05/22/2000 at 01:00 AM EDT
Some scientists use beakers and test tubes. Colorado State University physics professor Brian Jones stocks his lab with a 15-by-24-ft. inflatable pillow and ketchup packets. Once a week, Jones hits the road in his Little Shop of Physics van, bearing all this and, most important, the message that physics is fun. "Science is something anybody can do," says Jones, 40. "If I spread that idea, more people would do it."
Just ask 13-year-old Ben LaPierre. On a recent visit to LaPierre's Fort Collins junior high school, Jones instructed the teen to place his left hand on an electrified glass jar that simulates lightning and then pick up a lightbulb with his right. When he did, the energy passed through him and the bulb began to glow. So did Ben's face. "Awesome," he said.
The son of a Columbus, Ohio, minister and a teacher mom, Jones has loved physics since childhood. "I saw it could explain all sorts of things," he says. "I had the idea, 'Ah, that's why that happens.' " Since founding the Little Shop program in 1992, Jones, whose wife, Carol Davis, 43, is an artist, has visited some 15,000 kids a year and shared tricks with teachers around the country. He also hosts a cable-access show that teaches kids experiments to do at home, including the microwave-ready Marshmallow Masher, "a sort of volcano that gets goo everywhere," he says. "Parents get excited that kids come home and try something, though some say, 'You could have suggested a cleaner experiment.' "