Physics Antiques Roadshow

Liveblogging here from the Fall Meeting of the Illinois and Iowa Sections of the American Association of Physics Teachers. The attendees are mostly high-school physics teachers, some from local colleges. Later tonight I’ll be giving a talk, but I can’t resist telling you about the delightful session we just had — WITHIT, or “What in the Heck is This?”

What is this? High-school science teachers live in a very different world than professional researchers. Typically a “department” is only one person, and when it comes to resources one has to be a little creative. So it’s quite common (I’ve just learned), when one first is hired, for the new teacher to be presented with a storeroom full of stuff that their predecessors had acquired one way or another. And this stuff doesn’t always come nicely packaged with detailed instructions and lesson plans.

Sometimes, indeed, it’s hard to figure out what the stuff is! So here at the FM of the IIS of the AAPT, people have been bringing in pieces of apparatus that have been lying around for decades and have become unmoored from their original purposes. They then show the wayward equipment to their assembled colleagues, and ask for help figuring out what the heck this thing is supposed to be. So far we’ve had experiments to measure kinetic energy, X-ray tubes, and an inverse-square-law apparatus.

I see great TV-show possibilities here. (After only one month of living in LA!) Could you imagine the tension as a bedraggled but hopeful physics teacher is told that their gizmo is an original Leonardo?

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14 Responses to Physics Antiques Roadshow

  1. wolfgang says:

    > physics teacher is told that their gizmo is an original Leonardo?

    I hope it is not that bad.
    My school had pretty old equipment – but made by Leonardo?

  2. nc says:

    At my secondary school, the physics department was so poor they didn’t even have deliveries of dry ice for the Wilson cloud chamber. To make a little dry ice for it was a weird event itself, the teacher had a really clever trick with a bag and a cylinder of CO2 gas. 😉

  3. magista says:

    Does that mean if I take pictures of some of the stuff in my back room, you can tell me what the hell it is? I’ve been here for nearly 10 years now, and I’m still not quite sure of some of it. Bits and pieces of a microwave generator, scattered amongst incomprehensable stuff.

    I’ve got something that looks like a replacement “bulb” for an e/m apparatus, but it doesn’t look as though it would fit my current one (which in any case, is faulty in the Helmholtz coils). I know it’s old, because it’s in a wooden packing crate…

    Actually, I could simply use someone who knows how to repair things. My Wimshurst has stopped working, the Van de Graaf has stopped sparking (though I did repair the faulty motor switch) and I can’t identify the problem with either one. I’ve got really old vacuum pumps, too.

    And forget about doing fancy stuff like Millikan’s experiment – that setup costs over $1000 each unit.

    nc, when we need to have dry ice, we go buy it ourselves. Although we do have the apparatus to make our own with a CO2 cylinder.

    OTOH, I’m quite the dab hand at demonstrating static effects with nothing more than some Scotch tape…

  4. Jeremy says:

    It’s a sad day in physics class when you learn that your conservation of momentum experiment will actually be a thought experiment:

    ‘now class, who can tell me if their imaginary momentum is conserved?’

    On the other hand I suppose safety glasses won’t be needed…

  5. I think The Learning Channel would be all over this idea. 🙂 Time to get an agent and make the pitch. After all, everyone in LA has a pilot in the works…

  6. JoAnne says:

    My God, you’re in Rock Island! I went to high school just across the River….I still remember driving my Mother’s car at age 17 when the brakes when out in downtown Rock Island….and one of my first dates was a Doobie Brother’s concert at the Rock Island arsenal. Harold’s on the Rock USED to be the best the restaurant around (my wedding rehearsal dinner was held there), but then, that was awhile ago….Enjoy!

  7. Alejandro Rivero says:

    It seems also a good idea for a database website.

    Ah, the one in your picture is a coffee machine. I mean, it is a still (distiler?) appartatus able to work at low presure, isnt it? In Zaragoza they use the low pressure trick to be able to extract the scent of a coffee cup by only lightly heating.

  8. Ah, those good old days in the science class….listening to the background drone of the teacher, and wondering if he would ever do something with the van de Graaf generator…..and then that wonderful day in the movie house (was it Weird Science?) when I actually got to see one of those things work……

  9. RayCeeYa says:

    Our department uses viscometers that have a two speed transmission with a clutch. And when I started here we had pH meters that were older than my father. You should see our pilot plant. We have equipment that dates to the twenties. This is a state funded University for gods sake.

  10. Sorry, I’m not even going to guess what that thing is.

    But I would like to say anybody interested in old scientific instruments should see this exhibit at Harvard:

    They have finally gotten their collection out of the basement and into a nice room on the ground floor of the science building.

    I saw it last week, very enjoyable.

  11. gaussling says:

    Oh, good lord. It is a rotary evaporator and it is adjusted ass-over-teakettle. The condenser is wrongly pointed down and the business end, which is missing a glass tube with a ground glass joint is pointed upwards. You hook a vacuum line on to the condenser and pump it down, causing a depression in the boiling point. Your flask with solvent in it is attached to the missing glass tube. It is used for vacuum distillation. The flask is rotated to prevent the liquid from violently bumping material over to the condenser side. The flask seen in the photo is to collect the distilled solvent. It is not an antique, though at the school in question it might see more service as a door stop. A cheap new one costs ~ 2 kilobucks.

  12. Alex R says:

    Some days I get the impression that in the next couple of decades, *all* educational physics laboratory equipment will be obsolete antiques, replaced by beautiful computer simulations that always follow exactly the equations that the students are learning in their textbooks… (And of course, when the lab simulations are distributed along with the textbooks, there will be no need to ensure that the equations being simulated correspond to those obeyed by nature…)

    Maintaining lab equipment for teaching physics is expensive, annoying, frustrating, and essential for understanding that physics is a science. People who keep the real thing running are doing very important work.

  13. Mark H says:

    Old equipment? Luxury! Everytime I want to have my students perform an experiment, it’s off to Radioshack for bits and pieces to assemble some kludgy apparatus (a conduction apparatus using 9-volt batteries and flashlight bulbs, measuring constant acceleration using balls rolling down tables propped up on textbooks, etc.).

    Then again, my students have gotten results very close to theory using nothing more complicated than stop watches. And, I get to give history lessons as they’re working since they’re essentially replicating the work of Galileo and other scientists who had to use their pulse as a timer.

  14. Prof. T. Pesh (Tipesh is Hebrew for stupid) says:

    I just can’t help hearing a Monty Python skit here.

    When I was an undergrad, we were so poor, not only did we have broken equipment, not only did the professor beat us to within an inch of our lives if we were more than 1% in systematic error from theory, and we were grateful for it, not only did we have to do write-ups 25 hours a day without pen or paper, as well as attend lectures at the bottom of the nuclear pond from 6am to midnight with no breaks for lunch, it goes without saying naked, but we were also so poor we didn’t even have water, so we had to put out fires by sitting on them. And there were fires all the time, the nuclear reactor blew up at least twice a week. When I say half my class didn’t graduate I don’t mean they were too stupid – they simply burned their asses off doing physics. But we loved it, even dead. Oh God I miss those days. The smell of radiation burns in the dorms, which were just shacks built on the river, without roofs or a floor, the camaraderie of all of us huddled for warmth in a winter storm while solving the Einstein Field Equations in our heads, colloquium from Thursday at 5 until Monday at 6, outside in the dark — it was dark 24/7 in those days, and minus 350 Kelvin in the summer — don’t talk to me about absolute zero, that’s a new thing pandering to the modern kids – where we had to not only give the talk but also build an electric baton, beat our fellow students with it if they fell asleep, and at the same time calculate the impulse of the baton, estimate the blood loss in the brain from the blow, measure the blood loss by open skull surgery, without anesthetic of course, using a hatchet made from a dead horse, and then the dead student had to show that the electric dipole moment of the baton was relativistically conserved under the proper Lorentz transform, in order to be readmitted to the program. All I might add, without food or coffee. We were poor but we were happy. Those were the days. We did real Physics. The kids today are soft. The actually get a bed! They actually have food to eat. The lab equipment works and they have instructions and instructors! If we had had those luxuries we never would have done any physics! Its no wonder the world is falling apart!