Fire tornado catches eyes of Daily Planet producers

It’s a simple experiment used to demonstrate some basic laws of physics, but the “fire tornado” was just cool enough to catch the attention of producers at the Discovery Channel planning to air a segment about a nationwide celebration of science.

Physics professor Steven Rehse and third-year biotechnology student Florida Doci traveled to Toronto Tuesday to tape a piece for Daily Planet which aired that night to help promote Science Rendezvous, a national festival that showcases world-class research happening at universities and other institutions across Canada.

Each university participating in the May 12 event was asked to submit a list of some of the science they’d be demonstrating and the fire tornado was chosen for the segment as an example of some of the cool things people would see if they attend. Students in the Physics Club produced a video of the experiment and submitted it to the show.

“It feels great to know that Science Rendezvous in Windsor brings demonstrations, which attract attention at such national level,” said Doci, who is chair of the organizing committee of this year’s event, now in its fourth year. “Being chosen to represent and promote such a big event on Discovery Channel is a great exposure for the university.”

The experiment is simple enough, but visually appealing. It involves placing some ethanol in a pie plate that’s centered at the bottom of a large, circular piece of plexiglass. The fuel is lit and then a plexiglass chimney is placed on top. As the heat rises through the chimney, a draft created by slots on either side of the circle causes the flame to slowly rotate, gathering momentum until it becomes a tall, spinning vortex – or a fire tornado.

Rehse said it’s an excellent way to illustrate the principle of angular momentum, which is essentially the inertia of a mass as it rotates around a central point or axis. The velocity of the rotation depends on how far the mass is away from the centre of the rotation; the closer to the centre, the faster it will spin, he said.

“This is ubiquitous in nature,” said Rehse. “You see it, for example, in a spinning figure skater, who speeds up as she draws her arms in tighter to her body.  You see it in the solar system when planets closer to the sun orbit more quickly.  And you see it in tornadoes, except for in this experiment, we use a tornado of fire because you can’t see air.”

This Saturday’s event promises to be the best so far, says Chitra Rangan, the recently appointed head of the physics department and one of its key organizers. Attendance has steadily grown over the last few years, which Dr. Rangan attributes better outreach and changing attitudes about science.

“Science has always been cool, but scientists themselves are making greater efforts to communicate to the public about all the cool things we do,” she said. “Some of the highest paying jobs are related to science, so a lot of parents are encouraging their kids to get more interested in it.”

Besides the fire tornado, some of the interesting things people will see this Saturday include crime scene investigations, basketball-playing robots, liquid crystal mood pads and fuel cell cars. The event takes place in the CAW Student Centre from 10 am to 4 pm.

Watch the episode on Daily Planet.

Check out what’s happening at Science Rendezvous Windsor.

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