Zapping Teachers For Science

Aug. 2, 2000 -- 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.

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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