Stephen Colbert Meets Quantum Levitation - Courtesy of Ithaca College
ITHACA, NY — What do you get when you cross an Ithaca College experiment in quantum levitation with Comedy Central? In the case of the “Colbert Report,” you get a cup of ice cream suspended in mid-air.
Associate Professor of Physics Matthew C. Sullivan was featured on the November 9 episode of the show, helping host Stephen Colbert demonstrate why his Ben & Jerry’s ice cream flavor — Americone Dream — is “the ice cream of the future.”
Using principles studied in Sullivan’s Low Temperature Lab in the Department of Physics, Colbert sent a cup of his ice cream back and forth on a section of track, levitating off the surface through a combination of superconducting materials and permanent magnets. The segment concluded with the cup spinning around a figure eight race track.
Just how did the “Colbert Report” come to get Sullivan to turn his research into a television bit? The website for Sullivan’s lab features videos of a superconducting puck racing around a magnetic track. After recently being highlighted in a blog post about quantum levitation, the video went viral and began getting over 3,000 views a day.
Colbert is no stranger to wacky stunts, from shaving his head to starting his own political action committee, so levitating ice cream was right up the show’s alley. All they needed was the scientist to make it work.
“I got a call from a producer saying the ‘Colbert Report’ was interested in our levitation video and wondering if it could be re-created for television,” said Sullivan. “It took awhile before he even told me what their idea was.”
On short notice, Sullivan and three of his students — senior Andrew Hope and juniors Jodi McLean and James Munro — worked to create the desired effects for the show. Sullivan, Hope and McLean then traveled with their equipment to New York City, where they spent a long day with the producers in the studio, trying out different concepts until they got one that would work. A 5 p.m. rehearsal was followed by more revisions, with the taping taking place at 8 p.m.
“Getting the ice cream to levitate was not an easy task,” said Sullivan. “We attached the superconducting material to the bottom of the cup, and it took a lot of practice to make it travel on the track without tipping over. It was also difficult because the superconductor has to be cooled to minus 300 degrees Fahrenheit — which we did using liquid nitrogen — so the ice cream is quite hot compared to the superconductor and warms the superconductor up rather quickly. “
Sullivan is grateful for the exposure the show has given to the college and his research, but he doesn’t see it as launching a new television career for himself, á la Bill Nye the Science Guy.
“It was certainly an interesting experience I would recommend everyone try it once, but it was pretty stressful. I couldn’t imagine going through what we went through five days a week.”
To read more about Sullivan’s work with low-temperature physics and see more cool videos, visit https://faculty.ithaca.edu/mcsullivan/research/.
LATE BREAKING UPDATE!
The ice cream war between Stephen Colbert and fellow television host Jimmy Fallon is heating up, with Ithaca College caught in the middle. Here is how it went down on Fallon's Nov. 14 show (http://t.co/rQIUaHHE).