DeKALB – All Jerry Zimmerman needs to make a ball fly sky high is a little liquid nitrogen.
Zimmerman, also known by his stage name “Mr. Freeze,” had students from St. Mary Catholic School in DeKalb gathered outside to watch him shoot a ball more than 250 feet high with his “cryo cannon.” Stored in the cannon was bottled water pressurized by boiling liquid nitrogen. After about 15 seconds, the bottle exploded and sent the ball sitting on top hurtling across the air before it landed atop the school’s roof.
Dazzling science experiments and humor is one of the ways Zimmerman, who works for Fermilab in Batavia, gets middle school audiences to appreciate science.
“In a year or so, they will be choosing science when they go to high school,” he said. “... If the science is boring, they’re not going to be choosing it.”
More than 60 students watched as Zimmerman used liquid nitrogen to make rubber gloves glassy and aluminum cans crumpled.
It was his third time at the school, after being invited about five years ago when Kristen Alger met him at the Illinois Junior Academy of Science Fair competition. Alger, a science and math teacher at the school, said he mentioned he did demonstrations for schools at no cost.
Zimmerman has been doing cryogenic demonstrations for 22 years, and has been Mr. Freeze of Fermilab since 1997. Fermilab has been sponsoring Mr. Freeze demonstrations since the 1970s.
Alger said demonstrations such as Zimmerman’s help students see the application of scientific concepts.
“Sometimes it’s abstract,” Alger said about science. “This is something ... they can’t see unless he comes here and shows it to them.”
Alger uses hands-on methods to teach science in her classroom; she said students of middle-school age enjoy learning that way.
Zimmerman gave the group of students more than something they could touch. He gave them marshmallows dipped in liquid nitrogen they could eat. The marshmallows become hard and crunchy when exposed to the substance, he said.
Throughout his demonstration, Zimmerman taught the students basic facts about liquid nitrogen and the safety issues associated with it. Usually occurring in nature as a gas, nitrogen exists as a liquid at minus-320 degrees. Zimmerman has another way of telling students how cold it is.
“It’s so cold,” he said, “it makes a snowman shiver.”