My brief study of physics

A long-ago science project still haunts

Barry Basden 26 May 2010

Last-ditch effort: but will it fly?

I became increasingly aware that I'd somehow made a grave mistake in having my graduation dependent upon passing this science class

My niece is having a hard time with physics. She's repeating it – the only course still blocking her way to a degree in some multidimensional and amorphous business thing I couldn't understand when she explained it at a recent family gathering.

But discussing her plight took me back to my own encounter with that dreaded subject as a high school senior. This was in the days when public schools abided no nonsense and burly coaches ruled PE classes with wooden paddles for us pathetic non-athletes.

My physics teacher, thin-faced Mr. Kramer, was also serious about his subject. A major part of our final grade would be the required science project, and I worried about it all year. Many of my physics classmates had already been accepted to scientific, engineering, and even pre-med studies at major universities, while I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do with my life and mostly hung around with those on the fringe – actors, poets, and various other bohemian outcasts.

I became increasingly aware that I'd somehow made a grave mistake in having my graduation dependent upon passing this science class, for which I had absolutely no aptitude or interest whatsoever. Still, time passed and I could no longer hang back while others talked excitedly about their projects.

Finally, about a week before the end of the term, I got an idea. I would build a wind tunnel, using as my guide the large industrial tunnels pictured in the school library's encyclopedias. I gathered my materials and set to work.

I glued a sharpened stick, what we called a "stob" in my part of Texas, in the middle of a foot-square, inch-thick pine platform. Then I cut the handle and bottom off a Tupperware pitcher and mounted it by piercing its side with the stob. Inside the pitcher, I glued a plastic airplane to the stob. At the small end of the pitcher, in front of some screen wire cut to fit the opening, I mounted a small propeller powered by a battery glued to the edge of the platform.

I finished the night before the due date and took my project to class the next afternoon. With Mr. Kramer and several of his student whizzes standing by, I fired the thing up, hoping for the best. Voilà! It worked. The little propeller buzzed and a puny stream of air blew through the screen and across the model.

"What is this?" my teacher deadpanned.

"It's a wind tunnel."

Someone snickered while Mr. Kramer studied it for a moment. "And what's the screen wire for?" he said.

"That's the vanes you adjust to alter the flow of air across the model."

A couple of students stepped back. "I see," said Mr. Kramer. He paused as if struggling for words, then said, "Well, I'll give you this much, it's creative."

I was a good test taker and my grade on the final exam pulled me up to a "D" for the course, so I graduated with my class after all and disappeared into the non-scientific work force forever.

I would never even have thought about that physics class again had it not been for my poor niece's predicament. I sympathize with her. Truly, I do.