Star Trek has lots of cool technologies that have become a reality. There are invisibility cloaks and Tractor beams being made right now. And cellphones are like communicators and replicators are 3D printers. But, what we could all use is a transporter. This way we would not need to drive or go to an airport, we could just beam over to where we need to go and come back. Sounds wonderful!

Well, I spoke to physicist Lawrence Krauss, who is also the author of The Physics of Star Trek. He told me that a transporter takes us apart bit by bit. “In order to make you you, we need to put you back together atom by atom,” said Krauss. That sounds easy. But there is some bad news. There is a law in physics, in quantum mechanics, that tells us that the more we know where an electron is located, the less we know about how fast it is going. This is called the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle.

To build a person atom by atom, we would need to know where each atom goes and how fast it is moving. But quantum mechanics says that we can’t know both of those things well. We can know one well, but not the other. So making a transporter would break the laws of physics.

Getting into a transporter would be a one-way trip. You might not like how you turn out.

So the short answer for “can we make a transporter?” is, “no.” We would be breaking the laws of physics to do so. And, we mustn’t do that.

No picnic would be perfect without ketchup. But ketchup has this habit of taking its sweet time when leaving the bottle.

There are several ways to get ketchup out of the bottle.

  • Stick a knife in it and scoop it out.
  • Hit the bottle at the neck (where the 57 is located).
  • Skip it and use mustard instead.

But there is a better, scientific way:

Shake the bottle.

Ketchup is made up of tomato pieces, water, vinegar and spices. And, it is the arrangement of the tomato pieces that give ketchup a structure and cause the flow of ketchup to slow down.

Scientists would call ketchup a thixotropic yield stress liquid. The yield stress part means that it takes force for the ketchup to move. This is why we have to hit the bottle to get it out. The thixotropic means that the ketchup has the ability to “remember.”

Once someone has used the ketchup bottle, the ketchup inside “remembers” it and will flow faster afterwards. This means that the second person that gets the ketchup bottle will have an easier time getting the ketchup out then the first person to use it.

What is going is on is that the tomato particles in the ketchup get rearranged after the first use and can easily flow passed each other the second time.

So how do you get ketchup to flow faster? If you are the first person with the ketchup bottle, then shake it. But, if you are the second person, don’t worry; you won’t have long to wait. The ketchup will flow real easily.

So, next time you are at a picnic, let someone deal with the ketchup bottle first. It is polite and scientifically a better way to reduce the wait.

 

Ben Franklin went out one stormy night with a kite and found out that lightning is electricity. Well, lightning has a few other tricks up its sleeve. Lighting makes magnets that are called lodestones.

Lodestones have been part of civilization for thousands of years, since the early compasses, which allowed us to reach new corners of the earth. And, the unusual origin of lodestones has been known for decades. The first clue that these stones were otherworldly was that they are only found on the surface of the earth. If you dig deep into a mine, you won’t find lodestones.

Dr. Peter Wasilewski, a retired NASA scientist, who made a living playing with lightning had this to say, “The thing about the lightning bolt, besides being magical, is that it has a magnetic field associated with it.”

Lightning changes the stone by providing a big magnetic field. One can demonstrate this by rubbing a needle with a magnet. That needle will be a magnet for a short time. Well, the lightning and lodestones undergo a similar process but on a larger and supernatural scale.

So, how do you coax lightning to strike a stone?

Wasilewski created lodestones using lightning in much the same way as Ben Franklin did, but with tools that are much more expensive. To make a lodestone, first he had to go where there is lots of lightning. Summertime months in places like Florida and New Mexico are hotspots for strikes.  Then, he needed a better “kite.” Wasilewski replaced Franklin’s contraption with a small bottle rocket that he launched into storm clouds. Attached to this rocket was a three-mile long metal wire fastened to a plastic box. Inside the box was a bed of sand, and the soon-to-be-zapped rock sat on top.

The experiment happens in a flash and everything melts or burns, since the lightning heats everything to over 2,900°F.

And the rock in the box? It’s a magnet now.

That’s a very striking difference!

 

There have lots of news about various pandemics. The first line of defense is a camera, a thermal camera.

When someone is sick, they usually have a temperature. Here is where the camera comes it. Thermal cameras can “see” if someone has a fever because these cameras can detect the heat. Thermal camera detect the heat, which comes off as infrared.

 

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.

Invisibility has been something that has captured our imagination in books and movies from The Invisible Man (1933) to Harry Potter (2001). And, these characters make invisibility seem so cool.

Well, science fiction has become a science fact. Scientists have made objects invisible in their labs.

In order to understand how to make something invisible, we have to think about light. Light moves in straight lines. When it hits a surface, it bounces off, and heads for our eyes. And, the brain interprets this bounced light as an image.

If we want to make something invisible, we have to bend light around the object so that our eyes and brains cannot see it. Bending light is an optical illusion. Invisibility is an optical illusion too.

What scientists have done is get some magnifying glasses and put then in a row so that they collect light into a small beam and then bend it. When you look through those lenses, you cannot see anything. So far, they have been able to make something the size of a hand invisible.

As you can imagine, soldiers and spies would love to get their hands on this invention. But, artists would too. With an invisibility cloak, they could bend light so that windows are not needed, but light still comes into the room.

All in all, art continues to inspire science with new ideas. And invisibility cloaks change how we see and don’t see the world.

 

You can try this invisibility cloak for yourself at the link below. Impress your students and friends.

Get your own invisibility cloak today!

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

How?

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.

 

When it comes to communicating, some things never change.

The african drum. Many would say it was an musical instrument. It is. But, it is much more than that. African drums were a way of communicating over vast distances in ancient Africa.

If there was a herd coming or an enemy was approaching, drummers would send messages through their drums to neighboring villages.  The messages would be repeated again and again and to send the message further.

It ends up that modern technology does something similarly. Messages in your telephone are repeated so that the volume isn’t loss and this allows messages to be sent over long distances.

But the most mind-blowing stuff that the ancient Nubians discovered is that if you drum a message near the banks of the Nile, the message can be sent over the surface of the water without losing volume. Scientists would say there is a a lossless channel at the interface between the water and air.  That means you could whisper something and someone across the Nile nearly 2 miles away could hear it.

Today, we seek such an ability with optical fibers. The challenged is to send a message without it losing volume and without the need for lots of repeaters.  It seems the some of the issues of the past are still present today. Showing that there really isn’t anything new under the (African) sun.

LEDs or light emitting diodes are everywhere from traffic lights to Christmas ornaments to remote controls.  Inside these tiny bulbs is a small grey block which is made of silicon. And, silicon has the unusual origin of coming from sand.

Sand is melted and purified and then cast in long thick logs, called ingots, which are slice like baloney. Twenty years ago, these logs used to be as thick as a thumb, now these logs are wider than dinner plates.  The slice is then cut into small square chips.

The chips are then given a bit of phosphorus on one side and a bit of boron on the other. Phosphorous is an element that has more electrons than silicon; boron has fewer electrons than silicon. These different sides are connected to a battery. The battery pushes electrons from the phosphorous side to the boron side. And, when these electrons connect with atoms that don’t have electrons, light is given off.

LEDs are more efficient than incandescent bulbs. Incandescent bulbs, the ones we attribute to Thomas Edison, give off lots of heat. This is why toy oven use these bulbs to bake small cakes.  In fact, 70 percent of the energy used by incandescent bulbs is heat. That’s wasted energy.

But, LEDs run cool. They are so cool that cities now must remove snow from LED traffic lights during the winter. In the past, incandescent bulbs ran so hot, they would burn off any snow that landed on them. LEDs are not running hot and so snow collects on traffic lights. (This happens when you solve one problem, you inherit another one.)

So, as you can see, small bits of beach sand purified into silicon are made into sandwiches that give off light. Now, this is a bright idea.

 

Additional reading & activites (Affiliate Links):

Elements: A Visual Exploration 

Snap Electronics Fun LED kit

Materials: A Very Short Introduction

The colors come from their skin playing with light.

Chameleons have the ability to change the color of their skin. And, researchers at the University of Geneva have uncovered the secret.

The chameleon’s skin is made up of two layers. The bottom layer is yellow. The top layer has tiny crystals inside it that play with light.

When the male chameleon is relaxed, the crystals in the top layer of the skin are close together. White light, which contains all the colors of the rainbow, shines onto the skin, but only blue bounces back from the top layer. This color combines with the yellow color from the bottom layer to make green.

This phenomenon of creating colors with patterns is what scientists call structural color. Structural color is pretty common in the animal kingdom. Many insects (beetles and butterflies) and birds (peacocks) create color this way. Light shines onto the patterns and only certain colors come off. You can think of the skin as tiny mirrors that select the colors that will be seen.

Structural color occurs in everyday life too. If you look at a soap bubble, you’ll see hints of color. Or if you look at the bottom of a CD, you’ll see hints of color too. Both the soap bubbles and CDs are clear, but the patterns that are on their surfaces play with light to create color. Next time you are at the gas station and see oil on the ground, you’ll see bands of color. This is structural color at work too as the film goes from thick to thin.

When the male chameleon gets angry or wants to attract a mate, it changes the distance between the crystals in its skin. This time when white light shines on the skin, only red bounces back. And that red color combines with the yellow from the first layer to make orange.

Interestingly, the tiny crystals in the skin are too small to see with the human eye. They are a nanometer in size. A nanometer is equal to one-one hundred thousandths of your hair. To find them, researchers had to take a small sample of the chameleon’s skin and measure it with a special microscope. Scientists took samples when the chameleon was relaxed and then again when it was agitated.

Now, researchers are now trying to find out how chameleons know the change the distance between the crystals. And, engineers want to use these patterns to make computer screens with less glare.

What there is no camouflaging is how clever chameleons are.