One of the happiest moments of Stephen Trettel's young life came in November 2006. He was in the basement of his family's Jordan home, surrounded by wire, aluminum foil and toothpicks, looking at a graph.
"I had turned my basement into a lab," Trettel said. "I built 7,300 configurations of this thing and tested them one by one. After 200 tests were completed, I put all the data points on a graph, and they all lined up perfect. I thought, 'This is sweet!' I ran upstairs to tell my dad, 'Dad, it actually works.' "
"This thing" that Trettel talks about is an asymmetrical capacitor. Rarely studied by scientists and built mostly by hobbyists in their basements, an asymmetrical capacitor is a device that levitates when a huge amount of electricity is applied, though in the 90 years since the effect was first documented, nobody has had a working theoretical explanation of why.
Trettel, a senior at New Prague High School, is the only two-time winner of the National Junior Science and Humanities Symposium, sponsored by the U.S. Army, Navy and Air Force. In May, he won first place in the engineering division of the International Science and Engineering Fair.
And he knows why it works.
The effect of the asymmetrical capacitor levitating seems to fly in the face of reason, as if someone sitting in a desk chair pulled up on its arms and the chair launched into the air.
Trettel's answer is this: When electricity is pumped into the capacitor, the ions -- or charged particles in the air around it -- start moving. The motion creates a downward force, like that created by the main rotor of a helicopter. Newton's third law of motion says every action has an equal and opposite reaction, so the opposite reaction to the downward force is that the device lifts off the ground.
The effect first fascinated him as an eighth-grader. Already into science, he was building Van de Graaff generators, the popular science museum contraptions that make your hair stand on end when you touch them.
He was searching the Internet one day and found a paper from the Army Research Labs documenting the effect of asymmetrical capacitors.
"It was the first science paper I'd ever read that ended with the conclusion: We don't know how this works," he said. "The force didn't make any physical sense. So there was one paper saying that it does work, and then there's the entire history of science saying 'That's crazy.'"
Trettel spent his high school years researching the effect. He tested 7,300 versions of his device to account for all variables. He studied calculus at a level that was much more difficult than he'd ever need for high school to develop and test his theory. Now, he not only knows why it works, but how to control it.
Trettel says the ideal use, once technology catches up with him, would be for unmanned aircraft. Because there is no fuel, and no moving parts, it would not only be hard to track, because it wouldn't create any noise or heat, but it would be efficient.
The key to controlling it is the voltage: It's the only variable that can be changed without use of motors. You could choose a flight path beforehand, input all the voltage requirements, and watch it fly away. (With, of course, the help of an on-board power source, such as a solar cell.)
The language of math
For Tom Doig, New Prague High School's principal, Trettel has done more than just blow through the school's math curriculum at top speed.
Other students have seen his energy to learn and have emulated that. Science fairs don't quite have the nerdy stigma they once did, he said.
"Stephen has a thirst or a hunger to want to learn, and he thinks outside the box," Doig said. "He's such a normal kid that other kids see that it is OK to try to achieve and be successful."
After graduating on Friday, Trettel plans to attend the University of Minnesota in the fall to study mathematics, theoretical physics, and linguistics.
Wait, linguistics? That seems a little incongruous, doesn't it?
"The reason I like mathematics is because it's an analytical language way of describing the real world, of describing rational thought. Mathematics can put that into symbols," Trettel said. "Physics is a way of taking the world around us and putting that into a language. And then, I see all other human languages as ways of taking our own experience, and putting them into language. So language is the true thing that fascinates me. And mathematics and physics I just see as the most beautiful examples."
Emily Johns • 952-882-9056