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Campus Life + Science & Tech

Strange Science: Smashing Pumpkins

Physicists toss gourds, test velocity, make a mess

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At Boston University, scientific research isn’t always conducted with beakers and test tubes. This year, students and faculty used pumpkins to learn about physics, created algorithms to count bats, and made fake human tissue designed to withstand radiation on the moon. This week, BU Today is revisiting the year in "strange science" at Boston University.

On Halloween, the College of Arts and Sciences physics department hosted its third annual Pumpkin Drop at the Metcalf Science Center. The tradition, which involves dropping pumpkins filled with substances from popcorn to paint onto Metcalf Plaza — 70 feet below — is both a promotional and an educational tool, according to department chair Bennett Goldberg, a CAS professor of physics. “We’re interested in exciting the community about physics and seeing gravitation in action,” he said. “Additionally, we have recorded the motion of each pumpkin as it fell, demonstrating that it falls at a parabolic trajectory. So there is a learning element for the students.”

Julia Elder, the department’s undergraduate program coordinator, enlisted the help of her parents, who drove up from western Pennsylvania with more than 35 pumpkins, including one that weighed 373 pounds. Some were carved and filled with ingredients such as baby powder and whipped cream. The gourds filled with paint were the first ones tossed off the roof, aimed towards a canvas on the plaza — the resulting painting will be displayed in the physics office.

Physics major Chad Madsen (CAS’09) watched the spectacle from the ground. “I think right now we’ve been doing what everyone has been wanting to do as a physics major, which is pretty much destroy and show their supremacy over nature,” he joked. “We’ll pretty much have a good hold over that when we drop a few pumpkins and show that we mean business!”

This story originally ran on November 8, 2007.

Robin Berghaus can be reached at berghaus@bu.edu. Devin Hahn can be reached at dhahn@bu.edu.

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