For hands-on lessons, BC professor fills curious toy cabinet
CHESTNUT HILL — T. Ross Kelly’s eccentric collection of science-themed toys and gizmos began, innocuously enough, with the purchase of a cheap soccer player figurine in Milan about three decades ago.
When the Boston College chemistry professor switches the toy on, air streams out of the player’s head and a ball levitates above him in midair, as if by magic. In fact, it is an elegant demonstration of a basic physics concept: Bernoulli’s principle, which holds that fast-moving air or fluids have lower pressure than static air. So if the ball strays to the side, it will be sucked back toward the center.
The now-dilapidated toy is part of Kelly’s “cabinet of curiosity,” which contains dozens of objects that can only be understood by thinking about them from a scientific point of view. He collects them from science museum gift shops, airport stores, and online, letting them accumulate on a sideboard and the shelves in his office.
At the beginning of the semester, he pulls out one particular gizmo and challenges students in his organic chemistry class to figure out how a nail got inside a wooden structure. He tells them if they want to find out the answer, they have to come to his office hours.
“It’s never been really something I’ve regarded as a collection that I’m assembling,” Kelly said. “It’s just more neat stuff!”
Kelly’s collection is not housed in a literal cabinet, so he began to think it would be a good idea to build a virtual cabinet of his gizmos and puzzles online, with videos and explanations of how each toy worked.
With the help of two students, the website went live in October and Kelly has been e-mailing high school science teachers in the hope it will be a resource that sparks people’s curiosity, demonstrating that the process of science is, fundamentally, fun.
Playing with a toy to understand how it works may seem remote from the kinds of questions professional scientists wrestle with as they unravel detailed questions about cells or black holes, but beneath it all is the same basic animating question: How does it work?
Unlike many academics’ offices, his bookshelves are crammed not only with serious books about science or the accolades he has earned, but also with a carbide cannon, boxes overflowing with models of the molecules he has spent his career working on, and an array of miscellany — a wind-up toy that shoots sparks out of its mouth, a carbide lamp, and a tube labeled “only for use with big-bang gas cannons.” His toys range from a potato cannon, made out of PVC piping, that he has shot off the top of a BC parking garage to a puzzle that depends on centripetal motion to be solved.
For years, Kelly has delighted in challenging students to figure out how the toys work when they come in for help on more traditional scientific problems — homework.
Omar A. Khan met Kelly when he took an organic chemistry class as a BC sophomore and began stopping in during office hours for help with problems. He often found himself distracted by Kelly’s sideboard, crammed with toys.
“He’d always kind of half tell you what the thing was or how it worked and try to get you to figure it out — sort of like a homework problem,” said Khan, now a senior. “It was a really cool way to learn about different scientific phenomena, whether it was chemistry-related or physics-related.”
Kelly drafted Khan and senior Jaclyn N. Lundberg into videotaping the collection to present it to the world — a project that gave the students a lesson in how to distill scientific concepts and speak about them with a layperson.
“I think for a lot of students in school, science seems so abstract and formal when it is in a book,” Lundberg wrote in an e-mail. “With the videos, [we] tried to make science interesting and accessible by showing that even in everyday life science is always present.”
For Kelly, this is the kind of common-sense problem solving and delight that is fundamental to science but is not always part of how it is taught. He confesses that during his boyhood in Davis, Calif., building things and taking them apart was a constant, though unofficial, part of his education. He recalls hacking together a bicycle frame and a lawn mower motor to create a scooter, building rockets, and learning how things worked on farms.
That same spirit of fascination and curiosity has driven him to make all kinds of impulse purchases.
His favorite gizmo is the Mova Globe, a globe that seems to spin without any sort of external motor. To figure that one out, Kelly resorted to looking up the patent application, which he keeps printed and handy in a file drawer for anyone who asks.
Putting his collection online is a service, but it may also be seen as a challenge. Kelly said he buys stuff that is intriguing to him, but it is increasingly difficult to make additions.
“It’s hard to find things nowadays,” he said. “Because most everything I’ve seen.”