Brain Candy Live!

brain candy stage
What if you put together MythBusters’ Adam Savage with Vsauce’s Michael Stevens and allowed them to play onstage in a darkened room? It would be like candy! Brain candy! Wait a just a minute….

Adam and Michael onstage
Everything about the show was a nerdgasm! From the lights, and the music, to the 3D printers in the lobby printing out what looked like Galactic stormtroopers.

3D printer of stormtrooper
This is exactly what we got to watch tonight downtown at the Majestic Theatre. Adam and Michael brought along some of their toys and tools and let their curious brains unleash some mind-blowing demonstrations as they discussed how to make the invisible visible.

molecule dance
Namely, how can we explore the air around us? Far from boring, their sense of wonder reminded me of a cross between that crazy uncle everyone barely tolerates and that really cool science teacher you remember from middle school. For example, instead of simply describing molecular vibrations as stretching (symmetrical or asymmetrical) and bending (in-plane or out-of-plane), Adam and Michael called on audience volunteers to scissor, wag, twist, and rock their way through the movements. An interpretive dance of chemistry!

ping pong cannon
The grand finale was awesome! Adam and Michael were blasting hundreds of ping pong balls right into the audience!

The Metal Men

comic book cover
When I was growing up reading comic books, I keenly remember the Metal Men. The DC comic was created by writer Robert Kanigher, penciller Ross Andru, and inker Mike Esposito and featured genius scientist Will Magnus and his six artificially intelligent androids.

metal men intro
The team leader was Gold, the muscle was Iron. There was hot-tempered Mercury, dim-witted Lead (he was dense, get it?), insecure Tin (the tin cry, science is so damn funny), and, the sole female in the team, lustrous Platinum. Platinum was in love with Dr. Magnus and thought she was a real woman (creepy, considering Dr. Magnus created her like that). Besides having personalities that matched their namesake elements, each android had abilities that also matched their names. For example, Iron was strong and Lead could shield against radiation. Mercury, being a liquid at room temperature, could pass through small openings. Gold, Platinum, and Tin were malleable and ductile.

Dr. Magnus flustered
To my delight, each one of their adventures was like a little chemistry lesson. Like when they battled with the sinister Gas Gang!

comic book cover
I remember the major thing that really irked me about the Metal Men was the choice of symbols on their chests. Instead of using the symbols found on the periodic table of elements, which are, ahem, the official symbols determined by the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry, the symbols that were chosen instead are alchemical symbols. And even then, only four of the six symbols are correct:

  • Gold, okay (☉ is the symbol for the Sun)
  • Mercury, okay (☿ is the symbol for, uh, Mercury)
  • Iron, okay (♂ is for Mars)
  • Tin, okay (♃ is for Jupiter)
  • Lead, not okay (♄ is for Saturn, not L)
  • Platinum, not okay (☽☉, not P)

The first five metals are associated with those seven classical “planets” that were visible to the naked eye, with only silver and copper not chosen for some reason. I am guessing that the letters L and P were used for Lead and Platinum, respectively, because they were much easier to draw and, in the case of Platinum, wouldn’t be confused with the symbol for Gold. Anyway, Platinum did not display her symbol on her curvaceous chest. I can only imagine how the use of ☽☉ would have worked out if she did.

If they had used the IUPAC symbols found on the periodic table, the symbols would have been:

  • Gold (Au, from the Latin aurum)
  • Mercury (Hg, from the Latin hydrargyrus or “water silver”)
  • Iron (Fe, from the Latin ferrum)
  • Tin (Sn, Latin stannum)
  • Lead (Pb, Latin plumbum)
  • Platinum (Pt, Spanish platina or “little silver”)

World’s Largest Periodic Table

Graduate students from the UT Health Science Center worked with over 100 elementary, middle, and high school students to try and set a new world record for the largest periodic table of elements yesterday. Every school chose an element and painted a canvas tarp for that element.

As I mentioned in a previous post, our high school team chose iron because it is the 26th element and Theodore Roosevelt (the name of my school) was the 26th president. Each decorated tarp is 12 feet by 15 feet. When put together, the entire periodic table of 118 chemical elements is more than 22,000 square feet. That makes it big enough to cover most of the football field at Gustafson Stadium.

pt1 pt2 pt3 pt4

We Have Iron For The World’s Largest Periodic Table!


Thanks to the team at the Teacher Enrichment Initiatives (TEI) in the Department of Medicine at the University of Texas Health Science Center a San Antonio (UTHSCSA), we have been invited to join in the construction of the world’s largest periodic table!


UTHSCSA’s TEI seeks partnerships between the faculty and staff of UTHSCSA and K-12 teachers in the San Antonio area. They offer a wealth of resources for science teachers, including a multidisciplinary health science curriculum aligned to state and national educational standards, and teacher professional development programs.

We chose the chemical element iron with the symbol Fe from ferrum, with Latin roots meaning to bear or to carry, because its atomic number is 26. As it happens, our high school is named after the 26th President of the United States Theodore Roosevelt, who had an iron constitution and wrote in a letter to New York legislator Henry Sprague on January 26th, 1900:

Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far.

Bully! I think that Mr. Roosevelt would be proud!

Adventures In Time And Space 10: Light In Slow Motion

A research team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology created an imaging system that allows them to capture light at fast enough speeds to show it traveling in slow motion down the length of a one-liter soda bottle and reflecting back again. The MIT Media Lab’s Camera Culture Group, led by Project Director Ramesh Raskar, collaborated with the lab of Moungi Bawendi of the MIT Department of Chemistry, since fast chemical reactions also occur within a similar timescale, that of femtoseconds (one quadrillionth of a second), where atoms within reactant molecules are rearranging themselves to form new product molecules. The team’s system collects visual data at a rate of half a trillion exposures per second.

The new system is called Femto Photography and it consists of illumination bursts from a titanium sapphire laser lasting femtoseconds (1 x 10-15 of a second), image captures from detectors lasting picoseconds (1 x 10-12 of a second), and mathematical reconstruction techniques to put it all together.

The exposure time of each image frame is 2 picoseconds, or two trillionths (2 x 10-12) of a second, and the resultant video shows the movement of light at roughly half a trillion frames per second. Since it is nearly impossible to capture images at such a fast frame rate, the system uses a stroboscopic method where a laser pulse lasting less than 1 picosecond or one trillionth (1 x 10-12) of a second is used as flash. The returning light is then collected by a camera that records half a trillion frames per second.

However, due to the very short exposure times of 2 picoseconds, millions of repeated measurements need to be collected over several minutes and then rearranged using a reconstruction algorithm to create a video of the event lasting a nanosecond, or one billionth (1 x 10-9) of a second. In a nanosecond, light travels about 30 centimeters or 12 inches, about the length of a one-liter soda bottle. For comparison, the blink of a human eye is about 0.4 second or 400 milliseconds, 400 millionths (400 x 10-3) of a second. Thus, an eye blink is nine orders of magnitude slower than what the imaging system can capture on video.

Beyond educational and artistic purposes, the MIT team hopes to use the new imaging system for research into understanding ultrafast processes, into analyzing industrial faults and material properties, and as a type of medical “ultrasound with light.”