Friday, July 22, 2011

A Physics Playground

Fridays are the best days. That is a well known fact. But it is especially true here at Penn. This weeks class field trip was to the Franklin Institute, and I never thought I would say this about a museum, but it was probably even more enjoyable than the roller coasters. Or, at least it was a close second.

Most of the displays were designed for children, and by that I do not mean that they demonstrated simple concepts or not advanced ideas,but rather that all of the displays were very hands-on. The exhibits reminded me of Bill's lectures in that they each had many very creative ways of explaining complex ideas with simple demonstrations that were both fun and interesting. It made me really happy to see all the young children around me truly excited about physics. In many instances I found myself wishing that I had had the opportunity to visit the museum when I was younger, but even at my age I learned a lot and had fun doing it.

The first exhibit we visited was a giant Foucault pendulum, the first experiment that proved the rotation of the Earth. It was really pretty amazing watching this gigantic mass swing back and forth. There was a plaque that showed the calculations for how long it took for the pendulum direction to shift a full 360 degrees at that particular place on Earth. At the end of the day, we visited it again, and sure enough, there were a few extra chess pieces that had been knocked down because of the shift in the pendulums path.

The next exhibit we went to was more biology oriented, but as we learned before from our pair of lectures on the brain, the two subjects are not disconnected. In this case, the subject is of interest to everyone. We all have a heart and, as it turns out it is quite important that we take care of it. This pointed was stressed to us all when we watched a video of an open heart surgery and got to look at some of the tools the surgeons used. It was both fascinating and horrifying. In addition to this, we spent some time in the famous model heart that is available and large enough to walk through (or at least large enough for a child to walk through; it was a tight fit for Brian).

There was another really cool exhibit on electricity where one could give and receive some fairly high voltage shocks. We also held hands to complete a circuit and light up a light bulb and spent a fair amount of time with out cell phones in front of the light up screen that detects radio waves. My favorite was the machine that detected the electricity that flows through your nerves when you flexed the muscles in your arm.

After that, we ventured up to the roof to withstand the sweltering heat just long enough to peer through a high-powered telescope with special lenses that allowed us to get a clear view of the sun. It was amazing. There were even a few sun spots visible.

We also spent some time in "Issac's Loft" which was an area with a collection of interactive demonstrations about simple machines such as levers and pulleys, the conservation of momentum, and transfers of energy. It was comparable to an educational playground. I raced Brian in a nifty contraption where you can sit in a seat and raise yourself with a pulley.

One of my favorite exhibits was one about engineering and inventions. It was really an interactive explanation of how things worked on the simplest levels. They had cases that contained everyday items such as windshield wipers, vacuum cleaners, and combination locks that had been disassembled in such a way that their inner workings were made clear. There were also stations where one could mess around with gears and pulleys to make simple machines. It was very entertaining.

There was also an entire exhibit on optics and optical illusions that was kind of trippy. They also ad some long exposure light pictures up, which got me really excited because I had just finished making a similar picture the night before. One of the most mind-blowing optical tricks was the one of the dragon whose face was build in a box that was going away from the view but painted in such a way that if one blurred their eyes, it appeared to be coming towards them, and then if they were to walk around the room, follow them wherever they went.

After lunch, we went as a group the the planetarium where we watched a movie on a dome-shaped screen called "A Journey Into a Black Hole" or something along those lines. There were some amazing images of space, and seeing the stars and galaxies all around our heads was pretty cool. Even cooler was the feeling that we knew exactly what the narrator was talking about when he discussed the bending of light and space-time that occurs around black holes. It was a really good way to end an extremely exciting day of "class".

When I returned to the quad, I had the intention of playing squash with a group of people who were interested, however the courts were closed due to excessive heat, which was probably for the best because instead, we sat in an air conditioned cafe sipping on some refreshing smoothies.

After dinner, we watched the final Harry Potter movie, which honestly surpassed my expectations and then returned to our dorms for some Friday night card games before bed.

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