The thought bazaar


At the inaugural Penang International Science Fair

Carbon dioxide rockets shot up from makeshift launching pads, and their plastic bottle cargo parachuted down briskly to the ground. Every zipping projectile that stabbed the dense late morning air was followed by a children’s choir of “oohs” and “aahs”. Nearby, a long queue watched the sun and sky through large side-view telescopes. One rocket caught a breeze, and its bat-like chute of black plastic and string quickly floated sideways across the front facade of the Penang International Sports Arena (PISA), amidst the cackling laughter of Astronomy enthusiasts. This was definitely the site of the Penang International Science Fair.

I walked in through the entrance and saw crowds of people moving around a maze of booths and displays like shoppers at a night market. Each booth was a white-lit assembled box of various items and contraptions of fascination. Children’s games were announced over the public address system. Throngs of science club-shirted school kids herded to and fro, gathering materials and running errands for their teammates at booths. Wide-eyed children watched a bipedal robot slowly rise from its mechanical slumber to stand on its own.

Let’s pause for a minute. The Penang Science Council was established to inspire fresh talent and generate ideas for the state. All in all, this was for profiting the community with a vibrant economy and a higher standard of living. It sounds all very utopian, but it’s symptomatic of the fair’s bewildering charm that I was amused by a robotic mechanical snake that feebly attempted to bite me with its gray Lego-block jaws. That’s the sort of charm the fair had.

Bespectacled academics nodded thoughtfully at the cubic crystalline structure of their unique silicon adhesive. The company, Penchem, is new and native to Penang. I talked to Rafiza and Khairul, two of its chemical engineers, about silicon polymers and thermal interface adhesives. A minute later, the Chief Minister was next to me, turning light emitting diodes (LEDs) off and on. I followed him to say hello, and he thanked me for coming. A young woman in a modest booth from Pharm bashfully admitted that her soil-based bacteria’s applications for plant-oil based plastics and waste water treatment were somewhat revolutionary. I had a slight existential crisis when I learned that she was only graduating with her Master’s degree this year. They also extract enzymes from marine molluscs to find useful medicinal chemicals.

Md Nasser, who teaches Mechanical Engineering at Sekolah Menengah Kebangsaan Tunku Abdul Rahman, demonstrated a “nail plunger”, a contraption that uses traction from a trigger mechanism to pull out iron nails perfectly with only one gram of force. We talked about the difficulty of mechanical patents and how each discrete part is often a patentable in a machine, something worth RM8,000 per patent. Nearby, a booth for the Malaysian Invention and Design Society (Minds) waited patiently for the next Edison. They help give out advice on how to file patents for designs and inventions.

I found a booth by First Solar. They told me they have a massive plant in Kulim where nearly all their solar cells are made. I felt a strange sense of pride in thinking that Malaysians create solar cells to be used in Europe and the US – great and mighty economic powers need us to convert their light into current.

As the day came to an end, my feet hurt and my arms were full of brochures and reading material. In the thought bazaar, you only had time to spend and attention to pay. It certainly beat a movie at a crowded cinema.

Editor’s note: We tried interviewing some kids for this article, but it was impossible to prise them away from the exhibits.

Abdul Raqib Karim is a sub-editor and researcher at Straits GT of Intersocietal and Scientific (Inas).

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