Backyard boffin's shocking hobby
By day he's a doctor but, when the sun goes down, Australian amateur scientist Peter Terren spends his spare time tinkering with 500,000 volts of electricity, practising the art he's dubbed "electrickery".
Some middle-aged fathers with the urge to build things spend their weekends holed up in a shed making spice racks and cubby houses, but Terren, from Bunbury in Western Australia, is happiest conducting ambitious experiments with his giant lightning machine known as a Tesla coil.
"The thrill of being next to something that is potentially lethal, incredibly noisy ... that's the stuff I like - control and power - just like kids like playing with blasters," Terren, a 52-year-old father of three, said.
"This needs a good understanding of the physics involved and a certain amount of faith, balls of steel, or simple stupidity."
A Tesla coil boosts a small voltage from the mains up to 500,000 volts, creating large sparks that spray out from the top like lightning bolts. See photo gallery.
By using a long exposure on his camera, Terren is able to capture multiple sparks occurring over a period of, for instance, 10 seconds, in a single photograph - and to thrilling effect. The first-year physics dropout is able to guide the sparks using metal rods and frames.
A rotating colour filter over the camera allows Terren to capture the lightning bolts in different colours, as was the case with his Christmas tree experiment, one of several to feature on the Discovery Channel. Terren guided the Tesla coil sparks with a fishing rod and built the tree up gradually inside a metal frame using an exposure time of over a minute.
His dramatic pictures have also appeared on Dutch and German TV and in various overseas magazine spreads, but few Australians have seen his work. One of his most popular images shows his car surrounded by what appears to be an electricity force field, created using a Tesla coil with a long rotating arm.
"If you move where the sparks are originating from [during the long exposure], it looks like the sparks will still be there but you won't see where they're coming from," he said.
"It's a visual effect but not a Photoshop effect - it's all what the camera records."
For the past five years, Terren has been documenting his experiments in detail on Tesladownunder.com, which now has more than 1300 photographs and recently passed 1 million hits.
He builds Tesla coils and other materials used in the experiments from junk and scraps using knowledge built up over 40 years of playing with electricity.
Terren received his first electronics kit at 12 when he was barely out of primary school. Today, he photographs himself standing in a pool with 100,000 volts of electricity surging into his tinfoil hat.
Terren said his hobby costs about the same amount of money one would spend on a car every year.
"A lot of it is home built and often built out of fairly crude material," he said.
"The Tesla coil would use things like air-conditioning ducting, PVC piping, copper wire bought from a motor rewind place, an old neon sign transformer or several microwave oven transformers, various pieces of copper refrigeration tubing and other components made from motors."
Terren is frequently contacted by people looking to recreate his experiments at home but he is reluctant to provide the blueprints, knowing that in unexperienced hands the risk is sudden death.
"Just like you wouldn't send plans for high explosives to kids, I document what I've done but I don't go into the nitty gritty," he said.
Sydney Morning Herald