Thirty Days of Making: Foucault’s Pendulum

I’m in Day 28 of a short series: Thirty Days of Making. Every day for the next thirty days, I intend to make something, anything, that is in some way connected to school. There won’t always be pictures, and I reserve the right to credit myself for things that I help my kids make. But I’ve decided that I need thirty days of maker success and maker failure under my belt to be a better designer.

I’ve decided that artwork counts, but not writing (unless it’s part of the art, like calligraphy). Digital work counts, but it has to be useful or publishable.

Some days there will be pictures, some days there won’t be. Each blog entry will contain a list of some of the materials and tools, a quick review of the success or failure of the Making, and a reflection on what I think I learned from the endeavor. (My friend Alicia is beginning a new series along these lines, 12 weeks of the Artist’s Way — I wish her well in her process, go check her out!).  Also, there was a technical glitch with Day 24, which is now posted.

Reason for the Project:

Four boys, all at the end of their current after-school cycle, and at the end of their current project.  Gotta get them involved in something new, pretty darned quick.  Didn’t know what.  So we built this, which I’d been wanting to build for a while, anyway.

Process and Results:

Thirty Days of Making: Foucault's pendulum
the pendulum is swinging too fast for the camera: it’s the blur at about 3 o’clock on the masking tape floor-swath…

It’s Foucault’s pendulum, or a reasonable facsimile thereof. It works, sorta.  Earlier this year, a former parent and trustee mounted a gallery show in the Design Lab of student photography from his photography class.  I left one of the eyebolts installed in the ceiling from the truss system he’d hung to support the photographs.

And I wasn’t sure what to do with it until a parent brought me a copy of Umberto Eco’s enormous, if not quite enormously-popular, book.  And then it became clear: the eyebolt would be home to a Foucault’s pendulum, if only for a while.

This one doesn’t quite work as well as I’d like it too.  It’s very hard to get a pendulum to swing at the necessary distance for a long enough period of time to knock all the dominoes down. After an hour of fussing, we moved the circle of ‘dominoes’ (which are really just hand-sawn planks turned on their sides to stand up).

The string is tied with two bowlines from earlier in the MakerLab cycle — one to the weight at the end of the pendulum, and the other to the eyebolt above.  It’s sure to come down sooner or later; I probably should use fishing line and some swivel bolts in version 2.0 of this design.

I had to use a ladder to install the pendulum on the eyebolt, too.  Which meant that for a little while, kids were using the latter in ways that were… well. Not ideal.

I was planning on working on a different project today, too, which I may post during the “rejects” portion of this Thirty Days of Making series.  As a result of leaving it out, though, it’s not assembled in quite the way that I would have liked….

Anyway.  For a bit of a last-minute project, this one didn’t turn out too badly.

Reflection on My Learning

Thirty Days of Making: Foucault's pendulum
The original 18″ from center proved to be too wide for the ‘dominoes’, which had to be moved closer in.

We set the thing in motion in order to see if we could get it to work. Kids, of course, being kids, set the thing off from about eight feet up in the air, which wound up denting the wall with the lead pendulum weight.

Five or six feet up was no less scary and difficult, but we did manage to knock a few dominoes over.  After a while, though, the pendulum lost most of its momentum and wound up orbiting in a small circle inside the circle of dominoes, apparently no threat to any of them.

My colleague Dan says that it’s very important to install a swivel bolt on the cable, so that it will swing freely in all directions. Otherwise, it tends to move in the same line with the eyebolt to which it’s attached.  Huh.  I wouldn’t have thought of that.  I wouldn’t have thought that Foucault would have thought of that, either.  Just shows what you learn when you start making famous physics toys.  I mean, experiments.

Reflections on General Learning

I wish that this had been set up during the conference. The people who had been bored with the biology and American history exercises could have fussed with this, and maybe gotten it to work.  That would have been awesome.

A side effect of this, though, was that a couple of kids were working the saws, cutting up small bits of wood to make the ‘dominoes’.  Putting sharp tools into kids’ hands is always a jarring experience for me, especially when I show them how to use the tool and then walk away.  But so far, they’re standing up to my expectations of them around such things, and making me really proud.  Eventually I’m going to want them to handle soldering irons and more serious tools in the lab…  I can’t do that if I can’t walk away from them in an emergency, or even in the ordinary course of work.  So this is an important first step in creating that level of trust and community in the lab.  That trust is threatened, potentially, everytime a new person joins the lab’s community and then goofs around — and we have a new cycle of after-school kids starting in two Mondays.  So setting up expectations and guidelines around sharp tools was one of my goals today.  I think I succeeded.


Two of five stars. Not as good as I wanted, but a bit better than I expected.  A version 2.0 may be along shortly.

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