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March 10, 2004

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, March 10, 2004

Shocking experiment Shocking experiment (March 10, 2004)

Santa Cruz teach Paly students about Tesla coil

by Rachel Metz

It could very well be a teacher's worst nightmare. You're placed up on a stage in front of the class and 1 million volts of sparkling, purple electricity is pumped through your body.

At Palo Alto High School last Friday, students of physics teacher Kenyon Scott got a chance to do just that. And Scott never protested. In fact, you might say he got a charge out of it.

"Danger, danger Will Robinson!" he cracked to the crowd before receiving his jolt of voltage.

Scott's quasi-electrocution was helped along by visiting physicists from the University of California at Santa Cruz and engineers from the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center. They came together Friday to use electricity to teach students about some of the more high-powered aspects of physics, such as Tesla coils, which can generate extremely high amounts of voltage. The coil was invented in 1891 by Nikola Tesla, who worked for more the well-known electricity icon, Thomas Edison.

Over the past several years about 10,000 students around the Bay Area and in Sacramento have seen the Tesla coil, Santa Cruz Professor Terry Schalk said.

The visitors brought their own coil -- a few feet of PVC pipe wrapped with copper wire and covered with a clear plastic tube. This was hooked up to another, wider spiral that looked like an oversized electric oven burner. That coil connected to a generator, which plugged into a standard 120-volt wall outlet.

The coil was used to conduct several experiments. First, a Santa Cruz undergraduate dressed in a Zorro outfit and wielding a sword battled bolts of electricity shooting from the coil. A Paly physics student also got a chance to play with sparks -- she was suited up in a protective all-metal suit and batted light from the coil with her hands and head.

Soon it was Scott's turn. He was taken onstage and suited up in the same metal armor-like suit designed to protect him. The suit acts as a Faraday cage -- a metal body that lets electrons slide around it instead of flowing into it.

Instead of playing with lightning like those before him, the object was to make it look like the volts were actually shooting through him. While he balanced on a wooden beam above the stage in Paly's Haymarket Theatre lightning whizzed from the coil to his left metal mitten and emerged as bright beams shooting out of his feet to the ground. Scott emerged unscathed, though he looked a little sweaty.

"Looks like homework's still due Monday!" Santa Cruz Professor Terry Schalk joked.

Rachel Metz can be e-mailed at

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