January 14, 2023, marks a momentous day in the history of Saturday Morning Physics (SMP): astronaut Josh Cassada will be answering questions about life and research aboard the International Space Station (ISS) via NASA satellite link. Cassada, a Navy test pilot and physicist, piloted the SpaceX crew ship Dragon Endurance to the ISS in October 2022.

“This is truly a first for us in the history of Saturday Morning Physics,” says David Gerdes, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Physics and chair of the Department of Physics, who co-organizes SMP, a long-running program of the University of Michigan’s College of Literature, Science, and the Arts. “The ISS orbits the Earth every 90 minutes, and it’s amazing to think it will complete a significant portion of its orbit during our event.”

Cassada will join SMP for a question-and-answer session at 10:30 a.m. on January 14 at 1420 Central Campus Classroom Building, 1225 Geddes Avenue. The event will also be live streamed here, and participants can submit questions that may be read at the event.

“All members of the public are welcome to submit questions and come to any Saturday Morning Physics event,” says Timothy Chupp, professor of physics and biomedical engineering. Chupp also co-organizes the program with the help of numerous physics and LSA staff members. SMP presenters use accessible language for audience members who range from elementary and high school students to scientists and retired community members.

ISS crew members regularly live stream educational programs during their tenure, and Cassada chose the University of Michigan for one of his events. “While we’ve been up here, I have truly enjoyed sharing this experience with anyone who is excited about exploring, so I’m hoping that we can continue to fuel the excitement that surrounds the pursuit of knowledge and understanding,” he writes from the ISS. “As far as physics in particular, I have found that the physicist’s ability to maintain a big-picture perspective when tackling detailed and complicated problems has served me well.”

Cassada’s ties to the state of Michigan include a bachelor’s degree in physics from Albion College, and co-founding a company that provides high-speed, low-loss photon detectors to enable next-generation experiments in Novi. His Ph.D. research on high-energy physics at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory involved researchers at several institutions, including Gerdes and other U-M faculty.

Carol Rabuck, manager of communication and advancement for the Department of Physics, highlights more connections between the university and the ISS: A U-M student worked on NASA experiment Veg-05, growing dwarf tomatoes to supplement astronauts’ diets; Nobel Laureate Samuel Ting, a U-M alum and Ann Arbor native, designed and leads the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer project atop the space station; U-M engineers designed bone density experiments that arrived at the ISS in November 2022; and more.

Astronaut Josh Cassada works inside the International Space Station's Quest airlock.

Is It Physics, or Is It NASCAR?

Saturday Morning Physics, started by physics professor Dan Amidei, began in 1995 as an opportunity for postdoctoral researchers to showcase their work. “I called it a ‘physics tailgate,’ because it was only on home football Saturdays before the game,” recalls Chupp. It became so popular that it required a larger room by only the second lecture and expanded to include presentations by professors, graduate students, and invited speakers.

“I think one of the cool things about physics is that it’s not an abstract, ethereal subject that’s completely removed from the real world,” says Gerdes. “It governs everything that we see around us, from the macroscopic scale and the cosmos to the subatomic scale.” SMP lecturers strive to welcome the general public to the wonders of physics—a world they already inhabit.

The secret behind SMP’s success is the live demonstrations. According to Gerdes, the Physics Department’s award-winning lecture demonstration lab is “packed to the rafters with doodads and widgets” that presenters use to illustrate physics concepts. Rabuck says that the “pop, crackle, and rockets” are an especially big draw for children.

However, Gerdes knows all too well how things can go awry during physics improv. For example, he planned a live demonstration during a lecture on rollercoaster physics. The demo team rigged up a small platform suspended by ropes. Gerdes placed a small beaker filled with water dyed blue to symbolize a rollercoaster passenger on the platform and explained to the audience how it would remain on the platform while flying through the air. Gerdes swung the ropes; the platform smashed into a media cart behind him; the beaker exploded; the audience laughed as the briefly flustered professor regained his composure.

“Saturday Morning Physics is kind of like watching NASCAR. There might just be a crash at the next turn,” he says.

SMP regularly draws an audience of 400 to 500 people, with topics that include black holes, the accelerating universe, quantum information, nuclear magnetism, exoplanets, and even the physics of Halloween. Recordings are available on the university YouTube channel.

The livestream with Cassada will take place in a 25-minute window during the SMP hour. In addition, the event will feature space propulsion expert and U-M applied physics alum John Foster, a professor of nuclear engineering and radiological sciences, and of aerospace engineering, to answer audience questions.

More information about the event can be found at www.saturdaymorningphysics.org, or by contacting Carol Rabuck at crabuck@umich.edu or 734-763-2588.

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Photography courtesy of NASA