Beth Murphy '88

 

electric works

%1032%right%Before she started working at the Bakken Library and Museum of Electricity and Life in Minneapolis, Beth Murphy '88 didn't have much appreciation for the link between electricity and life. But, after all, with heart, brain and nerves all electrically powered, life simply wouldn't be possible without that electrical charge.

Murphy, who majored in physics at Colby and went on to earn a Ph.D. at the University of Rochester and to teach at Gustavus Adolphus and Carthage colleges and Hamline University, didn't initially see how tightly those physics principles were woven into her daily life. Take, for example, static electricity,one of the ways electricity and magnetism interact. Come to find out, it's more than just a winter clothing issue.

"Static electricity was hard for me to get excited about," said Murphy. When she studied static electricity in school, conditions were temperamental, she said, and even when conditions were right and results were predictable, Murphy didn't always see the point. "A lot of time," she said, "the experiments didn't seem very relevant."

But in 1999 she became the director of education and exhibits at the Bakken, and since then she has developed a new enthusiasm for static electricity and other things electrical. Did you know, she asked, that the ancient Greeks first discovered static electricity by noticing that lint clung to rubbed amber? That every time you use a photocopier you're using static electricity to attract the toner to the paper?

Murphy rattles off these facts and seems almost as excited as Ben Franklin must have been when he quit his printing job to spend more time tinkering with static electricity, making electric bells, carousels, wands, and even a tiny working cannon, all of which were recently on display at the museum. Sometimes she might even get as excited as her Colby professor, the late Roger Metz, who first showed her the magic of physics.

"Whenever he solved a physics problem," Murphy said, "he always looked like the kid who got the truck he always wanted for Christmas. There was a sparkle in his eye and this piece of hair that always stuck up in back. He was so happy and excited about what he was talking about, and that really rubbed off on me."

Now she gets to pass that same feeling along to the kids who come to the Bakken for workshops and science camps. Some who have gone through Murphy's programs have already embarked on careers in science. And that's just what Earl Bakken had in mind when he bought this house and filled it with the old electrical devices he'd been collecting.

Bakken was an electrical engineer who went from fixing broken medical devices in his garage to building the first-ever portable (i.e., cordless) pacemaker and founding the medical device
giant Medtronic.

Now his old curiosities are housed in an expanded 15-room Tudor mansion on Lake Calhoun in Minneapolis, where kids can come and play the theremin (source of the strange sounds in the Beach Boys "Good Vibrations"), look at magnetic hairbrushes and socks of yesteryear, and watch electric eels swim by, looking for something to shock.

It's not exactly where Murphy thought she'd find herself when she showed up in Waterville, ready to dive into math or business or accounting. Those plans were something Metz changed.

"I did well in physics," Murphy remembered, "and he convinced me I should take a second semester. Then he talked to me about majoring in physics, and I said to him, 'Well, I don't want to be a physicist.' He said, 'You don't have to be. You can major in physics and be anything you want. Physics will teach you how to think.'

"And I bought it."

,Frank Bures