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Physics department kicks off holidays with a “bang”

Dec. 19, 2007

The holidays began with a “bang” this month for the University’s Physics Department as students, families, teachers and neighbors gathered in laboratories inside the Gordon Center to participate in hands-on demonstrations and learn about some of the exciting science talking place there. Later, physics professors Heinrich Jaeger and Sidney Nagel gave a lecture in a filled-to-capacity lecture room in the Kersten Physics Teaching Center, where they performed a host of experiments designed to entertain and demonstrate the powerful forces of cause and effect.

“I liked the part where they made ice cream [in University Provost Thomas Rosenbaum’s lab] with the liquid nitrogen.  It kind of tasted like real ice cream,” says 9-year-old Raymond Adams who attended the event with his mother and sister.

“It was great for young children and adults,” said Lisa Adams, Raymond’s mom, who home-schools her kids. “Two of the labs were studying magnets and lights — both topics that the kids are studying this year. It was so wonderful for the kids to see what a real lab looks like. They were excited and so was I. They were able to see that what they were studying now may apply to some things that they may want to study in the future if they decide to go into the sciences.”

The title of the lecture was “Physics with a Bang!!” While demonstrating the effects of pressure, Jaeger and Nagel crushed a 55-gallon steel drum as if it were a Coke can. The pair used a vacuum bazooka to accelerate a ping pong ball through a thick piece of cardboard at the speed of sound.  While sitting on a little stool with wheels, Jaeger used a fire extinguisher to accelerate himself through the room like he was sitting on a rocket chair. A liquid-nitrogen-filled soda bottle that, on exploding, propelled a large trash can to the lecture hall ceiling rounded out the act.

“We wanted to have fun and to convey that we can have fun with physics,” says Jaeger. “So we set off a lot of blasts — some things were mesmerizing, some were really loud, and some were just totally astonishing.”

Inspiration for the open house and lecture, says Jaeger, came from a famous lecture series founded in 1826 by Michael Faraday, an English chemist and physicist who contributed to the fields of electromagnetism and electrochemistry at The Royal Institution of Great Britain. The series, known as the Friday Evening Discourses and Christmas Lectures for young people, continue to this day. 

What made the Nagel/Jaeger lecture unique, in addition to the loud and fast explosions, was the use of high-speed video equipment to record and provide instant replays of the demonstrations during the lecture itself.  The idea was carried out by two physics graduate students, John Royer and Nathan Keim, who used research-grade instrumentation to capture the action at 20,000 frames per second, and then play it back to the audience.

Van Bistrow, Director, Instructional Labs and Lecture Facilities, and Dennis Gordon, Lecture Demonstrator, of the Physics Department, also played a key role in the event’s success, putting in many extra hours to test the demonstrations and to make sure they worked before the day of the event.  Another important contributor was Eileen Sheu, Special Projects Coordinator and Outreach Director for Materials Research Science and Engineering Center and the James Franck Institute, who helped to pull the event together.

“We were really delighted to see the response of so many people from the neighborhood, plus colleagues, students, and people who do not usually come to us here in physics,” says Jaeger. “We are totally delighted that we filled the room and hope this becomes an annual event.”

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Last modified at 09:05 AM CST on Thursday, January 03, 2008

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