Zapping Teachers For Science

Hartmut Sadrozinski found out what it’s like to be zapped with bolts of lightning because, he says, he couldn’t hook his teenage son on physics.

“I had a talk with him about science, but I couldn’t get my story across,” says Sadrozinski, professor of physics at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and a veteran educator.

Physics deals in subatomic particles so small you can’t see them, and electromagnetic fields that you cannot hear or smell, and distant celestial objects so far away you can’t even tell they’re there without a powerful telescope.

So how’s a father supposed to get his kid interested in a field that seems so far removed from everyday life?

Easy, Sadrozinski concluded. Make science, even something as vague as electromagnetic fields, so real you can see it, and smell it, and hear it.

What a Little Lightning Will Do

And to do that, all you have to do is make every kid’s fantasy come true. Zap the teacher with bolts of lightning.

High school students in northern California will get a chance to do just that in the coming months, thanks to an extraordinary program that will bring professional scientists and college professors into the high school classroom to strut their stuff. And they’ll bring their toys along with them.

The program, funded partly by the National Science Foundation, is the kind of project that many educators believe could greatly strengthen the nation’s science education program. It even comes with its own mad genius.

For several years now, scientists at the university’s Santa Cruz Institute for Particle Physics have worked with local school teachers to improve science education, but the program took a new turn this year when graduate student Daniel Greenhouse started building his own Tesla coils. The coils were invented a century ago by Nikola Tesla, a Serbian-American scientist who revolutionized the field of electrical engineering.

Tesla developed the technology for generating and transmitting alternating current and is credited with a wide range of inventions, including the development of a death ray that he believed accidentally caused an enormous explosion halfway around the world.

Mad Scientist

He was a genius, to be sure, but more than a bit strange. He so loathed physical contact that when a female researcher once leaned over and kissed him, he ran screaming from the laboratory.

Although he worked with the likes of Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse, he died broke and obscure, and he is remembered most often these days as the inventor of the device that bears his name, the Tesla coil. It was a remarkable invention that enabled the development of everything from radio to television to wireless communications.

It’s a simple device that generates a powerful spark of voltage similar to lightning. He delighted in demonstrating the technology at county fairs, and in 1899 he produced a spark 135 feet long that illuminated 200 individual lights over a 25-mile area without any connecting wires.

When Greenhouse started building Tesla coils for his own amusement, it caught the attention of his professors. Although the coils are primarily used these days for demonstration purposes, like special effects in the movies, the professors realized they could use them the same way Tesla had, to bedazzle the scientifically uninitiated.

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