Archive for Science at Home

Top ten science tricks for parties

// April 12th, 2011 // Comments Off on Top ten science tricks for parties // Just for Fun, Science at Home

Having a party over the Easter break? Add some science with these party tricks. Sure to astound and amaze! My favourite is combining vinegar and bicarb, and pouring the resultant carbon dioxide over candles to extinguish them. I’m doing THAT at my next birthday party for sure, then reigniting candles with the smoke. Oh yes. It’s going to happen.

The secret science behind movie stunts and special effects

// March 20th, 2011 // Comments Off on The secret science behind movie stunts and special effects // Science at Home, Science Communication, Science in the Movies

Movie stuntsSteve Wolf sent me his book on the science of movie stunts and special effects for review last month, by Saddleback Educational Publishing.

Full of glossy pictures, this book is written for aspiring young scientists (not for adults or film makers.) Particularly kids who are a little off the rails, wild experimenters who need guidance without curbing enthusiasm. I think the author himself fell into that category.

One of the best things about the book was a message that science isn’t just about reports and measuring things. It’s about creating, trying, testing and doing cool stuff. That’s a good message.

When he’s not writing, Steve Wolf does science shows in schools. I bet they’re a blast. He’s worked in the film industry for years creating special effects and in the first page of the book admits “he has the best job in the world.” I got the feeling that he gets a real kick out of exploding stuff.

That brings me to the other good message – safety. From smoke detectors to seatbelts, he covers not only safety in special effects, but also just every day. It even talked about life lessons like doing what you love and eating healthy food. Although these are good things for kids to learn, I did wonder if this book was the right avenue for that. Safety messages are important, but talking about politeness, teamwork and professionalism seemed like a little much for a kid excited by science.

burnt toast

People are like toast. You can't unburn them.

But back to blowing stuff up, that was cool. Did you know that complete combustion of propane creates a blue flame, but incomplete combustion makes an orange flame because the heat excites carbon atoms? I didn’t.

Oh, and it showed someone covered with Zel Jel, fire insulating goo used by stunts performers which looks like marmalade. To quote the book “remember, people are like toast. You can’t unburn them.”

Diagrams also splatter the pages, which is awesome. I love a good diagram. They showed atomic states of matter, electrical circuitry (both series and parallel) and even chemical reactions. Clear explanations were delivered with a dose of movie stunt applications, like making mist, or arming explosives.

Teachers could build science classes around the book, as it covers important concepts and putting them in a cool context. It would be suitable for Years Five to Eight as a short introduction to complicated topics including atomic theory, chemical reactions and electric circuits, though none were discussed in huge depth. Sometimes I wasn’t sure which audience the book was talking to – young children or teenagers? But it could be used to spark classroom discussions.

At the end of the book Steve describes how it all comes together on set, from rolling cameras to checking all the explosions have detonated correctly after the stunt. It was a good insight into the film industry, but this is a book aimed at the science, not at movie making. Aspiring film producers won’t get a lot out of the book, certainly not how to make their own stunts. That’s not the purpose of the book. It’s about inspiring kids to do science using movie stunts as a draw card.

The Secret Science Behind Movie Stunts & Special Effectsis a nice book, and would make a good addition to a school library. It has potential as an alternative or addition to science textbooks. And if you know a kid (8-12) who does science experiments at home and loves movies, it would make a good present. Not for adults or film makers.

Solar flare stops satellites in China

// February 17th, 2011 // 1 Comment » // Science at Home

Solar Flare

Recent Solar Flare. Image by NASA

A solar flare the size of Jupiter erupted a few days ago and is now causing radio and satellite signals to drop out in China.

On Valentine’s Day, the sun had a coronal mass ejection associated with a flare, a burst of solar wind that speeds through space.

The ejected material is usually plasma and electrons, though sometimes helium and oxygen are also expelled. It was an X-class, the highest of all classes.

Let’s just enjoy for a moment the phrases Valentine’s Day, coronal mass ejection and X-class.

Anyway, the flare headed to Earth at 900 km per second, and the shockwave of it hitting us has caused a geomagnetic storm that messes with magnets.

It can also cause stunning auroral colours, like the Northern Lights, which have already been seen further south than usual. NASA is warning the flares will keep coming for a couple of days.

Long-lasting solar storms can cause electricity grids to stop working, causing black outs. Much of our technology is dependent on magnets – phones, credit cards, even hard discs when in use. One of my pet apocalypse theories is that a solar flare, or other strong magnetic space event, will wipe out computers and take with them electricity, water and money.

But clearly if your reading this, that hasn’t happened. So just continue to enjoy the phrase coronal mass ejection. Lolz.

A Gingerbread Laboratory

// January 19th, 2011 // Comments Off on A Gingerbread Laboratory // Just for Fun, Science at Home

Thought I’d share some pictures of this awesome gingerbread laboratory my dad made me for Christmas.

Gingrebread Laboratory Front

It’s a science and research lab. Unfortunately some of the roof caved in during transit.

Gingerbread Laboratory Top

The lab comes complete with helipad. You can see some of the decorations inside through the “sky light.”

Gingerbread Laboratory Skylight

Royal icing, smarties, jelly beans, mint leaves, marshmallows and licorice allsorts decorate the interior while icing sinks ensure proper hygiene. Here’s the view from the front door.

Gingerbread Laboratory Front Door

Physics of lapping lets cats drink without mess

// November 24th, 2010 // 2 Comments » // How Things Work, Recent Research, Science at Home

First up, apologies on the lateness of my post. A whole week has gone past! Oh me! I humbly do beseech you to forgive this old salt and do throw myself upon the deck in penance. Me only defense is that I have just moved from Canberra to Adelaide, and me Schooner does need an awful lot of bubble wrap. To distract you from me own slackness, I have scoured the nets for the cutest science story evah. I ply you with kittens thusly:

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Cats are a more delicate and refined animal than messy, smelly and drooly dogs. I’ve always been a cat person. I think they have higher standards. Turns out they also drink better than dogs.

Both dogs and cats lack the complete cheeks that humans have, which means they can’t drink water by suction like we can. Dogs get around this by using their tongues as a ladle, cupping the water from bowl to throat.

Cat’s do it differently. They lap water briskly, but not like a ladle. Instead, they DEFY GRAVITY and make the water lift up into the air like a glorious floating blob of refreshment.

Sounds crazy, but it’s true. When they dip into the dish, water adheres to the dorsal (top) side of their tongue. The surface tension (sweet, sweet hydrogen bondage) of the water drags a column of water into the air. The cat can thus pull water into its mouth using inertia.

The competition between inertia moving water up and gravity pulling it down sets the lapping frequency of the cat. Smaller cats with smaller tongues lap faster to drink, large cats lap slower. Observation of lapping frequency in big cats like lions shows the same kind of trend, suggesting they use the same physics as the household feline.

Cats might do this because it’s a neater, cleaner way to drink and it keeps their whiskers nice and dry. Whiskers have an important sensory function, so it’s worth the effort to keep them tidy.

The research was published in Science, and began when a researcher was watching his own cat drink. A video of the researcher and cat is below, and shows in super slow mo exactly how water defies gravity when a cat enters the equation.

Did you hear that? Did you? Not only is it physics, hydrogen bonding and gravity defying, plus, PLUS, the tongue could have implications for robotics of the future. Yeah. Robot cat tongues. It’s going to happen.

Actually tongues are very interesting. They obviously have no bones for support, so instead they have a muscular hydrostat system where support comes from muscles. The same thing happens in octopus tentacles, where muscles stretch in one of three directions: Along the tentacle (longitudinal), across the tentacle (transverse) or wrapping around the tentacle (helical.) When an octopus moves, one muscle contracts to become shorter which forces the muscles around to stretch, supporting the movement like a skeleton.

Cats and octopus. You know this post was worth the wait.

ResearchBlogging.orgReis, P., Jung, S., Aristoff, J., & Stocker, R. (2010). How Cats Lap: Water Uptake by Felis catus Science DOI: 10.1126/science.1195421






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