Preface and Table of Contents from
The Wonders of Physics Lecture Kit


          In 1983 I attended a special Christmas lecture called Chemistry can be Fun by Professor Bassam Shakhashiri, a colleague in the Chemistry Department here at the
University of Wisconsin. The experience changed my life. I realized that there was a new way to teach physics and to interest people in science.

          Until that revelation, like most physicists, I considered the proper way to teach physics was through a sequence of formal courses with ever increasing mathematical rigor beginning somewhere near the end of high school. That kind of education worked for me and presumably for most of my colleagues. As a professor of physics at a large university, I was carrying on the tradition set by those before me.

          But what about the masses of people who are not headed toward careers in physics? Have we erected artificial barriers to dissuade them from sharing the joys that we who love physics know? Is it possible to teach physics to a third grader? Or a preschooler? Or a poet? Of course it is. And Bassam Shakhashiri showed me how.

          With some excitement I went back home and began planning our own version of Chemistry can be Fun. I had just finished teaching for the first time the general physics course that we give to about five hundred engineering students each year. I knew that many of the demonstrations that I had used for that course would interest a non-technical audience. Why not just put together a collection of the demonstrations that everyone likes and do them all in rapid succession with short, simple explanations that anyone can understand?

          Our Department sometimes sponsors special public lectures on general-interest physics topics. We send notices to local schools and put up a few posters around the campus. So the mechanism was in place, and I offered to do a lecture in this somewhat unorthodox manner, just to see what the response would be.

          In a word, it was exhilarating. The room was packed to overflowing. Never had I talked about physics to a more enthusiastic and appreciative audience. Children would shout out the answers to my rhetorical questions. People would smile and laugh. They would ask questions. The local television stations sent reporters, and it made the front page of the newspaper the next day. Never in my previous twelve years of teaching physics had I seen anything like it. And of course the responsive audience brought out the best in me.

          Let me hasten to confess that as a teacher, I am only average, as years of reading teaching evaluations from my students continually remind me. I wish I were a superb teacher. I try hard, but all too often the words just do not come out very well. Maybe that is why the experience was so exhilarating. For once, everything clicked. And every single time I have repeated the show since, it has been a similar experience.

          Thus I know that most anyone with the will can have the same experience. Just pretend you are explaining things to your grandparents. I have watched some of our graduate students get caught up in the excitement of putting on these shows for schools and other groups. Even a good undergraduate physics student can do it. The content is not challenging, and the demonstrations provide the interest and excitement that most of us only dream of generating through our eloquent and passionate speech.

          Although the presentation is pitched to the lowest common denominator, and indeed young children show the most enthusiasm, a surprising number of professional scientists come to the shows year after year. The demonstrations can be appreciated on many different levels, and it is an educational activity in which whole families can participate without anyone becoming bored or overwhelmed.

          The presentations have grown and matured, and we have learned a great deal in the intervening years about how to make them more effective. It seemed that many of the things we learned in putting on these shows could usefully be shared with others who might be considering similar programs or who may be looking for ideas to improve already existing ones. Such information would certainly have been helpful to me in the early years, and it does not seem to be available from any other source.

          I have collected here everything I wish I had known when we began our program. I will not dwell on the flavor of the presentation. The accompanying DVD does that much better than I could do in writing. You also will not find detailed descriptions of demonstrations, although there is a list of over a hundred that we have found to be effective, along with a one-sentence description of each. There are many books that describe demonstrations in detail, and a bibliography of the most useful of these is included. Years ago I started a book that contains detailed descriptions of all of our demonstrations, but I could not find a publisher and finally placed the manuscript on the World Wide Web at for all to see. Then in 2003, the University of Wisconsin Press decided to publish it, and a considerably expanded full-color 300-page version of the one on the Web is scheduled for publication in 2006. I assume you have taught or at least taken a physics course in which demonstrations were used and are thus familiar with some of the more common ones. There is even less discussion of the physics. I assume your knowledge of physics is sufficient to explain the phenomena at the desired level without help from me.

          This kit rather emphasizes those aspects that will draw the crowds and keep the level of interest and excitement high. It concentrates on the behind-the-scenes stuff. It is not a unique recipe. Your style and tastes will certainly differ from mine, but these are the things that work for me, and so some might work as well or better for you. You will certainly have many ideas of your own. Part of the fun is trying new things, and if you develop something particularly effective, I would like to hear about it.

          My greatest reward would be to learn that these materials had encouraged someone to start a similar program where nothing like this had existed before. If that happens, I hope you will write or send e-mail ( and share your experience with me. I also encourage you visit the home page for The Wonders of Physics on the World Wide Web at

          I am grateful to the National Science Foundation for funding the production and promotion of this kit. I would also like to thank David Newman and Christopher Watts, former graduate students who contributed to the success of the program in many ways including some of the written materials contained herein. Tom Lovell, Paul Nonn, Ken Maas, Kevin Mirus, Roger Feeley, Steve Narf, and Jim Reardon have also been especially helpful. Many others, too numerous to name, have contributed in large and small measure, even if only by tolerating inconvenience and deflection of effort from other equally important activities.

Madison, Wisconsin                                                 J. C. Sprott
February 27, 2005                                                     Professor of Physics




I. Introduction and Motivation

II. Logistical Considerations 

III. Suggested Demonstrations

IV. Bibliography 

V. Selected Vendors of Scientific Demonstration Equipment

VI. Selected Vendors of Audiovisual and Computer Materials

VII. Other Related Materials      

A. Videotapes and DVDs

          B. Computer Software

          C. What the Heck is Physics?

          D. Experiments that you can do at Home

          E. Demonstration Explanations: A Teacher’s Guide

The Wonders of Physics Lecture Kit including an hour-long video and the Physics Demonstrations software is available for $90 (postpaid in the USA) from:

    The Wonders of Physics
    University of Wisconsin
    1150 University Avenue
    Madison, WI 53706

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