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Learn About Fun Physics Demos During Free Caltech Event This Friday

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Zachary Tobin, Lab Manager Science Demonstrations Credit: Lance Hayashida/Caltech

Zach Tobin has been Caltech’s Physics Lecture Hall Manager since 2017. 

Half of his job involves managing the Feynman Lecture Hall, where introductory physics courses are taught. 

The other half of the job entails managing Caltech’s collection of physics demos and related gadgetry, some of which date back nearly 130 years, according to Caltech. 

“Part of my job is playing with fun toys,” he jokes. “But what I like about my work is the breadth of topics I get to cover, from electromagnetism to quantum mechanics, and more.”

“Playing with Toys” on Friday, Dec. 9 at 10 a.m. will see Tobin talk about the value of physics demos, of which Caltech has a rich archive. 

The demos are well preserved and are used in Caltech’s introductory physics classes. Tobin says the oldest demo in the archive goes back as far as 1895.

“Every week of the school year, I set up a dozen or so of these demos and I make sure that the instructors know how to operate them so they can incorporate them into their lessons,” Tobin said. “And then it’s also my job to continue adding new and interesting demos to the archive and to make sure the ones we do have stay in good repair.”

The demos cover many basic principles such as Newton’s laws of motion, the relationship between electrical currents and magnetic fields, and the conductance of electricity by air. 

They also include props such as stuffed monkeys, lava lamps, and tubes of flames.

Playing with Toys

Tobin said with his talk on Friday is for anyone that’s seen an interesting science demo online and wants to know how that came to be or might be interested in seeing the process behind all that. 

“I was really thinking especially of students who are interested in STEM fields but maybe haven’t decided on a career path yet, because what I do is really unique and I really want everyone out there to know what sort of career possibilities there are for them,” he said. “And I also think this will appeal to people who are interested in science pedagogy, which is the way we teach science, because all these physics demos are tied directly into the whole idea of teaching.”

“I think it’s really easy for a university setting to seem really arcane and opaque if you don’t work in one,” Tobin adds. “So any opportunity to elucidate that process I think can be helpful to people at large. And I sprinkle in a few new pieces of science and historical tidbits in this talk as well.”

Caltech’s Physics Demonstration Archive

Through his team’s work, Tobin has been able to put almost all of the existing Caltech physics demos online, on a website called the Physics Demonstration Archive. The online database catalogs over 270 demos kept at the Feynman Lecture Hall.

The site is mostly interactive and anyone looking for a particular demo can choose among categories such as Mechanics, Electromagnetism, Waves, Quantum Mechanics, and Stat Mech before finding the item, which includes a video and some written explanations about the demo. Tobin himself appears in many of the videos.

“The online database was originally a long-term archiving project. But the pandemic made online resources a more urgent need,” he said. “So the website is at the moment pretty sparse and I’m looking forward to really adding a bunch more info about all the demos onto it, like their history, the concepts involved, and how to build and operate them yourself if you have the resources.”

To reserve your space for Friday’s online lecture, visit https://events.caltech.edu/calendar/science-journeys-presents-playing-with-toys 

Caltech’s Science Journey series is partly sponsored by the Caltech Employees Federal Credit Union. For more information, contact Caltech Ticket Office by phone at (626) 395-4652 or email events@caltech.edu.

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