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Crushed barrels and shattered watermelons: APSU’s professional mad scientist bringing Gov School demos to Zoom

Austin Peay’s Professional Mad Scientist Bryan Gaither talks to Governor’s School for Computational Physics students through Zoom after presenting some science demonstrations.
Austin Peay’s Professional Mad Scientist Bryan Gaither talks to Governor’s School for Computational Physics students through Zoom.

(Posted June 26, 2020)

Austin Peay State University’s professional mad scientist is at it again. 

Each summer, Bryan Gaither orchestrates several science demonstrations during the Governor’s School for Computational Physics. 

Every year until this year, he’s fired off those demos in person, giving the state’s brightest students who attend the three-week residential college experience a breather from the classroom. 

This year is different. Governor’s School is entirely online, mostly conducted on Zoom, but that hasn’t slowed Gaither, who’s also the Department of Physics, Engineering and Astronomy’s lab manager. 

Gaither is determined to deliver his demos, which offer important physics lessons. Some are parts of the labs offered during Governor’s School.

Here’s a sampling of this year’s demos, one of which earned Gaither a new nickname – The Barrel Slayer.

 

Meet the Barrel Slayer 

The demo that most impressed the Gov School students happened on Tuesday, June 23, when Gaither crushed a 55-gallon steel barrel using nothing but atmospheric pressure. 

The demo goes like this: 

During the Governor’s School demo, the students, watching via Zoom, were anxious but ho-hum. Until the barrel imploded.

When Gaither logged back into the class later in the week, one of the students greeted him with, “Barrel Slayer!”

 

Can thermite melt through an airplane fuselage? 

On Friday, June 19, Gaither tried out a new demo: using thermite to melt through an iron plate. Here’s how it goes: 

 

Watermelons take flight 

Austin Peay has a siege machine, and Gaither built it. 

He built the 12-foot-tall trebuchet last year to use as an outreach tool to help students model projectile motion in a real-world engineering setting.

He set up the trebuchet at APSU’s beach volleyball courts on Wednesday, June 24, and launched 12-pound watermelons up to 275 feet. The melons, of course, shattered upon impact.

The Governor’s School students offered up a suggestion for a future trebuchet demo: Launching watermelons at 55-gallon steel barrels set up like bowling pins. 

Austin Peay provides the Governor’s School for Computational Physics, which is an introduction to computational problems in physics and engineering. The students earn four credit hours – for Physics 2500 and Physics 2501 – by completing the school.  

The school runs through June 26 and includes coding, lab work, class lectures and homework. The school normally is a residential, face-to-face experience, but the coronavirus crisis forced this year’s lessons online.

Austin Peay’s Professional Mad Scientist Bryan Gaither steps away after igniting 1.3 pounds of thermite.
Austin Peay’s Professional Mad Scientist Bryan Gaither steps away after igniting 1.3 pounds of thermite.

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