Making physics fun

Side-27
26.06.2013
Parents who complain that their children have sprayed tomatoes over the whole kitchen are telling physicist and TV presenter Andreas Wahl that he has succeeded.
  • Tonje Pedersen and Bård Gudim (photos)

Tips for teachers

Andreas Wahl travels all over Norway with his science show, and has developed a special inspirational lecture for teachers. The aim is to encourage them to use some of his tricks in their teaching.

 

Physicist Andreas Wahl

Everyday tricks.
How can juice and oil be made to change places? Physicist Andreas Wahl has become well known in Norway for his entertaining science experiments. He is personally fascinated by everyday phenomena.

 

Most people recall a special teacher – the one who did crazy things and always had a new trick up their sleeve. These are the ones who generate lasting interest in their subject, says Wahl.

The 29-year-old tries to convey the wonderful world of physics in the same way through popular lectures and his children’s science shows on the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation (NRK).

He has also written two books – Fysikkmagi (The Magic of Physics) and Nært – sært – spektakulært (Close, Special and Spectacular) – and developed an app for tricks in physics.

Boosting interest in science calls for both good teachers and entertainers, Wahl maintains.

“I have huge respect for the job teachers do, but they have to stick to learning targets and curricula. I can help to change attitudes, and believe we need both aspects.”

 

Andreas Wahl

Sensitive seeds.
Andreas Wahl hopes to inspire children and young people to continue exploring science subjects through his two TV shows

 

Challenges

In his view, success in teaching physics faces several challenges. One is to get pupils to understand the kinds of careers physicists can pursue. These must be made clearer.

“Physics is not a vocational education. So children and young people find it difficult to see what they need this subject for. I want to help ensure that the next time they hear the word ‘physics’, they think ‘Wow’.”

He believes both schools and employers must get better at conveying the sheer breadth of the science. How can youngsters otherwise understand that it spans from laboratory to manage-ment, industry, programming and oil.

“We must meet physics with fresh eyes. Those who enjoy creativity choose other subjects because nobody has shown them how creative physics is, and that it’s about finding answers which don’t exist today.”

 

Spin

“How can you find out whether an egg is boiled or raw?” is the sort of question Wahl likes to pose on his NRK science programme for children.

“You spin it on a table and stop it with a finger after a second or so. Halting at once means it’s boiled and solid. If it keeps spinning, its contents are still raw.”

This is precisely where recruit-ment to science studies begins, the presenter maintains during the recording of his show – at the level of children’s TV.

“It’s important to start as soon as possible,” he emphasises. “By addressing the youngest kids, I’m hoping to sow the seeds of a future involvement.”

Developing a basic interest in science is important if pupils are to continue such studies, Wahl believes. His own fascination derives from curiosity and a desire to understand the world.

His media career began in 2007 when giving a lecture. A journalist from Oslo tabloid Dagbladet was taken with the committed physicist, leading to a video series on science tricks.

His reputation was further enhanced through participation in several popular TV programmes, and his schedule has been tight-packed ever since.

Through his own company, Vitenwahl, he travels around Norway to deliver his two popular-science lectures University in 42 minutes – a science show and We are all stardust.

Teachers are a target audience, and he has produced a special inspirational lecture for them. His argument is that getting the message across becomes easier when physics is down-to-earth. When physics and entertainment meet, the result is magic.

 

Encounter

“Making physics entertaining means that the audience has a rather different encounter with the science,” says Wahl. “I kill the myths that this is boring stuff.

“Today’s scientists aren’t dry and boring. They play in rock bands during the evening, for example, and do sport. With the aid of simple tools, we can get the subject to be exciting.”

With a wood in the background, he emerges from the TV screen in his own youthful and engaging manner. This is not somebody with big glasses and bushy white hair – or who writes boring and incomprehensible formulae on the blackboard.

On the contrary, he is a charmer who comes across well on TV to do more than attact the girls. With expertise and the ability to communicate, he spices his shows with fun tricks from physics.

One example is the way he explains on-screen how to get a glass of orange juice to change places with a glass of oil.

“Bring the two glass together, separated by a piece of plastic,” he says. “Make a small hole, and the oil will rise while the juice sinks. That’s because one is denser than the other.”

His producers feel he combines charm and knowledge with the ability to put himself at the audience’s level, and Wahl acknowledges that meeting children is great fun.

“At the same time, it’s a little dodgy because they obviously feel they know me very well. That makes it pretty demanding to fulfil their expectations of who I’m going to be.”

 

Explanations

Baking powder, vinegar, juice, eggs and tomatoes – the tricks are the same, but their explanation varies with the audience Wahl is addressing.

Whether visiting a centre for the elderly, at a primary school or giving a lecture to companies, he uses the same methods. The laws of nature are just as interesting whoever is listening.

“Working with a live audience is very special,” he says. “What happens between people gathered in a room can be magic. On stage, I’m hunting for such moments.

“You can quickly establish a dialogue with young people after showing them the tricks. It’s fasci-nating to see when they grasp what you’re saying, become enthusiastic and take part.”

Wahl has an MSc in physics from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) and a one-year course in educational theory and practice.

He is fascinated by everyday phenomena such as why transparent water can become white when divided into small droplets, as in a cloud, or how clean water and soap combine to create white foam.

The examples he demonstrates are culled from the internet, books, former teachers or viewer suggestions. He adapts them and seeks to make them his own. “I steal from others, and hope they steal from me.”