by Paula Huff, photos by Terry Newfarmer

In Zigmund "Ziggy" Peacock's office, five bowling balls hang from the ceiling. A 25-foot gun is chained to the rafters. On the bulletin board, "Tinker Toys" tops a grocery list of things to buy.

Peacock's work motto explains this zaniness: "A picture is worth a thousand words, but demonstrations have greater impact."

Peacock ex'78 is the lecture lab demonstration specialist for the University of Utah Department of Physics. In 20 years he has assembled nearly 400 demonstrations to help visually explain to college students how the natural world works.

His explanations reach far beyond the University crowd, though. He adapts the demonstrations of physical phenomena for younger audiences as well. Every year nearly 4,000 elementary students watch Peacock lie on a bed of nails, send pie plates whirling through the air with a static electricity generator, or make shaving cream mysteriously increase in size.

And the kids love it.

Peacock was born in Southport, Lancashire, England; his mother was English while his father was a Polish immigrant who, along with his brother, narrowly escaped the Nazi grip. All of their other family members died.

When Zigmund was three, his father was killed in a shipping accident. His mother began work as a genealogist who could read Latin, an unusual yet useful skill in England where many official notes are recorded in the almost-forgotten language. She eventually remarried.

By age 11, students in the English school system are sorted: this group will attend college, and this group will not. Peacock was classified as a person who worked well with his hands, and was not college bound. He graduated at age 15 and began mending car bodies.

"When my stepfather injured his back, we were told to go to a dry climate—Salt Lake City or Australia," Peacock recalls. "We had everything lined up to go to Australia. Some [Salt Lake City] people my mother had done genealogical research for said, 'There's no sense in you going to Australia. You don't know anyone.'"

So at age 23, Peacock, his mother, and stepfather settled into their Salt Lake City home. Repairing office equipment was Peacock's first job. Then he began dreaming of a college degree. Six years later he was accepted to the University of Utah.

Originally a pre-med major, Peacock soon discovered physics. "Then a good friend of mine interviewed for the physics lab demonstration specialist job," Peacock recalls. "He told me, 'The perfect job for you is at the University of Utah right now.'"

Peacock got the job. Twenty years later, he still makes a living building physics demonstrations.

It is an ideal job for Peacock, a compulsive tinkerer. Any day of the week a glance around his office reveals his jack-of-all-trades skills: a disassembled motor, a piece of pottery he turned, and a new wooden bench for tying flies—a favorite hobby.

"I fish a lot," he says. "Weekly. Year-round. Yuppies don't fish as much in the winter, therefore it is easier to get on a river. I travel to fish, and I stay close to home."

Physics Professor Syd Rudolph PhD'86 says Peacock is an angler "without peer" at the University of Utah. "Someone can ask any question about any fishing hole any time of the year any place in Utah, and Zig will have something to say about it," Rudolph says. "If you can't find Zig for longer than two hours, he is probably fishing."

When not occupied by angling, Peacock runs rivers, back-country skis, and fancies himself a good cook. He brews a memorable spaghetti sauce by adding sauteed vegetables to seasoned tomato sauce. The ingredients are then poured into a Dutch oven and placed in a low-temperature oven where they simmer all night. But it is his physics concoctions that stick in people's minds.

During a recent demonstration for Salt Lake School District elementary students, Peacock asked, "What do you know about physics?" Some scratched their heads. Others reeled off Sir Isaac Newton's laws of motion:

  • A body at rest tends to remain at rest.
  • For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.
  • The speed of an object is directly related to the amount of force applied and inversely related to the mass of the object.

In his unassuming style, Peacock grabs a hammer and gazes intently at a stack of blocks. He hits the bottom block. It flies across the room. The remaining blocks drop to the table in a neat stack.

"A body at rest tends to remain at rest," Peacock says. "It's the old tablecloth trick."

Peacock then hops onto the demonstration table and shoots a stuffed animal with an oversized wooden bullet loaded in a 25-foot gun.

"What happened?" he asks the students.

The gun moved in the opposite direction of the bullet, the students yell. The bullet stikes an animal readily identified as Cosmo the Cougar—wearing a blue "00" —in the chest. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. When the cat and bullet fall, witnesses see that regardless of weight, gravity causes two objects to fall at the same rate.

To show that molecules reduce in size when cold, Peacock pours liquid nitrogen over an inflated balloon. The balloon collapses from the frigid temperature, then revives as it warms. "That's kind of cool, but just not cool enough," Peacock says.

So he sprays shaving cream on a platform, then covers it with a bell jar. Using a vacuum, he sucks out the air. The shaving cream begins to grow as the students 'oooh.'

"Ziggy has the ability to convey the concept visually so kids get it," says Sydney McDonald MED'76 BA'78, a Salt Lake School District gifted students teacher. "He gets kids excited about hard-core subjects. He ignites their young minds. He gets them to go further."

For 14 years Peacock has given a similar demonstration at the University of Utah Alumni Family Day. His reputation precedes him, so parents and children all anticipate his show, says Bill Coen BS'83, director of alumni relations.

"Ziggy is fascinating. He is intriguing," Coen continues. "He gets people's attention with the antics he pulls. He always has the youngest children participate in his program. And somehow, he explains to them and their parents exactly what happens."

Peacock also can be a trickster, according to physics professor Rudolph. He has been known to pour liquid nitrogen under a classroom door while a class is in session, which hisses, pops, and smokes. Occasionally, he fires the cannon in his office, which reverberates and shakes classroom doors.

"He does it just to get a rise out of people," Rudolph says. "Zig is very entertaining, and physics demonstrations are a real passion of his."

– Paula Huff is a technical writer for the College of Science.

University of Utah Home Page - Alumni Association Home Page

Copyright 1999 by The University of Utah Alumni Association