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.

Everyone’s an Engineer

everyones an engineerGet ready to create, build, and innovate. Today, everyone’s an engineer and the sky’s the limit!

We read Rosie Revere, Engineer written by Andrea Beaty, illustrated by David Roberts (Harry N. Abrams, 2013). At night, young Rosie Revere designs gadgets, gizmos, and fabulous machines…and then hides them. She’s an engineer, but due to an unfortunate incident with her Uncle Fred (a zookeeper who mistakenly laughs at a cheddar cheese spray hat designed to keep pythons away), she’s keeping her light under a bushel.

However, when Great-Great-Aunt Rose comes to visit and expresses her life-long wish to fly, Rosie puts aside her fears and builds her a flying machine. The machine flies…and then promptly crashes. Rosie gives up. But wait! Great-Great-Aunt Rose has something to say. Failures are part of engineering, but the true failure is if you give up and stop trying. Don’t forget to check the last page for a sweet illustration of Rosie’s ultimate success!

This story time cost zero dollars because I used materials that were already in my art cabinet and storage closet. You could do something similar by sending out a call for recyclables at your library, school, workplace, or neighborhood (more about that here). Another option is to announce the story time theme in advance and invite families to bring recyclables and surplus art supplies from home to contribute.

Here’s a list of the materials I offered:

  • White matte boxes in various shapes and sizes
  • Pastry boxes (you can see the exact ones I used on this project)
  • Tissue boxes, assorted sizes and colors
  • Oatmeal containers
  • Toilet paper tubes
  • Paper towel tubes
  • Wrapping paper tubes
  • Corrugated cardboard bases (leftover from this project)
  • Bulk CD cases (the kind that look like big plastic tubs)
  • Paper plates
  • Plastic cups
  • Paper cups
  • Different lengths of PVC pipe
  • Some cone water cups
  • Pieces of tagboard
  • Assorted beverage caps
  • Film canisters
  • A variety of tea tins
  • Black plastic top hats
  • A selection of sparkle stems
  • A selection of pipe cleaners
  • A selection of craft ties
  • A selection of colored masking tape
  • Aluminum foil
  • Construction paper
  • Poster board strips (regular and metallic)
  • Metallic paper
  • Clothespins
  • A variety of craft sticks
  • A selection of twistez wire
  • A selection of large plastic buttons
  • A few spools of metallic tie cord
  • Plastic drinking straws
  • A few spools of britelace
  • Some marabou boas
  • A selection of dot stickers and star stickers
  • The Bling Bin
  • Scissors, tape, hole punch, and glue stick for construction
  • Markers for decorating
  • A box cutter
  • Hot glue

One building supply I didn’t list above are these…the round plastic guides at the ends of large rolls of paper. Pop them out and you have some excellent tires:

tube tires

To prep for story time, I piled everything onto side tables, plugged in the hot glue gun, and invited everyone to make a machine. No additional prompting was needed!

Here are a few fabulous creations, beginning with…”The Dollycopter”

dollycopterWhen you pull the craft sticks on top of this computer, they jiggle the strings of buttons inside the monitor.

cone computerAn “alien” computer with with furry frame and space scene!

furry computerThere were plenty of robots, widgets, rockets, and flying mechanisms…

table robot

robot 1robot 2Remember the enthusiastic young fellow who started this post off? He designed a “Police Train” and believe it or not, the thing actually rolled when you pulled it!

train walksGuess we’ll be seeing him at MIT in a few years…

Miraculous Mechanism

miraculous mechanismIf you have a hankering to create an old-fashioned, coin-operated, yet somehow completely modern mechanism that dispenses a secret key, you’ve come to the right place! For this particular model, the coin goes in, hits a marble, which then rolls down the various tubes, dings two bells, and nudges a mini Altoid container out the bottom.

mechanism markedMost of the projects you see on this blog are from Tiger Tales, our weekly story time for 3-5 year-olds. But we do have another weekly story time for 6 – 8 year-olds called To Be Continued. Basically, I read from a chapter book over a series of weeks, and then we do a project (or activity, or field trip) when we finish the book. This project is from that program.

We read Horton’s Miraculous Mechanisms: Magic, Mystery & A Very Strange Adventure by Lissa Evans. Ten year-old Stuart Horton, recently relocated to the town of Beeton, is steeling himself for a long, boring summer of nothing (topped off by a set of annoying triplets next door). But everything changes when he discovers a hidden message and a cache of old coins from his Great-Uncle Tony Horton. Great-Uncle Tony, a renowned magician, stage illusionist, and creator of fabulous contraptions, mysteriously disappeared in 1940, leaving behind a secret workshop. If Stuart can follow the clues and solve the puzzles, he’ll find the workshop!

You’ll need:

  • A box (or box top) that can stand up on its own and has some depth – my box was 16.5″ tall, 12″ wide, and 6″ deep.
  • A box cutter
  • Toilet paper tubes
  • Paper towel tubes
  • A selection of sparkle stems
  • A few sheets of tagboard (or other super stiff paper)
  • 1 coin
  • 1 mini Altoid tin (about 2.5″ long)
  • 1 marble
  • 2 jingle bells
  • A couple pieces of mirror board (optional)
  • 1 mechanism template, printed on 8.5″ x 11″ card stock
  • Markers for decorating (I used metallic markers, but regular work too)
  • Scissors and tape for construction
  • Hot glue

During this project, I stressed – repeatedly – that testing and failing is part of designing and engineering. We tested, and tested, and then tested some more. There were a lot of escaped marbles rolling on the floor, but there were no lost tempers! Also, some kids opted to use just the marble for the mechanism (as opposed to putting the coin in juuuuust right).

The only prep I did for this project was to use a box cutter to cut the coin slot and the dispenser slot. I also helped with the very first step – setting up the initial platform for the marble. The platform had to hold the marble steady, but also allow it to roll free when it was nudged by a coin or finger. With that in place, I turned them loose with the supplies and circulated around the tables, assisting when needed, hot glue gun ready.

If you can get it, I highly recommend mirror board to add some flash and fullness to your mechanism. I buy mine online at Discount School Supply.

mirror mirrorI found a little textured gold paper in the Bling Bin, so I added it to the top of my key box. And don’t forget to enclose the key from the template!

key boxThe template artwork was created by Princeton student artist Aliisa Lee. Originally, it was used for a Steampunk hat decorating activity that was part of a larger Journey to the Centre of the Earth event. I mostly used Aliisa’s gears for the mechanism template, but if you’d like to see more of her artwork in action, take a look at this dapper gent!

steampunk hatIf you’re mad for mechanisms, you might want to check out this. The “Page-Turner” was the centerpiece of a Rube Goldberg program at our library.