The Bleeding Edge

A few weeks ago in THIS POST, I talked about my hopes that the new Cosmos television series would spark new interest in science.  I also described my first run-in with an approximation (but not a very good one) of the scientific method.  That event, however, wasn't really what got me interested in science.

For that, I have to leap forward in time to elementary school.  I was in 6th grade, I believe.  My family was living in Memphis, Tennessee, and my father was on the faculty at Memphis State University (Yes, I know it’s the University of Memphis now, but it will always be MSU to me).  The Mississippi River flows borders Memphis to the east, and in the river just a short distance away from the bluffs on which downtown Memphis sits is a spit of land called Mud Island. 

Mud Island is home to a…I wouldn’t really call it a theme park.  It’s more of an attraction dedicated to the Mississippi River.  Along with eateries, a gift shop, and a decent playground, there’s a museum that I used to love as a kid and a scale model of the river that runs the length of the park into a large fountain representing the Gulf of Mexico. 

One weekend Mud Island hosted an event only for the faculty of the university and their families.  I’m sure there were lots of activities going on that particular day, but the only thing I remember is a demonstration by a faculty member from the Physics department.

I’ve seen several science demonstrations in classes and on television over the years, but I can’t think of any that were on the level of scale and showmanship as what I saw that day. 

He pulled me in to help show that a pendulum will never swing back at high as it was at its starting point (Neil deGrasse Tyson demonstrated this very principle in the 4/13/2014 episode of Cosmos).  It’s a fairly basic scientific fact, but it’s a bit more impressive to see it done with a bowling ball attached to a two-story high metal cable.  He placed the bowling ball up to my face and then let it go.  I watched as this heavy orb the size of my head arced away from my and then swung back. 

I’d heard the explanation.  I trusted him and the science.  But still that thing was coming at me so fast.  There was no way it was going to stop in time.  I couldn’t help but lean back a bit. 

This happened twice before he finally decided to turn me around, so I couldn’t see what was happening.  He touched the bowling ball gently to the back of my head and let it go.  Fortunately, I stood still that time, and the audience got a wonderful proof of this aspect of the motion of the pendulum.  It’s certainly something I will always remember.  How many people have had the experience of seeing a bowling ball flying right at their head without instant death or serious trauma immediately following?

The finale of the show beat the bowling ball, though.  The man running the demonstration had a guillotine.  A real, full-sized guillotine, complete with a large and very sharp blade.  To show us just how sharp said blade was, he used it to cut a couple of watermelons neatly in half.  The next thing to go into the guillotine, though, was his own neck.

Before that, though, he attached electromagnets to the guillotine’s frame just above where his neck was soon to be.

Looking back, I’m still impressed that this man was willing to put his life on the line to show his belief in science.  But he did.  He put his head into the guillotine, turned on the power to the electromagnets and sent the blade plummeting toward his exposed neck.

The magnets did their work and stopped it just short.  All the man received was the slightest cut on the back of his neck. 

I really don’t think he was getting paid extra for that.  It was just MSU Day at Mud Island, after all, and he was faculty.  However, he feel strongly enough about his work and showing us the wonders of science that he put on a show that has stuck with me to this day.

I’m just glad there wasn’t a badly-timed power outage.

Once I got to high school, physics was by far my favorite of the sciences.  I can’t say for certain that seeing that demonstration years earlier was why, but it certainly didn’t hurt.  At the very least, it laid the ground work for my interest.  Physics, equations and all, just made sense to me.  My high school physics teacher, who gave me a wonderful grounding in the subject and taught a course that was far more rigorous than the ones I ended up taking in college, encouraged me to look that direction for my career.  I didn’t, but my love for the subject never went away.

Each week as I watch Cosmos with my son, I’m reminded of the wonders of the scientific world.  I hope the show is sinking in with him.  But if I could get my hands on a time machine, I’d take him back to see that guillotine demonstration.  Now THAT he’d think was cool. 

-Alan Decker

@CmdrAJD on Twitter