Utah State University Puts On Thanksgiving Physics Demo Show

Nov 22, 2017

James Coburn works for the Physics Department at Utah State University. He’s the driving force behind a favorite Thanksgiving tradition, the November Physics Demo Show.

“So every year the Friday before Thanksgiving we have the November Demo Show," Coburn said. "This year for the 10th annual we decided to do a medley of a bunch of different demos. And so this one was called “Supersonic, Sound, and Sparks.”

James Coburn blows flammable dust through a tube to create a fireball during his November Physics Demo Show
Credit Aimee Tallian

The auditorium is completely full for the demo show, and the room quickly fills with smoke, bangs, explosions and cheers and laughter from the audience.

“So one of the big demos we started with was the supersonic ping pong ball, and we started subsonic," he said. "We were firing a ping pong ball that was accelerated with air pressure in a vacuum tube. And with that we were able to get speeds of between 400 and 500 miles an hour.”

After the subsonic trial, he brings in an air compressor to create even more pressure, and make the ping pong ball travel at supersonic speeds.

“And then we can get above the speed of sound. And we’ve measured speeds up to 888 miles an hour. Other favorites would be the palm pipes. Palm pipes are PVC pipes that are labeled and have notes on them.”

Each pipe is a different shape and size, which creates a different musical note. Coburn conducts the audience through a variety of melodies. And then there are the explosions. 

“Of course people like explosions,” he said.

It is clear by the end of the night that Coburn loves what he does, and is passionate about bringing physics to the general public.     

“Physics gives the fundamental answers on how everything works. A lot of people are intimidated by physics, you know physics is all math, but there’s a lot of physics that’s available to everybody. Accessible. And you can find out fun and exciting things. You can come to a physics demo show and have fun.”