Features

Physics demonstrator thinks outside the PowerPoint

By
Senior Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 7, 2012

If Hollywood were to produce a movie based on Brown’s physics department, Stanley Tucci would play manager of demonstrations Gerald Zani. Costume designers would gather a thin pair of round-wired frames, loose green pants, silver and blue Zig Tech athletic shoes and a gray T-shirt reading “I Heart PHZICS.” The finishing touch to the Zani ensemble would be a black cellphone belt clip. 

In 1993, Brown was searching for a physics demonstrator, someone who could conduct experiments in the classroom. At the time, Zani was working at a manufacturing factory in the greater Boston area, but he felt the company might be facing financial difficulties in the midst of a minor recession.  

Playing it safe, Zani applied for the available position and began his career as a demonstrator. 

Zani had some prior experience in physics, having taken undergraduate courses at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, but he said his knowledge has progressively grown since he took the position. Zani takes the initiative to learn the physics behind the demonstrations, making sure he understands the concepts in order to communicate them efficiently.

“I get the textbook for the course and go over the lessons and see how these concepts can be demonstrated,” he said.

As the world of science is always changing, Zani said he is fortunate to be sent to various conferences around the country to see how other physics demonstrators are finding innovative ways to present concepts.

At one of these conferences, Zani saw “a very special apparatus” that could show the wave-like and particle-like properties of light.

“I looked through the catalogs, and I realized the photon multiplier tool was very expensive,” he said. “So I called the companies and asked if they could make an academic donation, and I found one.” 

He handled the machinery with care as he flicked on the television to begin a private demonstration about light. Random flashes of light, reminiscent of speeding spaceships in “Star Wars,” dotted the television screen as a “very advanced screen” inside the machine “picks up very dim little packs of light energy called particles,” he narrated.

“Something magical will happen if you add up every one of these particles,” Zani said.

As the particles of light energy began to accumulate on screen, he watched with admiration as a column-like pattern appeared on the screen, alternating between light and dark rods.

“Surprisingly, for some mysterious reason … light, which is a particle, has this weirdness to it that it behaves like a wave if you collect a lot of it,” he said.

 

Riding the waves

On a Thursday afternoon, the students in PHYS 0270: “Introduction to Astronomy” shuffled in their seats, reviewing their graded exams. 

Meanwhile, Zani was setting up the experiment that would be presented later in class. Zani’s office – which is more like a lair – has entrances to both lecture halls, rooms 166 and 168 in Barus and Holley, to facilitate easier access in and out during presentations. Equipped with a peephole, the doors allow Zani to see “the perfect time to come in and begin the demonstration,” he said.

He wheeled in six large grey cinder blocks and arranged them around three Bunsen burners. He then placed a 55-gallon empty black barrel that used to house ethyl alcohol in front of the students. 

Zani was setting up the “55-gallon supernova” demonstration, which explains the properties of a supernova within the confines of the classroom.

“I think we need some plexiglass over here, too,” Zani said to a student assistant, concerned about the safety of the students, who were still comparing exam answers while waiting for the lecture to start.

Zani bent down, used a flint to light the burners and began to pour water into the barrel. Once class began, Zani took a seat in the front row as the barrel began to steam like a teapot. The steady whistle of steam was drowned out by Associate Professor of Physics Ian Dell’Antonio beginning his lecture.

Dell’Antonio gave Zani a nod, indicating the start of the section that correlated with the experiment. Zani turned off the Bunsen burners and began to screw the two openings at the top of the barrel closed.

“The pressure of the water vapor is still inside, and this is the equivalent of what a star does when it does nuclear fusion,” Dell’Antonio explained.

“I think we’re ready,” Dell’Antonio told Zani, who promptly put on industrial gloves and began packing dry ice on top of the barrel.

“It’s going to cool our star, so we stopped the nuclear fusion reactions,” the explanation continued, but was suddenly halted by a loud boom. Students let out gasps of surprise, as the barrel suddenly collapsed in on itself like a crushed water bottle.

“The star has to collapse. By cooling the gas, we caused all that water vapor to come out and left a vacuum inside. So the air pressure outside – which you don’t normally feel – is huge, and it contracts.” 

As the lecture continued, Zani lifted the crumpled barrel and placed it on a rolling cart. The plexiglass came down, and Zani quietly receded into his office, taking all of the demonstration materials with him.

Zani aims to present demonstrations in a creative way, bridging academic fields.

“My goal is to try
to impact students with experiences beyond the equations in the classroom,” he said. Inspired by a conference, he has also “learned about using the elements of theater-like music and drama” to show the “beauty of the phenomena.”

He seeks the help of one of his student assistants, Stephen Albright ’13, who studies both physics and music.

“I’ll tell Stephen, I want you to find a piece of music that goes perfectly with this particular demonstration,” Zani said.

Like a conductor, Zani synced Camille Saint-Saens’ “Danse Bacchanle” with his demonstration on magnetism. Placing a light beneath a hollow copper tube, Zani asked the student audience to look through it, like a magician convincing the audience “there are no tricks.” 

Dropping a miniature hockey puck-shaped magnet into the tube, Zani made the magnet slowly float down the tube without touching the edges.

“I timed the music so that when you release the magnet, the music is playing,” Zani said. “You hear this beautiful music and then it stops, and you hear the clunk as the magnet stops.” 

Perfectly in sync, the magnet fell to the floor, providing the final beat to the musical score. 

 

Part of the circuit

Over the course of his 19-year career at Brown, Zani has made lasting impressions on students and faculty. Students always know who “Jerry” is and feel his work should not go unnoticed.

“He is definitely one of the most underappreciated people at Brown,” said Abishek Kulshreshtha ’15.

Sarah Schade ’15, who worked with Zani for nine weeks in the summer, was immersed in Zani’s world as she helped digitize his videos and create new demos for the upcoming semester.

“He will do anything to make sure that those demonstrations go well,” Schade said. “Also, he tries to teach. He would always ask me if I knew what the demos really meant and would go up to the chalkboard and go into very minute detail.”

On a hectic Wednesday morning before a lecture, Savvas Koushiappas, assistant professor of physics, came into the office to pick up the demonstration about electron beams and magnetism for his class PHYS 0470: “Electricity and Magnetism.” Zani had already prepared the table with the various pieces of equipment in advance, but Koushiappas realized he needed a larger piece for the class to be able to see. 

“Jerry is the best and very impressive,” Koushiappas said as Zani set up the new electron beam demonstration. “I’ll call him 10 minutes before class and say, ‘Hey, Jerry. Do you have anything to demonstrate this concept?’ and he’ll get it.” 

Zani said he feels fortunate to collaborate with the physics professors and enjoys coming in to work each day to learn something new and share a bit of science with students.

“I have to be a salesman and encourage professors to do risky things,” Zani said.

  • Harry

    Jerry! The nomad of the physics department.

  • Asian

    what a thought-invoking piece!

  • Anonymous

    Awesome work! Jerry, I wish I could hire you to make the demos in my mind come to life!!

  • Anonymous

    He does look like Stanley Tucci!