Barney the Purple Dinosaur dangled precariously above the floor, suspended electromagnetically from a hydraulic lift in one of the Science Center lecture halls.
The stuffed dinosaur was waiting patiently to be hit with a steel ball shot from a spring-powered cannon, so that Robert P. Kirshner ’70, an astronomy professor, could demonstrate the independence of the horizontal and vertical components of a projectile’s velocity.
Moments later, the cannon ball launched through an infra-red photo gate, triggering a circuit that shut down the electromagnet and releasing Barney into the parabolic path of the steel ball. The demo went off without a hitch—but years later, what the Science Center’s lecture demonstrations team remembers is not their careful execution or planning, but a rather unanticipated finishing touch.
“The collision with the wall must have flipped a switch in Barney’s voicebox,” Lecture Demonstration Services Manager Wolfgang H. E. Rueckner recalled, because when Professor Kirshner went to pick up the battered plush doll, leaning over so that his microphone was directly above Barney’s head, the doll said quite audibly: “I need a hug.”
Amidst his students’ spirited laughter, Kirshner readily obliged.
The four lecture demos team members are the engineers and puppet-masters behind the nearly 1,000 demos available for execution each year in Harvard’s science classes and programs. Coupling construction with chemistry and artistry with physical phenomena, the team serves as an integral, and often invisible, coordinating mechanism behind the more memorable—and explosive—elements of Harvard science courses.
“We hope to add to the educational experience and make these scientific concepts more understandable,” Rueckner explained. “We’re doing it visually and experimentally, hopefully with a little flair, and humor, and showmanship so that it can be remembered.”
If you’ve ever wandered the wrong direction on your way to the freshmen mailboxes, you may have stumbled across a doorway in the Science Center basement with the words “Collection of Hysterical Scientific Instruments” plastered across its frame. No, not Historical. Hysterical.
The label alone should be enough to warn you that you’re crossing into rather unconventional scientific territory down in the depths of the 36-year-old Science Center.
Across the hall, the lecture demos office is a scientifically-minded tinkerer’s heaven: books detailing experiments from decades past are stacked on shelves along the wall, while every available surface is riddled with microscopes, old clocks, crushed trash cans, revolving mobiles, artfully arranged yardsticks, and spare lab coats.
“A lot of it is kind of beautiful,” said the team’s chemistry expert, Daniel B. Rosenberg ’84, whose hobbies include deconstructing hard drives and assembling odds and ends into aesthetically-pleasing arrangements (like the shrine to Ben Franklin beside his desk).
The playful atmosphere and juxtaposition of cutting-edge computers with outdated scientific equipment somewhat encapsulate the unique nature of the lecture demos mission.
Demonstration science, Rueckner explained, is more focused on clarity, simplicity, and general principles than research science, which prioritizes precision, minute detail, and cutting-edge technology.
“Here in education, we basically dabble in all [areas], and we are concerned about how to make all these abstract ideas accessible in terms of pedagogy,” Rueckner said.