The Wonders of Physics

J. C. Sprott
Department of Physics, University of Wisconsin, Madison, WI 53706

(A talk given at a symposium on science education at the Denver meeting of the Division of Plasma Physics, American Physical Society on November 12, 1996)

In the past decade or two there have been over 200 studies showing the dismal state of science literacy in the United States. But it's my belief that the problem is more fundamental. Science has fallen out of favor. Children who are interested in science are considered nerds or geeks, and most of them lose their enthusiasm well before they reach high school. Adults are intimidated by science and have mostly despaired of trying to understand the esoteric things we scientists do. We need to make science interesting and exciting. As my colleague Bassam Shakhashiri puts it: "Science needs its fans like a football team needs its fans or an orchestra needs its audience."

Public Lectures

I'd like to claim that The Wonders of Physics was established to address this problem, but in truth it had quite a different history. Professor Shakhashiri had for many years put on an annual Christmas lecture for the public, called "Chemistry Can Be Fun." It followed the tradition of Christmas lectures for children at the Royal Institution in London started by Michael Faraday in the 1840s. When I first attended one of these chemistry shows in 1983, I was astounded by the enthusiasm of the audience. I reasoned that if it works for chemistry, it should work even better for physics.

I had just taught our elementary physics course for the first time to the usual sea of expressionless faces. I realized that many of the demonstrations I had shown my class could be repackaged as entertainment. It could hardly have been easier. I selected about 20 of the best demonstrations, advertised a fun lecture for the public, and presented it in the same room where I normally teach. The style is a fast-paced presentation with lots of action and a minimum of explanation. I dressed in a tuxedo, had some public figures as special guests, and provided a dramatic entrance and exit, with the demonstrations sandwiched in between. The demonstrations provide the interest and excitement that I've never quite been able to muster with speaking alone.

The response to that first presentation was overwhelming. The room was packed to overflowing. People smiled, children waved their hands to answer my rhetorical questions, and everyone had a wonderful time, especially me. All the local TV stations sent reporters, and there was a front-page story in the newspaper the following day. I could hardly wait to do it again. It was an exhilarating experience, quite unlike the usual lecture to college students, but no more difficult.

In the past thirteen years I've repeated the presentation over a hundred times to a total audience of about 30,000, always with the same response. Each February we put on a series of six shows, and special shows are done throughout the year for schools and other groups. We had to start issuing free tickets to avoid having to turn people away. Having the shows in our Physics building allowed us to combine them with tours of the laboratories, including the Madison Symmetric Torus and other fusion facilities.


After the first few years, it was clear that the demand for such a light-hearted science presentation was practically unlimited. We were turning away people from the presentations, and I was getting many more requests for shows than I could possibly accommodate. The University took note of the success of the program and provided funds to make a commercial-quality videotape for distribution to schools and cable television stations. The tapes played regularly on local stations, and this generated enormous recognition of the program and further encouraged interest in the live presentations. We now have thirteen hours of such tapes available for purchase.

Traveling Show

I was starting to get requests to take the show off campus and into the local schools. Fortunately, one of our plasma graduate students, David Newman, now at Oak Ridge, approached me and volunteered to establish a traveling version of the show. The University provided us with $20,000 to buy equipment, and with very little publicity, we found that we were doing about one such show every week. Other graduate students became involved, and we eventually had to hire a part-time employee to administer the program. In the past eight years, over 250 such presentations have been made throughout Wisconsin, neighboring states, and as far away as Connecticut. Sometimes these shows have been combined with workshops for teachers where we encourage them to use demonstrations to enhance interest in science. Our traveling show is similar to the one done by Paul Thomas at MIT who will speak to you shortly.

Computer Animations

We also developed some computer animations to supplement the presentation and to use in a museum-type setting. One program contains five demonstrations on motion and five on sound. Another contains 26 demonstrations of chaos and fractals. These programs were marketed by Physics Academic Software, which is affiliated with the APS, AAPT, and AIP, but are no longer available. The Chaos Demonstrations program won the first annual Computer in Physics contest for educational software.

Lecture Kit

Several years ago the National Science Foundation gave us a small grant to assemble a Lecture Kit which includes all the things I wish I had known when we began our program. It includes publicity samples, a description of the demonstrations, written handouts, the Physics Demonstrations software, and a sample videotape of a recent presentation. About 500 of these kits have been sold at $90 each.


You might wonder how we fund all this activity. At the beginning there were very few expenses since we used existing facilities and equipment and volunteer help. The University was helpful in providing seed money in the early years. As the program gained public recognition, it was easy to obtain funds from local foundations and trusts. We have some income from the sale of videotapes and lecture kits. We also request donations in the range of $200 to $400 when we put on a show at the request of a school or other group, and we solicit donations when the tickets are mailed out for the public shows. We've found that most groups are happy to pay, and it helps to regulate the number of requests that we get. We also feel that groups who pay for the presentations tend to take them more seriously.

A Challenge

An outreach program of this kind is very easy to start, it's great fun, almost intoxicating, and it seems to serve a real purpose in getting people interested in science. Students are starting to appear in my courses who saw the presentations as young children, and they sometimes tell me that it was an important experience in kindling their interest in science. I'd like to encourage those of you who have never done anything of this sort to give it a try.

Thank you.

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