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APSU’s Bryan Gaither flings flaming pumpkins with trebuchet


Austin Peay State University - APSUClarksville, TN – Bryan Gaither, dressed in his trademark blue lab coat, slid on a pair of latex gloves and proceeded to inject chemicals into a pumpkin. Nearby, on the front lawn of the Austin Peay State University (APSU) Dunn Center, Clarksville firefighters put on their protective gear.

Austin Peay State University's Bryan Gaither and a Sacramento State pumpkin. (APSU)

Austin Peay State University’s Bryan Gaither and a Sacramento State pumpkin. (APSU)

It was a bright Thursday afternoon – Gaither’s birthday – and the APSU physics, astronomy and engineering lab manager was about to launch a flaming pumpkin hundreds of feet into the air.

Earlier in the year, Gaither – known around Austin Peay State University as the “Mad Scientist” – built a trebuchet as an outreach tool for the University’s College of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). A trebuchet is a type of catapult that uses a swinging arm to throw a projectile.

“I wanted it designed this way so that our students actually can model this, so they can model the forces, they can model the release angles, and get real-world data,” Gaither said in October.

The pumpkin shortly after landing. (APSU)

The pumpkin shortly after landing. (APSU)

But on Thursday, it was all about the joy of flinging flaming pumpkins into the air. Earlier in the week, Gaither and Dr. Karen Meisch, interim dean of the APSU College of STEM, decided to use the trebuchet to drum up support both for Giving Tuesday and for Austin Peay State University’s upcoming playoff football game against Sacramento State.

If the public supported the College on Giving Tuesday, Meisch promised that Gaither would “not only launch the Sacramento State pumpkin – but also a pumpkin that will be on FIRE.”

A little after 2:00pm on Thursday, a pumpkin with the Sacramento State logo flew through the air, spinning against the deep blue sky. When it crashed against the ground, the orange fruit crumpled and then flung pieces of gooey shrapnel across the grass. Then, it was time for the main event.

Gaither and his crew, looking like NASA engineers prepping a rocket, marched slowly to the trebuchet and secured the pumpkin, filled with chemicals, into its harness. The firefighters moved into position and several drones lifted into the air.

“As soon as I light this, I’m going,” Gaither said.

People standing near the trebuchet were instructed to move back a safe distance. Gaither grabbed a blowtorch and squatted next to the machine.

“We’re going.” He ignited the pumpkin. As the flames consumed the orb, Gaither ran back several feet and grabbed the rope that sets the trebuchet in motion.

“Ready!” Using both hands, he pulled back on the rope sending the flaming pumpkin spinning high into the air. Seconds later, the fireball exploded against the ground. The flames continued to burn until the firefighters extinguished them.

“That’s what I was going for,” Gaither said. He kept his eyes down, nodding at the congratulatory words, as he headed toward a table where a piece of birthday cake awaited him.




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