APS News

April 2024 (Volume 33, Number 3)

Mess Around With Liquid Nitrogen. Go Viral. Repeat.

Tatiana Erukhimova, physicist and APS Nicholson Medal winner, reaches millions of people worldwide with her physics demonstrations.

By Sophia Chen | March 15, 2024

Tatiana Erukhimova liquid nitrogen cloud photo
Credit: Texas A&M University

Tatiana Erukhimova demonstrates a liquid nitrogen explosion — her "favorite enormous cloud” — at an event in February 2024.

Two years ago, Texas A&M University professor Tatiana Erukhimova accidentally became famous on TikTok.

The physics department’s marketing team had filmed her doing physics demonstrations — marshmallows expanding in an evacuated bell jar; a spinning bike wheel that seems to defy gravity. They posted the videos to the social media platform, where they went viral. “We had more views on TikTok than Texas A&M football,” says Erukhimova.

The videos are the latest addition to Erukhimova’s storied career in physics education and outreach. She began her career as an atmospheric science researcher before finding she had a knack for engaging students and the public with flashy physics demonstrations. Now, she teaches large introductory physics classes and organizes outreach events with thousands of attendees.

“It has to be the mission of every physics department to make physics accessible and enjoyable,” says Erukhimova, who holds an endowed position dedicated to outreach. “Not everyone has to be a physicist, but everyone should have a chance to play with physics. It's also easy to do. You can just take your demonstrations to places where people already are. You can give public talks; you can make videos.” (After public universities banned TikTok in 2023, her team built a following on YouTube.)

Erukhimova, the 2023 recipient of APS’s Dwight Nicholson Medal for Outreach, spoke to APS News about the importance of engaging the public about physics.

You have a real stage presence. Have you been a performer before?

Never, before this. It’s not easy for me. Obviously, teaching helps. I’ve also run physics shows for many years for dozens and sometimes more than a hundred children. My favorite audience is second graders. You cannot afford to lose their attention.

When did you start doing physics demonstrations?

The first course I ever taught was a small class for juniors on atmospheric thermodynamics at Texas A&M. I loved it. Then I taught 100 freshmen at eight in the morning. That was a completely different experience. Freshmen expect their professor to look like Einstein, and instead, they saw me. They didn’t listen. This experience taught me to get their attention and respect from the beginning and to make every class interactive and memorable. I never walk into my first class without a physics demonstration to create that wow factor. Motivated and inspired students learn better.

What demo do you bring on the first day?

Anything counterintuitive makes a long-lasting impression. Sometimes I bring liquid nitrogen to create my favorite enormous cloud, or an electromagnetic bike, where you rotate a crank to turn light bulbs on. I also like demos made from everyday objects. Take a large potato, and place it on the tip of a kitchen knife. If you hit the knife handle with a mallet, everyone expects the potato to fall. Instead, it looks like it goes up because of the potato’s inertia.

Video credit: Texas A&M University

Erukhimova’s demonstrations attract millions of viewers on social media.

What outreach programs do you currently put on?

We put on the annual Texas A&M Physics and Engineering Festival, along with physics shows for K-12 students. We run programs for high school physics teachers. We make physics videos for middle and high school students. We bring our demonstrations to places where people already are, from cultural festivals to football games.

I also started the extracurricular program DEEP, which stands for Discover, Explore, and Enjoy Physics and Engineering. This program is probably the closest to my heart. Undergraduate students work under the leadership of graduate students to design, build, and present hands-on demonstrations at outreach events. For example, students, some of them freshmen, built a magnetic train track and 3D-printed a train that levitates over the rails using superconductors. I’m also proud that former graduate student participants started similar programs to DEEP at Rice University and at UT-Austin.

The Texas A&M Physics and Engineering Festival is your university’s flagship outreach event. What goes on at the festival?

Our primary goal is to have people enjoy physics. Thousands of people have attended the festival every year since 2003, and hundreds of students and dozens of faculty come together to put it on. No one cares if you’re a Nobel laureate or an undergraduate student.

I like our grand finale, where we make a liquid nitrogen-fueled fountain of water. We fill five barrels with water and put two-liter Coke bottles with some liquid nitrogen, along with thousands of plastic balls. Water explodes out with the balls, and the children run to collect the balls. My favorite part is to observe our students sharing their passion for science. They are role models for these children.

We also have top-notch researchers give talks. Stephen Hawking gave a lecture at the first one, so the festival has had national recognition since the beginning.

Why are you passionate about outreach?

We always talk about how the public benefits from outreach, but we often forget that students who do the outreach benefit too. What's the best way to learn something? To explain it! They also improve their communication skills. They gain teamwork and design experience, and they receive recognition from the public and their professors.

We published a study where we interviewed students who ran outreach programs between 2013 and 2019. They reported that through outreach activities, they felt closer to the physics community than through regular classes. Some young students said they were not initially confident that they had a place in the program. By facilitating the outreach programs, they felt like they contributed something, and that made them feel like they belonged. The programs had a special impact on the development of a physics identity for female students, who are underrepresented in physics.

Texas A&M physics’s TikTok videos have gotten over 200 million views. Your YouTube Shorts videos have over 600 million views. You were also recently on the Jennifer Hudson Show and CBS News. Do you ever get recognized?

Many times, in different parts of the country. People have stopped me when I was in New York. But the videos are a team effort, featuring not just me but also my colleagues, and I work with three or four people to make them. Social media is just another channel to make physics exciting. You cannot explain much in such a short period of time, but the videos are important because they break the stereotype that physics is inaccessible.

Who inspires you?

The enthusiasm of the students who run these programs with me, and the dedication of my colleagues who understand the importance of informal physics programs. And, of course, children. Tomorrow morning, right after my first class, I will do a physics show for 130 sixth graders. At the end, I will lead them in a chant where we shout, “Physics! Physics! Physics!” The children get so excited, and I love it. It recharges my batteries.

Sophia Chen is a writer based in Columbus, Ohio.

APS encourages the redistribution of the materials included in this newspaper provided that attribution to the source is noted and the materials are not truncated or changed.

Editor: Taryn MacKinney

April 2024 (Volume 33, Number 3)

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This Spring, the Cicadas Are Gathering Like It’s 1803
This Month in Physics History
Mess Around With Liquid Nitrogen. Go Viral. Repeat.
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Opinion: The Steep Price of Free Science Access
Grad Students and Postdocs Don’t Earn Fair Wages, so 91 Scientists Brought It Up With the Folks in Charge
Science Policy Highlights