Spring 2003



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The Wonders of Physics at the University of Wisconsin

The halls of the Physics Department at the University of Wisconsin--Madison were never intended to seem attractive to the American public. Equipment in "storage" and cabinets full of supplies take up all available space between offices and labs where professors, students, and academic staff work (often late into the night and on weekends) to carry out the research detailed in the most recent grant proposal. Almost everything, it seems, is sacrificed to utility.

I remember that once a year this academic privacy would be breached. Every February, Prof. Clint Sprott would don a tuxedo and top hat and invite the public into our largest lecture hall for an hour to hear about "The Wonders of Physics". And the public would come. The chattering, rambunctious crowd would fill the lecture hall to overflowing, and then invade the laboratories, demanding answers from reclusive students and retiring post-docs to satisfy its thirst for knowledge.

I learned then that a lot of people are fascinated by physics, and really want to understand what physicists do, and why. My own background is in magnetically-confined plasmas pertinent to nuclear fusion research, and I knew from sad experience that I could kill a party in five minutes by starting to talk about "donut-shaped energy fields" and the like. How was Prof. Sprott getting people so whipped up about physics?

Prof. Sprott has written that his inspiration was a Christmas 1983 lecture by UW Chemistry professor Bassam Shakhashiri entitled "Chemistry Can be Fun", which itself was modeled after the tradition of Christmas lectures for children begun by Michael Faraday at the Royal Institution in London in 1825. Faraday's lectures played a large role in making science socially respectable in Victorian England. Prof. Shakhashiri says "Science needs its fans like a football team needs its fans", which translates the search for social respectability into terms relevant to modern America, and since 1970 has been sincerely engaged in winning those fans for chemistry. Prof. Sprott was ready with his own physics-oriented lectures by 1984, and since then has given Wonders shows on campus every year, attracting a cumulative total audience of over 50,000 people.

Around 1991, two enterprising plasma physics graduate students--David Newman, currently at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, and Christopher Watts, now at New Mexico Tech.--derived from the on-campus Wonders shows a traveling version, which it has been my good fortune to inherit. The Wonders of Physics traveling show consists of many of the same demonstrations used in undergraduate physics courses at UW. These demonstration are loaded into a van and driven around the State, for use in hour-long shows in front of almost every imaginable assembly: kindergartners in gymnasia, middle school science nights, high school pep rallies, scouting awards banquets, local Boys and Girls clubs’ health fairs, retirement community dinners, and church groups. Almost all of these groups very much want to enjoy the presentation, and greet the presenter with an order of magnitude more enthusiasm than students in the typical university introductory physics course.

The traveling show has been seen by as many as 15,000 people a year (during the 12 months between June 2000 to May 2001, 150 shows with an average attendance of 100 per show). While the on-campus Wonders shows are free to all, the traveling show comes for a requested donation of $100 to $500. Other Wonders educational materials are available. Videotapes of the on-campus shows are sold for $25. A lecture kit developed with help from the NSF, containing descriptions of the demonstrations, written handouts to give to students, software, a videotape, and sample publicity materials, is sold for $90. The lecture kit is intended to contain enough information to allow a high school physics teacher or a scientist to start a program similar to The Wonders of Physics.

My predecessor, Roger Feeley (recently returned to the University of Maine), who built up a huge reservoir of good will across the State towards The Wonders of Physics, taught me several secrets. One is that the same demonstrations can be used for any audience, merely by changing the wording a little. Little children, for example, love to touch a common "plasma sphere" and watch how the plasma arcs move around their fingers; while PhD. physicists are bemused to learn that no description of the magnetohydrodynamics of those arcs has appeared in the literature. Another secret is that the good will towards The Wonders of Physics is a manifestation of public enthusiasm for general science. How a widespread public enthusiasm for science can persist when study after study shows a widespread lack of interest in science and a widespread decline in science literacy, I do not know. But it exists in Wisconsin, and shows no sign of diminishing. The only way we at Wonders have found to destroy it is to intrude too boldly our own research interests into the shows. On the other hand, I have found that after an hour of laser beams and Tesla coils, people can't hear enough about "donut-shaped energy fields".

Recently I attended the APS "Physics on the Road" conference, and met with about 50 others involved in mobile physics outreach. There were people who train physics teachers via teacher workshops, and others who bring whole experiments to schools for the students to use, as well as those of us who drive physics vans. This amounted to a horizontal cross-section of physics outreach. We were astounded by the vitality of the "Little Shop of Physics" outreach program which conference host Brian Jones has built up at Colorado State. That Saturday afternoon, the Little Shop of Physics Open House dominated the CSU campus the way Badgers football dominates the UW campus on Saturdays in the fall (I exaggerate only slightly). I learned from this conference that most university physics outreach programs rely heavily on undergraduates, and a well-run physics outreach program attracts undergraduates to major in physics. If more than 50 enthusiastic, tie-dye-clad volunteers were available to show several ballrooms’ worth of physics demonstrations to the public on a cold weekend afternoon, surely the CSU physics department does not need to worry about declining enrollment.

For several years, Wonders had been a member of the plasma physics outreach community. The Wonders of Physics traveling show has been partially funded since 1999 by the Department of Energy, specifically the Office of Fusion Energy Sciences ( The Fusion Energy education program at General Atomics ( has been very generous in providing Wonders with the resources it has developed for classroom use, which we distribute as we travel across the State. We also make use of the wonderful fusion poster made by the Contemporary Physics Education Project (, and maintain contact with the Coalition for Plasma Science ( The presentation of plasmas in the traveling show is similar to the presentations of Paul Thomas (“Mr. Magnet”) of the MIT Plasma Science and Fusion Center. We arrange for students to have a first encounter with plasma while they are still young and curious. Presented as a mysterious substance that responds in unexpected ways when poked, plasmas have perhaps the broadest appeal of any of our demonstrations. Students who show special fascination with plasmas are guided to one of the special plasma physics education websites mentioned above.

In sum, The Wonders of Physics traveling show simultaneously accomplishes three missions. We travel across the State and beyond, bringing exciting physics demonstrations to people who would otherwise perhaps not be exposed to physics at all, and "win fans for physics". We attract visitors to the Physics Department. And, finally, we are like the talent scouts for a successful football team, who are always on the lookout for prospects to send to the big leagues. We hope that when once a year the staid halls of the UW Physics Department ring with children’s shouts, researchers raise their eyes from computer screens and smile.

For more information, please contact:

Jim Reardon
Department of Physics
1150 University Avenue
Madison, WI 53706-1390 USA
Tel: (608) 263-4449
Fax: (608) 262-7205