A Texas A&M Professor Is Sharing Her Love Of Physics With Millions On TikTok
An egg is perched atop a cardboard toilet paper roll, which stands upright on a plate resting on a glass of water. Tatiana Erukhimova stands behind the tower of household objects, explaining how she plans to smack the plate out of the way.
Addressing the camera, the Texas A&M University instructional professor of physics and astronomy says she plans to hit the side of the plate with her palm – hard, and without hesitation.
“If I do it right, then the plate will fly, the roll will fly, but the egg will not fly,” Erukhimova narrates in the TikTok video. “It has inertia, so it will just fall into this glass with water.”
On the count of three, she swiftly swats the plate, which flies sideways and allows the egg to fall into the glass, sending a splash of water into the air. She knew this would happen, thanks to the law of inertia, but Erukhimova still lets out a triumphant shout, throwing her arms up in celebration. The video, posted to the Department of Physics and Astronomy‘s TikTok page, has been played more than 7.8 million times.
Since this first viral video was posted on Dec. 13, her physics demonstrations have racked up millions more views on TikTok, with users responding to her enthusiastic teaching style.
“I want her to teach me everything. I can actually focus on her,” reads one top comment on the egg drop video. In response to one of her latest – another inertia lesson involving Erukhimova striking the handle of a knife with a mallet, forcing a potato up the blade – one commenter’s thoughts have been liked by more than 6,000 other users: “How have I gone 35 years without seeing or knowing this?”
Erukhimova, who moved from Russia to College Station in 1999 for a research position at Texas A&M, credits her department’s marketing staff for her recent viral fame. But over just a few weeks and roughly a dozen videos – the department’s page has amassed more than 300,000 followers on the video-sharing app since November – the likes, comments and views quickly multiplied to tens of millions thanks largely to the energy Erukhimova brings to her lessons.
‘I Cannot Imagine My Life Without Physics’
The daughter of two physicists, Erukhimova grew up in Nizhny Novgorod, about 200 miles from Moscow. “A beautiful city” at the junction of the Oka and Volga rivers, she said, it’s one of Russia’s strongest physics centers.
“My passion for physics is just in my genes, and I cannot imagine my life without physics,” she said.
She first worked at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Applied Physics before taking a research position at Texas A&M. When she was offered a part-time position instructing a junior-level course on atmospheric thermodynamics, Erukhimova had no teaching experience. To her surprise, the course was a success. The class was small, with just 30 students. Her pupils were friendly, attentive and always turned in their assignments on time.
“I thought, ‘Wonderful, this is America!'” she recalls. “After three years of teaching this class, I felt I was an experienced instructor. And then in 2006 at eight in the morning I found myself in front of a large introductory physics class with more than 100 freshmen.”
That first day, Erukhimova said, was a “disaster.”
The students were uninterested and inattentive, and it took several months for her to find her voice. That experience is what taught her the importance of getting students interested from day one.
Now, she tries to supplement her classes with demonstrations as often as possible. Erukhimova said by applying abstract physics concepts to everyday life, students can connect with the subject on a personal level.
“You get this ‘wow factor’ and then it’s easier to find resonance,” she said. “I like what I teach, and I try to share my excitement with them.”
Her teaching has been recognized with a number of awards and honors, a long list that includes Presidential Professor for Teaching Excellence (2017), American Physical Society Fellow (2019), and a Distinguished Achievement University-Level Award in Extension & Outreach from The Association of Former Students (2019).
“Dr. Erukhimova is an embodiment of an ideal undergraduate instructor — dedicated and caring to a fault, passionate to the extreme and effective at the miraculous level,” Grigory V. Rogachev, professor and head of the Department Physics and Astronomy, said when she was named a University Professor for Undergraduate Teaching Excellence last year. “She is a legend among students, many of whom say that her class was their best experience at Texas A&M and the best class they have taken in all their years of study.”
Making Physics Accessible
When Erukhimova talks about different ways to illustrate physics concepts, her passion is evident for demonstrations both big and small. Pouring liquid nitrogen into a pot of boiling water creates a billowing cloud, she displays in a video captioned with “do not try this at a home.” She’s equally animated while showing viewers how to pierce a raw potato with plastic straws.
“I strongly believe that not everyone has to major in physics, science or engineering, but everyone has to get a chance to play with it, to respect the results of science and to get a chance to learn how much fun it is,” Erukhimova said.
Since 2006, she’s organized the annual Texas A&M Physics & Engineering Festival. The event, which returns this year with in-person and virtual components on April 2, attracts thousands of visitors from across the country each spring. Erukhimova also co-founded DEEP (Discover, Explore, and Enjoy Physics and Engineering), a program in which graduate and undergraduate students design and build demonstrations and experiments that are showcased at outreach programs like the festival and the popular Physics Show she puts on in Hawking Auditorium.
So while sharing her love for physics is nothing new for Erukhimova, she’s pleased by the number of people she’s reaching from around the world through TikTok. Most exciting to her has been the reaction and support from former students who have come across her videos.
“If you think about it, millions of people are watching physics videos and enjoying them. That’s wonderful,” she said. “You cannot learn much from a short video; however, these can get people interested and willing to learn more.”