A Matter of Force 

On U of M's Physics Day, professors lay it on the line (and a bed of nails) for potential students.

"I'm going to try to convince you. ... It's a very strange universe that you live in. It only seems reasonable," says Mike Ospeck cryptically.

The biophysicist and University of Memphis professor is speaking about the "mysterious uncertainty principle," an idea that says there are parts of the universe that cannot ever be completely known. But Ospeck and his colleagues at the university's annual Physics Day are trying to make one small part of the universe known -- the U of M's physics department, to be exact -- to some 200 area high school students and teachers.

Each year, students from a variety of schools across the city, including White Station, Craigmont, MUS, and Hutchison, hear short lectures, see demonstrations, and tour the campus' science facilities during the free seminar.

Joan Schmelz, a physics professor and astronomer at the U of M, kicks off the day with a discussion of black holes -- a phenomenon that she says has wide appeal among students. It was Schmelz who first suggested the idea for Physics Day over 10 years ago. Her pitch for the program was successful, and the rest is history.

"Part of it is a recruitment effort for the department," Schmelz says of Physics Day. "Part of it is outreach to bring more civics to the community."

The event is tailored to students who might be interested in a physics career path but does not exclude students with their eyes on engineering or related fields. Every year, Schmelz gets feedback from teachers to increase the availability of the program to as many students as possible. This year, every seat in the Manning Hall lecture room is full.

John Hanneken, an associate professor of physics, tries to answer a very real-world question: "What can you do with a physics degree?" Dispelling the perceptions that all physicists are geniuses or that they always become teachers, Hanneken cites a survey that says a student's success in medical school can be predicted according to how well they do in their undergraduate physics classes. He also points out that physicists ranked 15th for highest incomes on a 2001 Occupational Employment Statistics Survey.

At the end of the day, physics professor Robert Marchini leaves students with more than their college career to ponder. Using several well-known principles, he gives students a glimpse at how basic physics is used by magicians to fool audiences.

"Both magic and science are systematic ways of learning about nature and controlling nature," Marchini says.

For one of his tricks, Marchini selects a female volunteer. As the students scramble out of their seats to get a closer look, Marchini reveals a bed of nails. After his volunteer has touched one of the nails, assuring the other students of its sharpness, Marchini cautiously lays down on the bed. A tense moment or two passes, but Marchini shows no sign of discomfort. When he asks the girl to stand on his chest, her reluctance is clear -- though she does as instructed, much to the delight of the audience.

When Marchini stands up, the audience can see the individual impressions of nails on his back, but the skin has not been broken. Marchini's demonstration proves the principle of force per unit area: When weight is distributed over many nails, the force exerted on a single nail is dramatically reduced. "I contend that we live in a society that believes more in magic than it does in science," Marchini says. "All I'm asking of all of you is to maintain a healthy skepticism."

By the end of the day, students have learned about black holes and biophysics, pyschokinesis and astronomy, and how an interest in those areas might just pull them toward a career.

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