Pushing back the night with light of our own making was the first and greatest of humankind’s achievements. What a thrill it must have been to discover that the setting sun no longer had to mean darkness and fear. We’ve come a long way since that first campfire, but it’s just recently that technology has topped the most advanced form of open-flame light.
Most people probably don’t think of Corning as a crime fighting company, but when it sold its Pyrex brand to World Kitchen in 1998, the company accidentally made the illegal manufacture of crack cocaine more difficult—a fascinating example of unintended consequences.
Ordinary glass shatters if it’s heated too quickly: Pour boiling water into a common flintglass tumbler, and it’s likely to fall apart seconds later. The glass on the inside expands when it gets hot, putting stress on the cold glass on the outside. When the stress gets too great, it cracks.
On July 2, 2007, Scott Showalter climbed into a manure pit on his Virginia farm to clear a blocked pipe. Moments later, he fainted and died. An employee of his went in to save him but was quickly overcome as well. One by one, his two daughters and wife followed, only to die trying to save the people who went before them.
Every month for the past seven years, I’ve undertaken some experiment—entertaining you, dear readers, by risking my life with dangerous chemicals. But this month I conducted an experiment of an entirely different kind: I went in front of a live audience on a popular Japanese variety show and risked their lives with dangerous chemicals.
Last month I promised I would re-create some demonstrations I recently did on a Japanese TV show. First up, fire bubbles! The setup was very simple: Get a bunch of minor Japanese celebrities to line up with their hands outstretched holding a line of bubbles and then light the bubbles on fire.
There are a few perks to my job as a mad scientist, and one of them, as I recently learned, is being able to tell my colleagues that I can’t attend their terribly important meeting because I’m going to set my hand on fire.
In the movies, people on fire stumble out of burning buildings all the time. If you look closely, however, you’ll notice that they are almost always fully dressed, and that they tend to keep moving. These are two important factors that make the stunt much easier.
When I first saw this photograph of a man’s hand submerged in liquid nitrogen at somewhere below -320° F, my immediate thought was, “That guy must be crazy! One second in that stuff, and you’re shopping for new skin!” My shock was tempered only slightly by the fact that it was my hand, and we’d taken the picture just a minute earlier.
It's all sweetness and light until the sugar hits the fan. In 2008 the sweetener killed 14 people in Georgia -- not from diabetes or heart disease, but in a violent explosion. Absence of regulation, ineffective enforcement, and lack of preparation for the potential danger led to the Imperial Sugar factory disaster, one of the worst industrial accidents of our time.
When you step on your car’s gas pedal, you’re taking chemical energy stored in gasoline molecules and turning it into the kinetic energy of a moving car. It’s not the most efficient process in the world, but much of the energy content of the gas ends up as useful motion. Yet when you step on the brakes, you’re just throwing it all away—the kinetic energy is wasted as heat in the brake pads and rotors.
Electric cars can recover that energy by taking advantage of a wonderful property of electric motors: They also work as generators.
Once a piece of magic technology becomes so common that you can buy it at the gas station, people start taking it for granted. That happened with light sticks sometime in the 1990s. But with a little creativity, diagonal cutters and Drano, you can reveal—and control—that old black, green, red and blue magic inside.
Theodore Gray, author of our own Gray Matter, turned the periodic table into one of the most stunning (and popular) applications for the iPad. Here, take an inside look on what brought it from fantasy to reality in 60 days
Every once in a while things just come together to make you realize that you'd be an idiot not to put yourself through hell in pursuit of an impossible goal. That day arrived for me on January 27th when Steve Jobs announced that the iPad would be shipping 60 days hence.
After some deep soul searching for about 60 seconds, I decided that I had the chance to create something quite remarkable, and just maybe do it better and faster than anyone else in the world. More specifically that I had a chance to take my recently published book, The Elements: A Visual Exploration of Every Known Atom in the Universe, and turn it into a book that Harry Potter might check out of the Hogwarts library.
I wanted to make Harry Potter's magic books a reality, and do it in 60 days flat. Here's how we pulled it off.
Editor's note: A big congratulations today to Theo Gray, whose Gray Matter column was nominated for a 2010 ASME award in the Columns and Commentary category. Great to see Theo's excellent work being recognized. Here, his latest column from the March issue:
The first light-emitting diodes went on sale in 1962, and you could have any kind you wanted as long as it was dim and red. Green, yellow and orange came next, but blue LEDs didn’t debut until 1989. So it may surprise you that the first LEDs, discovered in 1907, included blue—and were made of sandpaper.
A battery that runs on air? Why, that’s almost as good as a car that runs on water! Those cars are fantasy, but batteries that run on air are actually quite common, especially among older people. Tiny zinc-air batteries are widely used in hearing aids, where they have replaced toxic mercury-based batteries in providing a small but steady stream of power. They supply more energy for their size than any other battery, because they draw some of their power straight from the air.
Screen Test:A fine-mesh kitchen sieve with a candle inside simulates a Davy miner’s safety lamp. An explosive mixture of propane gas and air is blown in from the outside. If the mesh is fine enough, the fire will stop at the screen even as the explosive gas flows through it. Mike Walker
If you were a coal miner in the early 1800s, the light you used was an open-flame oil lamp—even though mines were sometimes filled with “fire-damp,” a volatile mixture of air and methane gas. Explosions were inevitable, and at times threw bodies from mine shafts like grapeshot from a cannon. Humphry Davy became a national hero when, in 1815, he found a remedy: Surround the lamp flame with mosquito screen.
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.