Putting on a science show for a room packed with laughing, cheering families is a lot more fun for UW-Madison professor Clint Sprott than giving a lecture to a hall of university students.
“We make them think they are going to have fun, and they do,” Sprott said Sunday after his “The Wonders of Physics” performance No. 256.
The emeritus physics professor is in his 30th year of giving the free public physics presentation, which has reached an audience of 90,000, said Mike Randall, the show’s outreach coordinator and one of about 10 assistants who take part in the performance.
“Our prime focus is to entertain, and we throw in some science along the way,” Sprott said.
During the past two weekends, Sprott performed the show 10 times in Chamberlin Hall on the UW-Madison campus.
The show usually sells out far in advance. Tickets are released on Jan. 1 each year. And this year, all were gone in a week, the fastest tickets have ever been snatched up, Randall said.
There is also a traveling show developed and presented by physics graduate students that has been presented more than 1,000 times throughout Wisconsin and the nation. A variety of educational tools and materials were developed out of the program, including videos, software, a book and a lecture kit.
Videos from past shows are available at sprott.physics.wisc.edu/wop.htm.
Sprott modeled his show after a similar program, the famous “Science is Fun” program by chemistry professor Bassam Shakhashiri, who gave his 43rd holiday-time presentation on campus in early December.
“The Wonders of Physics” looks at motion, heat, sound, electricity, magnetism and light, with corny science jokes sprinkled throughout.
Sprott’s helpers, most of whom do their own experiments, all wear outrageous costumes and pretend throughout the performance they are from Mars.
At the end, Sprott sends the audience on its way with a giant, cold liquid nitrogen cloud that slowly spreads out from the stage.
Sprott retired in 2008 but still comes to campus every day to do research and write papers. His research centers on chaos, an area of mathematics that deals with complex dynamical systems that have unpredictable behavior, such as the weather and stock market, he said.
Barb Morell, 56, a physics teacher, approached Sprott after the show with her family and got an autograph. Her tickets were a Christmas gift from her children, she said.
“It’s always good to make physics come alive, and Professor Sprott did an excellent job of doing that,” Morell said.
Catherine Herrin, of Waunakee, brought her sons, Christopher, 11, and Alex, 9, to the show after seeing it herself 30 years ago.
As they left the lecture hall, she told Alex, “You’ve asked many times why the sky is blue. Now we both know.”