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The Fun of Physics

View a photo gallery of the Physics Fest

Some 150 students, mostly new to campus, headed for McConnell Hall on September 1 to lie across a bed of nails, spin on a rotating stool, examine a model of the human eye, play with laser beams and analyze the properties of sound waves.

It was all part of the first Physics Fest, a possibly annual event hosted by the Smith physics department that aimed to demonstrate how much fun the subject can be while imparting its practical concepts.

“We have a personal interest in getting the word about physics out,” says Nalini Easwar, professor of physics, who helped coordinate the event with her department colleagues. “Students come and experience the fun of physics, then they might say, ‘Let’s try it.’”

All the attractions at the Physics Fest were devices used in department courses, says Easwar. For example, the bed of nails demonstrated what happens when weight is distributed evenly over multiple points of contact. The spinning stool showed participants what a figure skater might experience when she pulls off a double axle. And when some students sunk into a tub of Oobleck, a messy substance that changes flow properties depending on the amount of pressure applied to it, they learned how materials can adapt to external forces.

The Physics Fest follows the format of a reception that the physics department hosts during commencement week. Department faculty members wanted to extend that event to incoming students as well, Easwar said.

Part of the objective of the Physics Fest was to show students that physics is not necessarily the intimidating subject that students sometimes think it is. Though the study of physics requires a grasp of mathematical concepts, its principles are simply ways to explain the physical phenomena of our environment.

“Physics is everywhere,” Easwar says. “Physics is about understanding the world around us. It’s important for students to realize that physics is fun and that it’s applicable.”

With an undergraduate degree in physics, Easwar points out, students can launch into a variety of different fields like engineering, medical research and materials science.

“Physics teaches you methods of problem-solving and clear analytical thinking,” she says, “how to organize data and conduct research, and how to work things out”—that, and of course, how to successfully lie across a bed of sharp nails.

9/5/07   By Eric Sean Weld
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