Summer 2006 Cross Country Trip
What an experience! We filled up the veggie oil tanks and went from Tucson to Boston and back. We spread our brand of science education and fun while also establishing bonds with the community of science educators across the country. We made appearances at science centers, schools and other stops on the drive east, with our final destination at the meeting of the American Association of Physics Teachers in Syracuse, NY. Please read our trip log below to find out about the epic journey!
We would like to take a moment to thank our many sponsors without whom this trip would simply not have been possible. Companies across the country have jumped on board to offer their assistance, from the lettering on our bus to the oil in our engine to the wheels and tires and hotels along the way, thank you all for your contribution to science education!
- 6/29 Leave Tucson through Phoenix, AZ. Arrive in Flagstaff, AZ.
- 6/30 Albuquerque, NM. Arrive in Santa Fe, NM.
- 7/01 Colorado Springs, CO and Denver, CO. Arrive in Boulder, CO.
- 7/02 Drive toward Lawrence, KS. Arrive in Lawrence, KS.
- 7/03 Lawrence, KS. Kansas City Boys and Girls Club. Arrive in St. Louis, MO.
- 7/04 St. Louis
- 7/05 St. Louis, City Museum.
- 7/06 St. Louis.
- 7/07 Indianapolis, IN. Arrive in Pittsburgh, PA.
- 7/08 Pittsburgh to Philadelphia, PA.
- 7/09 – 7/21 New York City, NY and surrounding areas.
- 7/22 – 7/26 American Association of Physics Teachers Meeting, Syracuse, NY.
- 7/27 Syracuse to Cleveland, OH.
- 7/28 Cleveland to Chicago, IL.
- 7/29 Chicago to St. Louis, MO.
- 7/30 St. Louis, Kansas City, arrive in Lawrence, KS.
- 7/31 Lawrence to Denver, CO.
- 8/01 Denver to Albuquerque, NM.
- 8/02 Arrive in Tucson, AZ.
Physics Factory 2006 Cross-Country Trip Log
We were in the home stretch. We woke up this morning in Albuquerque at the same Red Roof Inn where we had spent the night a month ago. It’s true, you can never go back to the same place in life, because ‘you’ have changed in the meantime. Jon and Erik went to go pick up some oil at AAA Pumping. The guy here told us weeks ago that his oil is filtered to 10 microns and only has some fraction of a percent of water in it. After driving around the entire town of Albuquerque, they found it. It was nasty. We know better now. The bus will have to make the oil we have last the remaining 500 miles. The rest of us had a swim and then we steeped our bodies in the jacuzzi. The hot water released the film of vegetable oil from our skin after the two-day epic ride from St. Louis.
We hope to be home late tonight.
With a feeling of great satisfaction we entered Arizona to a beautiful sunset and unseasonably cool refreshing air. We made our last pit-stop for Subway Sandwiches. There was a feeling of satisfaction in the air cruising down I-10 on veggie oil at 50mph as we ate our last dinner of this epic journey.
Like a salmon swimming back to it’s breeding ground to die, the bus gave it’s last spurt of energy on the hill approaching Benson, AZ, choked, bled all it’s oil, and died.
This was our first full twenty four hours of driving. We covered a lot of ground. Everyone was thoroughly disoriented and disheveled when we arrived at cracker barrel at five in the morning. breakfast was appreciated nonetheless.
Today we rested in Lake St. Louis where Erik’s Mother, Erika and Step-father, Manny live. The fun included holding onto an inflatable tube that is tied to a boat going very fast. How fast? Roughly the cruising speed of the Physics Bus, 35mph. Actually, we were only tubing at around 25-30mph but it feels twice as fast when your head is 1ft from the water. Once more, Aiden was roasted by ultra-violet rays and resembled a human tomato.
We had a wonderful cookout on the deck and then packed-up for our first overnight drive.
The plan was to to see Chicago in the morning and then tour Fermilab in the afternoon.
We decided to split up and tackle the museums. Chris, Bruce, Aiden and Moss were dropped off at the Chicago Institute of Art. Erik took the bus to the Museum of Science and Industry. Oh, and Jon satisfied his SciFi addiction at a nearby B&N. The art museum was spectacular. Lots of Magritte and other visual goodies.
Erik got a picture of the bus in front of the site of first sustained nuclear reaction and a picture of himself dwarfed by a giant Whimshurst machine built by Mr. Whimshurst himself.
The security at FermiLab is pretty tight, but Chuck Brown, our host, had ‘cleared us’ a whole week before we got there. He gave us a personal tour of the facility. It was breathtaking. And it was a weird sensation having protons whizzing past you only feet…er…meters away. Erik felt a subatomic particle hit him in the forehead, but he isn’t the type to put up a fuss about such things–with a collider that big, they can’t possibly keep track of them all. When we returned outside, there was a crowd gathered around the bus. Now we were the ones giving a tour. It was pretty cool to have this group of scientists from a world-class laboratory be so interested in our little ol’ Physics Bus. Oh, and did you know there are real buffalo roaming around Fermilab? Bison too.
On the way to St. Louis, Aiden and Moss were nearly arrested for doing touchdown dances with a plastic subway cup at bp petrol station. fortunately this is not against the law…
I think Nancy at the Ann Arbor Hands on Museum thought we were some kind of science freak show because she was the only one on the trip to make us pay admission. Perhaps she was the only one that wasn’t frightened by us? We spent a little time there and then headed for Chicago.
There was a Motel 6 in Gary, Indiana that we called home for the night. We cleaned up the bus for a few hours in the parking lot before turning in. There were some nice rolls of carpet that the hotel was discarding because they recently adopted a new color scheme. Aiden cut out the pattern of the bus floor and we installed it. The bus is gonna look sweet at Fermilab tomorrow! The "older crew" conked out in the room. Aiden and Moss fraternized with the locals and gave them a tour of the bus. They enlightened us to the possibility of it being "pimped" by Xibit on Pimp my Ride.
After a breakfast at Cracker Barrel, we went to Grandma Shearer’s for another oil pick up. We forgot to vent one of the tanks before starting to pump vegetable oil into it and it turned into a vegetable oil fountain all over Jon Katz. Melissa Shearer arrived on the scene and didn’t seem at all put off by our mess and the general appearance of the bus and it’s crew. In fact, she took us into their snack shop, started handing us all the snacks we could hold, and told the cashier to ring it up as zero! We started chompin’ down right away!
Columbus was only two hours south, so we headed for the Columbus Ohio Science and Industry museum, "COSI". What an awesome place! It was huge and had many things we hadn’t seen before, like bernoulli balls on streams of water. It was very hands-on and we spent the good part of a day.
After a few hours of working on the veggie system and a few hours of driving, we spent the night in Toledo.
We visited Niagara falls and walked all around. Aiden received a v-shaped sunburn from popped colla. Everybody laughed at him. Bruce was stopped at the border because he admitted that he wasn’t born in the US. When they asked him for proof of citizenship, he pointed out that he had as much proof as the rest of us — an Arizona driver’s license.
We enjoyed a complimentary lunch at the USA’s most expensive Denny’s.
We left Syracuse this morning to visit the Ithaca Sciencenter where Charlie, the guy who runs it, was obviously pretty busy doing things to keep it tip-top. It was an excellent science center for a pretty small town.
On our way to Rochester, we saw the tallest waterfall east of the Mississippi. Then veggie oil troubles landed us in the parking lot of a place that made Hard Cider. The guy who gave us a tour of the fermentation and bottling process ended up being Sciencenter Charlie’s old college roommate!
After an educational tour and a filter cleaning for the veg-system, we headed to Rochester where cameras and reporters were waiting in Ralph and Sandy’s front yard for us to arrive. Ralph and Sandy are the parents of Mike Z, our marketing guy. We told Physics Bus tales of ‘whoa’ while we gorged ourselves on seconds and thirds of a delicious home-cooked meal. Jon Katz’s Greyhound bus arrived in Rochester and he joined us for the ride back to Tucson. Ralph gave us a tour of the unbelievable amount of work he has done in the basement. He is quite a craftsman with wood. We stayed up late to watch ourselves on the news. There we were!
Erik, Chris and Bruce gave their talk at the conference during the "physics outreach" session. We had 8 minutes to explain our mentoring program. We kept our powerpoint to a minimum by mostly showing pictures of students building demos. It was a success. We made the audience laugh a few times. We also noticed that a lot of people came to our talk that we met the previous night. It was fun to pretend that they came to that session just to hear our talk.
After our talk we parked the bus in a high profile spot on campus. People on campus were drawn to the bus by the mysterious force of curiosity. This kept us busy for a few hours: giving tours of the bus and talking about our programs.
Finally, we needed to explore the rest of the conference. There were many booths representing publishers, equipment suppliers and professional things. The Vernier party that night was quite fun. Myriad physics teachers dancing their hearts out. Great live music and free booze makes for a splendid evening!
We left Helen and Brian’s house, but Helen enjoys extended departures so she followed us in her car snapping pictures at every Troy landmark, including Brucies elementary school. Bruce found it quite novel to be driving a school bus where he had been a passenger in one every day so many years ago.
We finally arrived in Syracuse. After Erik checked in at the conference, we went to the social BBQ. We devoured many hot dogs and burgers and said "Hi" to the few people we knew. After the BBQ, there were some demonstration shows. It was somewhat like "Physics Phun Nite" here in Tucson. Most of the demos were similar to what we brought on the bus. We actually hoped to demonstrate this year–Erik’s flame tube would have knocked everyone’s socks off (or burnt them off). Maybe next year people will know who we are and start inviting us to be involved in these sort of things…or they will at least admire our effort in trying to get noticed by the AAPT community by bringing the bus and all. Anyhow, there was an interesting vacuum demo new to our eyes. Liquid nitrogen at low pressure in a vacuum bell jar freezes into a crystal formation. It was quite spectacular. We are going to try it as soon as we get home.
We picked up one hundred gallons of oil at Restaurant Technologies Incorporated, then headed for the Museum of Science. The hall of electricity was amazing!!! The Van de Graaff generator was huge and it was on the location that Van de Graaff himself used to have his laboratory. Giant lightning bolts snapped to ground in a spectacular display. When our eyes were just about popping out of our heads, we headed west. That night we were hosted by Helen and Brian in Troy, NY at the house that "Brucie" grew up in. Erik slept in "Brucie’s" childhood bed where he dreamt of Eigenfunctions. Somehow, Erik went to bed clean-shaven and woke up with a week’s growth of hair on his face. Helen and Brian made us very comfortable in their home and the topics of discussion were always engaging and entertaining, if not deep and intellectual.
We left the comfort of Phyllis and Bob’s house (Erik’s in-laws) this morning bright and early to get to Boston in time for some sightseeing. On the way, Bruce calculated, without calculus, the amount of vegetable oil we have at any given height for the horizontally-oriented barrels under the bus. The calculations were inscribed in dry erase marker on the interior of the bus. During this whole trip, we found the windows and metal interior of the bus to be perfect for note taking with markers. The windshield is full of to-do lists, contact info and equations. The physics unicorn is also velcroed to the ceiling. The unicorn has made several photo ops around the country and will make several more.
We stopped at the Rhode Island School of Design to get info for Aiden. Many students asked if they could take pictures with the bus. We let them. Erik also inspected some old "I beams" in an alley. Rhode Island is very eventful despite its small size.
Later that day we arrived in Boston. We walked around MIT. Bruce showed us where his desk was when he was in grad school there. We came upon a vacant classroom so we each gave a lecture to each other on their large fantastic blackboards. We took many pictures since blackboards are on the endangered pedagogy list.
Before lunch, we did a performance at the People Care center near Bound Brook, NJ. The highlight was definitely when Kenny hopped aboard the hovercraft and zoomed down the hallway. A reporter and photographer from New Jersey’s Star Ledger showed up to cover the story. In the afternoon we headed to Queens, NY to meet with Dr. Alan Friedman of the New York Hall of Science. It was a comedy of errors getting there. We’ve been over every bridge and under every tunnel in the NYC area now (except for the one we had to back off of because of low clearance.) After getting lost we were finally in the home stretch where we encountered deadlocked traffic. The Hall of Science closes at 5pm and it was 4:50. Suddenly, to top it off, hurricane-like weather came out of nowhere—the kind of thing you only see in movies or the beginning of Gilligan’s Island. Luckily for us, the lobby of the Hall of Science flooded and the people inside had to exit the building through a side-door. We walked right in and began devouring the place with our eyes. This museum is totally inspired. Each exhibit is a perfect blend of art, science, and mathematics. In fact, many of the exhibits were created by sculptors. Chris tracked down Dr. Friedman who luckily hadn’t left yet. He seemed genuinely pleased to see our enthusiasm and he demonstrated that with a personal tour of the whole building. We all agreed that this was an awesome place! On our way back to Phyllis and Bob’s, we were all hungry so we stopped for late night burgers at the same White Castle that “Harold and Kumar” went to.
We woke up at 5am after three hours of sleep. We got cleaned up from yesterday’s messy work, got coffees, and headed over to the FOX 5 studios. David, the cameraman, greeted us and began setting up lighting for the interview. Tara Sherman, the show’s producer amazingly instructed us while leading the crew from her clipboard and synchronizing through her headset with the director inside. Very impressive. Considering all of that, the show still had a bit of spontaneity to it that reminded us of our performances. Then we met the lead anchors, Toni and her co-anchor. Toni quickly hopped in and out of a camping tent for a teaser without getting a smudge of 67th street on her skirt. A few minutes later, she interviewed Erik about the Physics Bus and vegetable oil (we had been asked previously to ‘tone down’ the whole Physics Education thing because that wasn’t what their viewers were interested in.) We reassured Erik later that Toni would cause any guy to stumble over his words. The famous weatherman, Mike Woods, sat on top of the “party” bus and gave NY his forecast. He loved the bus and we loved him so we quickly took off with him on top but our plan was thwarted by heavy traffic. We drove the bus around Manhattan, taking pictures of Times Square, Empire State Building and Lower Manhattan. We caught the eyes of every pedestrian and the gestures of every taxi. Then we went to Liberty Park in NJ. The Liberty Science Center is temporarily housed in an old train station that took immigrants to the lower Manhattan ferry. As we drove up, we were immediately greeted by the enthusiastic museum employees. We toured them through the bus and talked to them for over an hour. They loved it. They also gave us private tour of their current exotic reptile exhibit. The view of the Statue of Liberty and Manhattan was spectacular. We took many pictures.
Back on the bus. It was a crazy day of driving. We took Chris’s friend, Tianna, to work at a recycled building materials supply warehouse called ‘Build It Green’. The guy there showed interest in helping remodel the inside of the Physics Bus. He had some cabinets that he was willing to give us. We planned to take the bus there later in the day to reorganize the interior before the cameras would show everyone how slap-dash it currently looked.
We made a detour to Bridgewater to get cleaned up at Erik’s in-law’s house, and then Rutgers University for some liquid nitrogen. David Maiullo from the Rutgers Physics Dept. kindly gave us some on very short notice. David was a great help and was full of enthusiasm about what we were doing (if he really thinks we’re nuts he hid it well.) At Erik’s first AAPT conference in Boise, Idaho, David was the one that got Erik to stop being such a wallflower and join the PIRA crew in a few drinks. David showed us the Rutgers science bus which was equipped with this thing called technology that was fueled by this other thing called funding and dino-diesel.
We then made our way across the George Washington Bridge toward ‘Build it Green’ back in Queens. A few wrong turns, a missed exit, and a low clearance bridge funneled us into Harlem and then the Bronx. Everybody in those areas of town looked pretty tough, and they were all staring us down. We quickly became aware of how goofy and, well, not tough we looked. Even the five-year-olds looked like they could beat us up. All we could hope was that if they were real-life gangsters they’d better be "crips" because we happen to know, as teachers of youngsters, that the "crip" type of gangster becomes tame when exposed to electromagnetic wavelengths near 475 nanometers. Our bus reflects a great deal of light in that range. It must have helped them see the blue color when the right side of the bus got washed as we passed an open fire hydrant because they seemed to stop staring us down after that (or maybe someone’s pit bull had been bathing in that puddle?). Once it was clear to us that they were captivated by the brilliant blue color we started giving them the upward nod that means, in ‘G'(gangster language) "What’s up?" (understood to be a rhetorical question that serves as a casual affirmation that ‘everything is cool’).
The open fire hydrants were the most curious phenomenon in NYC. At any time of the day or night there are open fire hydrants spraying into the street. Often, families are playing and washing cars, bikes, (dogs) in the water. This is an offense punishable by death in Tucson where a leaky garden hose could get you ten years to life without parole.
Once in Queens, it was dark, we found a dead-end road and started to work on the bus with our cordless DeWalt power tools. We put in shelves and organized the contents of the bus. Then we gave it a good cleaning for tomorrow’s "Good Day New York" cameras. Bruce and Aiden joined us at this random location in Queens that we could probably never find again. Cleaning and organizing took us until midnight. We were exhausted and finally headed for the news station in Manhattan. This short jaunt got longer when we had to back the bus down an on-ramp because the Queensborough Bridge’s lower deck is only 11 feet high.
After dropping the bus off in front of the news station on 67th Street, we headed to the Red Roof Inn a few blocks away where we had made reservations earlier. We arrived there exhausted and daunted by the fact that we only had 4 hours of sleep ahead of us before the Fox 5 News show Good Day New York. The guy at the hotel tells us that we don’t have a reservation there and he has no available rooms. Apparently when Erik called to make a reservation the guy just said, "Hold on a moment", transferred us to another hotel without telling us, and we unknowingly were making reservations at a Super 8 which is not one of our sponsors and was going to be more than $150 for the night. This was extremely aggravating and finally we found a random flea-bag hotel and slept there for a couple of hours.
Chris: Roaming around NYC, going to a Yankee’s game and other scientific endeavors.
Chris: Went to the top of the Washington Monument with Lindsey and saw the Natural history Museum and the Air and Space Museum. The most amazing part about the Air and Space Museum is that everything in the museum that is right in front of your face is THE actual historic real life thing. For reals. The Wright brothers very first airplane that flew at Kitty Hawk, whamo, there it is! The first spaceship to the moon, its there. The x-15 and the plane that made it around the world in the 1980’s that nobody remembers are there too. Of course everybody knows this stuff is there but seeing it in person is amazing.
Chris: He Toured the Capitol building and sat in on Congress. He Went to some of the Smithsonian Museums and saw some contemporary art. He saw a motorcade with two limos trailed by a heavily armed suv. That evening he saw the presidential helicopter making laps around the Washington Monument and landing at the White House and then take off for another lap and land and take off lap and land and take off and so on. This entertained him and a British tourist named Emma for quite some time. She informed him that the Queen occasionally takes joyrides around Big Ben. Chris informed her that he didn’t think we had a queen.
Chris: Stumbled around the big city for the afternoon and found the Strand used bookstore which is a four story version of Bookman’s in Tucson. If only Tucson had four story buildings… if only Tucson had architects. Chris quickly found the physics and math sections and purchased a book: Landau’s The Classical Theory of Fields. He soon found a cheap bus ride from Chinatown to Washington DC. In DC, he ate dinner with his friends, Lindsey and Terry and they let him stay at their new house in Alexandria.
Chris: He realized that none of his math math classes ever taught him the skills to understand the MTA system. Eventually he figured out which subway took him to Brooklyn. His friend Tianna gave him a tour of Green Point and Williamsburg on bicycles at night. Space is tight in the big city so Chris decided to sleep on the roof of Tianna’s three story apartment building. The weather and the view of the Manhattan skyline were fantastic.
The group split up from each other for a few days to explore the east coast on our own and visit family and friends. Erik went to a Cabin in NJ with his wife Kristin and their son Sam. Chris went to visit friends in Brooklyn and Washington DC.
The bus was brought to Empire Truck Repair in Hundingdon Valley, PA for a checkup and a new left blinker lens. They did the work for free and even added their own artistic touch to the repair. We were given a clean bill of health to keep on truck’n or bus’n.July 11th Erik and Chris had a great time at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. Among the many beautifully crafted vintage electronic devices, some by Franklin himself, they had a huge Marx generator and a rather large Tesla coil. We got many great ideas and took many pictures. The staff was friendly and engaging. Chris was particularly impressed with the tight-roping “Sky Bicycle”.July 10th Erik, Chris, and James enjoyed a brunch at Cracker Barrel and spent the rest of the day discussing a business strategy for the Physics Factory.
We woke up early to watch Kristin, Erik’s wife, do the Philadelphia Women’s Triathlon, meet up with James who brought Erik and Kristin’s 2 year-old, Sam. Kristin and her sister-in-law, Jeanine, both did an awesome job.
After a stop at Home Depot and a healthy breakfast at Cracker Barrel, we headed for the Carnegie Science Museum in Pittsburgh. We made one pit stop along the way to say hi and get a picture with Erik’s Uncle Dave. This excursion into a small old town involved dodging many power lines and low bridges. A false turn would scatter the atom atop the physics bus or at least leave us ionized. You see there are electron balls in a hula-hoop orbital on the bus and the interaction of electrical power lines with atoms in this state involves a bit of chemistry. Hence it is much safer to avoid such situations and also avoid doing chemistry if at all possible. Not to mention, if the electric pump for the telescoping mast gets energized in any way, it will extend to 50 feet high, become a beacon for lightning, and…well… anybody that has ever seen Back to the Future can figure out the rest. The Carnegie Science Center graciously gave Chris, Erik and Kip complementary passes. The science center was a massive four stories high with a large smooth tensile Riemannian manifold on the roof. This sculpture resembled giant aooga horn that aimed as high as the Heinz Stadium next door. Inside, there were many great classic exhibits that demonstrated fluid dynamics, thermodynamics, sound wave interference and miniature train conductance.
We forgot to do a head count after leaving the Carnegie Science Center and we accidentally left Kip behind in the gift shop. He probably found a flight back to Tucson where he can relax in the comfort of his own neighborhood. From there we started up the Mid-Pennsylvanian Appalachian Mountain Range at a modest thirty-five mph. A State Trooper pulled us over…er…we pulled him over because he couldn’t go slow enough to get behind us. He was polite but firmly told us that if we couldn’t go the minimum speed of 40mph, we had to get off the highway. We passed him again a few miles up the road doing 45mph and we were in the clear.
One of the features of an experiment is troubleshooting equipment malfunction. Especially when it malfunctions in the middle of a two-lane tunnel. There are a few sensors on the veggie system that indicate proper engine performance. Then there are also not enough sensors to remind us of the simple problems such as a disconnected ground wire for another sensor. Essentially the main veggie oil tank didn’t know when the baby tank needed more fuel and the engine was starved for oil. It was discovered that push pump from the main tank was silent and not pushing any oil. This indicated that the baby tank had a malfunction. Sure enough, it was empty. The ground wire for the level indicator was disconnected. This was solved with a paperclip and bubble gum and we were back on our way.
Side note: We noticed that people think that the bus says psychic factory or psycho factory. We would like to encourage a group of English teachers to travel the country in a bus. Your help is needed.
We arrived in Philly late in the night and met Dave and Kristin at their hotel downtown.
Parking a school bus in downtown Philly is challenging. The parking lots weren’t going to let a bus in their lot. One parking lot owner, Butch from "5 star", said he would do it, but he’d have to charge us for four spots = $108 for the night. We quickly maneuvered the bus into two spots so he could "visualize it" and he said he didn’t "need to visualize nuthin’-if we want to park there, it’ll cost $108." After we explained what the Physics Bus is all about, and the tour we’re on, he let down his guard and allowed us park in his lot for free!
The next morning Erik got up, as usual, on "Sam time" (Erik has a 2yr. old) and started plumbing the pre-filtered tank for the veg system. Kip and Chris got up, did some things that needed to get done around the bus, and we were all looking forward to a nice big complimentary meal at Cracker Barrel which was across the street beckoning us. Then the 2 inch drain plug came out of the pre-filtered barrel and, "glug, glug, glug" the nastiest looking oil slick poured into the parking lot. Kip, an honorable man, notified the maintenance supervisor and we all spent two hours cleaning it up until there was no trace.
The setback caused us to sacrifice breakfast and free admission and a small presentation at COSI, Columbus’s science and technology museum, but we were still on schedule to make it in time to pick up three barrels full of oil at Grandma Shearer’s Potato Chip factory in Brewster, Ohio before Friday’s workday ended. On the way, we stopped at Subway and met some really fun sandwich artists who came out and got a picture with the bus. While we ate, we brainstormed about how to get rid of the 20 gallons of bad oil we had in the pre-filtered tank. Erik argued that, after all, it’s derived from vegetables, maybe it would be best to put it where there is a lot of vegetation. Kip thought that this would be a terrible thing to do to the groundwater. Chris could see both perspectives. Kip pulled over at an auto garage and explained the situation. They were happy to take it! They happened to have a waste oil furnace that burns just about everything to keep them warm in the winter.
Now we wanted to clean out the pre-filtered tank before putting in some good oil so that the lines wouldn’t clog and the filters would have a reasonable amount of life before clogging. While Kip drove, Erik poured two or three gallons of gasoline into the pre-filtered tank. He then asked Kip to drive erratically so it would slosh around and clean the tank. Kip suddenly believed that he was driving a bomb-the smallest static discharge and that tank would blow the bus to smithereens-vegetable oil and all. Kip quickly pulled over. Erik drained the tank again while Chris helped Kip empty our CO2 cylinder into the barrel to get rid of all the oxygen. Then Kip looked to see if there was any liquid nitrogen to pour in, but it was all gone from Wednesday’s gig. If there were any ponds around Kip surely would have driven the bus straight into it to diffuse an explosion like the one that happened to a delivery truck on Wall Street in ’63. Our lives, after all, are worth more than the Physics Bus.
Needless to say, we escaped death. It was now past 5pm and we didn’t want to abuse Shearer’s generosity in waiting for us. Chris found the most direct route on the GPS map program he has on his computer. It was practically a straight line between Shearer’s and us. We soon found that it was only straight when viewed from above-we went up and down 12 hills at 10 mph on the way there. And Chris’s map program failed to note that we’d be driving behind horse-drawn Amish buggies. This was an amazing scenic route for all of us since we had only heard about the Amish on Reading Rainbow-it was hard believe we were actually seeing it. Although the physics bus can reach 60mph on flat roads, many of the Amish buggys had much more horsepower on the hills than the bus. (waiting for laughter) But seriously, both our methods of transportation are veggie-powered. It is actually a little known fact that their horses are fed waste vegetable oil. It has equinious nutrients.
We did make it to Shearer’s shortly before 6pm and smiling faces greeted us. We backed the physics bus right up into their loading dock. They had our barrels full in no time with a giant hose that reached into the bus. Then we headed for Pittsburgh over hills and valleys of beautiful green. Erik even thinks he saw a yak.
Just before we reached the city of Pittsburgh, we got off at an exit that had a much-needed Home Depot. We were happy to find that there was a Cracker Barrel still open for dinner and a Red Roof Inn at that exit and we decided to call it a day.
We said goodbye to Jim whose determination to ‘power on’ was invaluable. Kip, Chris, and Erik set off, on 100% Poore Bros. oil, for the East Coast. Outside of Indianapolis we stopped at Subway for some delicious complimentary footlongs and got a new air filter for the bus.
Outside of Akron we got a hotel room from one of our sponsors, the Red Roof Inn, and Kip sweet-talked the woman at the desk into giving him an "unuseable" room that had no TV in it so that he wouldn’t have to hear Erik snoring.
Today was the City Museum gig in St. Louis. As we drove there we called a few TV news channels on our Cingular phones and KMOV sent a cameraman our way. We arrived to find a big portion of parking lot dedicated to us and we were greeted by Max and Kara who were both very helpful, engaging, and excited that we were there.
There was a nice sized area set up for us and we pulled out all the stops during our show-including Chris’s Tesla coil. It was also refreshing to have Kip on the scene. Though it was essentially a hallway and lunchtime, a good deal of the audience stayed ’till the end. After we were done inside, we gave rides on the hovercraft, shot some potatoes into orbit, and blew up a liquid nitrogen bottle in a tub of water out by the bus. A good-sized audience watched from all over the amazing 5 story high jungle-gym structure that adorns the courtyard in front of the museum.
After everything was packed up, the Physics Bus headed toward the Mississippi River where Chris went up into the Arch while Kip and Erik re-routed the veg system. Somehow, whatever we did fixed the veg system. Switching between veg and diesel was now unnoticeable, and we were finally running for free as was planned all along!
Today we kicked back and enjoyed ourselves at Erik’s mom’s house in Lake Saint Louis. We enjoyed swimming, boating, and shooting off Estes rockets. We united with Kip and enjoyed fireworks on the lake.
Erik was psyched that we were going to make the Kansas City gig for the Boys and Girls Club. As he drove, Erik experimented with the veg system and took lots of data. After a visit to "Science City" in Kansas, we headed for breakfast at Cracker Barrel. On the way, our aluminum sign suddenly caught air and a good deal of it ripped itself off the side of the bus. Chris and Erik flung their torso’s out the windows to save the whole thing from flying into the traffic behind us. Jim slowed down and we fastened it back on in no time with our cordless DeWalt tools.
At Cracker Barrel there was a police officer eyeing our bus as we came back into the parking lot. He said he had passed us a number of times and wanted to know what we were all about. We told him what we were doing and he was very friendly and supportive. He didn’t mention how dangerous it was to be driving 45mph on the highway during rush hour. He let us take some video of him arresting us. We thought it was funny until he actually arrested us. Apparently we broke the laws of physics.
The boys and girls club gig was great. The kids had great interest and positive energy. Making this gig was great for our morale-we were finally accomplishing our goal to spread the word that "science is cool."
We headed out of Kansas City at around 2:30 and by 7pm we were being greeted by our friends in St. Louis. We had a dip in the lake, a cold beer, and told stories about the trip until our eyelids grew heavy.
Somehow we motivated ourselves to get up when the alarm rang. We had a nice big meal at Cracker Barrel, made a stop for some plumbing fittings for the veg system and electrical connections for the air conditioner at Home Depot, then we headed up the huge mountain outside of Albuquerque at 15mph. To install the air conditioner, Erik was drilling and cutting metal with our new donated DeWalt tools over Jim’s head while he was driving–Jim was less than amused.
We made it all the way from Albuquerque to Kansas today. Jim finally turned over the wheel to Chris and Erik so he could take a nap. No reason to play hero. Erik jumped into the driver’s seat and quickly switched to veg. The bus quickly slowed to 35 mph on a perfectly flat road. Chris generously offered to take the wheel. ‘No reason to stop the bus.
While Chris was driving Jim slept and Erik entertained himself by attaching his camera to the end of a long extendable pole. We got some sweet video of ourselves traveling down the road in Oklahoma.
As evening approached, Jim took the wheel again and told Erik and Chris to go to sleep. When they woke up, it was 3:30am and we were only two hours from Kansas City.
We resisted the urge to sleep late. Luckily Jim was anxious to get behind the wheel, which Chris and Erik happily obliged. It didn’t take long to hear Jim cussing and swearing that we were only doing 20mph and trucks were coming up behind us. Our lane of choice quickly became the shoulder-this would continue all day. There were two stops in the desert to re-route the veg system and troubleshoot why the bus was moving so slowly-no luck.
We made it to Flagstaff by 3pm. We spoke to three diesel mechanics in Flagstaff and they told us some combination of: it’s July 4th weekend, we don’t work on buses that old, and we don’t work on buses that run on vegetable oil. We did the best we could with a stop at Auto Zone, mounted the new generator donated to us by Ferguson Plumbing on Kip and Johns welded frame so we could run the air conditioner, and we headed for Albuquerque.
We missed our oil pickup time of 5pm in Albuquerque, but there was still a chance to retrieve our donated meals from Cracker Barrel. Erik called ahead so that the manager would leave our meal passes under the trash can after they closed. After a stop at Cracker Barrel around 1am, we headed for the Red Roof Inn to catch ourselves a complimentary night’s stay. Jim and Chris enjoyed a dip in the hot tub before calling it a night, but Erik immediately crashed out on the floor so nobody would have to decide who would be sleeping with whom.
We woke up with new energy, but there was a lot to do to upgrade the onboard filtration system so that we could leave town. Kip was scheduled to fly to St. Louis today, where he would join the tour. Erik feared that without Kip’s expertise, the veg system would never be ready in time. Kip graciously postponed his flight.
John and Chris showed up ready to do whatever it took to get the show on the road.
All day long we worked on the system, and one thing after another made it fail: water in the oil, air leaks in the system, pumps that didn’t pump. These problems would often cause the bus to go into shock for a half hour during which it will only go 5mph max.
Meanwhile we frantically tried to reschedule dates that were already set up on our initial timeline. For one thing, we knew that our first oil donor en route, Poore Brothers in Goodyear, AZ, closed at 12 midnight and didn’t open again until July 5th. AAA rendering in Albuquerque, our next oil pickup, also needed us to get there before 5pm tomorrow or they could not give us oil.
We began testing the veg system by isolating one variable at a time. We put diesel in the baby tank, the final heating tank for the veg oil, and the engine consumed it without any problems. That told us that the plumbing was working. We then tried some new corn oil which passed through the baby tank system without any problems.
Once again we tried our supply of donated oil. Filtering it was difficult, as it resembled raw sewage with everything from napkins to carrots in it. And it smelled foul. Nevertheless we persevered with the filtering. Even so this oil still caused the engine the rattle and sputter. Something was not right. We were getting worried that we would not have any fuel to get us to Poore Bros. and stress was rising.
To add to the gloomy atmosphere, a lightning storm was forming. We determined the distance of each lightning strike by counting the seconds until the thunder propagated to us. The frightening climax of this storm was a bright strike of lightning that we saw reflected from the windows of the bus and the simultaneous thunder that cracked through the air. It was close. Too close for our nerves. Now there is a difference between knowing physics and trusting it. This was an example that tested our trust in physics. We know that the safest place to survive a lightning strike was in the bus because it acts like a Faraday cage. But, climbing into a large metal bus was daunting. Luckily, the storm subsided after a few sprinkles.
The engine took an hour to recover from the bad oil test by switching back to diesel and sputtering around the block. At one point the bus lost all power and was hardly idling. We rolled into a vacant mall parking lot and within minutes a mall security guard informed us that we needed to move. We tried to teach him some physics: A body at rest will stay at rest until acted upon by an outside force. Unfortunately, his bicycle and intimidation could not supply the necessary Newtons required to move the bus. After a few moments the bus regained some power. We thanked him for his help and sputtered back to Kip’s house.
Kip put the filtered oil in a glass which revealed a 50% water content. This was the cause of our long engine failure. We then sought out better oil at a nearby donut shop. The owner kindly gave us 5 gallons. His interest and wish of good luck were extremely uplifting at this point. This oil was much cleaner, and the glass test revealed no apparent water. We drove around the block and it seemed to work perfectly for several minutes, but then we started to lose power again.
For some reason, the engine takes a lot longer to switch back to diesel after a power loss than to switch into veg oil. Each failed test took a half hour or more to recover from the switch.
Bypass tests: We tried a series of bypass tests to determine if there was one part of the veg system causing malfunction. Each test failed and took us closer to our deadline. But canceling the trip was not an option. A decision was made to continue testing the system on the road.
Exhausted, with bloodshot eyes, we pulled out of Tucson at around 9pm. We began the longest journey to Phoenix one could imagine. We were worried during our tests that bicyclists would pass us. We reached the Poore Bros. factory before midnight. Jim Herman (Erik’s brother) was there waiting and chatting with workers. They loaded up 4 plastic 55 gallon barrels of oil with a forklift and kindly gave us 4 boxes of Poore Bros. and Boulder chips! We got three hours of sleep before leaving for Flagstaff in the morning.
This was to be the official departure day for the Physics Bus. This week we already had stories in the Tucson Citizen, the Daily Star, and today’s was in the Arizona Republic "if you see a blue bus headed through Phoenix smelling like french fries, that’s the Physics Bus." Unfortunately we were 100 miles from Phoenix and not going anywhere fast. The Bus was still at Williams Diesel getting repaired, and the donated wheels were still en route.
The waiting time was not idle though. A morning phone call to Colleen Crowninshield, the Tucson area Clean Cities Coalition representative, yielded a wealth of contact names and numbers of people who could help us acquire good oil in the middle of the country.
With a lot of the demos and exhibits loaded on the bus, and with everyone else working and running around Bruce still managed to pull off a Physics Bus show by himself at the U of A. from 11am to 1pm.
During a short lunch break Erik looked up "Physics Bus" in a news search and found 147 hits. Among articles in specialized magazines (Heating, Energy, Environment) there were TV news channels covering the story all around the country: St. Louis, MO, Shreveport, LA, Toledo, OH, Salt Lake City, UT, etc. At around 3:30pm we got the phone call that the Bus was ready. We went to pick it up, expecting a $400 bill, but the tag was $2300!!! And the beautiful aluminum rims were without tires. By this time there was only an hour left before every tire shop in Tucson was going to close for the day. Luckily one of the guys at the shop knew of a nearby tire place-they were willing to stay late to get the job done. Another $1500 and we were ready to roll…er…almost. We still needed oil.
We had received an offer to pick up a batch of unfiltered oil, and we headed out to pick it up. This was interesting as it required us to stick the hose in through the window into a barrel. The truck pumped this stuff at such an alarming rate that air was whistling out the tank. We feared a disastrous spill, and there was no time to share pleasantries when some friends spotted us while walking their dog.
As we’re mainly about physics and not about grease, the Physics Bus is only outfitted with a simple filtration system that will take out pepper, flour, cinnamon, etc. We weren’t equipped to deal with the mix we got-especially not at 10pm after an exhausting day.
After Tony took all kinds of sendoff pictures, we postponed departure until tomorrow.