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Home Physics

Helping you through the wormhole...

Updated: 2018-03-15T05:40:06.722-07:00


Making Simple Robots! My new book from MAKE magazine


Where to go after you've worked through the no-tech/low-tech projects in my first robobook, Robotics: Discover the Science and Technology of the Future? New from Maker Media -- publishers of MAKE magazine and sponsors of Maker Faires around the world -- my book Making Simple Robots helps newbies take it up a level, with electronics and programming activities.

Written in language that non-engineers can understand, Making Simple Robots helps beginners move beyond basic craft skills and materials to the latest products and tools being used by artists and inventors. Find out how to animate folded paper origami, design a versatile robot wheel-leg for 3D printing, or program a rag doll to blink its cyborg eye. Each project includes step-by-step directions as well as clear diagrams and photographs. And every chapter offers suggestions for modifying and expanding the projects, so that you can return to the projects again and again as your skill set grows.

I loved the challenge of learning new skills like soldering, and then figuring out how to make it simple enough for any beginner to try. I hope you'll check out Making Simple Robots and let me know what you think!

My New Book -- Science, Technology and Geeky Fun!


This past year has been busy -- but the result has been a new book with amazing science and geeky projects for kids and families!

Robotics: Discover the Science and Technology of the Future with 20 Projects, a book for kids ages 9-12 from Nomad Press, is packed full of information about how robots work and contains "low tech/no tech" projects based on actual robotics research. No special tools or skills are needed to build any of the working robotics models in this book -- just ordinary crafts materials and recycled electronics parts!

Robotics is available from Amazon or can be ordered by your favorite local bookstore. See sample projects and photos and read more about the books on my website Crafts for Learning  and my Amazing Robotics Projects Facebook page!

Now FInd "Home Science" Projects at Your Bookstore!


It's been a while since I updated this blog. Among the things that has been keeping me busy is contributing ideas to GeekDad editor Ken Denmead's series of activity books for parents and kids. The latest in the series, The Geek Dad Book for Aspiring Mad Scientists: The Coolest Experiments and Projects for Science Fairs and Family Fun, contains a dozen projects first seen here and on my other "home science" blogs. (Check the sidebar if you've never seen them!)

 What's even more exciting is that I'm now at work along with my three co-editors at on our own book! It is due out in the Fall of 2012 from Potter Crafts, a division of Crown Publishing. And my own activity book for kids, Robotics: Discover the Science and Technology of the Future with 20 Projects, will be out this summer from Nomad Press.

There's a lot going on, but in the meantime, drop by and for more great family activities!

Plasma Experiments on "Integrated Science"


More interesting experiments on our current blog Integrated Science at Home:

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Integrated Science at Home


If you haven't visited our current science blog, Integrated Science at Home, go take a look. We're working our way through a Teaching Company video lecture series called The Joy of Science, which explains the major science concepts using a chronological approach. The series is a handy way of making sure we cover some of the basic material we may have skimmed or skipped over in our more focused courses.

As we watch each episode, I've been jotting down ideas for labs we can do related to each topic. So far most of the topics have been related to Classical Physics. (You know, that stuff I thought would be too boring to go over last year.) I've really been enjoying the projects we've done. Tonight when it got dark we did a demonstration of Total Internal Reflection using a laser pointer and a soda bottle full of water. Check it out!

The Pop-up LHC: A Big Bang in a Book


My review of the pop-up book version of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN is over at GeekDad. It's a little more complicated than most pop-up books -- but then, the topic IS nuclear physics!

Buy it at Amazon!

Teaching Physics in Remote Places


This year we are doing "Integrated Science" using a video course by Prof. Robert Hazen called The Joy of Science. Hazen takes a chronological approach, so we are currently learning about classical physics. In the video Hazen describes simple experiments that can be done at home. We just tried one today, trying to find the declination of a compass needle towards the Earth's North Pole using paper clips, corks and a bowl of water. Our experiment had some problems, so afterwards we went online to look up other ways we could have designed it.

One resource that popped up is from The Institute of Physics is a scientific charity devoted to increasing the practice, understanding and application of physics to all audiences, from specialists to the general public. One of their resources is an online book of experiments called Teaching Physics in Remote Places. It seems perfect for doing physics in the home or classroom -- chances are your set-up isn't any more primitive than that used by the authors of this books!

Now Blogging at GeekMom with Mythbuster Kari Byron!


I've been busy the past few months helping to launch GeekMom, a site dedicated to moms who want to share their geeky passions with their kids. To start us off, we've got MythBusters host Kari Byron writing about her new adventure as mom to a one-year-old girl. Kari is also the host of the new hour-long kids' show Head Rush. Check us out!

And I'll still be blogging at GeekDad, so be sure to stop by there too!

New Institute of Physics Website


The UK-based Institute of Physics is a scientific charity devoted to increasing the practice, understanding and application of physics. It has a worldwide membership of over 36,000 and is a leading communicator of physics-related science to all audiences, from specialists through to government and the general public.

From the IoP blog:

After a year in development and following several usability studies, the Institute of Physics (IOP) is today re-launching its website its increased user-friendliness, the website makes it easier to navigate around and quicker to find information. Content has been specifically tailored for teachers, students, media, IOP members and those with a general interest in the Institute and physics.
 There are separate links for teachers, students, and the general public.

I also found a link to the website Practical Physics -- with over 700 experiments!  Below is an explanation of how ion trails are formed from their page on cloud chambers:

Alpha particle tracks (from Practical Physics)

Nuclear 'bullets' from radioactive atoms make the tracks in a cloud chamber. They hurtle through the air, 'wet' with alcohol vapour, detaching an electron from atom after atom, leaving a trail of ions in their path. Tiny drops of alcohol can easily form on these ions to mark the trail.

The trail of ions is made up of some ‘air molecules’ that have lost an electron (leaving them with a positive charge) and some that have picked up the freed electrons, giving them a negative charge.


There is no sighting of the particle which caused the ionisation, because it has left the ‘scene’ before the condensation happens. If you count the number of droplets an alpha particle might produce 100,000 pairs of ions by pulling an electron from 100,000 atoms.

Nuclear 'bullets' forming a trail of ions which are condensation nuclei

When the alpha particle has lost all its energy in collisions with the ‘air molecules’ it stops moving and is absorbed.

Particle Cloud Chamber


This week, we made a cloud chamber to see radioactive particles just using dry ice. It was surprisingly easy to do, and anyone can make it. The only hassle was getting a few of the materials, and we had a couple setbacks, but when we got it working it was definitely worth it.The set-up All you need is:A sturdy clear container (glass or plastic) which won't crack at low temperatures. We used a small Pyrex glass dish with a plastic lid from Wal-Mart.A sheet of black sticky-back felt.A sheet of black construction paper.Isopropyl alcohol. The kind we used was 91% isopropyl alcohol, which is available in most drugstores or supermarkets. Be sure to use this in a well-ventilated space, because the fumes are poisonous and flammable. Try to avoid getting it on your skin as much as possible.A Styrofoam container, like a picnic cooler. You want a container with a lid that's loose, because pressure will build up inside.Winter or heavy work gloves and/or tongs.Dry ice. Except around Halloween, this might be hard to find. We had to go to a welding supply store an hour from our house. It came in a 10-pound chunk, but we only used half of it. We asked them to cut it in half, so we had a flat slab. (We played around with the rest.) Bring the cooler when you go buy it. Be VERY careful with it -- dry ice has a temperature of -109 degrees Fahrenheit! Use gloves or tongs when handling it.A heat source. We used a wet washcloth, folded into a square and wrapped with plastic wrap, then heated in the microwave. A bright flashlight, like an LED light. You'll also nee a radioactive source. We got some uranium marbles from United Nuclear which worked pretty well. For $10 you get 3 marbles and a piece of uranium ore. Keep your uranium in a plastic bag away from food, children or pets. Wash your hands after handling.A quick side-experiment we did was light up the marbles with a blacklight, which came out really cool: Assembly We put a few different variations of the cloud chamber together, but we only got one to work. Our working version is detailed below, but we also have some links that have some more versions of how to make the chamber at the bottom of the post.What we did was cut out a circle of the sticky-back felt, and attach it to the inside of the lid. We then cut a strip of construction paper and put it around the outside of the container to block out light. We left a little “window” to look in and a smaller window in the back to shine the light through. To use the cloud chamber, we first soaked the felt with the alcohol. We did this outside. The next part was to simply place the uranium marble into the container. To hold the slab of dry ice, we set it in the lid of the Styrofoam cooler (on top of a metal tray). We put the container on top of the dry ice slab, and then put the heated washcloth on top. Last, we placed the flashlight so it shined in the back window and waited for clouds of alcohol vapor to form. This took a few minutes. When the vapor forms, you'll see what looks like slowly-falling rain inside. Particles being emitted by the marble formed lines in the fog. If you look closely at the two photos below (click on them to enlarge), you can see the particles shooting off from the marble. Look about half an inch below the marble in the second shot and you'll see a white line heading off toward the left. That's the ionization trail. Afterwards we decided that the experiment would have worked better if we had used a glass petri dish with a clear top, because it was hard to see through the little window.How it worksSo how do dry ice and marbles create visible particles? When the chamber is cooling down, the air can't hold the warm alcohol vapor. When this happens, the alcohol starts forming into small clouds. At the same time, the radiation source, the marble i[...]

Zombie Feynman


Because I was too busy getting over the flu this week to do any physics:

Physics on Stage


We just finished watching the PBS video of the play Copenhagen by Michael Frayn. It was a little tough going, but the kids got through it. From the PBS companion website:Copenhagen is about Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, two of the great scientific minds of the 20th Century, trying to make sense of a meeting they had in September 1941, while World War II raged around them. From the vantage point of the hereafter, the spirits of Bohr and Heisenberg, along with Bohr's wife Margrethe, are uncomfortable with the many unanswered questions from that fateful evening in 1941, most significantly: why did Heisenberg, a Nobel Prize winning physicist leading the German atomic bomb team, go to Copenhagen to meet with his old mentor Bohr, a half-Jewish Dane living in Nazi-occupied Denmark?The website gives a little more background on the events and how Frayn shaped them into a play, as well as how the film version chose to visualize them. There's also a page of resources about Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, Quantum Mechanics, the Atomic Bomb and other scientific and literary aspects of the play. However, Frayn says on the website that a lot of the science was cut out of the play -- so maybe we should make the effort to read it as well.A few months ago, at my suggestion, we read Tom Stoppard's play Arcadia with our bookclub. Arcadia is less obviously about physics, and it is also funny, so I think the kids probably enjoyed it a little more than Copenhagen. Although it's somewhat bawdy, Arcadia does touch on a lot of higher math and physics. If you understand something of those concepts, it adds to the comedy. I was lucky enough to see a live performance of Arcadia by the theater department of Skidmore College several years ago. The entire freshman class read the play, and it was taught in several different departments. (You can see some essays dealing with different aspects of the play on the Skidmore website.) However, it is rarely performed, and I can't find a video of the play for the kids. Hopefully they'll get to see it sometime.There are other plays, stories and novels dealing with physics that we may get to at some point. But in the meantime, you can see some of my other suggested literary tie-ins by clicking on the link for my Amazon store in the sidebar on the right of the screen.[...]

7 Wonders of the Quantum World


Over at New Scientist, Michael Brooks tours the quantum effects that are guaranteed to boggle our minds.

From undead cats to particles popping up out of nowhere, from watched pots not boiling – sometimes – to ghostly influences at a distance, quantum physics delights in demolishing our intuitions about how the world works.

What Every Dog Should Know About Quantum Physics


I picked this DVD of The Ghost Particle off the library shelf because it deals with neutrinos, neutrally-charged particles which were originally believed to be massless energy, but which are now believed to be the basis for all mass in our universe. Although a little dated (it's from 2004) it was short and interesting. There is a PBS Nova companion website, but I don't think it adds much to the video itself. The classroom activities involve guessing what's in a box -- good perhaps on a conceptual level, but not really "physics."

So we are working on putting together a lab in which we build a small cloud chamber to detect radiation from cosmic rays and/or slightly radioactive material (such as thorium mantles from Coleman lanterns). However, we still need a good background on subatomic particles. For that, I think I will have the kids look over a website called The Particle Adventure.

It gives information in little bite-sized portions, along with trivia questions such as:
For how many years have physicists known that there were more than just protons, neutrons, electrons, and photons? Answer: 60 years! In the 1930's physicists found muons, but hundreds more were found with high energy accelerators in the 1960's and 1970's.
 (Follow-up question:  How many components of matter other than protons, neutrons, and electrons did you learn about in high school physics? My answer: None!)

The Many Worlds of Hugh Everett


We recently watched the PBS NOVA show Parallel Worlds, Parallel Lives about the late physicist Hugh Everett. In 1957, Everett came up with a scenario that would eliminate the Schrödinger's cat -- which said that light didn't take shape as wave or particle until someone was observing it. He called his theory "many worlds," and it proposed the idea that where two states are possible, each splits off into its own universe. Science fiction, especially Star Trek, later adopted the idea for stories involving parallel universes. But at the time, Everett's theory was dismissed by the big guns of physics, like Niels Bohr. Rejected, Everett left academia and went to work for private firms, never developing his theory any further.

(image) Parallel Worlds, Parallel Lives explores the physics of Hugh Everett through his son Mark Oliver Everett. Mark Everett, also known as "E," is a member of the indie rock band EELS and author of Things the Grandchildren Should Know. Mark grew up with his father but had very little contact with him. As an adult, he decides to investigate his father's life and work, meeting with physicists who are trying to further his theories, and visiting with his old colleagues and friends at Princeton and elsewhere. He also uncovers boxes of papers taken from his father's home after the death of his sister and mother and turns them over to his father's biographer. As he says in the documentary, he has become the ambassador from the Everett family to the world.

I really love the NOVA videos we have watched so far this school year, because they both bring in a human perspective and make the most of today's video effects to illustrate difficult physics concepts. This one is no exception, and it has the added plus of being told from the point of view of someone who, like us, has no scientific background. The video is only an hour long and well worth borrowing from your library or adding to your physics teaching materials. There is, as always, clips and lots of supplementary material at the PBS website. My only complaint is that the classroom "activity" doesn't include an actual double-slit experiment, but used a computer simulation instead.

Measuring Microwaves with Chocolate


I wrote up our latest lab as a post for GeekDad, and it ended up going popular on Digg! (For those who care.) To see how we measured the speed of microwaves with a chocolate bar, follow the link.However, we did several trials, so here are some photos from our earlier attempts. And yes, the scale did go up in the last few days... We only got only hot spot with this one ... and the paper plate started to burn (note lower right corner).We tried multiple bars to get broader coverage. This worked a little better. A dish full of chips provided the best coverage of all, but was too hard to pinpoint the hot spots. After several minutes of microwaving, we got one fused, hard point of chocolate (indicated by spoon) but not a second spot to measure. The results:Best holder: glass baking dishBest stand (to cover the rotating thing in the microwave): small plateBest chocolate: Valentine's Day cherry cordialsThis experiment has also been done with marshmallows and by kids on YouTube.  [...]

Big Blog Theory


If you are a fan of The Big Bang Theory -- and I don't watch near as often as I should -- then you will enjoy the blog of UCLA particle physicist David Saltzberg, who is the show's consultant. The Big Blog Theory explains the science behind the episodes.

The show can be seen on CBS Monday nights at 9:30 EST.

Hat tip to a post by fellow GeekDad writer John Booth.And for other interesting physics blogs, check the list way down in the sidebar.

Wave Lab Part 2


After watching some cool videos on YouTube, I decided it would be fun to make patterns with sound waves. These patterns are caused by the same kind of waves, and wave interference, that we saw with our pseudo-ripple tank experiment. Again, our setup was crude: we took a recycled container and set it over a tiny set of speakers and an mp3 player loaded with video game soundtracks. Then we sprinkled some salt on a plate and put it on top. We also tried sprinkling salt directly on the metal top, and then tried it with some water.We didn't always get fancy patterns, but we did see some nice movement. Watch!In the videos on YouTube done with real lab equipment, you can see cool Chladni patterns.Here's an explanation from Teacher's Domain:When an object vibrates at one of its natural frequencies (a rate of vibration at which it naturally tends to move), standing wave patterns are formed within the object. These patterns are the result of wave interference, which occurs at the meeting of two waves traveling within the same medium in different directions. The resulting disturbance within the material at the point where the waves meet is the net effect of the two waves. At certain points in the material, the waves cancel each other out through destructive interference and there is no net disturbance. These points are called nodes, or nodal points. Around the nodes, the waves constructively interfere; the points with the greatest disturbance are called antinodes, or anti-nodal points.And here's an explanation of their origin and use from Robert Krampf:These patterns are called Chladni patterns, named after Ernest Florens Friedrich Chladni of Saxony, who has been called the father of acoustics. He sprinkled sand onto metal plates and studied the way that they vibrated.Besides being fun to play with, these patterns are useful. These patterns are used in designing musical instruments. If a part is attached to a place where the instrument vibrates, the sound will be dampened. By attaching parts at nodes, the instrument makes a full, rich sound. These patterns make the difference between an average instrument and a quality one.Here are the rest of our videos:[...]

Book Review: How to Teach Physics to Your Dog and The Macroscope


(I wrote this article for the Albany, NY Times Union newspaper. It originally appeared, in edited form, on January 24, 2010.)When you think about it, “modern physics” isn’t really all that modern anymore. Einstein began drafting his theory of relativity in 1905, and quantum mechanics – which describes how things work at the sub-atomic level – was described by Max Planck in 1900. Today quantum mechanics is at the core of everything from bar code scanners to computer chips. It’s the most accurately tested theory in the history of science. And yet very few people are aware of even its most basic concepts. Ideas like particle-wave duality (the fact that light and matter has both wave and particle nature) are rarely covered in college physics classes, let alone high school. So when Internet rumors claim that the CERN Large Hadron Collider, which smashes atoms together to see what pops out, is about to suck the Earth into a black hole, or when the latest DaVinci Code book features a physicist who uses “thought particles” to transform matter, most people don’t know what to believe. That’s a gap two new books by local educators are hoping to bridge. In “How to Teach Physics to Your Dog,” (Scribner, 2009) author Chad Orzel explains quantum mechanics to Emmy, his German Shepard mix, in language so down-to-Earth and entertaining that even humans can understand. Why a dog? As Orzel, an associate professor in the department of physics and astronomy at Union College in Schenectady, explained recently, dogs have no preconceptions about where things come from. That makes it much easier for them to accept the idea of virtual particles and parallel universes. “As bizarre as it seems to a human, as far as a dog is concerned dog treats appear out of the air,” Orzel said. “She will sit there staring, hackling at evil squirrels from another dimension.”For readers, following Orzel as he discusses the probability of bunnies made of cheese suddenly appearing in the backyard, or whether dogs can use their wave nature to pass around both sides of a tree at the same time, makes modern physics easier to understand. “As scientists,” Orzel said, “we speak about it in math. I wanted to find ways to get around that, to show how fascinatingly weird the world is without forcing them to go through three years of physics.” At the same time, Orzel added, “There is some heavy stuff in the book -- decoherence, ‘many worlds’ theories – that you don’t often encounter in popular treatments of the subject. The nice thing about writing with the dog is that whenever things get a bit thick, I can have her break in.” At those times Emmy pipes up to remind Orzel, “I don’t want to describe the universe, I want to catch squirrels.”The goal for Orzel is to help readers understand that although the universe is a really strange place, it still has rules, and physicists have been sucessful so far in understanding them.“You can’t will yourself into another universe where you’re wealthy,” he said. “I hope the dog is cute enough to carry people past some of the need for it to be magic.” While Orzel’s book was written for adults whose schooldays are behind them, “The Macroscope,” the first in the Adventures in Atomville series, aims to inspire kids who have yet to set foot in a physics classroom. It’s a fantasy story in which all the characters are atoms which behave in ways that reflect the properties of their particular elements. They eat (and emit) photons, and swat away pesky electron gnats. But the physics is hint[...]

Wave Lab Part 1


Having read the wonderful book How to Teach Physics to Your Dog by Union College professor Chad Orzel (post to come), which talks about the conundrums posed by lighting behaving as both wave and particle, I decided to do a series of labs dealing with waves and leading up to some demonstrations of wave/particle duality.  We started out looking at the interference pattern created by splitting a laser beam (again, post and photos to come). But then I decided it would be helpful to go back and look at plain wave behavior. So I backtracked and did two simple demonstrations of waves -- one with water, one with sound.For the water demonstration I made a very crude approximation of a "ripple tank." I took a shallow, dark colored plastic storage box, filled it with water, and created wave patterns with two spoons. We soon found that shining a light directly on the box made it easier to see the waves via the shadows they made. Although one source suggested tapping the water with the back of the spoons, we also found that we got better results by scooping up a little water and pouring back into the tank.We observed how one wave moved away from the source (the drip) and then bounced back off the walls of the tank. Two simultaneous waves intersected and created a pattern with stronger crests and troughs (highs and lows) where they either added together or canceled each other out.Here's a video of a real ripple tank courtesy of the Carleton University's YouTube Channel:Stay tuned for Wave Lab Part 2: Sound Waves, coming soon![...]