Fermi’s annual ‘Wonders’ makes science fun

George Popovich and his 10-year-old son, Andy, stood on the stage of Ramsey Auditorium at Fermilab Sunday, holding a long fluorescent light bulb and looking afraid.

Lee Marek, a retired high school science teacher, was in the middle of a demonstration about Tesla coils at the national laboratory’s 24th annual Wonders of Science event in Batavia — the Popoviches, of Palatine, were audience volunteers.

“This is like rubbing your feet across the rug for 5,000 miles and then touching a light switch,” Marek said about the Tesla coil.

Marek jokingly warned the father and son not to let go or face bodily harm. Then he flipped the switch on the coil, lighting the bulb without even touching it.

An audience of at least 600 people, mostly age 7-12, erupted in cheers. The Popoviches returned to their seats, grateful to be all in one piece.

It was just one of many science experiments Marek and co-presenters Karl Craddock and Jim Effinger demonstrated for the audience in their one-hour show dedicated to light.

Andy Popovich, who said he wants to be a scientist when he grows up, liked a demo with smoke rings the best. Craddock showed how light from a laser is dispersed in smoke or dust.

The presentation also included bits about shadows, phosphorescence and the fourth stage of matter — plasma.

The plasma piece was the “Do not try this at home” segment of the performance, as Craddock started a fire in the onstage microwave.

Spencer Pasero, the education program leader at Fermilab, said he keeps organizing the Wonders of Science event because it’s fun, and the science teachers manage to sneak in a lesson along the way, too.

“It’s not just blow something up, move on to the next thing,” Pasero said. “They explain things.”

Bill Shoener of North Aurora, 9, came to the show two years ago when the theme was magnetism. He said the explosions are always his favorite.

Like Andy Popovich and many of the children in attendance, Shoener wants to be a scientist one day.

To help the kids on their way, each family in the audience got a kit with instructions for light- and color-themed experiments.

Fermilab’s next family event will be an outdoor family fair June 12. For more information visit

  Lee Marek of the University of Illinois at Chicago creates a blinding white light for the crowd as he burns magnesium surrounded by dry ice. Christopher Hankins/
  Retired Naperville North science teacher Jim Effinger shows Kyle Hoske, 8, of St. Charles how his shadow changes colors when different colored lights are aimed at him. Christopher Hankins/