Initially, Fermilab management questioned the wisdom of diverting Zimmerman from a full day of work at the laboratory, where his projects require a mix of physics, computer programming, and mechanical engineering skills. Now management views his show as educational outreach, a vital part of running a government-funded physics laboratory in a heavily-populated area in tight economic times. The two-hour show connects everyday citizens with a complex scientific field where jargon often stands in the way of easy understanding.
“I feel it is the responsibility of people who work in science to do things like this because that is the only way people know what we do,” Zimmerman says. “Cryogenics provides an easy entry point. About anybody can understand hot and cold. And there are lots of things you can do—not quite limitless, but close.”
Zimmerman consistently adds new components to his show, but staple crowd-pleasers include mixing soap with nitrogen to create geysers of bubbles, using compressed gas to shoot confetti or rubber balls, shattering roses, and using a frozen banana to pound frozen rubber tubing through wood. Sometimes he “accidentally” breaks off the fingers of his safety glove as it emerges from a tank of nitrogen.
“I have had girls in the front row scream their heads off, like I just maimed myself,” he says with a slight smile.
Gasps and giggles aside, the show teaches the basics of gases, liquids, and solids and the cryogenics used to run particle accelerators at Fermilab. Zimmerman brings the complicated, mammoth machines down to Earth by comparing them to everyday objects such as the television, which is a type of particle accelerator.