Adventures in Science

Posts tagged ‘science for kids’

Awesome Heros Wield Pee Power

Duro-Aina Adebola, Akindele Abiola, Faleke Oluwatoyin, and Bello Eniola engineered this generator that turns urine into electricity.


A group of four girls ages 14-15 demonstrated their urine-powered generator at the recent Maker Faire Africa in Lagos. The girls’ project also generated a lot of excitement and interest on the web over this last week. Although it won’t be able to compete with the energy output of coal or gasoline, this technique puts forward the possibility that urine could be tapped as one of many (cough) um, clean energy sources. There is probably a stinky pee smell, but clean in this case means it doesn’t give off CO2 emissions or other pollutants.

Let’s take a look at their process—

The Maker Faire Africa blog listed their method as such:

  • Urine is put into an electrolytic cell, which separates out the hydrogen.
  • The hydrogen goes into a water filter for purification, which then gets pushed into the gas cylinder.
  • The gas cylinder pushes hydrogen into a cylinder of liquid borax, which is used to remove the moisture from the hydrogen gas.
  • This purified hydrogen gas is pushed into the generator.

Along the whole way there are one-way valves for security, but let’s be honest that this is something of an explosive device…

The generated electricity powers a light bulb which is mostly hidden by the middle girl’s knee in the picture above.

The girls designed their system based on this paper by scientists from the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, Ohio University. Here is a more reader-friendly article on the paper that you might want to check out before you decide to explore the  scientific paper.

There is also a good deal of scientific debate and skepticism over whether this is a useful or effective electricity generator. The comment thread below that blog post is a good sampling of the discussion.

Good science means hashing out the truth and not taking claims at face value.  The only way to know for sure if this process works is to replicate the girls’ setup. With appropriate mentoring and safety precautions, it would be great to see other kids working to recreate this idea. If it turns out that this works…awesome! Then young scientists can work to make improvements to the technique.

We look forward to the day we can feature the work of the first group of teens that powers a cell phone from this kind of pee-powered system. Game on.

Dinofuzz in Amber-Golden Capsules of Deep Time

Polished sphere of amber with a beetle inclusion. (source)

Amber is fossilized tree resin from prehistoric conifer trees. The slow and sticky resin oozed out of a tree when it suffered damage and protected it like a gooey bandage. Eventually this resin would harden and shed off the tree where it would collect as part of the debris and sediment of the ancient forest floor. Over eons of time the resin matured chemically and fossilized into the hard plastic-like material that we know today as amber.

Fossilized tree resin from hundreds of millions of years ago is exciting, yes, but it’s what has been found in amber that is so much more riveting. Trapped within these organic stones you can often glimpse perfectly preserved organisms from the prehistoric past. Some of these unlucky deep time travelers include insects, spiders and their webs, seeds, pine needles, flowers, frogs, and even a lizard. These ensnared creatures and plant matter–known as inclusions–have been dated up to about 150 million years ago. Most of these organisms are now extinct but can be studied and classified by comparing them with current known species or known fossils.

Rock fossil of a feathered dinosaur (source)

Many of the most intriguing amber fossils are found in Canada and include a few types of feathers and protofeathers. Scientists collected and studied 11 samples of amber containing feathers and found that they were seeing a range of plumage that showed a development from primitive protofeathers to more complex feathers like those found on modern birds. They found that  some of these feathers are similar to the ones seen in rock fossil impressions of feathered dinosaurs. The more advanced feathers may have come from early birds. If you like reading about dinosaurs, amber, or prehistoric life, you will enjoy reading the original scientific paper by the scientists who are studying these fossil feathers in amber.

Possible dinosaur protofeathers.  (source)

Above are just two stages of the known stages of feather evolution. On the left are protofeathers which are very primitive and look like very fine hairs or filaments. Researchers have nicknamed these simple protofeathers “dinofuzz”. They are even studying the pigments–color-producing particles–on these feathers. Those pigments from feathers have been found in rock fossils as well, as seen in this video from researchers at Yale University.

If you have ever seen or heard about the movie or book “Jurassic Park” you may have heard that it might be possible to take DNA from an organism that has been preserved in amber. Unfortunately, at this time, that seems unlikely. DNA breaks apart quickly once an organism dies. However, amber is a fantastic preservative and if we are going to find ancient DNA somewhere it is most likely to come from just such an ideal source. Some scientists have had promising results in extracting bits of DNA from amber; however, it is a difficult and tricky process and other scientists have had trouble getting the same results. It could be possible to get a snippet or two of DNA but the DNA of a whole organism from many millions of years ago might be impossible at least for the foreseeable future.

Amanda Palmer visits MIT’s Media Lab

Amanda Palmer picture from her Kickstarter page for her new album.

Rockstar/artist Amanda Palmer, well known for her vocals, piano, keyboard and ukelele performances and recordings, explored some experimental media arts with the help of MIT’s Media Lab on Memorial Day 2012. The jam session was webcast on Amanda Palmer’s Party on the Internet site and the whole event is archived at UStream here. The event is split over a few different video files. (There will be ads.)

This event was a video uzi of rapid-fire awesome. I’ve included some links and references for any of you who want more information on these innovative media projects or Amanda Palmer’s work. Amanda Palmer and MIT Media Lab will also have more and better links to the information up soon.

Joi Ito, welcomed Amanda Palmer and her viewers and gave us a brief description about what kind of people and projects you will find at Media Lab.

“The Media Lab was founded by, as kind of, the misfits of MIT, the people who couldn’t fit in at other places, and it still is, kind of, the ultimate place where all of the misfits end up, including myself. The criteria for faculty and students is–if you can do what you want to do anywhere else, don’t come to the Media Lab. You should only come to the Media Lab if you can’t fit in anywhere else and it’s the only place you can do it.

The criteria for the success of any project is: Uniqueness, Impact, & Magic. If it doesn’t have all three, it doesn’t work at the Media Lab.”

With that said, Dazza the Media Lab Emcee and Amanda Palmer the Rockstar jumped right in to get their hands dirty on some magic by inviting graduate students to demonstrate their projects.

Daniel Novy from the object-based media department started things off by showing off a project called Pillow Talk. This is for people who want to record their dreams. He claims the device was inspired by Harvard medical study that found that “upon waking, if you move your position, you will forget your dream or be more likely to forget your dream.” So instead of reaching for a journal and pen and forgetting your dream, you simply squeeze the pillow and talk into it while it records. The recording of your dream is then transmitted to a mason jar full of what appear to be LED “fireflies” where it waits for you to retrieve it.

Remember the Tupac ‘hologram’ sensation at Coachella 2012? Be amazed…be very amazed. Dan Novy works on the technology responsible for that.  He says it’s an updated version the Pepper’s Ghost magic show illusion and not actually a hologram.

There is a brief description of both PillowTalk and Holographic TV projects here.

The next Media Lab magician was Mark from the Responsive Environments group. He brought an array of tiny musical toys.

Amanda Palmer said she wants to take him on tour.

The first toys were lightweight/low power sensors that detect vibration. Mark explained that if these were worn by dancers they would create a feedback loop in combination with the music. The dancers would help create the music as they moved. They could also be worn by members of the audience for fun audience participation possibilities. They make a noise that sounds like crickets chirping.

Mark then held up a tiny microphone that plugs into the headphone jack on your iPhone. He said they’d be great for recording Amanda Palmer concerts with good sound quality. He became tired of listening to bad audio on YouTube so he invented this microphone.

You will want one of these because Amanda Palmer gladly permits bootleg recordings of her live shows with good sound quality.

Amanda then tried out a prototype musical device, Mixtape Alpha, that Mark brought that looked a lot like an old-fashioned cassette tape. Mixtape Alpha made a variety of synthy tones. It looked compact, versatile, and loaded with features. Amanda Palmer compared it to the Stylophone that she has used on tour.

Rob Morris now talked to us about his project Know Your Exit , an audio project crowdsourced from all over the world as seen on his web site. If you visit the site you can watch the patterns of crowdsourced musical data display on a graphic of the Earth. When you are done exclaiming, “Every Who down in Whoville, the tall and the small was singing!” (like I did), watch the nifty tweets containing search strings from the song lyrics.

Eric Rosenbaum , supergenius, of the Lifelong Kindergarten group (a.k.a. makers of Scratch) was up next to delight and astound us with MaKey MaKey . With the MaKey MaKey board you can turn any everyday objects into a keyboard or mouse input device by just little alligator clips. He took ordinary bananas and limes and turned them into a banana piano and drums. Then, Amanda Palmer and her friend, Casey, improvised with musical fruit and finally themselves.

Me likey likey.

Eric Rosenbaum is also the inventor of this lovely iPad app, MelodyMorph.

Later in the web cast Amanda Palmer debuted some new music and they took questions from Twitter. So check it out at her archive on UStream.

Amanda Palmer mentioned that she is looking for ways to work with Media Lab in the future. We will all benefit if they figure out a way to collaborate with these and future promising and fun new media devices. Heaps of gratitude to Amanda Palmer for webcasting her jam session at MIT Media Lab and giving us a peek into what’s coming in the future of music and more.

Weird and Wonderful Gyroscopes

Have you ever played with a gyroscope? They’re pretty fascinating little gadgets. Gyroscopes can do things that we don’t see in any other objects. Here’s a video showing some kids doing tricks with their gyroscope. See if you can spot what it is that seems so strange about gyroscopes.

Chillaxed? Me too. Loved that swanky bossa nova music.

What does a gyroscope do that a regular toy top can’t? Did you see the gyroscope defying gravity by floating in mid air horizontally as it spun on a base? That’s what makes a gyroscope so special.  This gravity defying effect is called precession.  Here is a video by YouTuber, adambarito. It is also especially soothing and features some splendid sideburns and snarky ‘tude:

(He’s a growing boy. Very hungry.)

You will see a lot of bicycle wheels during demonstrations of gyroscopic effects. Surprisingly, the gyroscopic effect is not the reason that we are able to stay upright on our bikes when we ride them. Dr. Hugh Hunt has a web page describing his experiment to find out if the gyroscopic effect is responsible for keeping bikes upright. Go check it out.

This positively soporific video introduces you to some of the physics involved in the otherwise unusual behavior of the gyroscope.

As you saw there gyroscopes are often used in aviation for stability.

Helicopters, unlike bicycles, are heavily influenced by the gyroscopic effect. Helicopters have huge gyroscopes in the form of their rotors spinning on them and must account for the gyroscopic effect when maneuvering. Smarter Every Day has this awesome video explaining why navigating helicopters can be so tricky.  As you will see, the gyroscopic effect doesn’t always make intuitive sense.

I’m awake and 90 degrees out of phase now! It was great the way they got their bike wheel up to speed by holding it up to the back wheel of their bike as they cranked the pedal.

Finally, if it is extreme, cutting-edge gyroscoping you crave to get you going and alert, program and sync up your flying gyroscopes like the folks from University of Pennsylvania’s GRASP lab:

Rubik’s Cube


Back in 1981, the big toy of the year was the Rubik’s cube. We –the kids of olden times of yore– went bananas over this thing. We fiddled with them constantly  and everywhere to the dismay of our parents, teachers, and that poor little old lady we accidentally knocked over because we weren’t paying attention to where we were going on the sidewalk. (Sorry again, Mrs. Theibault.)

As you can see from the picture above it was a simple cube made up  of what appeared to be 3x3x3 equal cubes with one cube always hidden in the middle. The exterior surfaces of each of the cubes had colored stickers on them. When the cube was fresh out of the box all of the squares on each side of the whole cube matched with different colors on each facet. The three layers of the cube could be turned independently in all directions. Within a few turns and flips of the cube you were able to mix up the blocks of colors until you had shuffled the colors randomly around the cube. Then it was time to solve the puzzle by twisting the cube until all of the colors matched on all sides.

If you haven’t played with a Rubik’s Cube before, give it a try. Beware! It can be a little addicting. Puzzle it over for a few weeks. Remember that if this toy was actually a 3x3x3 cube of cubes there is another imaginary cube in the center that you can’t see and imagine how that is spinning around in there too.

If you are lucky, one of the pieces will fall off and you will get a glimpse of how the mechanism inside makes it work. You’ll probably want to deconstruct and reconstruct the whole thing. If so, take a look at these amazing mods:


Some people can solve the Rubik’s Cube without cheating. I never solved the Rubik’s Cube analytically. I solved it sort-of-by-accident two or three times. At best, I developed a sense that you had to get one layer solved to improve your chances.

If you have struggled with your Rubik’s Cube for a few weeks and it’s starting to pop its parts, I encourage you to cheat and watch one of the solution videos on YouTube. Why should you cheat? Because knowing how to solve it, helps you understand how to think and plan in 3-D.

Check out RuBot. It was programmed to solve the Rubik’s Cube:

(There is newer version of RuBot with a face and cheesy robot noises, but it creeps me out.)

If you enjoy the original 3x3x3 Rubik’s Cube, you will love Jaap’s Puzzle Page. It is a huge site devoted these kinds of spatial puzzle games that will continue to challenge you.

Now, I will blow your mind. A square is a 2-dimensional shape. A cube is a 3-dimensional shape. Imagine, if you can, a cube in four dimensions. This is what is known as a hypercube. Here is a pathetically inadequate two-dimensional animation that gives the impression of what a hypercube is sort of like, but not really:

We have a hard time imagining hypercubes because our brains evolved to live and survive in three dimensions. Fortunately, computers don’t trip over their own brains and can compute geometries in other dimensions for us.

Here is a YouTube video uploaded by drag0nfur of what the programmer calls “A 3D depiction of a 4D rubiks cube being solved by a computer.”

Did you catch the text at the end that said “There are actually 8 3x3x3 cubes, one is hidden in a non-visible dimension. Please don’t ask me why it’s hidden, brains will splode if you do.”

My brain already popped its parts at the mere thought of a Rubik’s Hypercube, but thanks for the warning.

08 May 2001 --- Exploding head --- Image by © John Lund/CORBIS

Cary Huang’s enhanced Scale of the Universe…

Original Scale of the Universe


….is a parody and I was fooled and originally had a serious post on it. I should have known better than to post anything from a 4Chan link.

Cary Huang created an updated version and parody of the interactive “Scale of the Universe” flash animation.

More at

“Frequent travel may be required”


“WANTED: Astronaut candidates”


The heading of the want ad of your dreams right? Many of us can’t think of a more prestigious job. Adventure! Exploration! Guts! Glory!

NASA recently posted just such a want ad for astronaut candidates as seen here. Even though you may not qualify (yet) and the open period to apply ended on midnight EST Friday January 27, 2012, do not despair. NASA will need to train another group of new astronauts every so often. You are bound to see a listing like this again in the future. Until that time, this is your golden opportunity to check out what NASA is looking for in an International Space Station crew member and tailor your study and career goals toward working in space.


This announcement is open to all qualified U.S. citizens.

Okay, if you want to work for NASA in this job you have to be a U.S. citizen. However, many other countries have space programs and now there are increasing numbers of commercial space companies that will need astronauts and cosmonauts as well. Having many of the qualifications listed below for the NASA Astronaut Candidate Program will help give you the skills necessary to become an astronaut for a country other than the U.S. or as a commercial astronaut.

This guy could be your astroboss. Vrooooom, Mr. Branson, sir. Vrooooom!



NASA, the world’s leader in space and aeronautics is always seeking outstanding scientists, engineers, and other talented professionals to carry forward the great discovery process that its mission demands. Creativity. Ambition. Teamwork. A sense of daring. And a probing mind. That’s what it takes to join NASA, one of the best places to work in the Federal Government.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has a need for Astronaut Candidates to support the International Space Station (ISS) Program and future deep space exploration activities.

Active duty military personnel are eligible to apply for this position. In addition to applying through USAJobs, active duty military personnel must also submit their application through their respective military service. Military points of contacts can be found at Astronaut Candidate Program.

NASA says they are looking for talented professional people like engineers and scientists. You will need to study science, engineering, and mathematics in school and consider specializing in something in those fields that will be useful as an astronaut. Astrophysics, space medicine, exobiology/astrobiology, and engineering with a specialty in manned space flight are all good suggestions of careers that will make you a desirable astronaut candidate.

Military a plus, but not required. There has been a long tradition of astronauts coming from the military especially the Air Force. Military astronauts have already undergone training to endure and perform under extreme conditions like the ones they will experience as astronauts. Many have flown as high-performance aviators and have worked with cutting-edge technology during their time in the military.


Astronauts are involved in all aspects of assembly and on-orbit operations of the ISS. This includes extravehicular activities (EVA), robotics operations using the remote manipulator system, experiment operations, and onboard maintenance tasks. Astronauts are required to have a detailed knowledge of the ISS systems, as well as detailed knowledge of the operational characteristics, mission requirements and objectives, and supporting systems and equipment for each experiment on their assigned missions.

In brief, you will be using special equipment to perform experiments and gather scientific data. You need to know how to operate and keep that equipment in good working order. You will know how to maintain *everything* inside and outside the space station that keeps it running normally. (or die)

Long-duration missions aboard the ISS generally last from 3 to 6 months. Training for long duration missions is very arduous and takes approximately 2 to 3 years. This training requires extensive travel, including long periods away in other countries training with our international partners. Travel to and from the ISS will be aboard the Russian Soyuz vehicle. Consequently, astronauts must meet the Soyuz size requirements, as indicated below. Additional information about the position can be found at Astronaut Candidate Program.

Frequent travel may be required. Astronauts are away from home a lot. It can be a drag.



The book Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void by Mary Roach relates the many reasons that being in space is stressful physically, mentally, and socially on astronauts. It’s an eye-opening book that convinced me that I would have made a terrible astronaut. (Let’s just say that I’m easily annoyed.)


You have to be in good health and in top physical shape to be an astronaut. Our bodies did not evolve to live for months in weightlessness. All of your muscles, including your heart, will atrophy in zero gravity. It’s important to blast off in peak condition. Be prepared to have to work out all of the time for your job.


Applicants must meet the following minimum requirements before submitting an application.

1. Bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution in engineering, biological science, physical science, or mathematics. Quality of academic preparation is important.

Notes on Academic Requirements:
Applicants for the Astronaut Candidate Program must meet the basic education requirements for NASA engineering and scientific positions, specifically: successful completion of standard professional curriculum in an accredited college or university leading to at least a bachelor’s degree with major study in an appropriate field of engineering, biological science, physical science, or mathematics.

The following degree fields are not considered qualifying:
–Degrees in Technology (Engineering Technology, Aviation Technology, Medical Technology, etc.)
–Degrees in Psychology (except for Clinical Psychology, Physiological Psychology, or Experimental Psychology, which are qualifying)
–Degrees in Nursing
–Degrees in Exercise Physiology or similar fields
–Degrees in Social Sciences (Geography, Anthropology, Archaeology, etc.)
–Degrees in Aviation, Aviation Management, or similar fields”

It is great that they included a list of degree fields that they DON’T want. Don’t waste your time with these if your goal is to be a NASA astronaut.



“2. Degree followed by at least 3 years of related, progressively responsible, professional experience OR at least 1,000 hours pilot-in-command time in jet aircraft. An advanced degree is desirable and may be substituted for experience as follows: master’s degree = 1 year of experience, doctoral degree = 3 years of experience. Teaching experience, including experience at the K – 12 levels, is considered to be qualifying experience for the Astronaut Candidate position; therefore, educators are encouraged to apply.

Over and above the 4-year bachelor degree in the right kind of science, engineering, or mathematics from #1 you must have an additional 3 years of solid professional work in your scientific, engineering, or mathematics field OR have over 1,000 hours experience in piloting jets. In other words, it would be a good plan to get a degree from a good university and then join the air force and fly advanced aircraft. Do you think you can swing that?

You can also continue your education by getting a master’s degree or PhD. However, you are only given credit for 1 year’s worth of experience for a master’s degree. Most people do their masters degree in about 2 years. If after your masters degree you go on to get a doctorate you only get 3 years in experience points. NASA appears to value practical professional success and 1,000 hours of piloting jets over advanced academic degrees.

It looks like if you are a teacher with at least 3 years of teaching kids or teenagers you qualify. However, I’d make sure that you rate in some of the other areas, as well.

IDK...piloting a jet maybe?


From the above list of criteria it sounds like the impossibly perfect candidate would be a successful engineering entrepreneur with college diploma who sold her company to fly jet fighters for the military for a while, and now teaches high school mathematics.

3. Ability to pass the NASA long-duration space flight physical, which includes the following specific requirements:

Distant and near visual acuity: Must be correctable to 20/20, each eye

The refractive surgical procedures of the eye, PRK and LASIK, are allowed, providing at least 1 year has passed since the date of the procedure with no permanent adverse after effects. For those applicants under final consideration, an operative report on the surgical procedure will be requested.

Blood pressure not to exceed 140/90 measured in a sitting position

Standing height between 62 and 75 inches.

Notes on Space Flight Physical Requirements:
Since all crew members will be expected to fly aboard the Soyuz vehicle and perform Extravehicular Activities (space walks), applicants must meet the anthropometric requirements for both the Soyuz vehicle and the extravehicular activity mobility unit (space suit). Applicants brought in for interview will be evaluated to ensure they meet the anthropometric requirements.

In addition to being an accomplished scientifically-minded professional who is also a jet pilot, you need to be healthy and have good vision. You can’t be shorter than five feet and two inches or taller than six feet and three inches. The Soyuz spacecraft will take someone as short 4’11” per the table  at, so I’m assuming that the minimum of five feet and two inches requirement is necessary to wear a space suit.


Other criteria from the USAJobs listing are:

  • You will have to pass a swimming test during the first month of training.
  • You must pass periodic drug tests.
  • You must pass a background check.
  • Evaluation and training will take about 2 years before you are an astronaut.
  • If you are male, make sure you register for the draft.

If you still want to be an astronaut after reading NASA’s job listing, I strongly recommend again that you read Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void by Mary Roach. The book cuts through the glamor and glory of space exploration to give the reader the day-to-day challenges of the astronaut experience. It’s not all moonwalks and zero gravity hijinks. If you are one of the lucky astronauts ever chosen for a space mission, a good day will be exhausting, dirty, smelly, cramped, dangerous, and sickening. But…you, YOU will be exploring space and it will all be worth it.