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Rutgers Physics Shows Have Thrilled Thousands for 20 Years

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A carbon dioxide fire extinguisher propels Physics Professor Mark Croft at a Rutgers Faraday Holiday Children's Lecture. Credits: Nick Romanenko/Rutgers University
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Rutgers University-New Brunswick Professor Mark Croft began giving physics demonstrations for students and outside groups 40 years ago, but the demos required lots of heavy lifting.

“We didn’t have an elevator at the Rutgers Physics Lecture Hall, so I had to carry everything up and down the flights of stairs here,” Croft said. “For road trips, I had to load the truck, unload the truck, do the show, and it was killing me. I had to stop everything. You either say yes or no to everybody.”

But stopping the shows made Croft feel guilty. So, 20 years ago, he asked Rutgers physics support specialist Dave Maiullo – star of Off-Broadway’s “That Physics Show” at The Elektra Theatre in New York City – to help him stage holiday physics shows for the public.

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Maiullo obliged, and an estimated 25,000-plus children and adults have since seen the annual Rutgers Faraday Holiday Children's Lecture and shows during Rutgers Day at Rutgers University-New Brunswick. Inspiration for the shows came from England’s Michael Faraday, a famous physicist and chemist who began presenting annual Christmas Lectures at the Royal Institution in London in 1825.

This year’s 20th anniversary shows at Rutgers are scheduled for Friday, December 8; Saturday, December 9; and Sunday, December 10. The free shows will be held in the 320-seat Physics Lecture Hall at 120 Frelinghuysen Road on the Busch Campus in Piscataway. To ensure seating, you should arrive early, and no parking passes are needed.

Physics demonstrations will include a roller skater or manned cart propelled by a carbon dioxide fire extinguisher, a hydrogen balloon that explodes and a man who lies on a bed of nails.

“We do it almost like a semester of physics in a way. We cover matter and motion, Newton’s laws and other phenomena,” said Maiullo, who oversees technical support for demonstrations by physics and astronomy professors and lecturers in the Physics Lecture Hall.

“Since the time I went to Dave and got him involved, it’s taken off and now he, of course, is the power and brains behind the show,” said Croft, who teaches introductory physics to science majors. “I’m sort of the straight man or somebody to be made fun of.”

Maiullo said Rutgers students have helped make the shows a great success. He hires 30 to 35 students per semester to help with demonstrations at and outside Rutgers, and about 20 are involved in the December and Rutgers Day shows.

“I can’t do it without students and the students really enjoy it,” Maiullo said. “They have great hearts and really enjoy interacting with little kids and people.”

Here’s the schedule for this year’s shows:

  • Friday, December 8: Pre-show demos in the Physics Lecture Hall lobby begin at 6 p.m. The show is from 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.
  • Saturday, December 9: Pre-show demos in the lobby begin at 2 p.m. The show runs from 3 p.m. to 4:30 p.m.
  • Sunday, December 10: Pre-show demos in the lobby begin at noon. The show is from 1 p.m. to 2:30 p.m.

“The kids will often have their mouths agape, their eyes bulging and they’re laughing,” Croft said. “It’s wildly enthusiastic, especially if I carry a fire extinguisher on roller skates. They don’t have to go into science as a career, but hopefully they will develop an appreciation for it."

“In your life, there are only a certain number of things you get a chance to do just because you feel good about them and they’re good for other people,” he added. “The physics shows are a big thing in my life, and because of Dave, I get to do it every year.”

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