Articles

CARNIVAL IN THE CLASSROOM

ROBERT THOMAS ALLEN October 15 1949
Articles

CARNIVAL IN THE CLASSROOM

ROBERT THOMAS ALLEN October 15 1949

CARNIVAL IN THE CLASSROOM

ROBERT THOMAS ALLEN

PROFESSOR John Satterly’s annual demonstration of liquid air to the first-year science students at the University of Toronto is a noisy, smoky, fast-moving scientific free-for-all that goes on for about an hour and a half amid cheers, laughs, crashing glass, shattered goldfish, breaking balloons, rockets and explosions. At times it comes al>out as close to burlesque as you can get without a chorus.

It. takes }>lace in the galleried main lecture room of McLennan Lalxratory. The students begin piling into and over the semicircular tiers of seats two hours ahead of time.

Sharp) at noon Satterly appears amid wild cheers, wearing a scarlet-and-yellow gown and a weird hat like a velvet p)ancake. This, he explains, is the

gown worn by a doctor of science at, t he University of London. With a dead-pan expression and the gestures of a professional strip)per he begins to remove it, acknowledging the hilarious shouts of “more!” with a coupde of pjasses at; his vest.

Liquid air is air that, has been compressed,-cooled by refrigeration and allowed to expand suddenly, which cools it. still further until it reaches a fantastically low px>int and condenses into a liquid. This liquid is roughly 300 degrees below zero on the common Fahrenheit scale, so cold that any object at normal temperature, such as a table, is red hot by comparison.

Satterly gives a hurried explanation of the process of making liquid air as if he can’t wait to get on with the show.

“There are no references to liquid in scripture,” he tells the students. “The earliest known reference you’ll find in the poem ‘The Faerie Queene’ by Edmund Spenser.” In his thin English voice he recites:

Who all their while with charmes and hidden arts, Had made a Lady of that other Spright. And fram'd of liquid ayre her tender partes, So lively, and so like in all men's sight.

The professor has a fine dead-pan style of pmlling off these jokes.

“If you’ll turn to hymn number 669,” he says in churchly tones, produces an Anglican hymn book, and sings: “Thou moon that rul'st the night, And sun, that guid’st the day, Ye glittering stars of night, To Him your homage pay. His praise declare, Ye heavens above, And clouds that float on liquid air."

As he draws out the last line in a quavering tenor he empties a vessel of liquid air into a huge vat. It makes such a tremendous vapor cloud that the professor appears to be floating on liquid air himself. (“I should stop singing,” he said in his office later. “I used to have a rather good voice, but it’s not so good any more.”)

Students Under Fire

FROM THEN ON the lecture begins to get boisterous. One cubic centimeter of liquid air evaporates into about 800 c.c. of ordinary gaseous air. As, due to the relative heat of everything it touches, it’s always boiling, to cork it up is like plugging up a steam boiler. To demonstrate this expansive nature of liquid air Satterly pours some into a container about the size of a foot of bologna, rams in a cork and casually points it at the audience.

He stands there, the picture of innocence, while the students make a sprawling effort to get out of the line of fire. The cork travels only about 20 feet, but the general effect is unnerving.

To show how rapidly liquid air freezes organic material rock-hard Satterly freezes a goldfish, recites, “When ends life’s transient dream, When death's cold sullen stream, Shall o’er me roll,” and hits it with a hammer. The goldfish shatters around the lecture room like a soda biscuit. He used to get letters from the S.P.C.A. about this, but actually it’s not as cruel as putting a hook through a fish’s mouth.

Moving like a soda jerk on Sunday afternoon he dips daffodils into liquid air (to serve science, they are ready to die), crumbles them like wafers and tosses the fragments at the students; freezes and shatters bacon, after tasting it and pronouncing “Swifts”; molds a hammer out of frozen mercury and threatens to brain one of the students.

He freezes alcohol, rubber, eggs, which he first holds up to the light to make sure that he doesn’t “take life.”

He gives everyone a jolt by sighing, “Ah, it’s a thirsty job,” pouring about an eggeupful of liquid air into a glass and tossing it off.

Actually he just takes it into his mouth and

spits it out. again. The inside of the mouth is so hot by comparison that the liquid air skitters around on a cushion of steam the way a drop of water does on a red-hot stove. The trick is to get rid of it. before it freezes everything solid.

The professor has become pretty good at it. For a moment he looks and sounds like a pressure cooker. “You just hold it there until you hear the enamel on your teeth cracking,” he says.

Professor Satterly talks to the liquid, twiddles his fingers, fusses around and at, times appears possessed. He smashes things deliriously and throws them out at the audience.

Liquid air, like gaseous air, is made up of oxygen and nitrogen. But the nitrogen boils off faster and by the time the demonstration is nearly over the vessels contain almost pure oxygen. All substances that burn in air burn much more rapidly and brilliantly in oxygen.

To demonstrate this Satterly goes offstage, reappears in an air-raid warden’s helmet, carrying a torch, and begins to make and detonate bombs. He gathers up the liquid oxygen, pours it over waste, sets tin cans over the charge and touches it off.

From then on things look like the last night of a carnival. For a grand finale the professor, using the same principle, makes liquid-oxygen-propelled rockets and shoots them over the squealing, cheering audience.

Savant With Humor

A FEW OF Professor Satterly’s colleagues take a dim view of his introducing horseplay into the field of physics. They feel that the teaching of science is something that should be attended by a certain dignify and dry, academic detachment.

“When he starts playing the clown,” one faculty member said stiffly, “I take no notice of him.” But most of the faculty members follow his antics with fond amusement and he’s a big favorite with the students who regard him as something between a scientific genius and a one-man band.

At 70 Professor John Satterly, D.Sc. (London), M.A., A.R.C.Sc., author of several textbooks in physics as well as pamphlets on experiments and research in radioactivity, surface tension, viscosity, and helium, is neither dignified, dry nor detached. He’s right in there having the time of his life. As he’s recognized as one of the top teachers of physics in North America, he’s not likely to change.

Much of his humor is of a basicslapstick quality. When he’s writing a particularly long mathematical expression on the blackboard he continues right on over the edge and along the wall.

He has made so many jokes about engineers that the students begin laughing at the first cue. Example: “You can’t equate apples to oranges, inches to seconds, or engineers to physicists.” He tells how he happened to be on hand when a group of Hydro engineers were trying to free the shaft of a generator using a method that would have cost in the neighborhood of $100,000.

Satterly stepped forth, said: “You

silly men! You engineers!” and told them how they could free it for $1,000 simply by cooling the shaft quickly with either liquid air or a mixture of carbon dioxide and alcohol.

“1 saved them $99,000 and all they did was tell me that I needn’t pay my Hydro bills for a year.”

Actually there is more to his cracks about engineers than meets a student’s eye. He thinks that, at the University of Toronto particularly, they are too ready to accept the gimmicks physicists hand them without question or thought, like small boys with a new toy.

“They don’t read enough,” he grumbles. “They don’t get outside their subject. They spend their time studying engineering gadgets which will be obsolete by the time they’re finished their course. They should spend more of their first and second years studying mathematics, physics and chemistry. Those are basic sciences which never change.”

A Halo on his Head

Satterly tickles the students and at the same time aids their memory with remarks like: “There are several gases difficult to liquefy: neon, argon, krypton and so-on.”

To drill into the class that no one should be too sure an experiment is coming out the way he thinks it is, he always says: “We hope and pray

that this experiment will be successful.” He has said it so often that when he writes it on the blackboard, he abbreviates it to “We h. & p.”

When he makes snow from carbondioxide gas he tosses snowballs at the students. When he gives a demonstration of cold flame, instead of simply making a few passes through it with his hand as the other professors do, he ignites a ring of asbestos gauze, places it on his head, turns out the lights and marches around in an attitude of prayer, his face illuminated by a brightly burning halo.

Another favorite trick is to state a problem which would test the most profound mathematical mind, manipulate a slide rule as if it were a cocktail shaker, whip around and chalk up the answer, which he already knows, to six decimal places.

One great admirer of Satterly who, nevertheless, is not exactly ecstatic about his sense of humor is H. W. Tonkin, Satterly’s lecture assistant, a poker-faced, taciturn young physicist who follows the professor around at his liquid air demonstration with a fire extinguisher and a worried look.

After five years as the professor’s straight man about all he has to say is a defiant, “I don’t take any notice of him. He doesn’t bother me.”

The way Satterly uses him would bother less hardy men. When an experiment doesn’t come off Satterly always asks him what hç did wrong. Tonkin goes about setting up the demonstration again in silence. Satterly openly blames him for spilled water, broken apparatus, and anything else that goes wrong around the lecture room. The students love it.

Satterly believes in putting flesh on the bare bones of the problems he sets his class. His problems are full of college girls, sleeping professors, university examiners, and real people and places. A girl traveling at the uniform speed of 3,000 feet per second decides to intercept a studious young man traveling NNE at 5,000 feet per second.

Instead of stones being thrown off cliffs, in Satterly’s problems babies are tossed out of windows onto fine English lawns. “A certain professor lay in his bath watching a towel slip off a rack . . he will dictate to his class.

At other times he has “certain professors” sitting before fireplaces watching pokers swing with a certain period of vibration, mistakes being made on labels for margarine, and the dead bodies of engineers and university examiners being dragged across the campus .lawn.

One Monday he gave the students certain clues about the numbers of the hymns posted up in church the day before and had them work out the numbers, find the hymns in their hymn books at home, write down the first lines and comment on them. One of the hymns was “May Thy Glory Re Spread Around the World.” Some students commented that it was a hymn written to the professor.

Every Fall, a Haircut

He is a thin, birdlike man with a rather fussy manner and a lush ring of slate-grey hair like upswept angora. According to the students he gets his hair cut once a year, in the late fall. On this day he arrives in class looking like a shorn lamb. Not until next summer is it again in full bloom. He once had most of it burnt off during an experiment with liquid air. It came in like fine virgin wool.

Most of the first-year students regard him as a holy terror, and if they’re poor students they’re liable to retain the impression as he has the temperament of a hornet. He’s been known to smack the back end of a car with

his cane so hard that the owner threatened to sue him for property damage.

He has a glib, sarcastic tongue and the niceties of human feeling—-his own or other people’s—don’t bother him too much.

Within the first five minutes of an interview he told me that Maclean’s was the silliest magazine in the world, that I was a silly man, that I was sure to make a fool of myself, that he didn’t trust me, that I said 1 understood him when I didn’t know what he was talking about; refused point blank to have his picture taken, sighed, “Ah! the ignorance of the human race,” sang a hymn for me, and ended up by fishing in his desk for photographs of himself.

Thinks the Phone Is Rude

There are a lot of campus rumors about him including one about a group of engineering students hanging him up on a coat peg, and another about a medical class tiring of his sarcasm and ducking him in Hart House pool. Neither of these, Satterly says, is remotely true.

The only trouble he admits to with students happened about 30 years ago when a dental class kibitzed around so much that he simply stopped making an appearance. The students finally sent a delegation to ask him if he’d please come back.

One time he gave a complete lecture to an empty classroom, to the mild alarm of Professor R. C. Dearie, now head of the physics department of the University of Western Ontario, at that time one of Satterly’s demonstrators, who happened to poke his head into the room while the lecture was going on.

It turned out that the class had cut the lecture because it came too early after a holiday. So Satterly had given the lecture anyway, complete with notes and demonstrations. Then he put all the problems on the next examination paper. The students didn’t try that one again.

He lives a quiet life with his wife and daughter. He is a great reader of the classics, likes walking and is a regular churchgoer. His daughter is a demonstrator in metallurgical engineering at the University of Toronto. He also has a son with the Ontario Government Department of Mines.

When his family was young he used to tell them fascinating stories about a little boy who was always throwing rotten tomatoes at the gardener.

He considers the telephone an extremely rude instrument for which there is no justification and shies away from using them. He was one of the first people in Toronto to go around with a hat. He goes swimming twice a week in the Varsity pool.

It’s been his habit to go to England every other year. He comes back with a new supply of jokes and his pockets stuffed with “good English twine.”

When he goes on his summer holidays he takes along a thermometer and a barometer for daily readings. He usually has a following of kids from nearby cottages when he goes on his temperature-taking expeditions. They race back and tell their mothers that “Professor Satterly says the water is seventy can I go swimming?”

With his quick wit, sarcasm and flare for devising effective demonstration Satterly starts right in on first-year students to give them the right attitude toward physics. He jolts them out of the tendency to approach problems with preconceived notions of what the results should be. He teaches them to measure, observe and test.

The Stopper Wouldn’t Stick

If a student comes to him and says he got the wrong answer to a problem Satterly points out that, on the contrary, he got the right answer to some other problem. Nature gives no wrong answers. All you have to do is observe, measure and calculate properly and you’ll get the right answer to the right problem.

His insistence on people learning to rely on their own powers of observation makes him a bit of a gadfly around the university. He loves to get young hot-shot physicists full of brand-new theories and enthusiasm to perform some such simple operation as finding the volume of a copper rod, knowing that they’ll be so contemptuous of such an easy chore, so clear about what they want and so careless about what they’re getting, that they’ll make mistakes all down the line. They’ll forget decimal places, fail to make enough measurements to get a decent average, and come up with such theoretical absurdities as copper that floats like a cork.

One time he sent his entire class to the applied mathematics department to ask why the mathematical formula for

calculating the vibrations of a hanging chain didn’t coincide with observable evidence. The applied mathematics department decided that Satterly was going a bit too far with his jokes and complained that the students were pestering them about a simple question. Satterly replied that if the answer were so simple why didn’t they give it to the students and get it over with? The department sat down to dash off the answer. That was four years ago. They haven’t produced it yet.

Satterly believes that one good visual illustration is worth all the examinations and chalk marks in the world and is not above rigging his demonstrations to make his point. Occasionally this practice puts him on a spot that would worry less nimble-minded men.

In one demonstration he shows how the adhesion of a tight-fitting object can be broken by the application of heat. To do this he chooses something that actually does give trouble, the ground-glass stopper of a bottle. However, to make sure he doesn’t muff the demonstration, he first makes sure the stopper is free.

Once when he was about to give this demonstration he told his demonstrator, Saul Dushman, now assistant director of General Electric’s research laboratory, to go up and get “that bottle Miss Crossley (an assistant professor) has been trying to get open for three years,” instructing him in a lower voice to make sure he picked a bottle with a nice loose stopper.

Dushman overdid it. When Satterly began to grunt and twist and tell the students how many times they’d tried to free that stopper, he suddenly found the stopper lying in his hand. Thinking quickly he accused Dushman of bringing the wrong bottle.

Satterly doesn’t worry too much about rules and routine. He uses showmanship, gags, sleight of hand and anything else that comes in handy in making his point. The students, without knowing it, frequently have already got the point while they are still trying to figure out what went wrong with an experiment or a mathematical formula.

They are thinking for themselves, which is what Satterly wants them to do.

“Don’t take anything on trust,” he tells them. “In science everyone is a liar until proved otherwise.”