Zapping Teachers For Science

Sadrozinski scraped together a few thousand bucks, and local high school teachers joined with the university’s staff to build their own Tesla coil. They didn’t want one too powerful, because as Greenhouse warned, they might blow a hole in the roof of a classroom. So they settled on one that would produce a 5-foot bolt of lightning.

Then they came up with a suit of armor that looks like something out of the Middle Ages. And one fine day, with high school teachers present, Sadrozinski suggested that someone get into the armor and grab a few lightning bolts.

If it’s such a great idea, the teachers told Sadrozinski diplomatically, maybe he ought to get in himself.

Noise and Smoke

So he donned the suit, the Tesla coil was turned on, and the professor took a few direct hits. The lightning traveled around on the outside of the armor, and if he jumped up and down it leaped from his feet to the ground.

What did he feel while inside the armor?

“Nothing,” the professor says.

True to theory, the charge leaped from the coil to the nearest ground, the outer surface of the armor. The charge didn’t penetrate the armor, frying the professor, because it travels on the outside of the armor down to the ground in a perfect demonstration of how an electric field behaves.

And it did something else.

“It makes a lot of noise, because of the discharge in the air, and you can smell it because it generates ozone,’’ Sadrozinski says. At last, his son could hear, smell and see physics in action.

Alas, as it turns out, he wasn’t able to convince his son entirely.

“He’s into marine biology,” the professor says, “but I’m still working on him.”

Traveling Show

This summer the program moved into a high school setting for the first time. Students in the coastal community of Aptos got a chance to see their teachers zapped with lightning. In the fall, the program will go on the road, visiting high schools and telling the story of an eccentric genius and the revolution he helped spawn.

And students in Aptos will never look at physics quite the same way again. According to Jacqueline Pizzuti, who coordinates the program, some of them have already set new goals. And they’re not just interested in studying physics.

“Some of them said, ‘boy, it would be great to get the principal in that suit of armor,’” Pizzuti says.

Lee Dye’s column appears weekly on A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.

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