Inside Story: On the road with the Bonn Show

Boarding the ferry in Puttgarden, on the small island of Fehmarn in northern Germany, last September, I looked across the water to Denmark. We had two vans full of physics equipment, a minibus, 17 physics students, one postdoc, two technicians, two professors, and of course the bus driver – a real entourage! We were travelling to Copenhagen under invitation from the Niels Bohr Institute, and subsequently to Odense, to perform our new particle-physics show. We were road hardened after trips to Oxford and London in the UK in 2014, and Padua and Trieste in Italy the following year. In March 2016, we even went to Beijing to teach Bonn-show physics to students at Peking University and the Chinese Academy of Science. Every country is a new physics challenge, a new adventure, and has led to many interesting interactions. Denmark, here we come!

The Bonn Physics Show was established in 2001 with the goal of doing something different from the “lectures with demonstrations” format of traditional particle-physics shows.

For the past 15 years we have been successfully performing the Bonn show, mainly devoted to classical physics aimed at a younger audience, and our approach has evolved with our experiences. In 2012, as part of a large research grant from the German physical society (DFG), we received support to take a brand new particle-physics Bonn show on tour that is rooted in storytelling.

A big challenge for a modern physics show is to find appropriate demonstrations, since few real effects can be seen on stage. From our previous shows on particle physics, one performed at CERN in French in 2010, we had a first set of experiments. Inspired by a simpler model at DESY, for example, we built a new wooden scattering experiment (pictured). We also designed our own electrically driven linear and circular accelerators, as well as an experiment showing real antimatter on stage using a β+ source, a Geiger counter and a strong permanent magnet.

For the new show, besides adding novel experiments, we wanted to make it more like a play to better capture the audience’s attention. At the end of 2013, I sat down and drafted a story that takes two heroes time-travelling through the history of particle physics, encountering many physics greats along the way who explain the physics with the help of 25 live experiments. This first draft was much improved in extensive rehearsals. We created the character of a caretaker as the master of time travel, adding a lighter element and bringing a common thread to the play. We also added many verbal and physical jokes to make the shows both fun and educational (the script and detailed descriptions of the experiments can be found at arXiv:1607.07478).

We premiered the performance in the physics department at Oxford University in March 2014. The shows in the UK went well, but were not full. One reason was that schools there seem to have such a tight curriculum that there is little time for excursions. We also realised that we could improve the way the shows were advertised. For the Italy trip in 2014, I went to Padua two months before and gave a colloquium attended by all of the regional high-school physics teachers, in addition to members of the university physics department. Two months later, in the department’s beautiful lecture hall, the shows were all packed – apparently only Ed Witten drew a larger crowd – and were a resounding success. Within our team the Padua performance has taken on a mythical status for the wonderful rapport we had with the audience – there was a tremendous atmosphere.

Denmark brought further highlights. The four Copenhagen performances last year were all booked out, mainly with high-school children. For the first time, two non-Bonn students, one from Harvard and one from Tel Aviv, were part of our team. We also incorporated a few Bonn undergraduates. In February 2016, the DFG grant was renewed for another four years. We are now looking forward to more exciting trips, such as to Valencia and Barcelona in Spain in September.

The past 15 years have been full of exciting interactions with the Bonn physics students and with audiences in many countries. Not only has it been rewarding in itself, it has stimulated and benefitted my own research in theoretical physics.

About the author

Herbi Dreiner, University of Bonn.