Physics demonstrators who do cool things: Gerald Zani


“…[He] plays intense classical music during demos, providing a much-needed soundtrack to the study of physics.”

 “He is literally my favorite part of physics class any time he shows up!”

 “ *Creepy voice* We have named our secret society after you…”

As evidenced by the above quotes, physics students think very highly of the goggle-wearing man on the right. I’m not saying that 9 a.m. classes are dreadful, but 9 a.m. classes are dreadful. Even if it’s a class you absolutely love, it’s an indisputable fact that 9 a.m.s make our souls ache and our life forces dwindle. If you’re in a morning physics class though, you know that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.

If luck is on your side, your last five minutes of class will be occupied by a most wonderful spectacle. You’ll see Gerald Zani, the manager of demonstrations in the physics department, enter the room and start shuffling around an intriguing setup, preparing to begin his demonstration. Brown’s physics minions commonly refer to the man as Jerry; he’ll put on some dramatic music and turn off the lights, and all will be well in the world.

Jerry is the wizard of the physics department. He is in charge of setting up demos for classes so students can witness physical concepts in action. Get to know the physics man of steel…after the jump.

What got you interested in this job?

At the time, I needed a job. I was working in industry in the Boston area, but industry was going through a period of layoffs. I started off as a computer science major, but after a year or so I just got burned out doing all the p-sets. So, I looked for what I liked instead of what I needed for a job. I decided to take classes at UMass in physics and started working as an electronic technician guy for a few years. This job at Brown came more as a coincidence; I saw an advertisement in The Boston Globe in 1993. I had no real knowledge of Brown. I mean, I had friends that had a rock band and they had played a gig at Brown once and mentioned how fun of a place it was. This was in the early ’80s.

What is your favorite part of doing the demonstrations?

Creating a visual, wholesome experience. I want students to grasp the physical concept in a way that they can engage all their senses. They need to see the beauty of the physical effect.

Was your job ever intimidating?

Yes, very intimidating! You’re there to service the professors. Sometimes you’re asked to do something and sometimes you don’t really know what they’re asking of you. You have to be comfortable enough to communicate with professors that are asking you to do these things. I’m dealing with intelligent, renowned physicists here, so I don’t want to make them doubt me. When you’re around such people, you tend to have your guard up and become afraid to expose a need for information.

What has been your best demonstration so far?

Double slit with single photons. (Ed.-????? #humanities)

In another life, what would you be?

I would love to be able to have the resources to put together movies, videos, and plays that dramatize the historical growth and discovery of physics. Kinda like educational videos for undergrads. I just really want physics to be seen as extremely beautiful, as an inspiration for young people who are intimidated by it.

Cats or dogs?

Dogs. I have a guinea pig. They actually purr. They’re soft and in need of food all the time.

Favorite planet?

Jupiter or Saturn. Hmm… has to be Saturn because of its ring and weird satellites. The behavior of the satellites is intriguing, and also the fact that there are belts around Saturn.

Anything else you’d like to say?

I met my wife while I was working here! She works at the medical school in admissions and now my son gets to see what Dad does. Have to be careful not to scare him though.

Guinea pigs, Saturn, and beautiful physics… Stay gold, man, stay gold.

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