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Mr. Magnet to end his traveling roadshows

Mr. Magnet, a.k.a. Paul Thomas (right), oversees a plasma demonstration with Melissa Hornstein and Ken Marr.
Mr. Magnet, a.k.a. Paul Thomas (right), oversees a plasma demonstration with Melissa Hornstein and Ken Marr.
Photo / Paul Rivenberg

After 17 years, 150,000 miles, and more than 1,100 school visits, MIT's Mr. Magnet is taking his show off the road.

For almost two decades, Paul Thomas, a technical supervisor at MIT's Plasma Science and Fusion Center, has brought his truckload of magnetic demonstrations to area schools to excite students about science. Under Mr. Magnet's guidance, students have experienced the pull of scientific experimentation, whether using an electromagnet to create a wreath of colorful paperclips, heating and cooling a nugget of gadolinium to change its magnetic property, or deflecting glowing plasmas with a dipole magnet.

When Thomas began visiting schools in 1992, he simply borrowed the center's blue van. But as his demonstrations increased in number and size, he needed larger vehicles. At the height of the program, Mr. Magnet was transporting more than 6,000 pounds of equipment in a white cargo-styled truck, purchased for him by MIT. Although he has focused on schools in eastern New England, his truck has traveled as far as New Orleans, and he has made yearly appearances at the U.S. Department of Energy National Science Bowl in Washington.

In 1995, MIT President Charles Vest wrote to Thomas, "Outreach programs like yours are invaluable, and I'm sure there are more than a few youngsters out there who may prowl the halls of MIT because of their experiences with Mr. Magnet." In fact, Thomas has met several students at MIT who remember his visits to their schools. This is not surprising considering that Mr. Magnet has visited almost half a million students over 17 years.

The decision to leave the road was made when recurring knee problems, and subsequent surgery, raised concerns about Thomas regularly moving so much heavy equipment in and out of a truck. Thomas says he will miss the unique experience each school presented, particularly working with the special needs students. "In one school, I asked a young girl, Katherine, to assist me, along with some of her classmates. She carried out all my instructions, pushing buttons and performing a real experiment with an electromagnet. After the presentation was over her teacher came up to me to say she was amazed at what I was able to do. She told me 'Katherine is severely autistic, and just does not participate like that. You were able to get her up there doing what all the other kids do.'"

Although the show will no longer travel, Thomas is not giving up his nickname. He will continue to be Mr. Magnet for education events at the Plasma Science and Fusion Center, and for special occasions, like the annual Plasma Sciences Expo at the American Physical Society - Division of Plasma Physics Meeting.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on April 8, 2009 (download PDF).

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