A simple toy spawns chaos!

This month, for Cool Science, we are playing with magnets and pendulums.  A pendulum is simply an object that can swing freely back and forth.  An everyday example is a swing on a swing set.  By adding a magnet to the bottom of a simple pendulum, and putting magnets on the ground near where it’s swinging, the path of the pendulum changes in unpredictable ways.  In fact, I claim that the pendulum’s path becomes so unpredictable that every person has a nearly equal chance of guessing its movements a few seconds before they happen.  Its movement is chaotic, meaning that it’s different every time, depending on the exact starting positions of the magnets below the pendulum, and the pendulum itself.  A packaged toy called a “ROMP,” which stands for “Random Oscillating Magnetic Pendulum” accomplishes the same experiment we’re doing here.

This “Random Oscillating Magnetic Pendulum” is similar to the experiment Hannah leads during Cool Science.

Pendulums and magnetism are both classic physics topics many kids will study in school as they get older.  Besides being fun to play with, swinging things and magnets provide the hands-on experiences that are at the heart of truly grasping these concepts in physics.   Perhaps more importantly, the magnet portion of this program is an opportunity for inquiry-based guidance, which means that when I lead the program, I’ll give kids toys to play with (the magnets), and ask questions to encourage them to learn from their experiences.  We might make piles of things the magnets can pick up, and things the magnets can’t pick up.  For this sort of sorting, I might ask “What’s the same about the things in these two piles?  What is different?” This past weekend, a young boy told me that magnets can’t pick up other magnets, only metal: magnets repel other magnets.  He then proved his own statement wrong by using a magnet to pick up an object he identified as another magnet.  These moments of proving oneself wrong are what being a scientist is all about.

Plus, the complex, chaotic movement of the magnetic pendulum swinging near other magnets is bizarre enough to evoke curiosity and wonder no matter how old you are: that’s why it qualifies as cool science!

Join us this month for Cool Science: Pendulum Play on Friday, July 16 at 3:30pm and Sunday, July 17 at 11:30am and 3pm.