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Punkin chunkin

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This machine shoots pumpkins.

Normally, when a school invites a deputy mayor to speak, you can expect a discussion of politics and civics.

But when Adam Gussen, Teaneck’s deputy mayor, went to Yeshiva Ben Porat Yosef in Paramus last Thursday, the topic was physics, engineering, and warfare.

Mr. Gussen is a world record holder in catapulting a 10-pound pumpkin using a torsion catapult.

And Ben Porat Yosef was conducting a Discovery Learning Day, in which normal classes gave way to a day-long exploration of a single topic – in this case, constructing and testing catapults.

“It’s not the catapult itself that’s important,” the school’s principal, Stanley Fischman, said. “It’s the application of scientific principles to its construction. The students need to know how to design an object and determine if it’s the best design possible. When they determine it’s not the best, they take time redesigning, conferencing, making drawings. They develop a strong appreciation for the principles of engineering.”

Even the school’s Jewish studies faculty took part in the day, helping students construct their catapults – but doing so in Hebrew, “because they only use Hebrew when they work with children,” Mr. Fischman said.

Mr. Gussen’s career as a catapultist began with his brother Marc, who heads the Closter Nature Center. Marc read a Scientific American article about the trebuchet – a gravity-powered catapult that dominated warfare from the 12th century until the West discovered gunpowder – and decided to build a small model.

The Gussen brothers took the model with them when they decided to visit the World Championship Punkin’ Chunkin’ – an annual celebration of catapults, air cannons, and other means of propelling pumpkins through the air that is held each October in Delaware.

They were introduced to a contestant, who said, as Adam Gussen recalled, “I’d love to sit and chat but my two buddies didn’t show up. If I give you these three backstage passes, will you jump over and help me with the machine?”

The brothers didn’t hesitate.

“Imagine you’re at a NASCAR race and someone pulled you from the stands and handed you a wrench and asked you to change the tires,” is how the deputy mayor described the experience.

Since their first competition in 2002, the Gussen team has won seven times and are current record holders. Their machine, the Chucky III, propelled a 10-pound pumpkin (one “a little bit bigger than a volleyball, smaller than a basketball”) a full 3636.39 feet. That is more than two-thirds of a mile.

While the Ben Porat students made their catapults of paper towel tubes and cardboard boxes and rubber bands and other household items, Chucky III consists of 12,000 pounds of structural steel and hydraulics. It’s about 11 feet wide and 25 feet long, and it stands 22 feet tall. It takes four people eight hours to assemble.

Like a rubber-band-propelled airplane, Chucky III gets its energy from torsion – a twisted cord. “We use about 650 feet of high tech polyester rope an inch and a quarter in diameter,” Mr. Gussen said. “It weighs about 400 pounds. We twist it with two five-inch hydraulic rams that generate about 400,000 foot-pounds of torque.

“It’s awesome. The pumpkin is going about 600 miles an hour,” he added.

One of the lessons of his team’s success: “The folks that do the best are the ones that work the hardest. Nobody on our team has taken an engineering course. One team we compete against has seven Ph.Ds. Real academic chops.”

To begin with, Mr. Gussen and his colleagues saw a catapult they liked and said “We’re going to build one like that, only bigger,” he reported. Year by year they modified it, until they asked themselves, “Now that we understand this game, if we started from scratch, what would it look like?”

And thus was born their world-record setting machine.

“We’ve revolutionized medieval warfare,” Mr. Gussen said with a laugh. “We’ve built weapons of moderate destruction.”

The machine stayed in storage, however, when Mr. Gussen went to Ben Porat Yosef last week. Instead, he brought in models demonstrating the principle of how it worked.

For the school’s part, the students were presented with a model castle as a target, and their math and science specialists -­ both women – dressed as medieval princesses, with high pointed hats topped with fluttering scarves. While educational practice generally is to use marshmallows as ammunition in student catapults, Ben Porat leaders didn’t like the idea of wasting food, something frowned upon by Jewish tradition. (In fact, even the discussion of chucking pumpkins made them a bit uncomfortable.) Instead, they found small foam cubes for students to lob at the castle.

Mr. Gussen has no plans to bring together his military interests and his political role, though he averred that with his catapult, “I could certainly hit Hackensack from across the river.”

“New Jersey’s laws that govern weaponry are somewhat vague,” he said. “I believe a catapult should be legal. But if it were used in the commission of a crime, I believe I could be charged with illegally building artillery.

“As long we don’t use it in the commission of a crime, I think we’re good.”

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