August 20, 2001|
VOL. 30, NO. 42
Time Out With...
By Greg Rienzi
APL's Marc Clayton, Groovy Science
Marc Clayton, a mechanical engineer in APL's
Aeronautical Science and Technology Department, has at least
one thing in common with Jeopardy's Alex Trebek: Come show
time, they both prefer that people respond with a
Since 1992, Clayton has brought to various Maryland
elementary schools an APL-sponsored show that is one part
education, two parts fun. In his one-man routine dubbed
"Marc's Groovy Science," the much-in-demand Clayton
demonstrates fundamental scientific phenomena using mostly
ordinary household objects. His intent is to engage the
imagination of his audience and bring a thrill to learning.
A fan of inquisitive minds, Clayton likes nothing better
than when hands shoot up after one of his experiments.
His first performance was at APL's 50th anniversary
celebration, held at the Lab's Kossiakoff Center. APL was
looking for acts to entertain at the family-oriented event,
and Clayton thought it a perfect opportunity to combine his
passions for performance and science. The show was a hit,
and from that point on, he was hooked.
In his APL guise, Clayton for the past 17 years has
been dealing with the operation and maintenance of the wind
tunnel at the Avery Advanced Technology Development
Laboratory. An enthusiastic, hands-on sort, Clayton talks
about the pumps and compressors he contends with the way a
young boy would talk about baseball cards and video
The Gazette recently sat down with the animated Clayton
to discuss his groovy show. The interview, not surprisingly,
turned into a quick science lesson that was as enjoyable as
it was informative.
Q. How did this performance side of you get
A. I would have these shows at the house. I would
invite around 75 people, and 10 to 15 of us would put on an
act. I would emcee all the acts. People would show up, and
they would sing or dance, juggle or tell jokes. It was such
a ball, and I had such a great time putting on my little
bits. I put so much energy into it.
Q. How long was that first show, at APL's 50th
anniversary event, and what did you do?
A. I did "The Sensational Science of Sound." That
kicked it off. It was a 45-minute show, and I did three
Q. What kind of shows were you giving in those early
A. I started off with sound effects. I'd say, Do you
think going to the dentist would be a bit more pleasant if
the drill didn't sound like [makes drill noise]? Then I
would show a picture, like a lion doing a roar, but with no
sound; then I put in the roar, and go, Hey, sound kind of
completes the picture, huh? Now that we have a sense for why
sound is kind of important, let's look at it. I had a toy
with a little speaker inside, and it would emit a sound. You
could throw it around the audience and hear the Doppler
effect. It is always very fundamental things with me.
Q. How do you begin each show?
A. It varies to keep it not boring for me. Typically,
if it's a large crowd and I have my sound system, the big
catch is I alter my voice. I'll have a high-pitched voice or
a deep, resonating, monster voice. Or echoes. Or I'll sound
like a demon. When an adult in front of elementary school
kids has a voice the sound of a fly, they just love it.
Q. No poof of smoke?
A. No. I'll say, Let's do something. You watch it,
and when we are done, tell me if you made a really
interesting observation, or if you have a question about
what you saw. Because to me science always starts with
observation and questions. I do things where the outcome
isn't what they expect.
Q. You use balloons, right?
A. You take a balloon, put it in a beaker and let the
blown balloon stand there. Then I take liquid nitrogen and
pour it over the balloon. The balloon will collapse, keep
collapsing, keep collapsing, until I stop pouring. Then I
take the balloon, put it in my hand, and it's a crinkled up,
crumpled mass. Then you hear it crinkle and it starts to
grow, starts to expand, expand, expand, all the way back to
its normal state. Any questions?
Q. What just happened?
A. It is a great exaggeration of a fundamental
principle: Cold molecules slow down; hot molecules get
energy and go faster. People think, Well, where did the air
go and how did it get back into the balloon? What makes you
think that the air went anywhere?
Q. These are never just tricks?
A. It's not magic. It's science. The only difference
between magic and science is, magic creates mystery by
hiding the truth--that is where the excitement is. Science,
on the other hand, actually finds discovering the truth
exciting. Every magic trick you see is nothing but
incredibly fundamental science with a few of the pieces
hidden to make it appear that it is something that it is
Q. What is a can't-miss experiment during your
A. I would have to say the favorite one that I always
save pretty much for the end is the boomer, an explosion.
You got to have your obligatory explosion.
Q. A boomer?
A. Classically, a potato gun. With the boomer, I use
a sponge. I talk about why I use a sponge vs. a potato, and
why I use propane instead of wet fuel. And then I shoot a
sponge across the assembly hall, and it lets out a really
nice bang. I mean NICE. So, I say, What is interesting about
that? Does anybody have any questions? Then we talk about
needing fuel, air and heat to get it going.
Q. Do you have a stage name?
A. Groovy Mark.
Q. Do you dress the part of a scientist?
A. I don't wear anything special because I've watched
people who do and it always in my eyes made it look like a
scientist is something different than they are. When I go on
stage I'm typically in jeans, usually black jeans and a
Q. So, no overcoat with the pens in the
A. No, because [the students] don't like that. When
they see someone who looks kinda normal--and you know I'm
not your normal-looking engineer--they're hopefully seeing
something that they wouldn't mind growing up to be. A lot of
young girls and guys, they are not interested in overcoats
and bow ties and pocket protectors. That is not the image it
should be. It should be somebody with enthusiasm and fun and
happy and likes what they do. You know, just casual.
Q. How many shows do you do?
A. I average one a week. Some schools I've been back
to every year since I've started. But when I see the
students again, I expect a little more out of them, and I
tell them, Don't tell the others what is going to happen.
Q. You are, in effect, representing APL when you do
your shows, correct?
A. Yes. But I started off doing these on my own, on
my free time. I would go to school on career days. Then I
started letting people know that I have an interest in doing
these sorts of things.
Q. And the Lab still sponsors you?
A. Yes. I get to borrow the Lab's van, and APL gives
me the liquid nitrogen, something you're not going to get
many places easily.
Q. Do your show experiments ever not go the way you
planned them to?
A. Sure, balloons pop, things drop, the boomer
misfires, and kids say the darndest things.
Q. How do the children typically respond to your
A. That is what has kept this going, because the
response is so incredible. Administrators and teachers
routinely come up to me and ask if I'm a teacher. I'm just
having a good time with science, doing some crazy stuff, and
they are engaged.
Q. How do you want children to respond?
A. Watch. Listen. Make an observation. Ask a
question. That's that.
Q. You sound like you have a lot of fun with these
A. I enjoy being with kids, much more than adults.
Kids under the age of 13 especially are much more at ease
about being free and cheerful, lighthearted and inquisitive.
I just enjoy being with them. I didn't enjoy being a kid as
much, because there were bullies. But now, they don't scare
Q. What aspect of nature or science just amazes
A. The way the ocean of air we live in works. The way
it pours from room to room. The way the hotter air floats to
the top, and the colder air floats to the bottom. When I see
a bird flying, or a kite flying or the trees bending, I'm
like, Wow. It just blows me away.
This is the third in an occasional series of informal
conversations with staff and faculty who do unique work or
have unusual outside interests. If you know someone you
think others in the Hopkins community would like to read
about, please write to Lois Perschetz, Gazette editor, at