Science teachers have two aces up their sleeves when trying to make their subject palatable to kids who’d rather be on their iPhones or anywhere else but in a classroom. The first lure is “didja know?” Surprise the students with a “wow, really?” truth and you’ve caught their attention. The second (and most effective) trick is a visual demonstration that melds the dazzle of a magic trick with the scientific underpinnings of a dissertation.
This combination went a long way towards making me tolerate physics class and the lures reappear, almost as a barrage, in the off-Broadway lecture-cum-performance, That Physics Show. Longtime Rutgers physics professor David Maiullo, who has a Body by Jake and the personality to match, created and hosts this hyper-educational show, which offers demo after demo as a way to spark curiosity (or at least hold the attention) of nine year olds for a solid 90 minutes. We get balloons dipped in liquid nitrogen, ping-pong balls shooting through empty soda cans at 700mph, hammers smashing bricks but not bones, a bowling-ball pendulum, a carbon-dioxide go kart, glasses that turn light into various permutations of ROY G. BIV, pickles conducting electric current and sound waves displayed as dancing fire.
Maiullo is not gently inviting like Mr. Wizard or blissfully eccentric like Julius Sumner Miller. He is rapid fire. Before you have a chance to digest the ramifications of one natural wonder, another is already on its way. Maiullo energetically tosses out definitions and principles that explain the experiments, essentially jamming an entire college semester into one show-and-tell lecture.
As with every physics class I ever attended, I still left thinking I learned more than I actually did and was able to parrot back answers without truly understanding them. But I’ll bet more than a few young audience members with sharper brains than mine will find themselves testing Newton’s Laws one day and pointing to a late morning at the Elektra Theater as the force that started the ball rolling (insert inertia joke here).
As for the “didja know” part of the show, you might guess that a balloon on a bed of multiple nails won’t burst (because surface area distributes the pressure), but go figure that pouring liquid nitrogen down the front of your sweaty hand causes no harm. However, if you turn your palm over and hold a puddle of the stuff, the nearest hospital will rush you to its burn unit. That, by the way, is one principle Maiullo neither demonstrates nor recommends that kids try at home. Even scientific curiosity has its limits.