When I’m asked at corporate meetings to tell “one interesting fact about myself”, I usually go with the “I was a state champion in Physics in 8th grade”.

I had a great physics teacher in elementary school, and it really came easy to me, so I was interested in all sorts of physics phenomena, from simple machines to electricity.

One of the most fascinating experiments is the Foucault’s Pendulum. It’s not much more than a simple pendulum, except that it is really, really long. The length of the oscillation makes the pendulum slowly change direction because it is affected not only by gravity but also the rotation of the Earth. The change in direction differs based on the location of the pendulum; for example, at each pole, the pendulum would return in the starting position after 24 hours. On the equator, the pendulum would not change direction at all!

Foucault's Pendulum

Foucault’s Pendulum

The photo is of the Foucault’s Pendulum inside Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, California. The exposure was half a second, so you can see how the pendulum’s bob traces across the pit.

Now that I used “pit” and the “pendulum” in the same sentence, I have to mention the literary references. Other than the obvious Edgar Allan Poe connection there, it’s worth mentioning that “Foucault’s Pendulum” by Umberto Eco was one of the books I read during the siege of Sarajevo, 1992-1995. I loved Eco’s “The Name of the Rose”, although I remember “Pendulum” to be a much different book. No less interesting, though, with its conspiracy theories and secret societies, and it definitely made quite a few winter afternoons go by quickly.

Final note about a pendulum goes back to a story told to me in class by a different physics teacher, this time in college. She said that she heard of a university professor who would use Foucault’s Pendulum to test the student’s faith in the laws of physics. First, he would have the student displace the pendulum from a resting position by some distance and ask the student to simply release it. Pendulum would swing across the room and then start hurtling back towards the student.

If the student took a step back in fear of impact, they would fail the test.

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