OGDEN -- The science was real, but the audience volunteer in the Wildcat purple shirt was an obvious plant.
Weber State President Chuck Wight was the surprise guest of the seventh annual Physics Open House -- and the star of the Circus of Physics. Professors placed him on a bed of nails, topped him with a wood panel embedded with nails, then sledgehammered a cement block they placed on top.
Wight survived, as did the professors' tenure.
"I was a little nervous," Wight confessed. "It didn't hurt. I knew my weight would be distributed over hundreds of nail points. I did feel the tiny points in my back, and the thump on my chest."
It was all for fun, as is everything at the annual physics event, which draws in science-lovers with faculty talks and families with the hands-on, physics-inspired activities and planetarium shows.
Several hundred enthusiasts had arrived within the first hour of the three-hour event.
Travis Clemens, of Roy, brought his three kids and some young neighbors.
"They love it," he said. "They've only made rockets so far because it was so hard to tear them away."
Clemens' son Boston, 7, hugged his homemade rocket close to his chest.
"I like to do magic tricks with science," Boston explained.
The Circus of Physics, starring department head Colin Inglefield and associate professor Adam Johnston, filled its giant lecture hall beyond capacity for two sessions.
The men, a science geek comedy team with perfect timing and a few imperfect experiments, kept the crowd cheering with each success and laughing at each setback.
Inglefield balanced a pingpong ball on the airstream from a blow dryer and dared Johnston to beat that. Johnston pulled out a beach ball and a leaf blower.
The two inflated soap bubbles and floated them on the gas from dry ice. They used flammable gas to inflate other soap bubbles, then lit the bubbles to create mini fireballs. They blew up balloons and put them in liquid nitrogen to shrink, then retrieved them to watch them re-expand.
They demonstrated momentum with a Newton's cradle, a device with a line of suspended spheres that, when a sphere is held out and released on one side, the center balls remain in place but a ball flies outward on the other side.
Then they did the same with their own "Newton's cradle," homemade out of six suspended sledgehammers.
An experiment with a moveable platform of metronomes, which were supposed to synchronize, then unsynchronize once stabilized, went a little wrong.
"Well, thank you all for coming," Johnston joked. "It worked at rehearsal."
Other "circus" acts included turning plastic pipe into a musical instrument and using an electrical current to transform a dill pickle into a temporary night light. The men warned watchers not to try lighting pickles at home.
"It's a tremendous event every year," Inglefield said between shows. "It's great to see how excited children get about science. Their eyes just light up. Science is a lot of fun, and we want to share that."
"It's totally fun," he said. "That's why we do it."
Madison Shreve, 12, of Ogden, was a little disappointed she didn't get chosen for the bed of nails.
"I volunteered," she said. "I knew that guy wouldn't get hurt. I don't think they would hurt someone in front of a bunch of kids."
Madison said she came for the circus but left with some new science knowledge.
"Before, I knew nothing. Now I know electricity can light up pickles -- and I want to learn more."
Mom Terresa Shreve said creating an interest in science is why she brought her daughters and her sister's family.
"It's a hands-on experience with physics, not just physics in a book," she said.
"They don't have to understand the laws behind everything they see at this point, they just have to learn to love science. If they love it now, when they are little, they will love it when they get big."
Contact reporter Nancy Van Valkenburg at 801-625-4275 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @S_ENancyVanV.