sized) drills and chisels than of a spade and brush.

3 October University 2019
Anne Schulp from Naturalis talks about digging up dinosaurs.

Jaro says he enjoyed the talk. It was a bit difficult here and there, but there are some things that he will definitely remember. ‘That you do a lot with very big and very small equipment. And I also liked the story about the stone.’ He means the one about the grapholite: Triceratops ate stones that ground plant remains in their stomach. These stones, which became extremely smooth and round in the process, and are sometimes found among the bones. ‘And the three types of bone,’ says Jaro. Schulp showed photos of a real bone, a replica bone – a 3D print to replace a missing bone – and a bone that had already been dyed in the colour of the skeleton. Jaro now knows that this is how the Triceratops was built in Naturalis.

3 October University 2019
Mats (l) and Fedde.

Fedde (6) and Mats (8) at ‘How do you identify fake news on the internet?’

‘I watch Jeugdjournaal [children’s news show, ed.],’ Mats tells the audience during Alexander Pleijter’s talk on fact-checking news. Pleijter can reassure him that what is said there is always true. But Mats knew that already, he says afterwards. ‘We are sometimes asked to find things from Jeugdjournaal on the internet and you usually find the same thing. Then you know that it’s true.’

Pleijter shows the audience a photo of an extremely old woman in a hospital bed with a newborn baby in her arms. ‘Ninety-eight-year-old woman gives birth to a healthy child,’ is the headline of the story. The whole room snorts, including the children. They also know that 98 is too old to have a baby. But how can you prove that this is fake news? By entering the photo – right mouse click – into Google Images. Then Google shows the other articles this photo is used in. And then you find the piece saying that this old woman didn’t want to die before she had seen her first great-grandchild. That’s a very different story.

3 October University 2019
Alexander Pleijter show how to unmask fake news.

‘Did you understand what it was about?’ we ask Fedde afterwards.

‘No,’ he declares – apparently he’s too young for the topic.

Mats is already sitting on the lowest branch of a tree by the canal that he is climbing. But he first has to come back and answer a few questions. He knows what it was about, he says, but that was through school. Of course he’s on the internet. What does he like doing? ‘Gaming, watching films on YouTube about gaming and watching funny films.’ That doesn’t involve much in the way of news – real or fake.

The subject of the fourth lecture, extraterrestrial life, sounds appealing. Fedde, Mats and their father decide to stay.

3 October University 2019
Another Zoey.

Another Zoey (6) at ‘How do you discover extraterrestrial worlds?’

Leave it up to astronomer Ignas Snellen to involve children in his story. He immediately gets three of them, including Zoey, to come on stage and hold up three balls. Using them to represent the sun, the moon and the earth, Snellen demonstrates why we sometimes see all and sometimes half of the moon.

He tells the children that it’s clear that there is no extraterrestrial life in our own solar system. But there are many more solar systems with a central sun and planets revolving around it. Our southern neighbours, the Belgians, have recently charted one, with seven planets. They called it Trappist. Yes, it was after the beer. Life, Snellen adds, isn’t possible if it is too hot or too cold on a planet. ‘But something in between, like ours...? That would definitely be possible.’ Perhaps there is life on one of the planets in the Trappist...? The only thing is that these other solar systems are very far away, a journey of ten, 50 or even 500 years. ‘That makes it very difficult to go and have a look. But we may be able to see something from the earth with the biggest telescope ever, which is currently being built.’

3 October University 2019
Ignas Snellen holding ‘the sun.’

Zoey says that she already knows many of the stars and planets. She is learning about them with her father. ‘I gave a talk about it at school when I was five,’ she says. She didn’t really learn much new from the lecture, but she did find it interesting. She wants to learn a lot more about astronomy when she’s older. ‘I’d love to be an astronaut.’ It’s pleasing to be able to tell her that the most famous female astronomer in the world works at Leiden University: Ewine van Dishoeck. That should provide some encouragement.

Snellen presents Zoey with ‘the earth,’ a globe in the form of a beachball, and says she can keep it. She beams from ear to ear.

Text: Corine Hendriks
Photos: Eelkje Colmjon
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