Physics With a Bang!

My daughter Olivia, who is seven, proudly calls herself a scientist. Mostly what that means is that she likes to break things open and see what’s inside.

Seeing a fantastic series of scientific experiments done as part of a holiday lecture put on by the University of Chicago Physics Department more or less confirmed her definition of science. In “Physics with a Bang!” professors Heinrich Jaeger and Sidney Nagel and their team blew up balloons filled with hydrogen, shot fire extinguishers, collapsed an industrial metal garbage can by sucking the air out of it, and used liquid nitrogen to send a second garbage can all the way to the ceiling of a two-story lecture hall.

Every explosion also taught a nice physics lesson, whether about vacuums, Newton’s Third Law, or the Laws of Thermodynamics.

In the world of academics, the career incentives are to publish academic papers, not to hold wonderful public demonstrations that excite children and adults alike about science. So in whatever small way I can via this blog post, I want to bring positive attention to professors Jaeger and Nagel (as well as the folks working in their lab) for taking the time to reach out to the broader community. (I’m not acting completely as an altruist here — I’m also hoping that some positive reinforcement will increase the likelihood of another exhibition next year.)

If you are interested in seeing more work from these professors, their Web site has an array of interesting things, including amazing photographs showing what happens when you drop a metal ball into a pile of sand. I guarantee that you will be surprised at what happens when you see it in slow motion.


@16 - The Christmas lectures for children are by the Royal Institution, not the Royal Society. They were started by Michael Faraday in the 1820s and have been going with many bangs ever since. The last couple of years are available on DVD from the RI - this year's lectures,on the science of human survival, were broadcast in the UK starting on Christmas Eve and will be available on DVD in March.

Ira Micay

I recently read that the writer's (Levitt) father is the world's leading authourity on farting. It seems that there might be a three generational tie-in possible regarding his daughter's interest in things exploding.


There are similar demonstrations at the University of Oklahoma. Dr. Ryan, A.K.A Dr. Indestructo, is known for putting on spectacular shows. One of his most famous things is to hold liquid nitrogen in his mouth and then spit out the mist. Here's a link, it is fairly impressive.


When I was a lad attending (public) grammar school I witnessed a similar display by visiting NASA scientists in our school auditorium. I still have fond memories of that demonstration. While I did not go on to pursue a career in science I believe the imagination that it sparked and the lessons that it taught have benefited me to this day.


The metal ball into the sand video and the ensuing explanation of the similarities that granular materials show to fluids reminds me of the time that I absolutely infuriated my high school chemisty teacher by insisting that he explain why sand isn't a fluid, since, like a fluid, it assumes the shape of whatever container it's in. He eventually just told me to shut up.


Gee, I kinda thought Freakonomics was to Economics as “Physics with a Bang” is to Physics – only more so. I mean as dry as Physics is, at least there something physical that can be demonstrated. Which is more than you can say about Economics.

There's the old tried and true demo of taking kids and offering them their favorite candy and asking them how much they'd pay for a piece, and then after they have had it, make the offer again and again and again until they puke or realize the next piece has no value. You can enjoy that kind of demonstration only so much.

Economics has vacuums, chilling effects, over pressurizations, laws and theories just like Physics, but unfortunately it does not lend itself as readily to demonstrations of these principles. Seems people have to suffer and make hard decisions to truly see Economics in action, and who wants to demonstrate that?

That's what makes this field of study so dismal and your site so “valuable”. So, you guys keep banging away at Economics.


Jim Wilson

When I was growing up near Boston in the 40s and early 50s, the Museum of Science held Saturday "lectures" for kids. Several parents rotated in driving a bunch of us to the museum for the program, which had a huge impact on me and was one of the big reasons I wound up going into engineering. The lectures dealt with all branches of science. I especially remember the Tesla coil and the Van de Graff generator, but the owl and the eagle were cool, too.

It helped, of course, that we stopped at Dunkin Donuts for a treat on the way home. Those were very good times indeed.


Watch Mythbusters, informative and entertaining.

rob d

chem demos are fun too...look up bassam shakashiri.


I miss Mr. Wizard!

Michael H.

"break things open and see what's inside." Isn't that how most professional scientists got started? Fun for kids and encouraging for the future. Bad for parents to have to keep buying new things to break open. In the end, though, I'm in favor of anything that gets kids excited about science. Thanks for highlighting this program!!


The University of Minnesota has a GREAT Physics outreach program as well. I don't believe they have a huge web-presence, but their presentations are fantastic.
The University of MN program is called the Physics Force.

Physics isn't dry. At times, due to electromagnetic-charge effects you could address some items that are hydrophobic. Never dry;) It Is Always Good.

Have a good one.


Smashing things together requires at least an honorary mention of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) that is going to be turned on this year.

Building a huge tunnel, having tiny particles accelerated to close to the speed of light by massive magnets (cooled with liquid helium), then smashed together... how awesome is that? :)

Jolly Bloger

"To break things open and see what's inside" is a perfectly accurate and wonderfully concise definition of what it means to do science.


I hate to break this to you, but your daughter is unlikely to respect your choice of profession if she becomes a physicist.


In my high school, the physics teachers would always put on a "physics show" the day before winter break. The demonstrations involved a lot of cool things, many of which were explosions and fireballs. For a lot of kids, the physics show was the only reason they came to school the day before break.

And by the way, I disagree with VP. My dad is a physicist, and I'm considering becoming an economist (inspired at least in part by Freakonomics). Not only does he actually love the idea of me becoming an economist, but he said that if he were to do it all over again, he would be an economist, as well. I guess a lot of the higher mathematics are the same in both fields.

Kell Supreese

I expected that the behaviour of the sand after having a ball dropped into it would be similar to that of a liquid.

Since there was no surprise, what do I get for the broken guarantee?


Thanks for providing the information about the University of Chicago website, and thanks to University of Chicago for creating the site. While 'hands-on" or "real" shows are preferred to online observations, the availability of this kind of information on the internet does wonders for those who want to learn.
Responding to Cyrus's comment, both my husband and I are research professionals in physical science and none of our children chose science as a career. Professionals in the physical sciences are under- appreciated at this time in the US, and basic economic considerations therefore reduce the number of American students entering the field.

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Luckily for "the broader community", things like this are given economic incentive. An increasing number of grants to academic scientists include a requirement to do outreach. That's great thinking on the part of the funding agencies, since (1) a lot of academics would, quite frankly, not be interested otherwise, (2) it gives those who are kinda/sorta interested a chance to do it, and (3) it lets those who are internally motivated really indulge themselves. The funding agencies are likewise economically motivated... senators can understand things like these demonstration and see value in them, whereas anything that requires second order differential equations... well, maybe it's better just to show the senators another fun demo.



The abortion thing in your book is realy similar to experiments whith liquid hydrogene and stuff. It bring curiosity to a strange and disturbing fact.