The Chemistry of Magic

chemistry of magicMove over Merlin, Gandalf, Harry, and Miss Price! It’s time for some science magic! That’s me having the time of my life igniting a hydrogen balloon soaked in aqueous barium chloride. Best. Time. Ever.

Last month, Cotsen collaborated with the Princeton Chemistry Outreach Program to create The Chemistry of Magic, a program that unveiled the science behind seemingly magical chemical reactions. The lecture and demonstrations were the brainchildren of Dr. Kathryn Wagner, who is standing to the right of the GIANT GREEN FIREBALL in the image above.

Some of my favorite demonstrations included “Elephant Toothpaste” (a hugely gloppy reaction created by mixing hydrogen peroxide, soap and potassium iodide solution), the “Ring of Fire” (igniting isopropyl rubbing alcohol within a water cooler bottle to produce a slow, licking blue flame), and the “Methane Mamba” (which basically involved holding a column of methane infused soap bubbles in our hand, placing a match in the middle, and enjoying a raging pillar of flames).

We also demonstrated a “Dry Ice Rainbow,” invisible ink, color change experiments, a Tesla coil, a blind spot optical illusion, homemade glow stick solution, liquid nitrogen fog, and a “Genie in a Bottle” (a reaction of hydrogen peroxide and manganese dioxide powder in a 2-liter soda bottle…the result being 8 feet of writhing steam).

Could you host such a program? Sure! There were a couple of high school science teachers in attendance. You might have one near your institution or library who would be willing to work some science magic. You can also talk with your local science center, university, or college to see if they might be interested a collaboration.

But don’t, however, try this at home. We were in a large chemistry lecture hall with proper ventilation, safety equipment, and under Dr. Wagner’s watchful eye. Don’t try this at home folks! Really.

So the next time a character in a book summons a fireball (Incendio!), we hope that readers will pause and reflect on the real fireball they saw at this program, and consider the awesome science that made it possible.

A Real Page-Turner

rube goldberg machineThis machine really DID turn a page – after automatically cranking a half-dozen ping-pong balls up two towers and dropping them randomly through a number of pathways until one ball finally hit a mechanism that turned…a single page. Then the process started all over again!

The machine was built by Princeton University Engineering students Sarah Tang and Tanner DeVoe. It was built entirely of K’Nex, was over 7 feet tall, and it took 45 hours to complete. Not to mention zillions of test runs!

The “Page-Turner” was the centerpiece of a Rube Goldberg program at our library. Rube Goldberg was an American cartoonist famous for illustrating crazy, intricate machines meant to make life “easier.”

In addition to the machine, we had student group Princeton Engineering Education for Kids constructing simple (and not so simple) LEGO machines with kids, an extensive marble maze set for younger kids to build and test, a video loop of OK Go’s music video This Too Shall Pass, and student artist Kemy Lin inspiring kids to draw their own machines using this Rube Goldberg template.

Here’s a way cute example of “How to Catch a Butterfly” by a budding engineer:

kid's machine

It’s Glow Time

It’s the stuff that dreams are made of…glow pigment bottleit’s glow-in-the-dark pigment! To make custom glow-in-the-dark “paint,” simply measure this pigment into white glue and stir. In an instant, you have glowing paint to make your projects really pop. The pigment is activated by sunlight, fluorescent, incandescent, and ultraviolet light. Best of all, it’s non-toxic.

In the past, I’ve had kids paint surfaces with brushes, use squeeze glue bottles to write things, and create glorious glowing masterpieces in a black light room. I get my pigment (the standard green color) at Educational Innovations, an online science supply company. It’s wonderful stuff!