What Is It?

Reprinted from: Los Altos Patch January 12, 2011

An article by Ann Krueger Spivack 

Ten Minutes With ...

Frank Cascarano of The Physics Show

Part Richard Feynman and part P.T. Barnum, Frank Cascarano is the brains and the showman behind The Physics Show at Foothill College. We learn how he comes up with new ideas each year, and why the 'bed of nails' finale never ceases to amaze.

Frank Cascarano offers this calculation: If California’s population continues growing at its current rate, and if The Physics Show continues to grow at is current rate, in the year 2028, every person in California will attend the show. 

The Physics Show sells out every year and, as of this writing, one of the five shows is already sold out.

Los Altos Patch: Of course you’re a physicist, but you must have a theatrical background too, right?

Frank Cascarano: Not at all, but I do love physics. Once I’m up on stage, I feed off the audience, and we have fun together.

Patch: You’ve been a physics professor for 10 years. You were an engineer in the semiconductor industry before leaving technology for academics. What made you switch to teaching?

Cascarano: I found myself gravitating to teaching roles in my previous jobs. Both of my parents were teachers, so maybe it runs in the family. I can say this: I have never been happier.

Patch: Judging from the videos on YouTube, your students are happy, too. What prompted you to produce the first show in 2007? What made you think that the public would embrace something called The Physics Show?

Cascarano: I was searching the Internet for demonstration ideas I could use in my classes at Foothill College. I stumbled across videos of a show called “The Wonders of Physics” put on by the University of Wisconsin. They’ve been doing it for over 25 years. I thought that a similar show in Los Altos would be a great way to thank the local community for their support of Foothill College.

I had been doing demonstrations in my sons' classrooms for several years, and I knew the kids had a great time. However, that first year, we did have a hard time filling our 200-seat lecture room. When people actually saw the show, there was a positive reaction.

Fortunately, the power of e-mail went to work for us after that first show. When the e-mail goes out announcing our shows each year, it gets forwarded to friends and coworkers, posted on mother’s groups, and notices get sent through Facebook. It is the personal testimonials from people who have seen the show that has accounted for our growth.

Patch: Is the show a joint venture–how do other scientists and students in the physics department participate?

Cascarano: Absolutely, a lot of people are involved. First, the administration is very supportive, from our division dean to the president of the college. Second, the physics department faculty and staff help to make the show happen. Most work behind the scenes, but my colleague David Marasco enjoys being on stage.

We are working on involving our students more and more. The program that is handed out at the door is designed by our student-run Design Center, and students help with everything from running the video camera to directing people to the venue. This will be the third year that a student joins us on stage presenting the demonstrations.

Patch: How do you come up with something like the Liquid Nitrogen Canon?

Cascarano: Most of the demonstrations we do are typical physics demonstrations that a lot of us saw in high school and college physics classes. The demonstrations aren’t unique, but the way we try to make it accessible to kids may be a little different. A few demonstrations we came up with ourselves, like the mini bed of nails we do right before the big bed of nails finale. We also try to involve our students in making some of the “super-sized” demonstration equipment used in the show.

Patch: Do you build in the humor? During the helicopter demonstration where the guy starts twirling, the entire audience cracks up. There are many laughs during The Physics Shows. Are those carefully orchestrated?

Cascarano: We try to include some fun examples of the physics concepts that will make people laugh, so there is a built-in component. However, you have to realize, we are having fun, too. Most of the other gimmicks are usually thought of by David Marasco during the show. I always say to my students, “If you can’t have fun with physics, you aren’t a very fun person.”

Patch: Each year’s show has half new experiments and half old, well-loved experiments, such as the bed of nails. How do you come up with new experiments each year? What are you looking for? Visual drama? An unexpected scientific point?

Cascarano: I start with a theme or a major concept. Then I start thinking of demonstrations that are fun, vivid and memorable. Some can be super-sized for the show, some will work with a close-up camera and other ideas I have to let go, because they won’t work in that setting. One of my goals in the shows is to link physics explanations to everyday experiences. I really want people to think about physics when they are pumping gas, driving in a car, answering a cell phone, cooking dinner, etc.

Patch: I was watching on YouTube a video of a show that I had actually attended, and I was struck by the audience participation. It almost felt like a nightclub scene–at a very wholesome nightclub–where the hecklers were 4-year-olds. You don’t seem to mind the kids yelling and  jumping out of their seats. I suspect you actually like it.

Cascarano: Physics is fun!  That is one of the main lessons we want people to leave with. For the little ones, that may be the only lesson they take away, which is fine. The older kids get a bit more out of the explanations. Even the adults seem to have fun and enjoy the show. Yes, I do like to see people enjoying the show. It makes it all worthwhile.

Patch: What’s your favorite experiment?

Cascarano: That’s a hard one. I like to say that I never get tired of hitting my colleague, David Marasco, with a sledge hammer. But I also never get tired of seeing my breath condense, making it look like smoke is coming out of my nose.

Patch: That bed of nails trick—wow. It’s a showstopper.

Cascarano: Every year I think I should find another way to end the show, so we can mix it up year to year. But, I can never think of a better closing to the show, so we stay with the bed of nails. Another thing I like about it is that I start with a mini bed of nails and a balloon and do a smaller version of the experiment first. That really sets up the bed of nails and makes it more than just entertainment.

Patch: Most people in the audience know that the person in the bed of nails won’t get hurt, but still we’re on the edge of our seats during that one. I’ve seen it three times, and I understand the physics, but even so, a part of my brain refuses to believe that the person walks away without injury. Why is that particular concept so incredible?

Cascarano: One of the hard things about teaching physics is that we have all lived in this world of ours for many years and have formulated ideas about how things work. Many of those ideas are wrong—perfectly logical, but wrong.

An example is friction and air resistance. We push on things, and they eventually come to rest, because of friction and air resistance. Get rid of those, and moving objects will keep going forever. I teach this all the time. You would think that I would not be surprised by this. But, recently, I was standing next to a frozen lake. I picked up a piece of ice and tossed it out across the frozen lake. It kept sliding and sliding (ice on ice is very low friction). I was amazed at how far it went, but this is exactly what the physics tells us to expect. We are just used to certain things, like nails being sharp objects that can hurt us.

Patch: Have you ever been the one lying on the bed of nails instead of the person wielding the sledge hammer?

Cascarano: No, but I have put my son in there when I did that demonstration at his school. Does that count?

Patch: How did your wife feel about that?

Cascarano: Actually, The Physics Show has really become a family project for us. My wife puts together the amazing PowerPoint slides that accompany the demonstrations and she is at every show running the presentation. My sons typically help with handouts, but as they get older, they are able to take on more. So, after some initial apprehension, she was fine with it.