Being a mad scientist can be a thankless job, but every once in a while you get a chance to shine—literally. I recently had that opportunity when working with a TV show to film one of the most beautiful of all chemical phenomena, the cold luminosity of white phosphorus.
The copper earring you see here had already been glowing bright orange for half an hour when we took the photograph. There is no flame under it, no electric current through it. Underneath is a pool of volatile and highly flammable acetone, but the liquid is not on fire. So where is the heat coming from?
Last year, I stuck my hand in super-cold liquid nitrogen for the amusement of PopSci readers. My skin survived that demonstration, but I wimped out on a related experiment at the opposite extreme: dipping my finger into molten lead. That’s because the only time I’ve ever burned myself badly enough to need a doctor was while casting a lead plaque as a kid.
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.
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.
About a year ago, when resident mad scientist Theo Gray pitched me a Gray Matter column on liquid oxygen, an extremelyflammable energetic form of the element, he first proposed showing how to use it to light a grill nearly instantaneously. The lawyers, however, suggested we go a more tame route, so instead we showed how you could make a few drops of the hooch yourself.
But of course, when left to his own devices (and free of legal oversight), Theo couldn't help himself.
I remember seeing a demonstration of a seemingly magic process at an engineering open house decades ago, in which a soft metal bit carved detailed shapes into far harder metals. It's called electrochemical machining (ECM), and it's so simple in principle that you can do it at home with a drill press, a battery charger and a pump for a garden fountain.
What you consider solid, liquid or gas depends entirely on where you live. For example, men from cold, cold Mars might build their houses out of ice. Women from Venus, where the average temperature is about 870°F, could bathe in liquid zinc.
We think mercury is a liquid metal, but it's all relative. At one temperature, the mercury atoms arrange themselves into a solid crystal; at another, they flow freely around each other as a liquid. Children from Pluto (like mine, for example) could happily cast their toy soldiers out of mercury, because on that frigid planet it is a solid, malleable metal a lot like tin. Here on temperate Earth, you need a stove to cast tin, but a tank of liquid nitrogen to make mercury figurines.
Arthur C. Clarke wrote that "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic," but he was wrong. It's easy to tell the difference -- technology works. For example, "remote-viewing" mentalists claim they can see events far away, yet they fail every test. In fact, remote viewing is simple: It's called TV.
Another example that recently circulated online was a fake video of someone charging his iPhone by jamming the end of a USB cable into an onion. How do I know it was fake? First, you need contacts made of two different metals, and second, you can't get enough voltage out of a single vegetable. What makes the ruse so disappointing is that it is possible to charge an iPhone this way, if you do it right.