"So, This is Science?"

David Willey

The question that is the title of this article was asked by a twelve-year-old female student as my wife Raven and I were packing up our equipment after a show. I was happy to answer, “Yes, or at least it’s a small taste of what science is.”

I’ve been trying to provide that ‘amuse-bouche’ of science to as many people as I can for over 25 years now. It really all started for me at age fifteen, long before I left England when, as a bored science student and part time class clown, I transferred grammar schools. I left a school where the physics teacher talked at us to one where the teacher showed us many demonstrations while explaining the physics behind them. I was hooked; I studied physics at Aston University and education at Birmingham University, before moving to Columbus where I obtained a masters in physics from the Ohio State University. My first teaching position was with the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown (U.P.J.) and some thirty odd years later, I’m happy to say I’m still there.

Sometime in the early 1980’s, the Natural Science Department had an open house. It was decided that I should perform some of the demonstrations that I put on in my classes, for the parents of prospective students. It all seemed to go well and we certainly had more interest shown in our physics program that year than had been exhibited during open houses without demonstrations. Plus I had a lot of fun doing it and gained some real satisfaction from the positive feedback received. At the time a friend of mine was working for a remand home for troubled boys and needed to come up with an activity that would take them out of the home and engage them in a project requiring sustained group cooperation and planning. By fortunate coincidence; at about the same time cable television came to our area of Pennsylvania and the company providing it had a TV studio that, by law, had to be made available to the general public. It was decided that with my help the young men from the home would make a quarter of an hour video of dramatic physics demonstrations set to their favorite rock music. The result aired several times on the local cable channel, albeit mostly at 3 a.m. but was deemed a success by all involved.

The program was also shown at more reasonable hours, and after one showing a local high school teacher called me saying that she had not only seen the show on TV, but also with her son (a prospective student) the open house demonstrations. She wished to know if I could visit her school and perform similar demonstrations for her class. I agreed and the show “How Does A Thing Like That Work?” was born. The head of my department agreed to let me use some of the department’s equipment. This show led to others and soon it seemed that at least one Friday each month I was loading equipment into my pickup truck and heading out to some local high school.

A colleague in the Education Department at U.P.J. had received an Eisenhower grant and was arranging in house workshops for local teachers as part of a program called Math On Saturday/Science On Saturday (MOS/SOS). I presented demonstrations from the show at these workshops and part of the Eisenhower grant was used to fund ensuing visits to local schools and a presentation at the Pennsylvania Science Teachers Association’s annual conference.

Unfortunately lack of funding and internal politics caused the sad demise of the Eisenhower grant and the MOS/SOS program for our Education Department. I still had many requests for performances though and decided that “the show must go on;” so I replaced the school’s equipment with my own and started charging a fee to cover expenses. A few items were quite expensive (a tank for methane, a liquid nitrogen Dewar and a vacuum pump), but a lot of the props I either already had (such as a sledgehammer and shop vac) or they were relatively cheap everyday items (two liter soda bottles, balloons, helium, etc.). My wife took on the role of my assistant as I soon realized that relying on the help of the staff at the venue I was visiting, despite how willing they may be, was not a good idea. A young and strong gymnastics teacher, who had been volunteered to break the concrete block lying on top of me while I lay sandwiched between two beds of nails drove that point home, if you will excuse the pun. To no avail I told him that he did not need to hit the block overly hard, just enough to shatter it. He impressed the students watching, as I’m sure was his intent, and I bled front and back from a matrix of tiny puncture wounds. A tetanus shot set me fine, but that weekend we bought a couple of dozen blocks for my wife to practice with and since then there have been few others that I’ve trusted with the sledgehammer. I do have to admit that one of my favorite photos is of a nun in her black and white habit, breaking a block on me. This happened during a visit to one of the local catholic schools. She assured me that she was the one who split wood each year at their retreat, and she did indeed do a fine job; seems it’s not just rulers they are expert at wielding.

We received requests for an outdoor show and so one was developed. Larger, messier demonstrations were then possible and one that caught my eye was firewalking. I’d read an article by John Taylor in the March 1989 issue of the Physics Teacher magazine and just had to try it myself. It turned out to not be something that could easily be incorporated in the show. Instead, to make the same point, I picked up an orange hot piece of tile from the space shuttle – but still firewalking intrigued me. Background reading on the topic soon let me know that although there were good qualitative explanations of the physics involved, there was little quantitative analysis. This led me to team up with a Norwegian physicist, Kjetil Kjernsmo of the University of Oslo, to try to develop a computer model of a foot undergoing a firewalk. To test the model, we needed data from both long and hot walks. A group of firewalkers from Seattle Washington that I had met over the internet wanted to break the world record for the hottest ever firewalk, 1,575°F at the time, and I agreed to take the data. On October 18, 1997, in Redmond, Washington, Michael McDermott took two steps, one per foot, on coals the surface temperature of which was 1813°F. Early in July of 1998, I organized a 165 foot firewalk at U.P.J. to break the world record for longest distance walked. The BBC sent a crew to film the event for the Discovery Channel, having contacted me after hearing about the other record breaking walk. John Stossel of ABC television also reported on the event for his special “Power of Belief,” even walking himself on a shorter fire set up for him and his crew. The event was picked up on the A.P. wire and gained quite a lot of attention. One of the many media people who called was a producer for The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. He asked if I could perform a firewalk in their studio. I asked of what the floor was made, “wood” he answered. After a pregnant pause he asked if there were other things I did, and explained that they were looking for a “mad scientist” to be a recurring guest. I suggested walking on broken glass, the concrete block and bed of nails demonstration and dipping my hand in molten lead. He liked the ideas and we were on our way to Hollywood. I managed to fall on the bed of nails during that first show and bleed on the stage, but other than to my ego, no permanent damage was done and the director appeared to like that I just kept going despite the puncture wounds. In truth I didn’t feel any pain until after, just embarrassment (adrenaline is a wonderful thing). Before Leno left The Tonight Show I was booked to appear twenty times, only one of which, a fire walk with Mel Gibson, Donald Trump and Prince, was cancelled. It rained heavily that day in Los Angeles and I am now glad it did. I’d asked for cherry wood to be provided, instead it was a truckload of almond wood that was delivered, a wood I’d never used before. Later I found out that almond burns even hotter than oak, the only wood I have walked on that has caused more than a small blister. Had we walked on the almond I strongly suspect that evening would not have gone well. That was the only time it rained when we visited L.A. and it could not have been on a more opportune day.

The Tonight Show introduced me to Chuck Harris, president of the Visual Arts Group, who soon became my manager for international bookings. Through him I have worked in London, Hamburg, Vancouver, Amsterdam, Beirut, Seoul and Singapore. My wife handles our booking within the U.S. and I have been fortunate to present at conventions, workshops and science museums throughout America. I’d estimate that over 50,000 people have seen the live show in one form or another. More TV work followed and I’ve appeared on national TV over 50 times as a science consultant, on such shows as Daily Planet, Discover Magazine, Time Warp and Humanly Impossible. Along the way there have been some memorable moments.

My wife and I were standing in the lobby of the Hilton Universal hotel in Hollywood on our third visit to the Tonight Show, waiting for our town car and to perhaps catch a glimpse of Lucy Lawless, a.k.a. Xena, Warrior Princess. I was dressed all in black except for my tie, as was then usual for me. An elderly and obviously wealthy lady standing close to us looked over and when she saw me a look of recognition, or so I thought, spread across her face. “Are you?” she questioned as she hesitantly approached, finger pointing at me. “Are you?” “Yes.” I thought smugly, “I’m David Willey, I’m the Tonight Show’s mad scientist.” “Are you,” she repeated, “my driver?” I was crushed, but it was exactly what I deserved and needed.

A science project I have much enjoyed being involved with is “Techfest,” held each February in Dayton, Ohio. One year I was on stage trying to convince the audience that air bags in automobiles are a good idea by throwing a raw egg into a sheet, held by two audience members. My two volunteers were husband and wife. As I drew my arm back to throw the egg the lady’s cell phone rang, immediately she dropped the sheet and answered it. I'm not sure who was most shocked, the audience, myself or her husband who barked at her, “That’s the third time since we got here, turn the damned thing off!”

I truly enjoy working with children, but it has been my own personal experience that question and answer times at the end of a show are rarely worth the effort. The questions often have already been answered, “Doesn’t the bed of nails hurt?” or start with “Can I have...” At times, though, they are unavoidable. We finished a show at a local high school twenty minutes before the buses were due to arrive and not wanting the students to have to return to their home rooms, or worse, be loose for that length of time, the principal asked if there was anything else we could do. I’d forgotten to throw spinning balls into the audience when demonstrating the Bernoulli effect, and so I spent a few minutes doing that, telling the students that whoever caught the expanded foam balls could keep them as a souvenir of the show. Apparently that did not take up enough time as I was asked to answer questions from the students. A radio mike was taken into the audience after warnings about everyone being polite and taking their turn had been issued by the principal. Students dutifully raised their hands, but before any of them had a chance to ask a question, a teenage boy in the fourth row yelled out loudly, “Why didn’t I get any balls?” Without thinking I answered, “Don’t know, sounds like a nasty birth defect to me.” As the audience burst into laughter I immediately realized that what I’d opinioned was probably not the politically correct response and I looked over with trepidation to the principal. Much to my relief he was edging his way off the stage, obviously having a hard time controlling his laughter. After he told me that the student was a “real handful” and that it was a good thing that someone had finally put him in his place. It’s funny how things work out.

This article is in no way meant to be a “how to” manual, for that I’d highly recommend that you get a copies of Physics Demonstrations and The Wonders of Physics Lecture Kit by Clint Sprott, but there are a few anecdotes that I’d like to pass along.

For the first couple of years I wore a shirt and tie with jeans when performing, much the same informal attire as when teaching my labs. The charge for the show was enough to cover expenses and a meal the day of the show. A colleague of mine at the time was heavily involved in procuring extracurricular activities for Pennsylvania high schools. He told me one day after watching me present, that if I wore better clothes I could easily charge 10 times as much as I was doing, and the long and short of it is, he was right. People value you as much as you value yourself. And for a lot of them, that’s measured in dollars. With the extra money generated we have been able to purchase more equipment and improve our presentation. It also allows us to donate our services to worthy charities at no cost. Lesson to be learnt, don’t sell yourself short.

We have presented the show to all ages, from six-year-olds in elementary schools, although we do prefer to deal with eight-year-olds or older, to the residents of an assisted living retirement community (no explosions for that audience). I’ve been asked several times if it is difficult to change the show so that the explanations best suit the average age of the audience, and my response is that I don’t really change it that much. What I’m trying to do in the limited time I have is to give as simple an explanation as I can to go with the demonstration I’m performing, and if it works for an eight-year-old it will work for an eighteen- or an eighty-year-old; I see no point in making the explanations more complicated.

Even if I wanted to there is not enough time in a one hour show to thoroughly explain all that is involved behind the thirty or more demonstrations being done. My first goal as a scientist is, of course, to make sure that what I’m saying is to the best of my knowledge true. However, it is my belief that style, rather than content rules when competing for that rarest commodity, the young’s attention. I’m trying to intrigue and motivate when I perform, more than I am trying to educate. I’d venture that Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth did far more to increase public awareness, even though it did have scientific shortcomings in it, than did the more scientifically correct Too Hot Not to Handle HBO film by the same producer, Laurie David. Al was not 100% correct, but he was not boring either. Do your best to make it correct, but try just as hard to make it interesting. You can’t teach anyone much without first getting their attention and then keeping it.

It is my experience that to be effective demonstrations have to be easy to see, so bigger is better. They should also be dramatic and have an element of surprise to them. Throughout the show I like to have demonstrations that have audience members helping me.

It takes approximately as long to take down most demonstrations as it does to set them up, which is also approximately as long as it takes to perform them. Hence our one-hour show really takes about 3 hours from set up to tear down. All demonstrations have been well practiced at home before being done before an audience. I prefer for the audience to be as close as possible, but on the days when it is going well, for safety, younger audiences especially sometimes have to be moved back. Some people work well with a script, others, myself included, rarely say things the same way from one show to the next. I believe the spontaneity keeps it from being boring; it does mean though that sometimes I make mistakes. I tape copies of a list of the proposed demonstrations on the stage and tabletops, so I can see them but the audience cannot. The boiling point of liquid nitrogen is written on the Dewar in permanent marker. If during a show I forget to perform a planned demonstration, I usually just carry on and the audience never knows what they missed. Occasionally do I go back to the missed demonstration, but only if it is particularly impressive.

I try to set a good example and wear the appropriate protective clothing and safety glasses. There are the mandatory “Don’t try this at home,” warnings, but as they can have a contrary effect on some people (read: teenage boys). I make an effort to explain why and how these stunts are dangerous rather than just saying not to do them.

I have $2,000,000 worth of insurance covering me when I perform. It wasn’t always that way. Early on we had been hired to do an outdoor show for the local Kiwanis club. One of the demonstrations that we did involved sinking a two liter soda bottle, containing about a pint of liquid nitrogen in a 60 gallon plastic barrel filled with water. The barrel was behind a barricade of plastic warning tape and orange traffic cones. I dropped the weighted bottle into the water, ducked under the tape, and headed back for the stage. Upon getting there I turned around to look back at the barrel, only to find that it was surrounded by teenagers eagerly peering down into it. My cries of ,“Get the away from there!” were totally ineffective. The bottle exploded sending about 40 gallons of water skyward. This, much better than I had, caused the juveniles to withdraw hastily, none it seemed any the worse for wear other than being startled. Most were highly amused and cheering and I breathed a sigh of relief. It transpired however that one of the young ladies close to the barrel was the daughter of a local accident attorney. A gentleman who it seemed had as his immediate goal in life to sue everyone involved, myself, the Kiwanis and the city of Johnstown. Had it not been for a friend having a video of his daughter playing happily with her friends, totally unharmed later that afternoon, I’m not sure what would have happened but I’m pretty sure I would not have liked it. When I do that demonstration these days someone is there guarding the barrel. Not everyone can be trusted to actually follow the directions printed on plastic tape, so it doesn’t hurt to enlist one of the event organizers to play the “bad cop.”

As I have found generally to be wise, I will let those of my wife, be the last words. A lady and her son approached us after a science fair at which we had performed. She said that the young man had something that he wanted to tell me. After prompting he asserted, “I want to be just like you when I grow up.” Not a line my beloved was likely to let pass, “Oh, I’m so sorry,” she condoled, “you can’t do both.”

David Willey is an Instructor of Physics at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown and has a lifetime interest in dramatic science demonstrations and their presentation.

Disclaimer - The articles and opinion pieces found in this issue of the APS Forum on Education Newsletter are not peer refereed and represent solely the views of the authors and not necessarily the views of APS.