Scientists shoot smoke cannon on stage
Moving Performance
“Speaking Physics” course stages fun, accessible experiments for all
Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Trinity physics professor Nirav Mehta is not a glutton for punishment.

That’s important to clarify after attending his “Speaking Physics” course, where he’s been sandwiched between two beds of nails, had a cinder block sledge-hammered atop of him, been blasted across the room using a fire extinguisher and a small cart, and has otherwise been subjected to any number of other death-defying feats.

Mehta simply doesn’t think the field of physics should give anyone stage fright.

“The class is a physics communications class called ‘Speaking Physics,’” Mehta says. “The goal is to put together a stage show and do a wide variety of physical demonstrations [that] explain physics at a level suitable for a general audience.”

Nirav Mehta performs on stage

The stage show, held Friday, May 13 in an open performance to the Trinity community and the public, featured each member of Mehta’s class presenting an experiment.

Mehta is a theorist who studies ultra-cold atoms, examining the physics of three-particle and four-particle systems by looking at collisions of atoms and molecules under extremely cold temperatures. Over the years, he’s seen student interest in his Speaking Physics course heating up.

Physics majors Sebastian Barahona ’24 and Angela Graf ’24 and computer science major Amber Carlson ’23 all say they first came to the class because it seemed like a fun way to fulfill their oral and visual communication credit requirement, a staple of Trinity’s Pathways curriculum. But each of these students say they’re finding surprising benefits from taking the course—even though it only takes up a single credit hour.

Student rehearses physics experiment

Barahona, an international student from San Pedro Sula, Honduras, says the class twists the typical format of physics labs into something more unique to each learner.

“Typically labs are more formal, with complex experiments, measuring data, and writing long reports. In [Speaking Physics], you're having more fun with the experiments. You get to choose how you do things rather than having to follow the instructions. So you really have a more personal connection with what you're doing in this class when compared to a traditional lab.”

Scientists use roller skates on stage

Graf, from Center Point, Iowa, says the course is a simple but powerful source of energy that allows students the chance to re-invigorate their love for the field.

“I think it's fun to make the connections between the experiments we're doing in this class and some of the higher level concepts we're learning in our other physics classes,” Graf says. “When you're reading textbooks and working on equations all day long, you kind of forget how cool some of these concepts are. And so when we can put them in these fun demonstrations, it reminds me of why I actually like physics so much and why I became interested in it in the first place.”

Students rehearse on stage

And for Carlson, from Austin, Texas, the class is the perfect chance to build with her hands. As part of preparing each of these experiments for the stage, Carlson and her team get to design, craft, and hone the physical components for each experiment in Trinity Makerspace. This is a unique, all-in-one design and machine shop where students of all majors (from engineering and entrepreneurship to English) can learn to build using lathes, water jet cutters, 3D printers, and beyond.

As partners, Carlson and Graf were assigned to design and build their own experiment in the Makerspace demonstrating eddy currents (loops of electrical current induced within conductors by a changing magnetic field) and Faraday’s law of induction (a basic law predicting how magnetic fields interact with electric circuits to produce electromotive force).

With us so far? Carlson can explain:

“Essentially there's a big frame with a swinging board, and at the bottom a big aluminum head passes between two magnets. One has slits in it, and one is solid, and the solid plate passes through the magnets,” Carlson says. “Its eddy current can pull it to a stop, [but] the other one can't create as big an eddy current because of the slits. They can't make full circles, um, or at least not big ones. So that one just swings freely through the magnet.”

This is the type of experiment that would run smoothly in a lab. But Carlson and Graf say they were actually able to learn more from the mistakes they made building it themselves.

“It was interesting because we kind of designed the whole thing, and we're still running into issues where we're having trouble stabilizing it so that it actually goes through the magnets [instead of] just swinging off the side and hitting the magnet,” Carlson says. 

So, the team got some help from Ryan Hodge, Trinity’s dedicated machine shop technician, who’s always in the Makerspace, ready to help students with questions and roadblocks.

“Dr. Mehta and I and Angela worked on the blueprints a little bit, and then we went and talked to Ryan and he helped us with some of the logistics one step at a time.” Carlson says. “[Ryan] was like, ‘We’ll train you in this machine.’ And then we cut the aluminum, which was really awesome, and then we built it.”

Nirav Mehta performs experiment on stage

Next, Mehta and his students took the results of these individual projects and prepped them for the stage. Mehta says his group polished up the most exciting and visually dynamic of the experiments, and prepared simple presentations on each one—all spoken in plain English.

There’s a Van de Graaff generator, students spinning on turntables with weights to demonstrate conservation of angular momentum, a bicycle wheel gyroscope, and yes— Mehta made his entrance jetting across the stage in a cart using a fire extinguisher.

Think of it as a magic show, but one where the performers actually get to explain how the tricks work. 

“There's a lot of demystifying that we can do as far as what physics actually is and what a lot of these concepts are, because physics is a scary word for a lot of people,” Graf says. “This is a really cool way to bridge the gap between what [physicists] do and what other people do.”

Mehta has urged his students to approach the stage show component of the course as a dry run for giving presentations as researchers and professionals, regardless of career track.

“People who go on to careers in science and STEM have to communicate their ideas, whether research ideas or if they're going into teaching. Communicating technical information in a way that people can understand is a ubiquitous skill,” Mehta says. “I don't think it's restricted to the physical sciences. I would say that being able to communicate technical ideas to the general public is nowadays becoming even more important because science literacy is something that I think we really need to work on as a community.”

These skills are a fundamental part of Trinity’s approach to the liberal arts, where writing, speaking, and other forms of communication add value to the student experience regardless of major. And the chance to add these skills, Carlson says, is what makes taking a chance on courses like “Speaking Physics” worth the work.

Light display for physics show

“I figured public speaking was not my strong suit until this semester,” Carlson says. “But [Speaking Physics] ended up being really neat in ways that I did not expect it to be.”

As Carlson moves forward towards a career that will not involve physics, the unexpected dividends from taking a course like this will end up being just as important as some of the computer science classes in her major.

“I would say the biggest benefit is learning to manage your own project,” Carlson says. “You're trying to teach these big concepts [while] starting from scratch and figuring out how you want to … [build] that project from the ground up using whatever method you decide is best. And I think that that's going to be pretty reflective of things in the real world.”

Watch a complete recording of the performance at this link

Jeremiah Gerlach is the brand journalist for Trinity University Strategic Communications and Marketing.

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