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Physics and turtlenecks at DWU celebrate campus 'character'

Mike Farney, a professor at Dakota Wesleyan University who teaches physics, mathematics and astronomy, discusses electricity during Farney Festival, an event held Saturday at the Glenda K. Corrigan Health Sciences Center, DWU's new, $11.5 million science facility. (Chris Mueller/Republic) 1 / 2
Drummers in the Corsica/Stickney marching band perform for Dakota Wesleyan University’s Blue and White Days parade Saturday in Mitchell. (Chris Mueller/Republic) 2 / 2

Mike Farney can’t remember the day he put on his first turtleneck sweater. But since arriving at Dakota Wesleyan University in 1979, the physics professor’s white turtleneck and black pants have become his trademarks. “I did it because nature is simple, so I will dress simple,” he said. “The clothing is boring, but the guy who is in the clothing should not be boring.” On Saturday, Farney, 68, was a whirlwind, flying around his lab nonstop for two and a half hours giving physics demonstrations, hardly stopping to take a breath.

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In one demonstration, Farney laid a bed of nails across his chest. A cinder block placed on top of the bed of nails was then promptly smashed by an assistant with a sledgehammer.

With that and many other demonstrations — such as using electricity to make a person’s hair stand up or using a strobe light to show the movements of a vibrating string — Farney intends to do more than entertain his students and others.

“My job is, in a way, using demonstrations as much as possible to show that nature is simple,” he said.

The demonstrations were at the center of DWU’s first-ever Farney Festival, held in the Glenda K. Corrigan Health Sciences Center, the university’s new $11.5 million building, which was opened last month. About 150 people — many of whom arrived dressed in white turtlenecks and black pants — attended the event, held in conjunction with DWU’s other homecoming festivities.

“We’ve never done anything just like this before,” said Lori Essig, DWU’s vice president of university relations. “It was just a great way to showcase our new building.”

Every year, the university looks for ways to bring its alumni back to campus for homecoming, Essig said, and a festival to honor one of the school’s most memorable teachers was the perfect hook.

“He’s just such a character,” she said. “And a phenomenal teacher.”

Farney currently teaches courses in physics, mathematics and astronomy, as well as an interdisciplinary course in general education. Demonstrations like those on display Saturday are meant to inspire and invoke a sense of wonder and curiosity in students, he said.

“If you can’t wonder, you’re dead,” he said. “What’s the use of being dead?”

Even after more than three decades of teaching, Farney said he can’t help but remain endlessly fascinated by the natural world.

“I keep asking myself, ‘How I can really understand what this world is all about physically?’ ” he said. “I’m built like that. I want to know, I want to understand.”

The demonstrations shown at Farney Festival are the accumulation of many years of work, Farney said. Still, as he rushed around his lab Saturday, cheering at the end of one demonstration before hurrying off to the next one, Farney was in his element.

“To be honest, I had no idea what I was going to say when I walked into the room,” he said. “I just had a lot of fun stuff.”

Farney has adapted quickly to his new lab, which is on the first floor of the new health sciences building. Inside Farney’s lab, which also serves as his office, he can have any of his demonstrations ready at a moment’s notice.

“If it weren’t for the fact I have a house, I could live there full time,” he said.

Farney, who said DWU has its own, unique sense of humor, doubted whether such a festival could have happened at any other school.

“I can’t imagine any other school having a festival for a crazy physicist,” he said.