Scientist on a Mission: Kurtis Baute and the Foucault Pendulum

In the last year, Kurtis Baute has spent 14 hours in a homemade biodome, run a marathon to demonstrate the timeline of human history, gone 24 hours without touching plastic, and measured the size of the Earth with two sticks and a bike. All in the name of science. The Vancouver-based educator has a zeal for the scientific method and a burning desire to make the principles he loves relatable.
 
Enter YouTube. After years of uploading science videos for fun, Kurtis quit his job and became a YouTuber full time. It was a gamble. He had 256 subscribers on his channel at the time and no guarantee that the world wanted more content from a former grade-school science teacher. Then a couple of his videos of science experiments and demonstrations went viral, getting picked up by news outlets including BBC and CBC News, and eventually—like a papier-mache volcano at a seventh-grade science fair—Kurtis’ channel exploded. In March, one of his videos hit a million views, and at last count, his subscribers numbered more than 100,000.
 
For his latest project, Kurtis honed in on the Foucault pendulum in Harned Hall. He camped out there for 28 hours straight to make a time-lapse video that showed the entire rotation of the Earth. We chatted the morning the video, Watch the World Turn, went live.

Q: I love the line in your Twitter profile that says you “make science videos for a world that desperately needs them.” How did this become your life?
A: Honestly, I wake up most mornings and ask myself that. When I was in high school, I actually hated science. I thought it was really dry and boring and had no purpose in my life. In university, I discovered that it was a way of thinking and a way of seeing the world, and when I tapped into that, it fundamentally changed my perspective. It gave my life a new level of meaning. So I’ve been spending the last five or six years trying to share that with people.

Q: Let’s talk about the Foucault pendulum. Why is it a big deal?
A: It is a remarkably elegant way of showing something that people normally can’t see. The Earth takes a really long time to rotate and, you know, it’s really big, and since it’s a constant speed, we don’t feel it, and all these things aren’t intuitive to people. But the Foucault pendulum shows the world rotating. Most people will see it and not really understand the gravity of the experiment.

Q: Why did you select Puget Sound’s pendulum for your video?
A: You have a remarkably beautiful pendulum. Obviously, the building’s been built with that in mind, but on top of that, the floor pattern beneath the pendulum just looks spectacular. I was also looking for one that was as far north as possible because I knew I wanted to spend a whole pendulum day filming it. I wanted to watch the pendulum go around a complete circle, and I didn’t want to do that near the Equator because it would take, you know, hundreds of hours.

Q: Take me through your time on campus. What was your plan of attack?
A: I came in on Thursday, set up my equipment, and wired it in so that the swing of the pendulum would trigger my cameras. And then I did some trial runs and made sure everything worked. Then I came back on Friday and started in the morning, and just kept going until it was over.

Kurtis plugged his camera equipment into the pendulum's wiring to time his photos precisely.
Kurtis plugged his camera equipment into the pendulum's wiring to time his photos precisely.

Q: You plugged into the wiring of the pendulum to time your camera?
A: Right. When I first came up with this idea, I thought I could just use a timer. I set up my camera, but it took thousands of photos, over 5,000. With that many photos over that period of time, if the timer was off by even just a fraction of a millisecond, it would slowly drift and then lose synchrony. It would look like chaos. The solution to that is to use the sensor built into the pendulum. Foucault pendulums like yours on display usually have an electromagnet at the bottom that senses when the pendulum is above it. That sensor triggers another magnet at the top of the pendulum, and that gives it just a little bit of a push. It doesn’t change the direction, but it keeps it going. That way, the pendulum can swing forever. So I wired into that sensor and used it to trigger my cameras, and that’s how all of this was possible.

Q: You’ve said that this project took math, engineering, physics, effort, time, patience, and precision—a lot of work! Why do it?
A: My whole goal is to inspire people [by illustrating] the scientific method and the fact that the universe is incredible. I think we’re in a weird place where people distrust science at an alarming rate, and I want to combat that with, you know, fun science experiments.

Q: How did you survive for 28 hours in Harned Hall?
A: I brought a sleeping bag and a sleeping mat, and a bunch of prepared food and chili, and, you know, camped out. That was the easy part for me.

Q: You must have encountered students and others. Did anybody talk to you?
A: Definitely. I mean, I think when someone passes someone lying down on the pendulum platform holding a sign and smiling at a camera that’s two stories up, they get a little curious. I had a lot of wonderful conversations and questions. One, in particular, stands out. A young man, he wasn’t in high school yet, I don’t think, apparently he comes to the university regularly just to look at the pendulum. He was really, really fascinated by the physics of it, which was amazing. He had so many questions, and he was so excited to see the electronics beneath the pendulum. He showed me videos of some of the pendulums that he had built for science classes in the past, and was all excited because he finally had someone who is really excited to talk about pendulums with.

Q: Do you still consider yourself a teacher?
A: I kind of puzzle over what my job title is most days, if I’m a YouTuber or an educator or a filmmaker or an artist or a scientist. But at the end of the day, that is the goal, to teach people things, and I try to do that as collaboratively as possible.

 

By Sarah Stall
Published March 29, 2019
Photos by Sy Bean