Physics to the People!
J. C. Sprott
Department of Physics,
University of Wisconsin, Madison, WI
Many recent studies have documented the decline in scientific
and understanding among people of all ages in the United States. Though
our educational system is the envy of the world in its ability to train
scientists, most of the rest of our students and the public as a whole
never experience the excitement that we physicists and physics teachers
feel about our subject.
The Wonders of Physics
To counter this alarming trend, the University of Wisconsin at Madison
began in 1984 a program called "The Wonders of Physics." It was
by and patterned after the popular "Chemistry Can Be Fun" presentations
of Professor Bassam Shakhashiri and his colleagues at the University of
Wisconsin, which follow the tradition of Christmas lectures for
at the Royal Institution in London started by Michael Faraday in the
and continuing to the present. The idea was to select from those
demonstrations that we use in our undergraduate general physics courses
about 20 to 30 of the most dramatic demonstrations and present them in
a fast-paced public presentation suitable for an audience of mixed ages
and interests. The primary goal is to entertain and only secondarily to
educate, since the program is aimed at those with little interest in or
exposure to science. It is a family activity that can be enjoyed on
level by preschoolers as well as by professional physicists.
"The Wonders of Physics" program has been an overwhelming success.
the first seven years it has been put on sixty times to a total
of about 18,000. A series of six shows are put on each February for the
public, and special shows are done throughout the year for schools and
other groups. The shows are put on in the same lecture room that we use
for our large undergraduate classes. The room seats 350 people and is
filled to overflowing. We have had to adopt a system of issuing (free)
tickets for the public shows to avoid having to turn people away.
the shows in our physics building allows us to combine the shows with
of the laboratories, which generates awareness and good will among the
public upon whose support we ultimately depend. A special, scaled-down
traveling version of the show has been developed and taken to schools
Wisconsin by some of our graduate students.
It has been our experience that almost any physics teacher with the
desire can put on such a program and that it can do much to generate
in science. The demonstrations need not be elaborate. In fact the
demonstrations are usually the best. Most colleges and universities and
even the better high schools have more than enough equipment for a
show. The explanations should be quick and simple--perhaps as we would
explain the phenomena to our grandparents. The demonstrations provide
interest and excitement that most of us only dream of generating
our eloquent and passionate speech.
What does help is an uninhibited presenter who is willing to try
that are a bit unusual. A funny costume adds to the atmosphere. Tuxedos
can be purchased at surprisingly low prices when formal-wear stores
their periodic clearances. A dramatic entrance and exit are good.
participation is important. Children will always volunteer to assist
the demonstrations. Live music, or even tape- recorded music, and sound
effects are good additions. Special guests in the audience or surprise
visits by historical figures add a delightful touch. We have invited
politicians, university administrators, and local television
Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein have paid unexpected visits. The most
important thing is to have fun and to create a relaxed atmosphere so
the audience enjoys being there and feels part of the presentation.
We have developed about a hundred demonstrations that have proved
effective. Many of the demonstrations are the standard ones from
physics, but some unique demonstrations have been developed for the
Many of these make their way back into our regular lecture courses. The
best demonstrations are those that share the following qualities:
We develop a show that is given about a dozen times in the course of a
year. Each year the show is revised, using about a dozen new
along with about a dozen old favorites. We look for ways to present the
old favorites in new and different ways. A year is an adequate time to
develop new demonstrations but not so long that people get out of the
- They are easily visible.
- They yield a dramatic or unexpected result.
- They can be understood at least superficially without extensive
- They involve some degree of audience participation.
It is helpful to have the demonstrations organized around some
We find it useful to divide classical physics into six subject areas:
heat, sound, electricity, magnetism, and light, and to group the
accordingly. We have also done presentations focused on a particular
such as the physics of sound. Others we have done or are planning are
and magic, randomness and chaos, modern physics, and physics of the
The demonstrations need only be loosely tied to the theme.
The effectiveness of the program can be greatly expanded by videotaping
the shows. We have established a good relationship with a commercial
producer whom we use regularly. The taping is done with three,
cameras and is edited from about an hour and fifteen minutes to just
an hour. Seven tapes have thus far been produced, and there is a
demand for the tapes among schools and cable television stations. Cable
stations are especially anxious to obtain good-quality, low-cost,
programming. One of our local stations shows the tapes about once a
and the publicity generated helps to sustain interest in the program.
have produced a brochure advertising the tapes and have distributed it
to schools throughout Wisconsin and Minnesota and to cable stations
A useful embellishment has been the use of computer animations to
the presentation. Our lecture hall is equipped with a number of
monitors that can display computer graphics. We have cartoons and text
scrolling on the monitors before the show. During the show, the
is used to help explain the phenomena and in some cases as a substitute
for the real demonstration. Many of the demonstrations that we do are
in the form of computer animations that run on IBM-compatible personal
computers. One package, Physics Demonstrations, contains five
on motion and five on sound. A second package, Chaos Demonstrations,
eighteen demonstrations covering chaos, randomness, fractals, cellular
automata, and other related topics. These programs serve not only as a
lecture aid, but have proved popular among science museums because they
can be set to cycle automatically through the demonstrations while
being responsive to keyboard input. We often leave one or both of the
cycling on a computer outside the lecture room for people to use before
and after the show.
Funding for a public education program as extensive as ours is always a
concern. A modest program making use of already existing demonstrations
and volunteer help can be started at negligible cost. As the program
significant costs arise for publicity, mailing, telephone, printing of
handouts and other materials, development of new demonstrations, and
We recover some costs through donations but have benefited from the
of Wisconsin Office of Outreach Development and a local private
(the Brittingham Trust). The National Science Foundation provided
to assemble a kit of materials containing all the information that
interested in starting a similar program would find useful. It
a how-to book, a list of demonstrations and sources, sample handouts, a
sample videotape of "The Wonders of Physics," and the Physics
software. It is continually updated as we accumulate new ideas.
The involvement in an outreach program of this kind is a highly
experience and one that is strongly recommended to anyone who wants an
enjoyable experience while meeting a serious need in our society for
interest in the wonders of physics!
Ref: J. C. Sprott, The Physics Teacher 29, 212-213 (1991)
- See, for example, The Science Report Card--Elements of Risk
(Educational Testing Service, Princeton, NJ).
- Videotapes of The Wonders of Physics are available for
from the University of Wisconsin, Bureau of AudioVisual Instruction,
Box 2093, Madison, WI 53701-2093 (800-362-6888).
- Computer Software, Physics Demonstrations and Chaos
are available from The Academic Software Library, Box 8202, North
State University, Raleigh, NC 27695-8202 (800-955-TASL).
- The Wonders of Physics Lecture Kits are available for
The Wonders of Physics, 1150 University Ave., Madison, WI 53706
The complete paper is available in PDF format
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