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Physics Toys, Tricks and Teasers

The Frugal Physicist's Demo Collection,

by Donald E. Simanek
Fun projects you can build from everyday materials at small expense.

The web has many sites featuring easy-to-make physics toys, and many
books of them may be purchased. In this document I feature curious and
puzzling items that are not so well known, and some of my own invention.
Some of these are not exactly clear-cut demos of physics principles, but are
fun things to do. A larger collection of my favorite standard physics demos, of
the kind intended to clearly expose simple physics principles, may be found
on my physics demos document.

[May, 2004] Students best understand light spectra when they can do handson investigation of spectra of common light sources. Spectroscopy with
prisms or diffraction gratings can be expensive. Inexpensive plastic gratings,
and holographic gratings are available from science supply houses. Students
can use these to directly observe incandescent lights, fluorescent lights, and
gas-filled Geissler tubes. The Geissler tubes operate from a high voltage
power supply of the sort used for "neon" advertising signs. But these signs,
and the Geissler tubes) have gas-filled tubes of mercury, hydrogen, argon,
air, and neon.

The Geissler tubes are rather expensive now, must be handled with care, and
have limited useful lifetime. High schools may find the expense too great. Is
there a cheaper and better way to learn about spectra?

40 watt tube fluorescent photographed using only a diffraction grating in

front of a digital camera.

Direct visual observation of light sources through a diffraction grating cannot

resolve fine details of the spectra, because of the angular breadth of the
source. One can pass the light through a narrow slit first, but that's a bit

tricky to set up. Even the Geissler tubes, though they have a narrow glowing
area, are still not as narrow a source as we'd like. Also, one should never look
toward bright sources, especially those emitting ultraviolet, such as arc lamps
and the sun.

Spectrum from light reflected by a needle.

From Laboratory Experiments
in Practical Physics, Macmillan, 1927. Method for viewing spectrum with rod
or needle.

Fortunately there is an easy way around these problems. It's an old idea,
virtually unknown to physics teachers today. Create a "virtual slit" using a
sewing needle. It was originally used with a prism to view the Fraunhoffer
spectrum of the sun safely. Used that way it was a bit clumsy to set up. But
with modern holographic gratings, the idea can be adapted into a very neat
way to observe any spectrum.

The figure shows the method. A smooth polished rod or needle is placed
against a black background. Black velvet is best. The rod acts as a cylindrical
mirror, receiving light from the source (behind the viewer's head)and forming
an elongated virtual image of the source very near the needle. This image is
demagnified, so that the width of the image is very much reduced, and the
image acts like a "slit" source. In this arrangement the light source is behind
the observer, and there's no danger of looking directly at it.

Light from a distant object formas a virtual image located halfway between
the surface of the rod and its center. The angular magnification of the mirror
is 0.5. The light that actually reaches your eye, or the camera lens, is linmited
to a very narrow range of angles, so the effective "slit width" is very much
smaller than the rod's diameter.

A grating, G, is placed before the observer's eye. A spectrum will be seen

against the black background. The same method may be used to photograph
the spectrum. Focus the camera at the distance of the rod. The example

below is a photo of the spectrum of a compact fluorescent lamp, "150 watt"

ouput. The photo shows two blue lines, a green and a red of the mercury
spectrum. The mercury yellow line is quite faint, and other faint yellow and
red lines nearby are fluorescent emission from the phosphor coating of the
lamp. To the left of the green is a band of green lines, also from the phosphor.

Spectrum of a compact fluorescent lamp.

The needle (at the left of the picture) was a Dritz "Doll Needle" 8 cm long and
about 1 mm diameter. The needle and black velvet backdrop were 5 ft from
the camera, and the light, behind the camera, was 5 feet from the needle.
Stores that sell crafts, fabrics and sewing supplies have such needles. Pick
some up when you buy the black velvet.

Spectrum of sunlight.

Digital cameras do not reproduce pure spectral colors well. Also, photographs
of spectra taken with cameras designed for pictorial photography do not
record well the wide range of brightness, and therefore lose the fine detail
and subtlety you can see with your eye. This digital photo shows only a
suggestion of many of the Fraunhoffer absorption lines of the solar spectrum.
It was made with the apparatus here described. With the same setup and the
eye alone, one can see at least a dozen very narrow, dark absorption lines.
Never look at the sun directly or with telescope or binoculars. Always use a
method that reduces the light intensity, as the needle method does

Exposure. In a dark room, digital and auto-exposure cameras will default to

their largest lens aperture and slowest shutter speed. Therefore the camera
and the rod must be on solid supports. Outdoors, in daylight, auto-exposure
may underexpose the spectrum, unless light from everything else is excluded
by opaque screens.

Science supply stores like to sell holographic grating material in rolls and
large amounts, enough for a large science class. You need only a piece about
2 inches square, or less. Small kits may be purchased from Learning

Technologies, Inc.