If you’re a scientist who’d like the funding to develop your own outreach activities apply for I’m a Scientist at imascientist.org.uk/scientist-apply
When I entered the ‘I’m A Scientist’ competition and had to think of something to spend the prize money on, I had recently been doing lots of demos with a Van de Graaff generator. I was on the lookout for something else to demonstrate high voltage when I stumbled upon a sparking xylophone – also known as a sparkophone! In my job I design and develop particle accelerator equipment which uses high voltage and resonant cavities; exactly how the sparkophone works. It’s loud, flashy, exciting and demonstrates several different physics concepts: perfect to show off to the public.
When I won the competition and before the prize money came in, I was so excited that I got to work immediately building a prototype using some parts already available in my lab. Happy with the concept, I bought the components for the real thing and spent a few days constructing the sparkophone. It consists of plastic tubes cut to length to produce ten musical notes starting from A-minor. Applying 30,000 volts across two bolts inside each tube, they spark randomly, playing a loud and somewhat tuneless song.
As thanks to the students who voted for me to win, I visited a few schools who took part in ‘I’m A Scientist’. I spent some more money from our PR group to box the sparkophone in to make it safe even without somebody guarding it. Then I travelled round the country to a few schools – waking up at 5am in one case to make it on time!
There, I gave hour long talks, interspersed with various practical demonstrations. As well as the sparkophone, I showed off a Van de Graaff generator, a salad-bowl particle accelerator and how standing waves work in acoustics. Then I tied it all together to explain basically how a real particle accelerator works. There were lots of opportunities for the students to join in the demos and answer questions. My visits were (and continue to be) a very fulfilling part of my outreach programme. There was definitely a buzz around the schools as everyone heard about my visit, so I think the students got a lot out of it, too.
Every time I use the sparkophone, the first question people ask is whether it can play a real tune. In principle yes it can, but the electronic circuitry needed to do so is somewhat more complicated and beyond the time I had available to implement. Maybe if I’ve inspired someone enough, they can work with me to extend it as a Summer project one day…? Thanks so much to the ‘I’m A Scientist’ team for the funding; it’s been so much fun building the kit and interacting with all kinds of students. I’m looking forward to more visits soon.