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In his customary tuxedo, and in memory of his longtime sidekick, UW-Madison physics professor Clint Sprott continued his tradition Saturday of wowing -- and startling -- audiences with "The Wonders of Physics."

But these shows almost didn't go on.

Thomas W. Lovell, Sprott's assistant in 170 shows since they began in 1984, died in March of complications from treatment he was receiving for colon cancer.

"When he died, my first reaction was, Well, we're not going to do shows any more," Sprott recalled Saturday after completing the first of two presentations to a full house of 300 children and adults.

"He was such an integral part of it. He wrote a lot of the skits. He always did some kind of flashy introduction. And he just made everything come together."

Being of scientific mind, though, Sprott kept questioning his early conclusion.

"Then I got to thinking, Would that be how I wanted to honor Lovell? And would he like to know that his death ended the show?'

"And I know that he wouldn't."

So this year's six shows, which began last weekend and conclude today, are dedicated to Lovell.\

Zany demonstrations

Pictures of Lovell are projected onto a wall above Sprott's laboratory table as the professor recounts memories of Lovell and his favorite parts of the show, which has been seen by more than 160,000 people throughout North America.

Besides celebrating Lovell's life, the shows also herald the physics department's arrival in newly remodeled Chamberlin Hall, 1150 University Ave., after its move from Sterling Hall.

The show stays true to the zany demonstrations that Lovell helped orchestrate.

There's the opening segment from the original 1984 show. A 16-pound bowling ball, suspended from the ceiling, becomes a pendulum that comes within inches of striking a volunteer in the face.

The "conservation of angular momentum" comes alive as Sprott stands on a rotating pedestal and holds a spinning bicycle wheel that influences which way the pedestal turns.

Another of Lovell's favorite demonstrations puts Sprott on that rotating pedestal with a carbon dioxide fire extinguisher.

He would blast the fire extinguisher to send himself spinning to illustrate "Newton's Third Law of Motion -- when something goes one way, something else goes the other way. That's how a rocket works."

After focusing on motion, Sprott ran through more than a dozen examples of heat, sound, electricity, magnetism and light at work.

Among the crowd favorites is a can that is heated until it contains steam, and then collapses when plunged into water.

Steve Narf, one of Sprott's assistants, became a "human conductor" when hooked up to a million-volt Tesla coil that sends sparks from his fingers.

Some of these demonstrations have been seen on NBC's "The Tonight Show," which has featured 16 appearances by "mad scientist" David Willey from the University of Pittsburgh, a friend of Sprott's. Willey assisted with last week's shows at UW-Madison and is hoping to return next year.

The flash and humor are so effective that halfway into the show, Sprott succeeds at getting the audience to yell, "Physics is fun!"\

Interest children

To help spread that message, Sprott has written a 300-page book and companion DVD to aid teachers and others who wish to learn how to conduct 85 demonstrations he has presented over the past two decades. The book will be officially released March 1, but it's already available from University of Wisconsin Press.

Sprott says physics has "sort of fallen out of favor over the years" as students have been lured to other fields, particularly the biological sciences and business.

Sprott, a Tennessee native who holds degrees from the Massachusetts of Technology and UW-Madison, would like all those oohs and awes to get young people to at least consider a career in physics.

"The idea," he said, "is to show people things that will make them think, that will surprise them."

To Marissa Bentivengo, 9, who hopes to become a teacher someday, the highlights of the show included exploding balloons and Sprott disappearing behind a wall of mist.

Her parents, Martin and Eliza Bentivengo of New Glarus, appreciated the efforts of Sprott and a small army of helpers to keep the show going after the death of Lovell.

"You never know when a kid is going to take an idea and really do something with it," Eliza Bentivengo said.

To learn more

Educational materials and special presentations of "The Wonders of Physics" are available for schools and other groups. Past presentations are available on DVD and on the Internet.

Call 608-262-2927 or visit http://sprott.physics.wisc.edu/wop.htm for details and to learn how to obtain free tickets for next year's shows. No tickets are available for today's performances.

UW-Madison physics professor Clint Sprott's new book, "Physics Demonstrations: A Sourcebook for Teachers of Physics," may be purchased at bookstores or online at www.wisc.edu/wisconsinpress/books/3606.htm. The cost is $45.

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