Spooky Physics for Curious Students

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Spooky Physics for Curious Students


Jet Rostykus and Portia Allen, SPS Members, Colorado School of Mines

Colorado School of Mines president Paul C. Johnson, a.k.a. PCJ, joins our SPS volunteers for a group picture.On the eve of Halloween, as the haunted day crawls ever closer... in a chilly atrium, cool and clear... cauldrons bubble, mist rolls across the floor, and lab-coat-wearing figures scurry about, preparing for the coming chaos. As the sun rises ever higher, the figures finish their preparations and children in monstrous costumes trickle in, guided by their patient guardians.

This is the Haunted Physics Lab (HPL), an annual outreach event for K-8 students hosted by the Colorado School of Mines SPS chapter. Here, young students experience physics through a spooky collection of science demonstrations and collect tasty treats along the way. We hope to help inspire the next generation of scientific thinkers and get attendees engaged in the wonderful world of STEM.

As students first walk in the door, they are greeted by a loud crackle as aluminum cans collapse from the unseen power of air pressure, under the guidance of SPS officer Keenan Myers. For students who have never considered the atmosphere around them to be anything more than empty space, this is an eye-opening experience and an exciting introduction to the scientific mysteries of the world around them. At other stations, students play with non-Newtonian fluids, dance with a robotic spider, and make pretty electric field patterns, among other fun and spooky experiments.

Throughout the day, SPS members Josh Barbell and PJ Olmsted beckon students over to a table in the corner where they can gawk at magical floating metals. Using the power of liquid nitrogen and under the supervision of our very capable volunteers, superconducting ceramic disks chase each other around a magnetic track and “glue” themselves to a metal bar. This invisible connection remains even when the bar is moved in all directions, and even when other materials are put in between the disk and the bar!

Young attendees aren’t the only ones who gain from watching—parents and even other Mines students engage with physics during the event. Barbell’s favorite part is “being able to introduce many people of all ages to really interesting physics concepts through demos that at first glance seem impossible.”

Our most exciting demonstration is always the bed of nails. One of our officers, Connor Hewson, shows how sharp the nails are by dropping an apple onto them from shoulder height; a murmur travels through the crowd as the apple is violently impaled. The first volunteer is our chapter advisor Dr. Chuck Stone, who lays down and is quite vocal about the sharpness of the nails. After placing a cinder block squarely on Dr. Stone’s chest, Connor hefts a sledgehammer and asks the crowd to count down from three. The crowd shouts “Three! Two! One!” as Connor swings the sledgehammer and the cinderblock shatters.

After a few stunned seconds, Dr. Stone carefully sits up from the bed of nails, brushing off dust and completely unscathed. The assistant head of our physics department, Dr. Hsia-Po Kuo, also graciously volunteers for this demo.

At Mines, we are lucky to have a collegiate community that is supportive of our outreach efforts. We often partner with other groups on campus, such as the Society of Women in Physics, Sigma Pi Sigma, and Teach@Mines. The physics faculty and the larger Mines administration encourage our endeavors and go out of their way to participate. The president of Mines, affectionately known as PCJ, even made time between hosting alumni and going to a football game to visit HPL and volunteer for our bed-of-nails demonstration.

After experiencing the nails for himself, PCJ is perfectly fine but plays along with Dr. Stone’s drama, praising the spookiness of physics for keeping him safe. Afterward he notes that “SPS has done a fantastic job with the Haunted Physics Lab, and it’s great that it is a very successful annual event,” then he asks us to save him a piece of the shattered cinderblock to put in his office as a memento.

As can be expected, putting on this event is no easy task, especially with concerns brought on by COVID-19. This year, as both an in-person event and a virtual livestream, we aim to be more accessible than before and reconnect our SPS chapter to the greater community that we serve. Additionally, we network with members of our community toward establishing future outreach and volunteering opportunities as a way to give back and inspire others to get involved in STEM.

Of course, the best part of HPL is the huge smiles of the young students and their newfound excitement about physics. One of our officers, Paul Varosy, remarks that he loves “watching kids have ‘aha’ moments after interacting with our demos. These revelations are my favorite part about physics, and bringing these experiences to younger students is fantastic.”

As students on our own journey to understand the world around us, we often have similar “aha” moments at new frontiers in physics. Stepping back to facilitate those for others who are just starting their exploration into science is a powerful experience that reminds us what it’s like to be full of wonder. Our SPS chapter highly values renewing our own joy in learning through events like HPL, and we are looking forward to more physics outreach in the future!

Connor Hewson breaks a cinder block on Dr. Kuo’s chest, demonstrating the fundamental physics principles of pressure and Newton’s third law.

Josh Barbell and PJ Olmsted demonstrate magnetic flux locking by holding a suspended superconducting disk upside down.

Keenan Myers shows students how to crush an aluminum can using the pressure of our atmosphere and changing temperatures. Photos courtesy of the chapter.

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