April 4, 2007 -- Mike Timmins has a room full of toys. About 2,000 of them. All are gizmos and gadgets mixed and matched and concocted in assorted ways to demonstrate the principles of physics. The idea is to popularize the science and make it approachable to students of all ages.
Timmins is a lecturer/demonstrator in the teaching support unit of the physics department. He sets up experiments and demonstrations for undergraduate classes, does the same for visiting students and teachers from local schools and, along with physics professor Steve Thornton and lecturer Robert Watkins, performs feats of physics in the National Physics Day Show held for the public each April in the physics building, 382 McCormick Road. This year's show will be held on Wednesday, April 18, at 7 p.m.
That show has the physical power to draw up to 350 guests for an evening of fun and thinking. Most of them are elementary and middle school kids and their parents. Sometimes a whole busload of students will show up. After all, physics is phun (or is it fysics is fun?).
In the hands of Timmins and Co. it certainly is. They are always dreaming up new demonstrations that are certain to wow the audience.
“Explosions are big,” Timmins said. “We almost always blow up something.” Timmons recently purchased a high-speed digital video camera – capable of recording 500 frames per second – to show those explosions and other onstage events in exquisite slow-mo detail.
But the challenge is not just to show things; it’s to explain complex concepts about the physical world in graphic and easy to understand ways.
“There’s a long history of this,” Timmins said. “The earliest public demonstration shows started around the late 1700s or early 1800s. We continue the tradition. If we can spark an excitement for science in a kid, we’ve done our job.”
The annual public show is always held on National Physics Day, an invention of Thornton’s. “There is no actual National Physics Day, so we created one,” Thornton said. “Now whenever we open our show we announce that it’s National Physics Day. Maybe someday it’ll catch on nationally.”
The show always includes a boom or some other theatrics. Thornton might, for example, be thrust across the stage on a fire extinguisher-powered bicycle. This brings roars of glee from the audience. There are always plenty of young volunteers eager to participate in experiments. The lecturers are always asking questions, continually challenging the audience to use its power of reason to anticipate what will happen when – let’s say – an inflated balloon is super-cooled in liquid nitrogen.
All kinds of concepts are explained by Timmins, Thornton and Watkins, doctors all. Action/reaction, general relativity, neutral buoyancy, light, sound, electricity, inertia, you name it. Timmins, a “huge” Red Sox fan is more than a little interested in Daisuke Matsuzaka’s gyroball. In fact, at this year’s show he plans to demonstrate how softballs curve (he can’t throw a good gyroball yet), and he’ll show it again using that high-speed camera. Timmins, Thornton and Watkins also have a trick to let kids walk on water (really!) and will show water balloons bursting and “at least one explosion.” Of course they will. This is fun physics.
Parking is available in the U.Va. garage on Emmet Street, or after 5 p.m. in the football stadium lots. Come early, the show starts on time.