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20,000 bouncy balls dropped from a helicopter - for science

Published March 18, 2011 9:44 am

USU • Crowds gather for interactive demonstration of space weather.
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Logan - Finally, for at least one hour, being a "science geek" was really cool.

Thousands of spectators at the Utah State University Romney Football Stadium parking lot Thursday afternoon rallied for science as they watched 20,000 bouncy balls pour from a helicopter.

It was a record-breaking drop according to everyone except the Guinness World Records group, which never responded to student inquiries.

"You thought we were just a bunch of geeks hanging out in the lab every day," said event emcee Doug Ball, a senior physics major. "You were right."

Ball and his friend Michael Stewart were in the Merrill-Cazier library studying last fall when their idea was born.

"I thought it would be fascinating to drop bouncy balls from the fourth floor of the library, actually," Ball said. "We knew that was unlikely to happen."

In the end, the experiment evolved into a demonstration of the effects of space weather on satellites such as NASA's planned James Webb Space Telescope. The cascading balls simulated electron radiation bombardment of a spacecraft, Stewart explained.

If it failed to yield any major scientific breakthroughs, the event turned out to be the highlight of the College of Science's "Geek Week."

"What's driven us to follow through on this project and dedicate the funds to it is to show people that science can be fun," Stewart said.

Mountain Ridge Helicopter pilot Brett Reeder leaned far out of the vehicle Thursday afternoon to slowly and steadily disperse the 2-inch balls from a cardboard box secured with duct tape.

"I was wearing a safety harness," Reeder explained. "It was a fun way to promote education and support USU."

The experiment went off without a hitch except for crowd control. While the helicopter hovered 100 feet above the target, yellow crime scene tape used by USU police to mark the perimeter did little to prevent hundreds of youngsters and then adults from breaking through to gather the bouncing balls.

North Logan resident Kristen Wilkinson, whose children sat in the branches of a tree to see over the crowd, said the "re-bounce was the coolest." After hitting the ground, the balls continued to reach surprising heights, Wilkinson said.

Although Wilkinson's son, Dane, 3, wasn't savvy enough to find a ball on his own, his neighbor Rachel Huntzinger, 5, had several to share after catching a few mid-bounce.

In spite of the great demand, no one who wanted a souvenir left empty-handed. Showing that they are more than cool, "science geeks" rose to superhero status when they banished tears by making sure everyone left with a bouncy ball.







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