Cheap thrills for the kids

31st March 2006 at 01:00
oday, I am going to tell you about possibly the best physics experiment ever. I was shown it at the Association for Science Education's annual conference in Erskine about a month ago. I had a gig there, involving getting my fellow physicists to make hovercrafts out of balloons, CDs and sports bottle tops (possibly the second best physics experiment ever).

My slot only lasted an hour, so I had time to listen to keynote speeches and attend workshops run by other people. At one of the keynote addresses, Brian Boyd told (possibly) the funniest, most cringe-making, illuminating anecdote about physics education that I have ever heard and it didn't even involve his son. I will retell it another day. Soon.

The best physics experiment ever was shown to me by Dr Robin Hoyle of Glasgow Science Centre, at a seminar he was running. As I walked in, I found myself being videod by a pound;7,500 thermal imaging camera, a device so sensitive that it could pick up the friction heating on a carpet when you scuffed your shoe on the floor. That wasn't the best physics experiment ever, though it was pretty smart. No, the best one involved considerably cheaper apparatus - to wit, two drinking straws with flexible sections.

Hey, why don't you try this yourself?

Pinch the long end of one of the straws so that you can join it to the long end of the other straw to make a giant straw with flexible ends. Use said flexible bits to make right-angle bends at either end. Wet your lips and put one of the short bits of straw in your mouth. Turn the lower straw so that the other short bit would be parallel to your belt buckle if you were wearing one.

Now blow. With little skill, you can make the straw birl around, amazing and amusing your friends and demonstrating Newton's third law of motion at the same time. Thanks for that one, Robin.

Some people see demonstrations like this as "Blue Peter science" - home-made and cheap. Others like the fact that they use familiar, unthreatening equipment and that they allow science to be taken out of the laboratory.

I see them as being rather like poems on underground trains. The poetry or science sneaks up on people and engages them before they realise what's happening. Come to think of it, cards detailing simple science experiments on buses and underground trains would be a darned good idea.

I'm sure I could think of a few that needed minimal or even zero apparatus, and I expect the good people at the science centre could come up with hundreds more.

Gregor Steele fears that the straws experiment will get him thrown out of Pizza Hut.

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