Physics For All

Texas A&M University professor Dr. Tatiana Erukhimova engages every student that enters her classroom and makes physics fun with viral videos.

By Mamie Hertel ’24
Lead photo by Nick Cabrera

hen my brother and I were growing up, my parents always asked us the same question during dinner: What did you learn at school today? One evening, my brother replied that he had learned how to attach a string to ice cubes. As a little sister, it was my duty to respond, “Prove it.”

Moments later, I sat in disbelief and curiosity. With just a cup of ice water and some salt, he dangled ice cubes from a string. Surely there had to be super glue to make this feat possible. How else could it work? It’s taken me an embarrassing 15 years to uncover the method behind my brother’s “magic trick.” The answer? Physics. The way I solved this mystery? Through a social media video.

In less than 60 seconds, Dr. Tatiana Erukhimova, a physics professor at Texas A&M University, taught me that salt lowers the freezing point of water. When salt is added to ice water, some ice melts, and then the water freezes again, “attaching” the string to the ice. The professor’s video showed me the science behind the ice cube illusion. At long last, I could re-create the “magic” for myself, but this time I knew the science involved. And that’s Erukhimova’s mission: to demystify complex science topics and make physics fun for everyone.

Finding Her Physics Voice

The daughter of two physicists, Erukhimova’s passion for physics came naturally. After receiving a Ph.D. in the subject from the Russian Academy of Sciences in 1999, she left home for a research position in a different hemisphere at Texas A&M. Despite having no teaching experience, her research position evolved into teaching an upper-level atmospheric thermodynamics physics class. Three successful years into teaching juniors, she was tasked with capturing the attention of perhaps the toughest crowd known to man: 100 freshmen in an 8 a.m. introductory calculus-based physics class.

For most of these students, this was their first college class. “Who do you think these people expected to see as their physics instructor? Somebody Einstein-looking probably,” Erukhimova added with a laugh. “Then they saw me...and it did not go well. The class was a complete disaster.”

Erukhimova used this failure as a lesson to never walk into the first day of class without what she calls a “wow factor.” Today, her teaching style draws students in immediately. From pouring liquid nitrogen into a pot of boiling water to using a mallet and a potato to display the law of inertia, her eye-catching, interactive demonstrations bring lessons to life. “The demonstrations create an atmosphere of conversation with students rather than lecturing, which is what they expect from me as a professor,” she shared. “Students connect with it because it shows how physics applies in their everyday lives.”

Her demonstrations have captivated the attention of Aggie freshmen and the internet alike, with millions of people watching her across various social media platforms. One video of her explaining gyroscopes with a bicycle wheel garnered more than 83 million views. Despite the comment sections filled with praise for her creative teaching methods and people wishing Erukhimova were their professor, she sees the viral fame only as a means of involving more people in science. “People cannot learn much from the short videos, but they can get interested.”

The demonstrations create an atmosphere of conversation with students rather than lecturing... Students connect with it because it shows how physics applies in their everyday lives.
-Dr. Tatiana Erukhimova

Through Teaching

Defying physics norms with her clever experiments in the classroom and online, Erukhimova has also helped prove through her research that science is for everyone. In 2021, she and coworkers finished a study with a decade of data showing no evidence of men outperforming women in physics courses. This research extended to another study where she surveyed students who facilitated physics outreach programs and discovered a remarkable impact the experience of teaching others had on those students, in particular on female students. “Being the minority in physics, women can feel defined by gender stereotypes,” she said. “By facilitating physics, they felt inspired. They felt like they belonged.”

One of these outreach programs at Texas A&M is the annual Physics and Engineering Festival, which hosts more than 7,000 visitors annually. The festival was founded by Distinguished Professor Ed Fry in 2003, and Erukhimova has been organizing it since 2007. Hundreds of student, faculty and staff volunteers show more than 200 demonstrations to the public. Many of these demonstrations have been built by students affiliated with Discover, Explore and Enjoy Physics and Engineering (DEEP). Founded in 2012 by Erukhimova and Fry, DEEP allows students to research, design and fabricate science demonstration experiments to present at the festival, outreach programs and the Texas A&M University Physics Show, another program she developed.

Erukhimova’s extensive work with these programs earned her the Marsha L. ’69 and Ralph F. Schilling ’68 Chair for Physics Outreach, which is the first outreach chair in the College of Arts and Sciences. “The best way to understand something is to explain it,” she expressed. “It is one thing to answer physics questions on an exam, but it is quite another to explain physics concepts to both a 5-year-old and a 95-year-old watching your demonstration. You have to understand the principles deeply. These programs help students find their physics voice.”

Being the minority in physics, women can feel defined by gender stereotypes. By facilitating physics, they felt inspired. They felt like they belonged.
-Dr. Tatiana Erukhimova

A Formula For Life

Despite Erukhimova’s rise to internet fame, she doesn’t have social media herself. So, how did she find out her videos went viral? From the people she captivated long before her online followers: former students. As soon as her demonstrations gained traction online, Erukhimova’s inbox flooded with messages from Aggies as well as invitations to appear on “Good Morning America” and the “Jennifer Hudson Show.” These students, whom she said are “always her students and never former,” proudly spoke to the difference her lessons had made in their lives.

One student, however, stepped into her office instead of her inbox to express his gratitude. The day before graduation, the student returned to his freshman physics professor with a Naval medallion for the instructor who had inspired him most, a tradition for people signing a contract with the Navy. He told her that before her class, science felt like memorizing formulas. But thanks to her, he understood the how and why behind physics that made it so alluring. "Hearing that meant the world to me. I always hope students learn how to approach problems and present solutions logically,” she shared. “It’s not just for physics class. It’s for life.”

The medallion sits alongside Erukhimova’s Presidential Professor for Teaching Excellence Award, the top recognition a professor can receive for classroom performance at Texas A&M. To her, their value is equal. “What really matters is how many of my students will remember my lessons not only four years later like him but also 20, 30, 40 years later.”

For me, Erukhimova explained how my brother made magic with salt, ice cubes and string. For millions of followers and fans, she evokes the same awe and wonder with just a few everyday objects. And for her students, she leaves a lasting impression and lifelong lessons. But most importantly, she makes each of us feel like physics can be for all of us. “I want to help people feel a sense of belonging in science,” she shared. “Physics is for everyone.”

I want to help people feel a sense of belonging in science. Physics is for everyone.
-Dr. Tatiana Erukhimova

Pulling Strings

You can try this classic at-home physics experiment with just a glass of water, ice, salt, and some string!

Add ice cubes to a glass of water.

Grab a piece of string and salt.

Place the string on top of the ice cubes.

Sprinkle salt on the string.

Wait 20-30 seconds.
The salt is lowering the freezing point of the water. Some ice melts, and then water refreezes.

Take the string out and see how the ice has fused to it!

Make An Impact

You can help Erukhimova and Aggies share the fun of physics with people of all ages through a gift to the Physics and Engineering Festival.