BRISTOL — “Fire at will!” shouted Mount Abraham Union High School physics teacher Tom Tailer, raising his air horn high above his head and sounding the start of the war games with a loud blast.
Decked out in a cap and vest, the cuffs of his pants tucked into his boots, Tailer looked the part of the army commander he played last Thursday. At his signal, the battlefield outside of the Bristol high school erupted into a melee.
The sophomore, junior and senior students-turned-warriors wore a hodgepodge of eye and head safety equipment, ranging from motocross helmets to hockey masks and ski goggles to fencing hoods. A few of the more ambitious warmongers arrived decked out in full camouflage. One scrambled across the battlefield wielding a huge American flag.
And all the while, tennis balls pinged through the air, launched by massive slingshots and cannons fashioned from PVC piping.
“Incoming!” cried one student, as a particularly deft slingshot warrior fired off a volley of ammunition.
Altogether between 85 and 90 students took to the field on Thursday for Tailer’s 25th annual “physics wars,” an educational exercise that is part science lab, part crash course in global conflict.
In many ways, Tailer said, the history of physics is the history of the arms race. Before Galileo’s time, artillery was an art, not a science. While the lab work these students do is made up of complicated mathematical models, they’re also confronting questions about ethics along the way.
Science has a context, Tailer said. And with so many people on the planet now making improvised explosive devices or weapons of mass destruction, that context can be a devastating one.
“If we’re going to teach the physics of projectile motion, we want students to look at the global implications of that,” he said.
So, enter the physics wars. The wars are an all-day event, and far more complicated than the fog of war might first suggest. First, students spend weeks studying the physics of their weaponry and projectile motion in what Tailer said is one of the most complicated lab assignments students at the high school will face.
Then, they construct their weapons and head to battle. Each team is assigned a country, with a set number of natural resources, military power and population. When the war simulation gets under way, alliances form and break. Treaties are written. Some countries head to the forefront as aggressors, and others lay low.
During the lunch break, senior Christian Wilson dashed over to consult with Tailer. Wilson was representing Afghanistan in the maneuvers. The two hashed out ideas for flanking maneuvers and mobile warfare, and then Wilson hurried off to prepare for the next round of attacks.
The morning’s simulation had seen a few catastrophic events. The population of the United States was wiped out, Tailer deadpanned, and the country’s food resources destroyed. Argentina, Brazil and Colombia had united, and South America had pummeled its neighbors to the north. By the end of the morning, half of the world’s resources had been annihilated.
“Resources” are translated into “teenager-speak,” according to Tailer: Mountain Dew, pizza, and candy. Of course, the unluckier countries have none of that; teams like the country of Chad are saddled with famine. If other aggressors move after those teams, there are unfortunate consequences.
“It’s never a good idea to attack a starving nation, after all,” Tailer said.
Not every student plays a warrior, of course. On Thursday, a gaggle of girls — mostly seniors — took on the roles of pacifists. They scrambled around the edges of the battlefield, snatching up loose tennis balls in their disarmament efforts. They’d defaced some of the other students’ weapons with peace signs and statements about love.
That riled up some of the soldiers, the girls admitted. After the lunch break, junior Isaac Prescott, representing China in the simulation, scrubbed at the barrel of his PVC cannon, trying to wash off the “LOVE” graffiti left by well-meaning pacifists.
The pacifists’ message was generally falling on deaf ears.
“They get really into it,” said senior Courtney Devoid of the soldiers.
PLENTY OF TESTOSTERONE
“You’ll see some large primate behavior,” Tailer chimed in. Plenty of testosterone is on display at the event, he said.
Among the students participating in the simulation were senior twins Anna and Michael Pierattini, who fell on different sides of the idealistic divide.
Michael, in a long coat and fencing mask, darted around the field with his video camera, taking in the war games. In the early exercises, he’d excelled as the best marksman among the students, earning the role of the United States after his slingshot outperformed the rest.
Meanwhile, his sister Anna was among the pacifists. Clutching a bag brimming with tennis balls, Anna said it’s been an “interesting” experience, to say the least, to be on different sides of the debate.
“I’m a pacifist, and he’s like, ‘I’m going to rule the world!’” she said. “I feel I should knock some common sense into him — as peacefully as possible.”
Tailer said that, over the years, he’s heard some backlash about this event from parents and administrators alike. On the same day, he’s had parents stop him on the street and accuse him with either turning their child into a pacifist or a warmonger.
And as administrators have come and gone, they’ve voiced some concern, too. But Tailor has made the event safer over the years, and first-year principal Andy Kepes, standing on the edge of the battlefield last week, voiced his appreciation for the abundant head and eye protection.
EXCITED ABOUT PHYSICS
But over the years, Tailer has also seen the benefits, again and again, of this simulation. First and foremost, it’s a way to get students excited about physics. Nationally, somewhere between 20 and 30 percent of high school students study physics, but at Mt. Abe that number exceeds 90 percent. The war games are also a way to engage students who might not necessarily gravitate toward more theoretical work in the lab.
He’s also heard from students years later, who say it took them 10 years to really understand the bigger lesson of the day.
Before Tailer oversaw the afternoon’s war games, which devolved into alliances of friendships instead of nations, he paraphrased a famous quote attributed to Albert Einstein: World War Three will be fought with nuclear weapons, and World War Four with sticks and stones.
Later in the afternoon, students would gather for a panel presentation, where visitors — including veterans and pacifists — weighed in on global armed aggression.
The lesson that Tailer hopes to get across, after all, is much larger than the physics of slingshots. He wants to give students a context for understanding what science can mean in the world — for better or worse.