Everyone loves fireworks.  Fireworks are quite old. The oldest form of fireworks was a firecracker from 7th century China, now we can make complex shapes like planets and clown faces.

So what gives the colors in fireworks?

There are a few elements at work. Barium, strontium, copper, and sodium make the colors green, red, blue, and yellow.  Aluminum and titanium make white; and carbon makes yellow.

So as you can see, fireworks are a explosion of color and chemistry.

Imagine you are a seed. You are buried in the ground and it is dark.

You are starting to sprout and grow. But which way should you go? Which way is up?

Well, it ends up there are special cells in plants that allow it to sense the direction of gravity. These cells are sort of like a jar full of water with small rocks inside. If you throw in the rocks and seal the jar, the rocks will fall to the bottom. If you tilt the jar, the rocks will fall to the new bottom. Something similar is going on inside these cells. There are small rocks that fall to the bottom of the cell and tell the cell, this is where gravity is pulling. So, the roots know to go in that direction; and the shoots of the plant know to go in the opposite direction.

Scientists would call this ability of plants to sense gravity, gravitropism.

If you want, you can try a little experiment. Get a small plant, and put it on its side. In a few days, the plant will tilt upwards.

Now, this ability for plants to sense the direction of gravity is fine on earth were gravity is present, but what about on the space station, where there is little gravity? If we want to grow plants in space, in the right direction, we need to give plants other clues to know which way to grow. Fortunately, plants also grow in the direction of light too. And, recently astronauts have grown a flower in space.

Plants are budding with science and with special cells they know what’s up.


Deep in your printer are millions of explosions that you don’t even know about. Now, we usually don’t think of our printers as anything special, but there is lots of science taking place to make your documents come to life.  Inside of your printer, bubbles push ink through small microscopic holes to make dots on a page that will become letters and numbers and symbols.

But these are no ordinary bubbles. You could put over one and a half million of these bubbles in a square inch (a little over a postage stamp).  These bubbles are created by heating the ink with very tiny electrical resistors, like those in your toaster, but the ink is heated so quickly that it doesn’t actually boil. The ink is heated to over 650 Fahrenheit  (350C). At this temperature, the ink doesn’t boil, it explodes in what’s called a super heated vapour explosion .

Now, the concept of using bubbles to print have been around since the 1950s, and full disclosure, I worked at HP and worked on ink jet.

So how does printing happen? We send a pattern of electrical pulses that activate the resisters in order to produce a pattern of dots on the paper. One of those pulses, which last for about a millionth of a second, causes a bubble to form. The bubble pushes the drop out the nozzle and the drop lands on paper in a pattern that reproduces characters and graphic images. And, voila, you have the makings of an image.

To make an image, there are nozzles for black, cyan,  magenta, and yellow ink. When combined in the right proportion, all the colors of the rainbow are possible and the quality is on par with a photograph.

And ink jet is everywhere.  The next time you see a bus driving down the street with a beautiful color graphic on the side it is most likely that it was printed on ink jet.   Ink jet is also used for banners, CDs, and even t-shirts.

So bubbles print and their work is everywhere. They give life more pop.

Pi (π) is an old number. It is found in the ratio of a circle’s diameter to its circumference. This might not seem like a big deal for our modern sensibilities, but this was important in the construction of arches for buildings and churches. And, let us not forget the wheel.

Circles are everywhere from wheels of a car, to wheels on a bike, to the shape of a pizza. If you don’t think pizza boxes don’t have to consider pi when making them, you are mistaken. The problem of a circle in a square has perplexed many mathematical geniuses over the centuries.

Talking about mathematicians, they have some funny words to describe pi.  Mathematicians would call pi irrational, which means that you can never find a fraction that is equal to pi.  For ancient people, or for anyone without a calculator, this is maddening. It is nice to be able to simplify pi.  But, there isn’t a way to do that.  For centuries, people looked for a fraction for pi and the closest is  22/7, but this doesn’t exactly equal  pi.  The other weird thing about pi is that it is transcendental, which means it will never be the solution to an algebraic expression.

Pi is a number that is everywhere but it just doesn’t fit in our standard way of thinking about numbers.

Another weird thing about pi is that it goes on for infinity, without end. Computer scientists have calculated pi for billions of digits. Like this …3.14159265358979323846264338327950288419716939937 …  And on and on and on.

The last thing about pi is that it is use in statistics without our knowing. Whenever there is a bell curve shape, the mathematical expression for the bell curve, also known as a normal distribution, has pi in it. That means that pi is not only in every circle you see, but in any poll where an average is taken.

Pi is everywhere, which is why we take a day out of the year to celebrate it.

Happy 3.14!


For those serious about pi:

A history of Pi

A pi-shaped pi pan

We tell time by measuring a repeating pattern. The earth spins — causing it to be light and dark, which we translate as a day. Pendulums swing back and forth, which we translate as a second. Scientists would call things-with-repeating-patterns oscillators. However, there is a problem.

Researchers have found that the earth speeds up and slows down in unpredictable ways. So, the earth is not a good way to measure the passing of time. The earth is a bad clock.

This is unfortunate, since we need precise clocks for many of the technologies we use,  like GPS. So we need a better clock–a more precise clock, a clock that is stable for a long time.

To make a better clock, it needs three parts: An oscillator to produce a repeating pattern; a counter to measure how often the pattern occurs. And, a part to make sure that the oscillator is creating this pattern correctly—which is called a discriminator.

Deep in a precise clock, or an atomic clock, is an oscillator. In this case, it is a quartz gem that is vibrating—the quartz acts like a piece of jello that wiggles when hit. And, those wiggles are counted to tell time.

To make sure that the quartz is wiggling correctly, atoms are used to check it. Cesium atoms


Well, inside the atoms are electrons. And, electrons live at different levels from the center. Electrons can move up and down these levels, like a ladder, when they get zapped with energy. However, the electrons can’t keep that energy, so they give back a precise amount of energy when they return to their original level. It ends up that that energy given back has a precise oscillation to it. This is compared to the wiggles made by the quartz to see if the quartz is correct.

Sure, there are lots of steps, but it is worth it, since atoms are very precise. They lose their precision every 1.4 million years.

So it seems that atoms take a licking, and this keeps clocks ticking.


And this year’s Oscar goes to .   .    .   chemistry.

On that wonderful night in LA, the red carpet is full of celebrities and fans all eager to hear who wins the gold statue.  However, the Oscar statue isn’t pure gold. That would be extremely expensive.  The Oscar is actually a bronze statue that is coated with gold.

So how does the Oscar become, well, an Oscar?

To understand we have to think about frog’s legs.

In the late 1700s, Luigi Galvani, who was a professor of anatomy in Italy, was dissecting frogs using a metal scalpel and a copper clamp. He noticed something: The frog’s legs twitched like they were alive! He repeated this a couple of times and they twitched every time.

He found something amazing and called it animal electricity. That is the animal had some supernatural life force inside of it. Galvani wrote up his results and all of Europe embraced this idea.

But, on the other side of Italy was a physics professor named Alessandro Volta. He believed in Galvani’s idea at first, but began to think it was the two different metals that caused the legs to twitch. Volta recalled an earlier experiment by another scientist who had put his tongue between two different coins, and it created a terrible taste. Ends up, that  the two metals next each other in a liquid (saliva, in this case) started a chemical reaction.

So with this old experiment in the back of his mind, Volta made sandwiches of two different metals and put them in a jar full of saltwater. Then, he connected wires from this stack of metals to the frog’s legs. They twitched.

What Volta showed is that two different metals together make electricity. He made a battery.

In a battery, electricity flows from one metal to the other.

But what does this have to do with the Oscars?

Well, in order for electricity to flow in a battery in one direction, there has to be metal flowing in the opposite direction.  If you were to look at the metal under the microscope you would see that a metal coating is starting to form.

So to make an Oscar this coating process is taken to a much bigger level.  The bronze statue is put in a huge chemical tank that has microscopic gold floating in a liquid. Electricity is attached to the statue and the gold particles become attracted to the statue and start to coat it. After a really long time in the tank, the statute becomes the beautiful icon we know today.

So, if you enjoy the Oscars, and many do, you really have frog’s legs to thank.


Luigi Galvani: Bern Dibner

How the Oscar Got a Facelift this Year

How Frog Legs Helped Make the Oscars Possible (Video)

There’s no papering over the impact of origami in technology.

What do pizza boxes, paper bags, and fancy napkins have in common? Well, you might have guessed it — origami.

Origami, which means “paper folding,” is everywhere. While some of the oldest pieces of origami have been found in ancient China and origami’s deepest roots are in ancient Japan, origami makes an impact in today’s technology too.

One of the most important uses of origami today is in airbags. Airbags are doughnut-shape nylon bags that are deployed in a fraction of a second during a car collision. Airbags lie flat inside of the steering wheel. So, engineers needed to find the way to fold an airbag so it will store flat and expand out quickly. They consulted origami artist Robert Lang for the folding recipes. He found the origami folds for making a box with lots of corners was the solution that was needed.

Download some cool origami structures from this website (Used with permission)


Origami doesn’t stop there. The National Science Foundation, one of the government’s largest funding sources for research, has funded 13 grants last year to use origami in industry. Origami is being applied to foldable forceps to expanding solar panels to deployable antennas.

Interestingly, other cultures also have a history of folded paper. There are elaborate folded patterns in Europe and folded paper in Mesoamerica going back over a thousand years.

Today, schools are using origami in STEAM education to improve students’ skills. Origami has been found to increase thinking skills, improve geometry learning, and enhance problem solving.

Origami is used in nature. Bugs fold wings with origami patterns; leaf buds have patterns that are similar to Japanese fans. Even molecules are arranged like origami structures.

So, get a piece of paper out and make some folds. Be connected by using this technique that has made impact in so many ways and for so long.


Here are some fun books on origami (Affiliate Links):

Robert Lang’s Complete Book of Origami (featured in the podcast)

Star Wars Origami 

Origami Fun Kit for Beginners

Salad might be one way to reduce our dependence on oil.

Every year 2 billion tires are sold. Each tire is made from 7 gallons of oil. The oil, which comes from fossil fuels, is converted to make the synthetic rubber. Many are worried about this way of doing business because it isn’t sustainable.   What is needed is another source of rubber for tires.

Enter Lettuce.

Scientists at the University of Calgary in Canada found another source of rubber and that is lettuce. Lettuce makes natural rubber. Dr. Dae-Kyun Ro found that lettuce makes rubber and can be cultivated in cold climates like the US and Canada.

Tires used to be made from natural rubber, which came from the Brazilian rubber tree. Even Thomas Edison in the 1930 sought other plants to make natural rubber and found that the Canadian weed called the goldenrod was a good candidate. Edison, with Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone, tried to produce high quality natural rubber from it. But, that work was abandoned once chemists found how to make synthetic rubber from oil. Now, modern scientists are picking up where Edison left off.

Lettuce produces a flowering stem. Inside this stem is a milky substance that contains key ingredients to make natural rubber.

“We found it [lettuce] produces very high quality natural rubber but of a very low quantity,” Ro said. He continued, “the quality is almost the same as that from the Brazilian rubber tree.” This group is also exploring other plants to make natural rubber.

The work is still in the early stages, so it will be some time — five to ten years — before you see a tire with the words “Made from Lettuce, “ on the side. However, what needs no dressing is how impactful lettuce will be.


Next Generation Science Standards: NGSS LS2.A

The color of a leaf is a dance as one molecule exits and others make their way to center stage.

A leaf might seem very simple, but inside it is a chemical factory. Inside the leaf is chlorophyll, a green molecule, which trees use to turn sunlight into energy to grow.

Leaves act just like a factory. In it, one thing goes in and another thing comes out. Leaves take in light from the sun, carbon dioxide from the air, and water from the soil and change them to make sugars and starches. What goes in is sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide; what comes out is energy.

At the heart of this factory is that green chlorophyll molecule, which is working hard during the hot days. However, as the temperature drops at night and the amount of sunshine lessens, the trees know it is time to shut down for the winter. The chlorophyll in the leaves starts to break down and the green color starts to exit the leaf.

One secret about leaves is that hidden underneath the green molecule are other molecules that make the colors of yellow and orange. As the temperature drops, these colors are revealed. As for the reds and purple colors in leaves, they come from other molecules that the tree starts to make as the cold temperatures kick in.

Some years the colors in trees are bright. Other years they are dull. The best conditions for maximum color are cool days that are dry (but not too cold). If there is too much rain or wind — like during a storm — the fall foliage will not be ideal since leaves will fall off the trees. Also, an early frost makes the colors less bright. Interestingly, the colder it gets the redder the leaves will be, since the molecule that makes red prefers the cold.

So as you can see, fall foliage is a delicate dance of molecules. It only happens for a short time. So enjoy the fall colors and all that beautiful and vivid chemistry at work.


Fall Colors in Upstate New York


NFL great Jerry Rice found the football flies in a way that perplexes rocket scientists.

A football has a shape that mathematicians call a prolate spheroid. While that sounds like a weird word, prolate spheroid shapes happen in your everyday life as grapes, lemons, and watermelons. They are all longer in one direction than the other. This weird shape of the football means that it cannot be thrown like a baseball. The only way for a football to stably travel long distances is if thrown with a spin.

When a quarterback throws a football, the football spins more than 600 times in a minute, which is as fast as a CD spinning in a CD player. This spin does a few things. First, it stabilizes the ball. Without the spin, the ball would flop over. The second thing that the spin does is it creates new complicated behaviors too.

The spin creates what scientists called gyroscopic torque. This sounds like a strange thing, but gyroscopic torque happens when you ride a bike. When the wheels spin, you keep upright. However, as soon as the wheels slow down, you lose your balance. The same happens with the football. The spin keeps the football’s nose from falling down just like the wheels of the bike.

However, the spin also allows footballs to do something a bit strange. It acts like a toy gyroscope. If you ever take a spinning gyroscope toy and push it, the toy will mysteriously move on its own in another direction. This same thing happens to a football. A football spins and points its nose up, but gravity pushes its nose down as the football comes back to earth. So the football moves on its own and points sideways. (Next time you are watching a game, notice that the football’s nose is a bit to the side. That’s gyroscopic torque in action!)

So why is this a big deal? If a football is pointing sideways, then this means that a ball can be off its target by a few yards. Quarterbacks must account for this shift when they throw. Many QBs know about this instinctively and do this automatically. But, new QBs have to learn this.

Interestingly, a football spins differently if a quarterback is right-handed or left- handed. When a right-handed quarterback throws the ball, the ball spins clockwise. This means that the ball shifts a bit to the right. A left-handed quarterback throws the ball with a counter-clockwise spin, so the ball veers to the left. A ball will look very different to a wide receiver depending if a quarterback is right handed or left-handed. In fact, Jerry Rice, the great NFL wide receiver, confirmed that the ball looks different. Rice saw something that perplexed professors for years.

As one can see, the football’s tight spiral is poetry in motion, but it is also science in action.


Next Generation Science Standard NGSS PS2.C

Reference books

The Physics of Football by Timothy Gay (Affiliate Link)

Newton’s Football by St. John and Ramirez (Affiliate Link)