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We’ve all seen this classic stage magic trick: You arrange a nice table setting, with plate and cup and silverware and maybe a nice vase of flowers, on a pretty silk tablecloth. Then you yank the tablecloth out from underneath, but the dishes all stay on the table! We even have a video clip of it here.

A nice table setting on a red tablecloth. Someone is about to pull the tablecloth away.

 Newton’s First Law of Motion states that an object’s velocity is constant unless there is a net force acting on it. What this means is that if an object is not moving (at rest), it will not start moving until there is a force pushing or pulling on it. If an object is moving at a constant speed and direction, it will keep going with that same speed and direction unless a force pushes or pulls on it to change that. An object’s inertia is its resistance to changing its velocity, e.g. how difficult it is to start it moving from rest.

So that’s what’s going on here. We are applying a force to the tablecloth, pulling it away. But so long as we have a smooth, unwrinkled tablecloth, we’re not applying any force to the dishes, just the cloth. So the cloth moves away quickly, but the dishes stay where they were. This is a very popular way of demonstrating inertia, and you can find it on our website.

The dishes do have a force pulling straight down on them, of course – the force of gravity. They aren’t actually moving downwards because they can’t go through the table. Technically, the table and tablecloth exert an upward force on the dishes, which is formally called the normal force (“Normal” here is using an archaic definition that means “perpendicular to the plane,” not what we usually mean by normal). The normal force here is equal and opposite to the force of gravity, counterbalancing it and canceling it out, so the dishes don’t move. When the tablecloth goes away, the dishes are for a moment not touching anything, so gravity does pull them down a very short distance, the thickness of the tablecloth, and they hit the table with a clatter. But the point is that they don’t follow the tablecloth off the table.

But there can be some more complex issues at work here. Why does it matter that the tablecloth is smooth and unwrinkled? Why do you have to pull quickly on the tablecloth, and not slowly? Why do we sometimes see this trick fail, and end up with the dishes all breaking on the floor? (Please don’t do that.) Perhaps the physics is more subtle than it first appears. Click here to read more about the secrets of this magic trick! 


Today we’re looking at two demonstrations that are often used, individually or together, to discuss simple harmonic motion. Demonstration G1-11: Comparison of Simple Harmonic Motion and Uniform Circular Motion, is a simple mechanical model with a large rotating arm with a disc mounted on it. As the arm-mounted disc rotates around the center, we can see that its motion describes a circle in space. The arm is linked mechanically to a second disc mounted above, that slides back and forth as the arm rotates. The upper disc keeps pace with the lower disc, and as the arm rotates, the upper disc moves back and forth as though it were mounted on a spring.

Demonstration G1-12: Pendulum and Rotating Ball, lets us see that this is not just a coincidence of the model. A ball is mounted as the bob on a rigid pendulum, while an identical ball is mounted on a rotating platform below. The rotating platform is motorized so that it will spin at a constant speed; the pendulum is of an appropriate length so that the period of the swing is the same as the rotational period of the platform. If you start them moving from the same point at the same time, then you can see that the two balls move in sync. By positioning a bright light in front of the apparatus we can project the shadows of both balls on the wall behind, and we can see that the two balls are executing nearly the same motion.

 Two images: In one, a black disc is mounted on a rotating arm on a wooden base, with another black disc mounted above it in a sliding mount; in the second, a ball on the end of a rod hangs above a ball on a rotating platform, the shadows of both of which are projected against the wall in the background.


Click here read more about what's going on, and try it out for yourself!

STEMFest Flight

On Saturday, October 12, as part of the Maryland State STEM Festival, UMD Physics Outreach presented a program on FLIGHT at the John S. Toll Physics Building from 10AM-1PM. We discussed the science behind how things fly, experienced the famous physics demos, and built our own aircraft!

Download the Flyer! and see the final report!


We’re often asked how many demonstrations we have in the collection. That’s a more complex question than it might at first seem.

At last count, we have just over 1,500 demonstrations published to the website – that is, that’s how many demonstration pages exist in the collection. But some pages describe a single setup than can be used in several different ways. Take a look at K2-61: Thomson’s Coil, for example. This single page actually describes four different, related demonstrations that can be performed with this device. They don’t require very different equipment to be delivered, just slight changes in preparation, though, and they’re usually all relevant at approximately the same point in a syllabus, so it’s simpler to list them all in one place. Conversely, there are many demonstrations that use the Optical Board – browse through section L and you will see many of them! Since ray optics is divided into several sections in the demonstrations catalog, each of the configurations of the Optical Board is listed separately, to make it easier to find the one you need; and if you’re only doing one demonstration with it, we can configure it for you in advance to save you time in class.

On the other hand, consider M1-12 and H2-22. These are both listings for Interference Transparencies, a popular way to illustrate the interaction of wavefronts. Here, we made the unusual decision to list the same demonstration twice in two different sections, since otherwise someone planning a course on sound might not think to look for relevant demonstrations in the optics section, and vice-versa. These occasional cross-references make it easier to find the demonstrations you need for your class.

And even aside from the demonstration listings as they stand, we’re often called on to combine equipment in unique ways to demonstrate something new! If it’s a combination that’s likely to be repeated or that proves useful to others, it will be added to the website, but we’re generally open to creatively reinterpreting demonstrations to fit a new class context.

Every year we add more demonstrations to the collection; and occasionally a demonstration is retired, if it no longer meets an instructional need or has been superseded by others. So defining just how many demonstrations we have might not be the right question to ask. Ask, rather, what can we demonstrate for you today?

Did you know...

that our ever-popular Beaker Breaker demonstration has been used not only in PHYS102: The Physics of Music, but also in classes ranging from PHYS106 to PHYS260, PHYS272, PHYS273, and even PHYS401 and PHYS420? Consider how you could incorporate this exciting demonstration into your class!  

A beaker about to shatter due to sound resonance

It's a demonstration of sound and resonance, but can also be used to show the effects of energy and the properties of materials.

When introducing topics around resonance, it can also be fun to combine it with H3-62: Teacup Standing Waves, to show off the physics in a hands-on way before starting the destruction.