Anyone interested in celebrating Halloween with a bang should head to the Quad at 11: 45 p.m. tonight, Oct. 31, to witness Galileo Galilei, the famed Italian physicist and astronomer, return from the dead for the 5th Bi-Annual Physics Pumpkin Drop, held during the ‘witching hour.’
At the stroke of midnight, Galileo will drop two pumpkins, one small and one large, from a platform suspended high above the Quad. Providing dramatic proof of the law of gravity, the power of the scientific method, and the revelry of Halloween, the pumpkins will be frozen in liquid nitrogen and are expected to emit an eerie green glow when they land due to the kinetic energy.
The event, conducted by Associate Professor of Physics Steven Penn, is a reenactment of Galileo’s Tower of Pisa experiment. Legend has it that Galileo dropped a 10-pound and a one-pound weight from the Tower of Pisa and discovered that, except for a small difference caused by air resistance, the objects fell at nearly the same speed. Before this, the Aristotelian view stated heavier objects fall faster.
For Penn, the Pumpkin Drop serves as a powerful teaching tool. The event not only validates Galileo’s observations, that objects fall at the same rate regardless of mass, but it celebrates that fact that even the most pervasive philosophies cannot stand if they do not meet the test of experimental verification.
“Galileo was a rebel who maintained his convictions in defiance of the law but on this, the most lawless of holidays, he will honor the unbroken laws: the Laws of Physics,” says Penn. “Galileo’s work came at a pivotal time in the history of science, and especially physics, when the basis of our world view began to shift from philosophical speculation to careful, scientific observations of the world. His work marked a transformation in thinking. He was revolutionary.”
Penn, a native of New Windsor, Md., earned a bachelor of science in physics and a Ph.D. in nuclear structure physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). After a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Washington, Penn joined the experimental gravitational physics group at Syracuse University. He works on the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory project, a multi-university collaboration headed by Caltech and MIT that attempts to provide the first-ever measurement of gravity waves.