Andrew's Science Log

Science notes – with experiments!

Hero’s Engine

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hero's engineHere is a nice simple project that draws good reviews from kids. It is a simple heat engine the design of which is attributed to the Greek engineer Hero of Alexandria, who described its construction about 2000 years ago. It illustrates a number of principles, most centrally the use of steam to convert heat into rotary motion, as we still use to power most generators.

The vessel is a 500 ml Kimax boiling flask that is heat-resistant and extra thick to resist breakage (I’m not a fan of Chinese Bomex). It is about a fourth full of water. The flask is suspended using a heavy tie wrap, safety wire, and a beaded chain used for lights and ceiling fans. The chain has a clasp that can be used to disconnect it and seems to permit less rotational friction. I added a touch of oil to be thorough. Other materials could be used such as a hose clamp, etc., and some use a screwtop metal can for the vessel.

The glass jets are made from lab tubing bent over the alcohol burner you see with its blue flame in the picture at bottom. The burner uses ethanol (thinner) from the hardware store and can be had for about $10 from a science supply such as Cynmar. This one is unusual in that it has a double loop for more heat, so it cost maybe $15. Be careful, the flame can be nearly invisible at times; I had one student nearly touch it. There’s a plumber’s self-igniting MAPP blowtorch in the background that I use gingerly to speed things up in the beginning. Propane would be fine.

To make the nozzles I heated a tube while rotating it, then pulled it apart slowly, collapsing the tube. I cut the tubing by scoring with a file and snapping it, then burnished and “annealed” the nozzles which have roughly 1-2 mm orifices on an arm extending about 6 cm from the center of the flask. Annealing the tubing—heating it close to melting and then gradually cooling it by dabbing it in the flame—makes for much stronger glass by allowing internal stresses to sort themselves out. (Of course I don’t have a real annealing oven, which heats the glass for hours.)

Insert the tubes in opposing directions in a 2-hole lab stopper, start the fire and off it goes once the water and flask are hot. Steam, which is invisible and often superheated water vapor and not the mist of water droplets you actually see (I was wrong on this! the steam plus droplets are called a mixing cloud), is about 1000 times the volume of the liquid it comes from. Be careful not to shatter the glass with too much pressure (I would expect the stopper to come out first, but the glass could have been previously damaged), by heating it with no water on the other side, or by cooling hot glass with cold water. Especially if using a torch, be sure there’s water. The burner here is moved off-center because centrifugal force pushed all the water there.

Caution: Don’t burn yourself. Hot glass doesn’t look hot but causes nasty burns. Scalding hurts and scars! Glass breakage under pressure and shrapnel are serious risks. Wear safety glasses and an oven mitt of some sort (be careful, some of these burn and let water through—I use a good one from science supply, but it too does not prevent scalding) so you can grab the flask or move the flame aside. Be careful, the alcohol burner may flare up if moved suddenly!

The engine will spin pretty fast if you take the time to balance it. A wobbly one could hit the stand and break. I took a bunch of flash pictures to identify which side was spinning out so I could improve the balance. A short neck flask might do better, but this is the one I had. I used an Extech $25 laser tachometer intended for non-contact RPM measurements on cars and clocked around 200 RPM before the spin became unstable.

There’s a science fair project or several in here somewhere, such as the ideal design for the nozzles. There are some interesting questions such as whether it’s better to use a high velocity steam at high pressure, or to use a longer arm on the nozzles, larger orifices, and so on. If you build one of these, please share!


Written by Andrew Wells Douglass

16 February 2012 at 13:11

Posted in Physics

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Psychomotor epilepsy

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Writing from both a scientific and personal perspective, I’ve posted on my personal blog an essay about my mother’s struggle with psychomotor (temporal lobe) epilepsy:

Psychomotor Epilepsy: When the Lights Are On But No One Is Home

Written by Andrew Wells Douglass

4 February 2011 at 13:54

Posted in Biology, Other

Astronomy with binoculars

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This article provides a terrific set of ideas for easy astronomy with binoculars.  I was surprised you can see things like the moons of Saturn, and highly recommend the suggestion of viewing the Moon at other than full.  The late amateur astronomer Yuji Hyakutake famously discovered his eponymous comet using a powerful set of binoculars.

Written by Andrew Wells Douglass

1 January 2011 at 22:34

Posted in Astronomy

Build A Bucket-Zooka

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“To invent, you need a good imagination and a pile of junk.” —Thomas Edison

If you’ve seen the $10-15 Airzooka, it’s a simple toy shaped like a pail with the bottom cut out. A flexible sheet on the other end is hooked up to a rubber band; when you pull back the sheet and release it, a toroid-shaped puff of air is ejected through the hole and travels to surprising distances.  It is useful for annoying innocent people.

I decided to make my own using cast-offs from other projects. This “bucket-zooka” is made from an empty drywall compound (“mud”) bucket, a piece of plastic sheeting, some rubber bands, a shelf bracket, a drawer pull, generic bits of hardware, and a large rubber band. Total cost: About $3.
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Written by Andrew Wells Douglass

9 June 2010 at 23:23

Posted in Physics

What If Everybody In Canada Flushed At Once?

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toilet flush hockey game

Edmonton water usage during Olympic hockey final

Here is a wonderful graph of water usage versus the progress of a gold medal hockey game.  The correlation of period breaks to usage peaks is positively elegant.  The privacy implication (here, on all the bladders in Edmonton) was flagged in RISKS 25:96 (13 March 2010), also mentioning a related squib concerning mining information from smart electric meters. Anyway, you can see why they say all beer is recycled.

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Written by Andrew Wells Douglass

22 March 2010 at 10:45

Posted in Idleness, Other


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large hadron collider

What is it? Try the poll.


And check out these great pictures of what man hath wrought.

Written by Andrew Wells Douglass

16 February 2010 at 19:22

Posted in Idleness, Physics

When life gives you snow, make snow candles

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Son Julian and I just now built a prototype snow candle from an idea mentioned in a cute book called “101 Secrets a Good Dad Knows” (uh oh — I know about three) that Whitney gave me years ago:

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Written by Andrew Wells Douglass

9 February 2010 at 22:23

Posted in Biology, Other

Of cabbages and dandelions

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Think Dand-e-lyon


by Masaki Ikeda (via Wikimedia)

As we walked to school this morning, my 9 y.o. Malcolm scolded me for scattering the seeds of the dandelions in our 3-acre Lyon Park. I tried to defend the beauty of the much-reviled little weed. He may not have been persuaded, but smiled and suggested, “Maybe we should call it Dandelion Park?” I loved his gentle play on words — very much his flavor of humor.

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Written by Andrew Wells Douglass

30 April 2009 at 12:39

Posted in Biology

Burning magnesium in dry ice (video)

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Caution: this reaction produces an intense white light and substantial ultraviolet light that you can not see but can damage your vision. Although the dry ice absorbs much of this, do not allow anyone to stare at the light at its brightest.

Yes, magnesium will burn merrily in a block of dry ice; oxygen is not the only oxidizer in town.

Last January, among other things I demo’d for the 8th graders in Physical Science magnesium burning in dry ice (CO2). It’s a beautiful and impressive experiment that I have done many times, not to mention dangerous if mishandled. The boys helped videotape the practice session in our kitchen, and I added captions. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Andrew Wells Douglass

1 February 2009 at 10:03

Posted in Chemistry

Fall color

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Fall color

Fall color—please click to enlarge

I love this picture. Taken in my backyard November 8th, 2008. The late afternoon sun and clouds set up a strong contrast between the bright tree and the murky buildings — so I went and found my camera. (It was fairly dim out and this was a long exposure, hence the breeze-driven blurriness of the leaves.)

I suppose there’s a science angle here about xanthophyll or something, but … who cares! I don’t have to spoil everything.

[posted 1 May 2009]

Written by Andrew Wells Douglass

1 December 2008 at 09:17

Posted in Biology

Weather demos

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drinking bird

drinking bird

A summary of several demos I shared with five classes (in a row! harder than I thought) of sixth graders at my son’s school. They were learning about the water cycle, so I did some things about water vapor and air pressure. Water vapor itself is invisible, we can observe it only indirectly by condensation and so on.

Important: Please be careful, especially here with eye protection and fire. Losing eyes is bad. Fire can get away from you quickly, and an alcohol flame can be invisible. Proceed at your own risk.

1. Rain In A Jar (the water cycle)

Despite my innate desire that everything work just right, I have learned that kids really love hands-on stuff.  The trick is to find things that are interesting and safe and usually work even with, uh, offbeat techniques.

This little project that I lifted from somewhere-on-the-web illustrates the water cycle.  It is quick and cheap and works with kindergartners as well as sixth grade or older kids.  Just make the questions more difficult for older kids (vapor pressure is a good topic).

The students in pairs add about 200 mls. hot water to wide mouth GLASS jars they brought from home. I used boiling water to get things going, which in retrospect I think was too hot because the ice melted too quickly.   Be wary of scalding.  Plastic containers like peanut butter tubs can’t withstand heat, but kids will bring them anyway. 🙂

The students cover their jars with aluminum foil, pushing the center down far enough to hold several ice cubes. Don’t use too much ice or the ice melt will spill and make a mess.

Within a few minutes, water condenses on the foil and starts to drip. Voila, rain.

The evaporation and condensation will continue until the water cools and the ice melts, perhaps 30 minutes. The students can prepare the jars first thing and watch them during class. The instructor could do a large version with a 3-liter beaker or so.

A nice wrinkle is that the experiment presents all three phases of water. The use of ice isn’t essential, you could use dry ice, liquid nitrogen, knock yourself out. But it does look neat.

2. Drinking bird

Set up the classic “drinking bird” and explain that it is a heat engine, that is, it converts heat into motion. It is essentially a glass tube connecting two bulbs, the “tail” filled with a volatile liquid. I have a 20 year-old one filled with the now-banned Freon, and a new one uses methylene chloride, nasty for other reasons. They can be purchased for $5.

The head is cooled by water evaporation, much as sweat cools our heads. The cooling condenses the Freon or whatever within the bird’s head, such that the greater vapor pressure in the tail forces liquid up the neck. Eventually the top-heavy bird topples, the liquid drains back into the tail, and the cycle starts over.

Note that you don’t get something for nothing here — no perpetual motion. The bird removes heat from the surroundings, which is “lost” into the vaporization of water (and it takes a lot of heat to evaporate water). It is not a perpetual motion machine, even if you do replenish the water, because it needs that constant supply of heat to keep evaporating water.

Here are some further experiments:

  • Blow air gently over the bird’s head.  What does the bird do and why? Use an alternative “drink.” Denatured alcohol (95% ethanol) from a hardware store works great. Dilute it with water to reduce flammability. By the way, vodka — another form of diluted ethanol, ~40% for 80 proof — works, too (use the cheap stuff! adults only). Compare the dip rate of two birds simultaneously.
  • Look up the boiling point and vapor pressure of alcohol.  Alcohol evaporates more readily than water (higher vapor pressure), taking heat with it. Dab alcohol and water to different parts of your hand and blow on them to illustrate the cooling effect. (The colored liquid inside the bird evaporates more readily than water, but it is toxic — don’t break open the bird.)

Note that denatured alcohol is normally 95% ethanol plus toxic methanol and other impurities. This renders it undrinkable, to avoid liquor taxes but at great risk to alcoholics.  Methanol can cause blindness.

  • Measure humidity, that is, make a hygrometer. Count pecks per minute to calibrate against a working hygrometer. More pecks means less humidity. Is that absolute humidity or relative?
  • Enclose the bird in a large clear bag (or for the classy touch, a bell jar). The bird slows thens stops. Why? Rising humidity “dampens” evaporative cooling that drives this heat engine — the way sweating doesn’t help you on a sticky day — but the change happens so quickly that I think reduced convection or something else is in play. I’d like to try heating or cooling the bell jar with all else constant to see what happens, as the vapor pressure limit increases with temperature.

A sling psychrometer measures humidity on the evaporation principle. One thermometer is covered by a wick, the second not. When air is forced over the thermometers, the “wet” thermometer cools. The difference between the wet and dry bulb temperatures and a psychrometric table (below) or chart provides the humidity.

  • Can you use a sling psychrometer to measure humidity below freezing? (Yes, but how?)

Note: This table has drawn so many search engine visitors that I’m adding the raw data in CSV format (change the extension to .csv and import into a spreadsheet such as OpenOffice), two classic psychrometric graphs, and another graph with slightly different details. (Sorry these references are all in Farenheit!)

psychrometric table

Psychrometric table data from the classic Bulletin of the U.S. Weather Bureau No. 1071 (summarized here).  Assumes sea level pressure; for variations see NWS humidity tables.

  • Convert to solar: Convert the bird to a radiation-driven “sunbird” by removing the felt and painting the head white or silver (white is a better emitter of heat, silver is the better reflector of radiation — how are these qualities important? What’s the difference between radiation and heat? (There is no such thing as heat radiation!) How would you test?) How would you test it?); perhaps just cover it with foil and adjust the balance at the pivot. Paint the tail black. Expose to the sun or a very bright light.

See also on building a simple psychrometer.

3. Make a cloud.

I’ve seen this experiment done with 2-liter soda bottles, but I happen to have a 12-liter boiling flask (hey, who doesn’t?).

Put some warm water into the vessel. Wait a bit and swish it around so some can evaporate. Then place your mouth over the opening of the vessel and blow hard to pressurize it, hold, and release. Nothing happens. (The children may enjoy your apparent failure.)

Next light a couple of kitchen matches, blow them out, and let the smoke into the chamber. I seem to get more smoke when it blow the match out before the head finishes burning. Pressurize again and release. Ta da, a faint cloud. Pressurize and it disappears. Release, and it reappears.

The large flask helps with the effect, maybe someone could contrive something like this with an empty aquarium? How about a well-sealed house?

The science goes something like: The warm water increases the humidity inside. Blowing (pressurizing) raises the temperature, allowing more water to evaporate, and introduce the humidity of your breath. The loss of pressure cools the air, and suddenly the air is supersaturated. But a cloud forms only if there are condensation nuclei, provided by the smoke.

Let a student try it, too. Someone with good breath.

4. Vacuum water fountain

This is a fun experiment, dramatic, and mildly dangerous. It illustrates that water vapor exists and takes up space, plus the atmospheric pressure around us that we don’t feel. Standard sea level atmospheric pressure of 14.7 psi/100 kPa is equivalent to what you feel diving under 10 meters or so of water. (Mind you, that would total 2 atmospheres, counting the one you started with.)

First, wear safety glasses.  Possible flying glass.  Back the kids away from the table.

Beforehand draw the tip of a 5 mm. flint glass tube of about a half meter into a nozzle half the diameter. Insert it nozzle first into a stoppered 1-liter boiling flask containing a small amount of water, leaving a space between the tip and the bottom of the flask. The stopper has to be very tight; use some water to get it seated well. I put a ball valve in the second hole in the stopper to increase my comfort level that the flask wouldn’t explode. (Did I mention safety glasses?) Also set out a beaker filled with at least as much cold water as the volume of the flask.

Hold up the flask and ask what’s in it. Water, obviously, and air, or oxygen, nitrgoen, carbon dioxide, water vapor, etc., all adding up to atmospheric pressure.

Next, heat the water in the boiling flask on a lab stand to, well, boiling. Let it get good and hot. Point out that the white stuff exiting the tube isn’t steam/vapor, rather condensation as the vapor expands and cools. After all, where does the mist go when it disappears a few inches away? A flame held at or near the tube’s tip will eliminate the mist.

Remove the heat. Be careful, water touching hot glass will cause a sudden burst of steam and maybe crack the glass. I blew the stopper out once. Swish the water around while it’s still heating to avoid overheated glass.

Ask what’s in the flask. Claim there’s almost no air, just water vapor. This may sound odd, given the small amount of water that boils off, but water vapor occupies over 1000 times the volume of its liquid. Ask what would happen if the vapor suddenly condensed into liquid water.

The water in the flask will not only be turbulent, it may also, as one student exclaimed, boil, especially around the stopper. I am very curious but skeptical whether the pressure inside is indeed low enough to cause boiling — it is possible to boil room temperature water with enough of a vacuum — or it’s just air leaking in. But leakage can’t account for much. When the experiment is over there will be almost no air in the flask. (Be careful the stand doesn’t tip over!)

At this point the flask is cool and can be safely handled.


Written by Andrew Wells Douglass

3 April 2008 at 09:02

Posted in Physics

Tagged with

Catenary arch

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St Louis Gateway Arch

A catenary is the shape taken by a hanging chain (the word’s root is “chain”) and has a mathematical definition. Gravity accounts for the shape, kind of a squashed parabola. Inverted as an arch, it is a sturdy self-supporting structure like the St. Louis Gateway Arch.

One would use the catenary to build a smooth road for square wheels. Read this Science News article or check out the Square Wheels Exploratorium book to make your own. I’m building a wood-block arch from some scrap cypress, following the Exploratorium instructions, & will post pictures when I get there. The blanks are all set and just need some precision cutting on my vague table saw.
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Written by Andrew Wells Douglass

9 March 2008 at 13:29

Posted in Physics

A lunar eclipse

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The eclipse near totality at 22:43 20 Feb 2008.

I lucked out when Libby sent me a txt the evening of the lunar eclipse on Feb. 20, and the weather cleared in time. The conditions were excellent, and although I don’t really have the right sort of camera equipment — a tripod would have been nice! — I managed a few decent pictures with patience and a lot of bracketing.

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Written by Andrew Wells Douglass

9 March 2008 at 02:10

Posted in Astronomy