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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.