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Theodore Gray's Completely Mad Science
Experiments You Can Do At Home, But Probably Shouldn't , The Complete and Updated Edition
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Bestselling author Theodore Gray has spent more than a decade dreaming up, executing, photographing, and writing about extreme scientific experiments, which he then published between 2009 and 2014 in his monthly Popular Science column “Gray Matter.” Previously published in book form by Black Dog in two separate volumes (Mad Science and Mad Science 2), these experiments, plus an additional 5, are available now in one complete book.Completely Mad Science is 432 pages of dazzling chemical demonstrations, illustrated in spectacular full-color photographs. Experiments include: Casting a model fish out of mercury (demonstrating how this element behaves very differently depending upon temperature); the famous Flaming Bacon Lance that can cut through steel (demonstrating the amount of energy contained in fatty foods like bacon); creating nylon thread out of pure liquid by combining molecules of hexamethylenediamine and sebacoyl chloride; making homemade ice cream using a fire extinguisher and a pillow case; powering your iPhone using 150 pennies and an apple, and many, many more.
Theodore Gray is the author of The Elements: A Visual Exploration of Every Known Atom in the Universe; Molecules: The Elements and the Architecture of Everything; Theo Gray’s Mad Science: Experiments You Can Do at Home, But Probably Shouldn’t; and Mad Science 2: Experiments You Can Do at Home, but Still Probably Shouldn’t. He lives in Urbana, Illinois.
Table of Contents
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Why did I write this book?
Gordon Moore, founder of Intel, father of the computer revolution, was known in his youth for setting off homemade nitroglycerine along Sand Hill Road, then a pasture, now the heart of the Silicon Valley that he helped build. When the great doctor and writer Oliver Sacks (Awakenings, Uncle Tungsten) was growing up in London during the Second World War, his chemical experiments threatened his family's home as much as the German bombs falling around it.
Look into the past of any scientist, leader, rich nerd or football hero, anyone who's done something interesting in life, and you will find more curiosity, adventure, hard work, and questionable judgment than you will find high marks for neatness or time spent watching TV.
And for better or worse, the fire, smoke, smells and bangs of chemistry are what inspired many scientists to become scientists in the first place. This stuff is fun, no other way to put it. But it's also dangerous enough that it's been mostly banned from schools. Many chemistry teachers would love to show their students some of the things they did when they were in school, but they value their jobs too much.
This book, and the Popular Science column it's based on, are a response to that. Many of the topics I write about are things I did when I was growing up, and I survived. Without those experiences I might have ended up as a stock broker, or worse.
Science is not something practiced only in labs and universities. It's a way of looking at the world and seeing truth and beauty everywhere. It's something you can do whether you are employed as a professional scientist or not. While I have a degree in chemistry from a fine university, I've never worked as a professional chemist. I do these demonstrations in my shop on a rural farmstead half a mile from the nearest neighbor. (This is handy when exploring the louder aspects of chemistry.) Mostly I use simple kitchen and shop supplies and chemicals from the hardware store or garden center. I do avoid working in a real lab, because I would much rather tinker in my shop and find a simpler (some might say cruder) way of making the experiment work. Amateur scientists, many of them self-taught, tinkering in their shops and basements have done great things. Using a spirit of making do with what they have and seeing just how far they can take it, they make real contributions to the advancement of science.
But what's even more important is that everyone, regardless of their occupation, understand how science works and what it can and can't do. We are not going to solve the energy crisis, climate change, or water shortage by wishful thinking or by watching commercials paid for by lobbyists. We are going solve them by understanding the issues and supporting policies that actually work. There is one and only one way to make the right choice, and that is by using the scientific method to define, study, and understand the problems and the solutions. Anyone who tells you otherwise is trying to sell you something.
In this book I've tried to capture the fun and sense of adventure that comes with science, as well as its truth and beauty. I hope that you, even if you never actually try these experiments, catch the excitement and get a bit of a window into how scientific thinking works.
I had fun doing this stuff. I hope you have as much fun reading about it.
Real warnings vs. the-lawyer-made-us-do-it warnings
It makes me cringe when I see warnings to wear gloves and safety glasses while working with baking soda. It's called crying wolf, and it's deeply irresponsible, because it makes it that much harder to get through to people about real dangers.
So I'm not going to do that. If you promise to listen, I promise to tell you the truth about where the real dangers are.
Some of the experiments in this book I would have let my kids do unsupervised when they were 10 years old (if not for the monumental messes that would lead to). If you're pouring a cold sodium acetate solution into a bowl, you are not going to get hurt, at least not by the sodium acetate. It's actually less toxic than common table salt, so unless you keep the salt in your house locked up and wear safety glasses for breakfast, you don't need to worry about sodium acetate.
Some other chemicals, however, are not your friends. Chlorine gas kills, and you hurt the whole time you're dying. Mix phosphorus and chlorates wrong and they blow up while you're mixing them. (I have a friend who still has tiny slivers of glass coming out of his hands twenty years after he made that particular mistake.)
Every chemical, every procedure, every experiment has its own unique set of dangers, and over the years people have learned (the hard way) how to deal with them. In many cases the only way to do an experiment safely is to find a more experienced person to help. This is not book-learning, it's your life at stake and you want someone by your side who knows what they are doing. There is an unbroken chain of these people leading right back to the first guy who survived, and you want to be part of that chain.
When I do an experiment that looks crazy I either have someone with me who's done it before, or it's something that I've worked my way up to slowly and carefully. I build in layers of safety, and I make sure that if all else fails I have a clear path to run like hell (and of course I wear glasses at all times).
I have never been seriously hurt by a chemical, and luck is not a factor in that. Don't make it a factor in your own safety either.
Should you actually try these experiments?
"Don't try this at home, kids!" Depending on your personality, that's either a warning or an invitation. I hate it because it tells people to be helpless—to believe that they are not smart enough, competent enough or persistent enough to do what "the experts" can do.
At the same time, it frightens me to think of someone picking up this book and ending up dead, burned or blind because of something I wrote, or a warning I didn't write. Some of these experiments would be just plain nuts for you to try. Seriously nuts.
Why nuts for you and not for me? Because each of us has a particular set of talents, experiences, friends and equipment. I do only things I know I can do safely. The things I didn't think I could do safely are not in this book, because I didn't do them.
For example, I saw a video of some guys who have learned to jump off huge cliffs wearing tiny wingsuits. They soar down the side of the mountain inches away from the ground and pull their parachutes at the last possible second. Are they nuts? Actually not; the ones who have survived this sport (many have not) are cautious people in their own slightly insane way. They started out trying to stay as far away from the cliff face as possible, until that got "boring."
A couple of the experiments in this book are in that category: things you can do safely only by edging up to them slowly and learning from the mistakes of others. They are not beginner experiments, just as jumping off a cliff in a wingsuit is not beginner skydiving.
Which brings me to an important point:
THIS BOOK DOES NOT TELL YOU ENOUGH TO DO ALL OF THE EXPERIMENTS SAFELY!
Some of the experiments you should be able to do safely using just the instructions in this book, combined with common sense and a modest amount of effort. But in many cases the steps are not detailed enough to allow you to do the experiment. They are there simply to illustrate in a general way how the experiment is done. A lot of experience is needed to fill in the blanks.
Please be honest with yourself in assessing whether you have the knowledge and experience needed before trying any of the experiments for real. Your safety depends on it, just as my safety depends on my knowing that, as fun as it might look, I should not jump off a cliff in a wingsuit anytime soon.
If you never read any warnings, please read this:
WEAR SAFETY GLASSES!
Nearly every experiment in this book has the potential to blind you. You have only two eyes, and they're close to each other: One splash of acid, and you're shopping for a cane.
I'm lucky to be so nearsighted that I have no choice but to wear glasses all the time. If you aren't, then you need to make the effort to get a good, comfortable pair of safety glasses. Not the cheap, crappy kind you're not going to wear, but some good ones that won't scratch and fog up all the time. They're only about $10 at a good home center or hardware store. Buy several so you can always find a pair. Wear them. Please, for my sake, wear them because I really, really don't want to get a letter from the mother of a kid who will never see his mother again.
MAKING SALT THE HARD WAY
Swap an electron between two of the most unstable elements—sodium and chlorine—and the result is common table salt
SODIUM IS a soft, silvery metal that explodes violently on contact with water and burns skin by reacting with even the slightest moisture. Chlorine is a choking yellow gas, used with mixed success in the trenches of World War I (it was known to have killed about equal numbers on both sides of the trench). When these chemicals meet, they react in a fierce ball, spitting fire and clouds of white smoke. The smoke is sodium chloride (NaCl), or table salt, which I used to season a basket of popcorn I hung over the reaction.
In the periodic table, as in politics, the unstable elements tend to hang out at the far left and the far right. Sodium is a loose-electron element from the first column (left side) of the table; its extra electron makes it unstable. On the other side of the table is chlorine, an equally volatile one-electron-short-of-a-full-deck element from the far-right 17th column. By transferring sodium's excess electron to chlorine's nearly full shell, the elements reach a stable configuration in NaCl. Salt doesn't burn your skin or choke your lungs because, by combining with each other, both elements have scratched their itch.
As a way of salting popcorn, though, this kind of salt synthesis is pretty out there. The salt is very fresh, but the hazards of blowing pure chlorine into a bowl of liquid sodium are very real. Seconds after the first picture was taken, the net melted, dropping popcorn into the bowl and sending a shower of flaming liquid sodium balls in all directions. No one was hurt because I'd made safety preparations for even the worst-case scenario, which this nearly was—only an uncontrolled chlorine leak would have been worse, in which case I had a clear path to run like hell.
COOKING AT –320°F
Make ice cream in 30 seconds—just add a cup of liquid nitrogen
LIQUID NITROGEN is cold. Very cold. So cold that if a drop falls on your hand, it feels like fire. So cold that it can turn a fresh flower into a thousand shards of broken glass. So cold that it can make half a gallon of ice cream in 30 seconds flat.
I first heard about liquid nitrogen ice cream from my friend Tryggvi, an Icelandic chemist working in the Midwest (these things happen). He suggested we make it for dessert at a dinner party I was planning. Yes, he said, he had a recipe, something he'd seen in Chemical and Engineering News.
Now, right off the bat you have to worry about a recipe found in Chemical and Engineering News, the principal trade publication for the sort of people who build oil refineries, shampoo factories and large-scale plants for the fractional distillation of liquefied air (which is where liquid nitrogen comes from). But for the party I was planning, it was perfect: The well-known author Oliver Sacks was coming to visit with my collection of chemical elements; I needed some after-dinner entertainment.
My first concern was whether we would survive the ice cream. That and, if it didn't kill the cook, whether it would be any good. I had visions of hard, crusty stuff that caused frostbite of the throat. It turned out nothing could be further from the truth.
We mixed up a standard ice-cream recipe calling for two quarts of cream, sugar, eggs, vanilla and flavoring. (Just about any recipe and flavor will work, but never use alcohol or lumpy fruits as they can mask dangerously cold temperatures.) Then, working in a well-ventilated area (lest the nitrogen displace oxygen from the air) and with due regard for the ability of liquid nitrogen to freeze body parts solid, we gently folded about two liters of nitrogen syrup directly into the cream, much as you would fold in egg whites.
The result, literally 30 seconds later, was a half-gallon of the best ice cream I’d ever tasted. The secret is in the rapid freezing. When cream is frozen by liquid nitrogen at –320°F, the ice crystals that give bad ice cream its grainy texture have no chance to form. Instead you get microcrystalline ice cream that is supremely smooth, creamy and light in texture. Martha Stewart, eat your heart out.
The kids were amused by the clouds of water vapor, though being kids they didn't find anything out of the ordinary in the procedure. They probably think everyone makes ice cream this way. Boy, will they be in for a shock the first time they see it done the old-fashioned way at camp: You want me to do what for a half hour?
HOW I DID IT
Make Ice Cream with Liquid Nitrogen
1 The eggs and strawberries are optional; the liquid nitrogen is not.
2 Combine the non-cryogenic ingredients in a mixing bowl.
3 Add the liquid nitrogen a cup at a time. Note the use of heavy Cryo-Gloves—oven mitts will not do.
4 Stir continuously to keep an unbreakable crust from forming.
5 The ice cream is ready to eat when it's smooth and free of lumps.
GAG WITH A SPOON
With the right mix of metals, you can make an alloy that turns to liquid at nearly any temperature
MENTION LIQUID metal, and people immediately think of mercury. After all, it is the only metal that isn't solid at room temperature. Well, not quite—it's the only pure metal, but there are many alloys (mixtures of metals) that will melt well below that point. For example, the mercury-filled fever thermometers that children were told not to play with in the 1950s and '60s have been replaced by virtually identical ones containing the far less toxic Galinstan, a patented liquid alloy of gallium, indium and tin.
Those who were kids in that era may also remember playing with another low-melting-point alloy: trick spoons that melted when you tried to stir your coffee with them. These were made with a blend that, no surprise, was highly toxic; it typically contained cadmium, lead, mercury or all three. But, as it happens, it's possible to make alloys that liquefy in a hot drink using safer components.
A few months ago I created a batch of these prank spoons as a gift for my friend and fellow element buff Oliver Sacks (author of Awakenings and Uncle Tungsten). I cast jewelers' molding rubber around a fancy spoon to form the mold. Then I looked up the formula for an alloy that would melt at 140°F, roughly the temperature of a cup of hot coffee, and found this one: 51 percent indium, 32.5 percent bismuth and 16.5 percent tin.
After the spoon turns to a puddle at the bottom of the cup, you can pour off the liquid and touch the metal, feeling the weird sensation of it hardening around your fingertip. When Sacks has used up all his spoons, he can easily recover the metal, melt it again over a cup of hot water, pour it into the mold, and make new ones—the trick-spoon circle of life.
So why can't you buy these nontoxic prank utensils in toy stores, as you could the toxic versions of years past? Price. Indium costs about three times as much as silver. (I get mine from a bulk supplier in China.) Using gallium, you can make alloys that melt in lukewarm water or even in your hand, but it's more expensive than indium, and it tends to stain the glass and discolor skin. Unfortunately, no alloy replicates the low cost, bright shine and nonstick fun of mercury. Too bad we know now that playing with it for too long can give you brain damage.
HOW I DID IT
Create a Melting Spoon
1 Make a mold by casting or forming jewelers' rubber around the object you want to duplicate.
2 Weigh out the metals in the correct ratio: 51 percent indium, 32.5 percent bismuth and 16.5 percent tin. If you're within a gram, it'll still work.
3 Combine the ingredients in a stainless-steel measuring cup and heat directly on a stove over low heat. You'll need to go well beyond the melting point of the final alloy in order to get the tin and bismuth to combine with the indium. Stir continuously.
4 Let the alloy cool, then reheat it over nearly boiling water. A double-boiler works, or you can just hold the measuring cup in the hot water for a minute or two.
5 Pour the molten metal into the mold. While it may be tempting to hold the mold in your hand, the metal is hot enough that it will burn if you spill too much on yourself. It is no more, but also not any less, dangerous than boiling water.
6 Wait until you are sure the metal has solidified in the mold. This may take longer than you think since the melting point is so low.
7 Carefully extract the spoon from the mold.
8 Enjoy! Stirred in nearly boiling water, a typical spoon will melt in seconds.
Make trick ice cubes by stirring a few extra neutrons into the glass
WANT A surefire bet for your next cocktail party? First, tell your guests that aquatic life—at least in temperate climates—depends largely on the fact that ice floats. If it sank, lakes would freeze solid instead of forming an insulating layer of ice on top, killing all the fish. Now bet that you can magically make an ice cube sink. Grab one from a glass of special cubes you've strategically placed nearby, and drop it into a cup of ordinary water. Collect your guests' money.
The key to the trick is heavy ice. Many terms shouldn't be taken literally—a red quark isn't red, a peanut is neither a pea nor a nut—but heavy water is exactly what it sounds like: water that weighs more than normal. This is possible because elements occur in several different forms, or isotopes, made up of atoms with the same number of protons and electrons (which determine their chemical properties) but a variable number of neutrons (which contribute weight but not much else).
Hydrogen atoms always have one proton and one electron, but only one in every 6,400 has a neutron that nearly doubles the atom's mass. Using a complex process involving H2S, it's possible to isolate this heavy hydrogen, also known as deuterium (D), creating water that's about 10 percent heavier than normal.
- On Sale
- Sep 13, 2016
- Page Count
- 432 pages
- Black Dog & Leventhal