GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) — A rolling mad scientist lab painted blue parks outside The Bull downtown. Countertops covered in purple and blue felt contain makeshift gadgets out of disemboweled household appliances that blow steam, emit sparks, dispense mild shocks, and broadcast squeaks and beeps.
A mini-Tesla coil called a plasma ball pumps up the electricity from a normal house current to 10,000 volts, the gas inside making red and purple strands of light.
A Jacob's Ladder — two metal tines extending outward from their base, is hooked up to a neon sign transformer that produces a 15,000-volt arc of light that climbs up the metal tines.
"We take the familiar and make it unfamiliar," said Chris DiScenza, host and co-director of the Physics Bus, a rolling science education lab designed to generate excitement among kids.
It was Gainesville's good fortune that Erik Herman, Cornell University's science outreach specialist, got enough wealthy people excited about his physics bus that they gave him enough money to buy a newer, bigger bus for his educational outreach project in Ithaca, New York.
Once he got the new bus on the road, he gave the keys to the original physics bus to DiScenza, who drove it down to Gainesville in January where he is earning his doctorate in math at the University of Florida. It's kept at the Freewheel Project downtown when it isn't out at schools and libraries.
The bus had its first public outing at the Swallowtail Farm Festival in April and has been a frequent guest at the Cade Museum.
DiScenza said he's gotten a grant from American Physical Society to help finance the outreach project. He wants to take the bus to under-represented areas like Hawthorne and Live Oak, where kids don't have a Cade Museum or a natural history museum to go to for hands-on science demonstrations.
"We can go to them," he said.
Future plans include an Oct. 24 trip to the Lubee Bat Conservancy, and he is trying to arrange a visit to the Reichert House for at-risk youth. His hope is to visit each of Alachua County's schools by the end of the school year.
At some point, he wants to organize student build-offs, group projects where the kids actually create their own gizmos.
They also plan a cross-country trip at some point, to attend a major science conference.
"One of the limiting things of the bus is time. Being a graduate student I have a research project," he said.
So he does the bus on his own time, with the help of co-director Amber Medina and a slew of student volunteers who are drawn to the bus so they can get a hands-on demonstration of the theoretical stuff they learn in class.
"In math, we don't do anything real world," said Meric Augat, who is in his fourth year of study toward a doctorate in math. "As a teaching assistant, I see kids doing math no clue why. This bus instills passion."
Another limiting factor is funding. Which is why they are outside The Bull on an August night. Owner Jake Larson helped them put together a fundraiser, with 10 percent of the house going to the project.
"I want this space to be a gift to Gainesville," Larson said. "This is one of our first experiments with fundraising. I'd like to see The Bull do more."
They've come up with specialty drinks for the event, like Subliminal Champagne, Strawberry Blender Shandy, and a Liquid Nitro Ice Cream Float. Medina stands behind the bar and uses liquid nitrogen to freeze some whipped cream, which she then drops into a peanut-butter porter that turns out to be quite refreshing on this hot August night.
Back on the bus, a humidifier with a Frisbee taped to it puffs out fog rings and can make tornado-like winds. A frequency generator — a hot item in the 1950s — makes the Styrofoam cubes inside a long, clear plastic tube shake and vibrate. A cornstarch-and-water mixture vibrates on a bass amplifier and grows fingers that dance around.
"One of the main things about the bus is not to teach so much but to show them, and get them excited," DiScenza said. "I didn't want to lecture to them, just ignite sparks."
Information from: The Gainesville (Fla.) Sun, http://www.gainesvillesun.com