It’s hard to hear yourself think, much less anything else, in a classroom full of sixth-graders, but that excited shriek caught my attention.
I was taking photographs of a Physics Show demonstration for the Youth Adventure Program (YAP) in the Mitchell Physics Building last month. The kids were in awe over a tiny cube-shaped magnet that was floating in midair around a circular disc. And indeed, it gave the appearance of something on the supernormal side of things.
“It’s not magic – it’s physics,” noted Dr. Tatiana Erukhimova, senior lecturer and champion of the Department of Physics and Astronomy’s premier outreach extravaganza.
Technically, that’s true. We actually were witnessing the principles of superconducting levitation at work. Superconductors expel magnetic fields, so when the disc is cooled to its point of superconductivity (with the help of some liquid nitrogen), the repulsion is so strong that the magnet appears to be suspended in air.
Science may be the fabric of what we know as “magic,” but it takes a lot of creativity (and perhaps some charisma, too) to capture an audience’s imagination using only everyday objects, especially when that audience is hyperactive pre-teens. People like Tatiana, and also Dr. James Pennington who spearheads the Department of Chemistry’s Chemistry Roadshow, are masters of this.
To me, there’s a little bit of magic in that.