Physics show dazzles Northrop crowd

by Victor Paul

Billiard balls shot out of cannons and an imploding 55-gallon drum marked the collision of education and entertainment on stage Thursday.
Physics Force, a six-member group whose demonstrations bring basic understanding of the laws of physics to elementary school students performed at the Northrop Auditorium for an audience of 900 students, parents and teachers.
“Doing physics is not all geek work,” said Dan Dahlberg, a University physics professor and Physics Force member.
One demonstration dropped a physicist from a 27-foot magnetic platform at the exact same moment a billiard ball was shot from a cannon, which he caught in mid-air. This stunt demonstrated the concept that an object shot horizontally will fall to the ground just as fast as one dropped vertically.
Rob Heinzen and his three sons were encouraged by the science teachers at O.H. Anderson Elementary School in Mahtomedi, Minn. to attend the performance.
“We’re really interested in physics,” he said. “We know we’ll see all sorts of cool stuff with force and motion.”
For the last 15 years, this group of five high school science teachers and one University professor has performed at area and state elementary schools. They have performed at Epcot Center in Orlando, Fla., twice, been featured on the PBS-TV science show “Newton’s Apple” and have appeared twice on a German science television show “Knoff Hoff.”
Physics Force was the brainchild of the late Phil Johnson, the demonstration coordinator of the University physics classrooms. He wanted to create a touring physics show as an alternate way for the University to be involved in the community.
The core members continue with this outreach effort for reasons of their own, despite having to juggle their classroom duties with the time commitment the performances require. The group does at least six performances per year all over the state.
“I knew I would improve my repertoire of demos to be used in school,” said Hank Ryan, a Mounds View High School physics teacher and Physics Force member. “It has enhanced my high school level teaching tremendously.”
Physics Force was recognized as a University group after their performance at the inauguration of President Yudof in October, 1997, which they saw as an opportunity to demonstrate their ability to educate and entertain in a meaningful way.
The University allots $30,000 per year for six shows at various venues across the state. Physics Force is in the first year of a three-year contract with the University. The money is shouldered equally by the Department of Physics and Astronomy, the Institute of Technology and the Office of the Executive Vice President and Provost.
One benefit for the University is that the performances educate and appeal to an audience who are potential University students in the future.
“The association of a high quality outreach program like this with the University of Minnesota is beneficial to us,” said Institute of Technology Dean Steven Crouch.
Dahlberg said part of his job as a professor is to perform outreach programs, but he also said physics is not really work for him.
“I enjoy the people I work with,” he said.
There is a recruitment effort underway now, to ensure that the activities of the Physics Force do not end with the founding members.
“What we’re trying to do now is broaden the participation by opening it to other faculty members in physics and other high school teachers,” said Allen Goldman, head of the physics department.