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The student voice of Washington State University since 1895

The Daily Evergreen

The student voice of Washington State University since 1895

The Daily Evergreen

WSU physics demonstration specialist retires after 30 years

Tom Johnson has done more than 1,000 demo shows and “bed of nails demonstration” 700 times or more
Courtesy of DEAN HARE
Tom Johnson gives his last principles of physics demonstration, Tuesday, Oct. 31, 2023, at Webster Hall in Pullman, Wash

After 30 years of working as WSU’s physics demonstration specialist, the go-to man for just about any issue or project in the department of physics and astronomy, has retired. 

Many know Tom Johnson for his bed of nails demonstration or have memories of his hair standing straight up while touching a Van de Graaff generator, however, Johnson did just about any task or project within the department, aside from setting up and performing physics demonstrations. No day was exactly the same, he said.

There was always some sort of weird emergency in the department that he would take care of, Johnson said. Painting ceilings, building computers, fixing leaks and installing equipment are some of the smaller projects Johnson did while working at WSU. 

“I realized that even the facilities people that have worked around here knew that if I worked on it, it was probably just fine,” Johnson said. “In fact we even had special approval for me to paint the ceiling in our lounge on the twelfth floor.”

Johnson mainly did demonstrations and projects for the physics classes, however, it did not matter what discipline a teacher taught, when they saw Johnson, they knew they could ask him for help with media issues or overhead projectors, he said.

“I’m a problem solver, and I just have always tried to help whoever comes around, doesn’t matter who they are,” Johnson said. 

A handy-man from the start, Johnson worked as a painter until he started his own painting business at 24, he said. His business ran successfully for four years until an injury prevented him from continuing to work.

Attending college was not Johnson’s original plan, however, after his injury he began classes at Eastern Montana College, now known as Montana State University Billings. He later transferred to Eastern Washington University, graduating with a bachelor’s of science in physics in 1991, and two years later with a bachelor’s of art in education.  

Johnson did not know he was interested in physics until the math classes he was taking started to not make much sense, he said. All the examples were physics problems, so he decided to pursue his degree in that area. 

On the cusp of finishing his second degree, the physics demonstration specialist position, or rather a scientific instructional technician as the position was originally called, opened up, Johnson said. 

Beginning his career at WSU Nov. 1, 1993, Johnson retired precisely 30 years later, Oct. 31.

Johnson sets up and tears down the demonstrations, sometimes juggling multiple classes that need demonstrations at once, he said. Aside from this, he also does demo shows, with his final official demo show on Halloween. 

“I’ve estimated that I’ve done about 1,000 demo shows, and [done] the bed of nails, over 700 times or more,” Johnson said. 

Some of the demonstrations he performs at the shows include one called live and dead balls, where Johnson drops two metal balls onto an anvil. One solid steel ball bounces, while the other ball does not, acting as a beanbag, demonstrating the principle of restitution, Johnson said. 

The monkey hunter, as Johnson calls it, is another demo, where he releases a dart to hit a monkey who is set up high in a room to show that all things fall at the same rate. He also does demonstrations with liquid nitrogen, balloons and PVC pipes to illustrate static electricity.

Jann Dahmen-Morbeck, academic administrative assistant for the department of physics and astronomy, said Johnson’s demonstrations helped her realize that she could do these demonstrations and learn from them at home.

“You could do this at home and with your family or your friends and just have some fun with it, nothing was dangerous, really,” Dahmen-Morbeck said. 

It’s not just the WSU community who have attended Johnson’s demonstration shows, he also catered toward younger students and had schools come to watch his demo shows for some of their field trips, he said. 

Johnson partnered with Odyssey students from Spokane, and almost all of the sixth-grade students in Spokane schools have come to watch his demonstration shows over many years, he said. 

“I had one of the parents say,afterward, ‘you did a really good job,’” he said. “She says ‘I heard one of the 12-year-old girls say that she couldn’t wait to take physics,’ so that’s the sort of thing that kind of makes me feel good.”

Although the demonstration shows were stressful sometimes, Johnson enjoyed them because the kids enjoyed them, impacting their interest in physics and science, he said.

“I try to take that scariness out of knowing about how things work,” he said. “I think in physics it can be taught pretty well and understanding can be achieved.”

Despite the demo shows and the multitude of projects that Johnson did during his career at WSU, he managed to find time to participate in other activities. He did testing and calculations for the first pumpkin drop at WSU, helped with Cougar Kids Camp during the summers, worked with the MESA program and even helped fix an old organ hidden in the basement of Webster Hall. 

Johnson also evaluated language skills for around 10 years of international physics graduate students who were applying to WSU. In most cases, he was the first native English speaker that international students interacted with, he said. 

His long-time commitment to WSU and the physics department landed Johnson the President’s Excellence Award in 2006, and the College of Arts and Sciences award the following year, he said. 

“He’s definitely genuine. What you see is what you get for sure,” Dahmen-Morbeck said. 

With his newfound time and freedom after retirement, Johnson plans to continue gardening, fly-fishing, golfing and working on little projects here and there at his home in Garfield, WA.

“I always used to say, well I don’t really teach and I don’t really push paperwork, but I can be caught doing about anything in between, whatever you can imagine,” Johnson said.

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  • Patti Prinkki KeeblerNov 15, 2023 at 9:54 am

    A wonderful article about Tom!