Monty the Python twisted gently in the hands of Millicent Wood, president of Wildlife on Wheels.
"Are you gonna let someone hold it?" asked a young boy.
"Sounds like I have a volunteer," Wood laughed, and handed the snake over. "Hold him gently," she advised. "Don't squeeze."
Pythons, Wood told the crowd around her booth, are not poisonous. They kill their prey through constriction. And although "people think of (snakes) as not having bones, actually there are more than 300 bones in a snake's body--and humans have only 206."
"Interesting facts," said the budding snake-handler, giving Monty back.
Not many people wanted to clutch the constrictor during Saturday's free Wild and Wonderful Science Festival at the UC Irvine Extension buildings, but plenty were willing to briefly touch Wood's other exhibits. Those included a Mexican red-legged tarantula, an Asian emperor scorpion called Sting, a 6-month-old golden raccoon called Tawny and Miss Chela, a South American green-winged macaw.
While showing the animals, Wood related little-known facts about them. The tarantula's bite, she said, is "no more harmful to a human than a bee sting," and the compound eye atop its head can only see distances of two or three feet.
Some persuasion was needed to make people touch the five-inch-long scorpion: "It feels like plastic, like a plastic man," Wood reassured her audience. The insect's stinger had been removed, she added: "It's like a doctor without a needle--if he doesn't have that needle, he can't give you a shot."
(Wood wore a soft neck brace, but she said later that her injury had resulted from a car accident, not a snake accident. The Los Angeles-based Wildlife on Wheels, she added, is a private nonprofit company that produces educational programs about animals for school classes and assemblies.)
The fair, a one-time-only event, was co-sponsored by the UCI Extension program, the Office of Teacher Education and the Cooperative Outdoor Program. Its purpose, according to Curt Abdouch, UCI Extension's new science coordinator, was to familiarize local residents with topics for future classes. About 1,000 people visited the six-hour festival.
Many visitors stopped by an archeological "dig" next to a parking lot. There, under the supervision of Dr. Gary Hurd, a UCI Extension instructor, people sifted through several layers of sandy dirt to find "artifacts" that Hurd had buried the day before.
Periodically Hurd warned those who wielded shovels, trowels and whisk brooms that they must dig delicately. Archeological research, he said, is "just like peeling a cake off" layer by layer, to find remains of past cultures. "When you're an archeologist, you're not just looking for neat stuff, you're looking for (evidence of) everything those people did. . . . If this was an Indian village, this is the way we'd have to do it. Real carefully and real slow," he added.
Hurd, who is currently directing the excavation of a small Shoshone village on a UCI campus hilltop, set up some sieve-like screens into which his mostly juvenile assistants shoveled dirt. The dirt fell through, and the "artifacts" were removed to the "laboratory," a nearby bench.
Those artifacts included bits of pottery and charcoal, as well as small animal bones and pennies.
"The kids would like to keep the pennies," Hurd said. "The idea is to teach them they don't get to keep things (found on a dig), not even the really great things. Archeologists don't get to keep what they find--that's what museums are for." However, he added, "I know some of the pennies are going to come up missing--so I'll just pretend we didn't find them."
In a more central Extension location, several times during the day a "science fashion show" was held. Narrated by Abdouch and modeled by UCI employees, friends of Extension administrators and representatives of local companies, the show featured specialized clothing for different scientific disciplines.
Latest in Lab Wear
Lightest fashion of the day was what Abdouch called "the classic crisp white lab coat--still the smartest thing in laboratory wear," modeled by Sandy Adams. Despite the day's heat, Joe Nicholson modeled a suit worn for handling toxic waste and chemical spills. The baby blue, body-enveloping outfit is worn by what Abdouch called "toxbusters--members of an environmental health and safety team" when handling "the most serious mishaps" of toxic waste and chemical spills. The internal humidity in such a suit, Abdouch added, "can rise to 100% in a very short time."
Rex Matthews modeled the coveralls and netted hat worn by beekeepers, and demonstrated the hand-carried "smoker" such workers use to calm bees. ("That thing stinks," commented a little girl in the audience.)
Jill Wischmeyer, a local sports supply store employee, modeled what Abdouch called typical wear for marine scientists: a wet suit and scuba gear.