Thursday, September 25, 2008

Science by Mail, Packages 11-16

More element samples and other nifty things to show to students.

Here is a sample for Carbon: a really magnificent, shiny, hand-filling piece of anthracite coal. Most young people living in 2008 have probably never handled a piece of coal, but it is stuff of great significance, since it is our biggest greenhouse gas producer and the source of most of our electricity.

I also already had some small pieces of natural graphite and some small pieces of jet, which is a coal-like substance that also formed from fossilized plant material, but wood in particular. Jet is very cool stuff and someday I'd like to stumble across a real Victorian-era necklace of genuine faceted hard jet pieces, but this mourning jewelry seems to have had a resurgence among modern goths, so the real stuff has become rather expensive. (If you want to find something really creepy, though, look for Victorian hair jewelry -- not jewelry that goes in your hair, but jewelry made of hair).

But I digress, as usual. The next package contained a sample of crude oil. Given how important this is to our infrastructure and daily lives, you'd thing we'd be more familiar with the raw material, but just like we generally buy cartons of milk without seeing cows, we fill our cars with gas without seeing what the source material looks like. It's thinner and runnier than you might expect. People used to drink it as a tonic. (NOTE: I can't advise that). We might pour some out so people can smell it and touch it.

Another stand-in for diamonds, these look even more like diamonds than the "Herkimer Diamond" quartz crystals. These are cubic zirconia. They actually look brighter and prettier than real diamonds, but don't tell DeBeers. If the large one were real real it would be a 6.5 carat flawless cut diamond worth... well, Google diamond prices for yourself. Let's just say I could probably retire. The fake one cost me $10.

Next up, a sample of gallium. Gallium is a metal that melts at about 86 degrees Fahrenheit. In other words, it melts in your hand, although it might take a long time to get it to melt completely. My sample came in a polyethylene bag, and I probably shouldn't have put it in a glass jar, for a couple of reasons. The first is that it expands when it freezes, like water, so it could crack the jar. I wouldn't want to have it spill -- it's both expensive and very messy. The second is that it sticks to glass, which means if you shake up the jar, it will coat the inside and you won't be able to see in, unless you melt it again and scrape it off the sides somehow.

Gallium is not toxic like mercury; you can hold it in your hand, if you want to. But you probably don't want to, since it sticks to everything, and leaves a powdery, gray residue on your hands. So it pours like mercury, but mercury doesn't stick to glass like this and so is a lot cooler to pour or shake. I actually own some mercury, but I keep it sealed up in a jar inside a tin -- because of its toxicity I don't want to run the risk of a spill.

Another weird property of gallium is that it supercools. After you get it liquid, it takes forever to get it solid again. You can cool it far below its melting point -- I had the jar lying sideways in the freezer -- and it was very cold to the touch, but after an hour, some of it was still liquid. Very weird stuff. I'll have to see if I can find a more suitable container for it -- some kind of teflon-like plastic that it won't stick to would be nice, but it would also be nice if it were transparent. I'm not sure there's a plastic that meets both those requirements. I should ask Theodore Gray.

The jar is one of those tiny single-serving Heinz ketchup jars that you sometimes get in hotel room service meals. They're useful for all kinds of things.

The next item is not really an element: it's to illustrate the distinction between silicone and silicon. Silicon is an element; silicone is a whole family of compounds ranging from rubber-like materials to caulk to a dry-cleaning solvent. Silicone contains silicon. These are some of those awareness-raising rubber bracelets, in this case for breast cancer, which killed my mother in 2008.

Finally, this is a sample of calcium, which as you can see in its pure state is a metal. It oxidizes (and produces a nitride) giving itself a gray/black coating rapidly in air, especially humid air, so this sample is submerged in mineral oil, in another little glass jar wrapped with tape.

It was very blackened when I got it, which kind of ruined the effect -- the whole point was that it should look like a shiny metal, because we don't think of calcium that way. So I took it out of the oil and polished it up with a piece of emery paper, removing all the oxidation I could easily take off without sanding away too much of my sample. It's not dangerously explosive or inflammable like sodium, although it oxidizes quickly enough that if you left the dry metal out for -- I don't know, maybe an hour or two, maybe a day or two -- it would be completely gray/black with oxidation again.

Will it stay shiny in the oil indefinitely, or does oil hold dissolved oxygen that will oxidize it, just more slowly? I must confess I have no idea. I think for a really bright shiny sample you need to get a freshly cut and polished piece that is ampouled under argon gas.

That's all for this round. The packages have slowed down to a trickle! There are still a few more coming, though, most notably the iodine, silicon, and the gas discharge tubes and apparatus (that should make some nifty photos!)

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Esquire Magazine's E-Ink Cover

First, the magazine cover, in two of the states it cycles through:

There's a car ad on the opposite side of the cover. I'm guessing that's what funded the whole thing. It's really unimpressive, though, and doesn't look as good as the cover; it just highlights parts of the wheels and sections of the body to give a vague impression of motion.

Ripping open the cover is easy, with a little care, and from there's it's just a matter of carefully peeling off some clear tape and pulling the panels free of their glue without bending them too badly or tearing one of the ribbon cables.

The apparatus, consisting of two panels and a circuit/battery board, and aforementioned ribbon cables:

The two panels detached. Note that unlike an LCD, even with the power removed the panel stays in the last state that it was set to.

No, I didn't break it... if I reattach the ribbon cables, the panels start animating again.

The colored sheets that overlay the panels, to give the display some color:

So, overall, the E-Ink thing is a bit of a gimmick; if they had just wanted to make the thing eye-catching, they probably could have done it cheaper by lighting up parts of the cover using some tiny LEDs. It isn't like the whole magazine came on an E-Ink screen and you could read the whole thing on it. That would have impressed me.

Can it be hacked? Well, there's not really very much here. The panels aren't true E-Ink the way the Kindle is; it isn't dot-addressable. It is like a calculator LCD, containing a series of pre-printed regions that can light up or go dark. So probably the best you could do to hack it is to drive the different segments in a different order, faster of slower. Someone could make it sound-responsive. But you can only activate and deactivate the existing segments; you couldn't, for example, rewire it to turn on and off individual characters, and certainly can't draw your own characters or display some other kind of picture. A bit disappointing as far as hacking potential goes. I'm willing to be proven wrong, though -- people are endlessly inventive!

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Science by Mail, Packages 5-10

This is a roll of carbon fiber fabric. Very cool stuff, perhaps close to 90% pure carbon, made by a high-tech process from some kind of synthetic fiber.

Carbon fiber fabric is coated with epoxy and hardened to make carbon fiber panels; this is a sample.

Five pounds of pure bismuth metal, for melting and casting or making crystals. Bismuth is a dense, non-toxic metal, and it arrived as a bag of crystalline chunks, probably smashed off of a larger cast block with a sledgehammer.

My favorite is a set of three metal cylinders of the same size and shape. They are made of magnesium, copper, and tunsten. The difference in mass between the magnesium and the tungsten is about one to ten, which makes it a strange experience to pick them both up. The copper is pretty close to somewhere in the middle, about five times the mass of the magnesium cylinder. The tungsten sample is amazing -- a museum-quality sample, the most expensive of the items I purchased. It weighs almost exactly what it would weigh if it were made of solid gold, about twice as much as it it were made of lead. Maybe I'll get a lead cylinder to go with it for comparison purposes.

An ultraviolet flashlight, with UV-generating LEDs. Shows up cool things like security features on driver licenses and banknotes. I was hoping some of my existing minerals would fluoresce nicely, but none of them do. Chicken gristle does, strangely, and crayons, and many items washed with detergent, and any "bright white" paper.

Last for today, a sample of pure silver you can hold in your hand. It's a troy ounce ingot with a buffalo motif.

I'm expecting a few more tomorrow!

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Science by Mail, Packages 2-4

I came home to find quite a few packages waiting for me! Many of this week's eBay finds had arrived already. Oh, and one sleeping baby boy, who didn't seem to notice.

The first package Veronica and I opened contained a small baggie of "Herkimer Diamonds." These are one of the stand-ins for real diamonds. They are actually very clear, highly polished and faceted quartz crystals -- very pretty, inexpensive and guilt-free. Diamond is one of the allotropes of carbon in my element collection.

The next package contained some small vials of carbon black or pure black soot, sold for craft purposes. This can stand in for buckminster fullerene or carbon nanotubes or similar carbon structures which all pretty much look like soot.

We also received a CD I had ordered from a seller in England, a copy of Trans by Neil Young. It's an odd duck of a Neil Young album because most of the songs use heavy synthesizer lines and he sings through a vocorder. It was not very popular when it came out but I remember it with a certain fondness. We won't count that as one of our science packages for numbering purposes.

The next one contained an inexpensive spectroscope that uses a diffraction grating. I don't think I'll be able to photograph or project spectra but it does in fact work; you can see the lines in, say, a compact fluorescent bulb.

Science by Mail, Package 1

I have just ordered a whole bunch of small chemistry and physics items from eBay and they will be arriving over the next few days. In the spirit of "Thing a Week," I'll take pictures and blog the items as they arrive.

Only one package today, but that's not surprising given the fact that I only ordered these things on Tuesday. Today's thrilling installment:

It's an alcohol lamp! A poor man's bunsen burner.

It ought to be hot enough to heat up iodine in a test tube or ignite a strip of magnesium. We'll double-check that before trying those demos in front of a class, though.

Photo Ketchup, September 17 2008 Edition

It seems like I'm always blurry with red eyes. I guess I vibrate too fast and don't get enough sleep. Do these frames make my eyes look fat?

My stepmother Cheryl. She smiles a lot in person, but it's hard to get a good smile out of her when there's a camera pointed her way.

My father recording "Bad, Bad Leroy Brown" with his 1950s Martin ukulele, in our living room. The blue box to the right is an absolute necessity for anyone who sets up an intonates stringed instruments: a Peterson virtual strobe tuner (quite a bit more accurate than your usual guitar tuner).

Baby Sam-a-lot, getting ready for a bike ride with his big brother.

My father found some bizarre rocks on Lake Superior in Grand Marais, including a Petoskey stone which, as far as I can tell, should not have been there (my best guess is that it was actually dumped there when someone decomissioned a collection).

My favorite was a granite rock (I think it's all granite, but I'm not a geologist; it's definitely metamorphic, but it could be partly a gneiss piece of schist, hahaha) with layers, one of which was folded into an "S" shape, obviously a signature rock from Lake Superior.

The folded layer ran all the way through the piece, forming a reverse "S" on the other side. It blows my mind a little trying to imagine the conditions under which rock would fold and melt and bend like that.

Veronica was very excited about her first day of pre-school, and the pretty pink dress and hair band she wore.

And she loves to chill out after a hard day of pre-school with a little funk bass. Doesn't everybody? Oh, yeah.

The bass is a Godin Freeway 4-string I found used for a great price. I set it up with flat-wound strings and it sounds great. I cancelled the fancy Steinberger Synapse 5-string fretted bass I had on back order. This in combination with my 5-string Synapse fretless is more than enough variety in bass for the time being.

I'm all a-Twitter

I've been twittering (see my page at I'm not sure if I'll keep up at this rate but it is convenient to be able to write little posts from my iPod. Twitter seems like an interesting social experiment. Like all these tools, a bit of a solution in search of a problem. Does it actually enhance a person's sense of social contact or just make us more isolated? So far for me I've been chatting, albeit in 140-character chunks, with a couple of my friends I don't talk to very often. But time will tell.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

The Importance of Backups

Veronica Ruth was telling her visting grandmother Cheryl that my mother, her grandmother Susan, died.

"Yeah, I know! That's very sad!" said grandma Cheryl.

"That's OK," Veronica said. "I have two more grandmothers."

Summer's Over

We're back from a week's vacation in Grand Marais.

I made a video -- my first -- using Apple iMove, and uploaded it to a brand-spanking-new YouTube account. The video is our family vacation, in the form of a music video for Jonathan Coulton's song "Summer's Over" (Thing a Week #51).

Here is the video link:

I find Mr. Coulton's lyrics to be simple but beautiful; the song has been stuck in my head for the last few weeks.

Summer’s over
You’re going back to school
I’m staying here
Where else would I go?

Watch the leaves turn
Close up the swimming pool
Winter comes in
Sooner than you know

Nights get cold
And the flowers let go
Bide their time
Under the snow
As they go down they say

Summer’s over
Because it has to be
Just like before
Around and around

It’s a circle
Bringing you back to me
Stay where I am
I’m lost and found

When you go
You come back again
Close the door
The cold’s getting in
As I go down I say

The only thing I'm unhappy about is that it looks much worse after export, upload, and processing by YouTube than it does in original form; I'm not sure how to improve the video quality. iMovie gives me two file size/resolution options to upload; the bigger one didn't look good, so I"m trying the "mobile" size. It doesn't look significantly better or worse at first glance. At some point I'll upload a higher-resolution version to my web site for anyone with the patience to download it.

It occurs to me that the last time I did any extensive video editing was when I worked for the Office of Instructional Technology, about 16-17 years go. Back then I would have been editing using two 3/4" videocasette machines, on a dedicated system with several external monitors built around a Macintosh IIfx with some custom NuBus cards, and it would have taken me days to work through my edits. If I recall correctly, I'd have spent extra effort making sure my transitions were between frames and not fields (NTSC half-frames) which would produce "tears" (jagged transitions).

And, of course, a few years before that, the gear would have been even more unwieldy and expensive.

Today I did it in just a few hours in Apple iMovie, a program I've never used before. I did not need to pull out a manual, and was only slowed down by a recalcitrant hidden feature or hidden option once or twice. That's progress. iMovie has a user interface that is, for the most part, very "discoverable." I'm favorably impressed with it, and with the integration between the parts of Apple's suite.

I recorded a lot more still photos and a bunch of nifty audio on this trip, which I'll talk about later!