Archive for the ‘science’ Category.

Question for a Physicist or Chemist

I have an ice cube tray that lives in my freezer. Earlier today, I used the last of my ice cubes, so I filled it with water and stuck it in the freezer again. Just now (maybe an hour later? It’s been a few hours at most), I open up the freezer again, and see this:

(taken out of the freezer and photographed with a Kleenex box as a backdrop) The tops of the ice cubes are frozen, but there is still liquid water underneath. The interesting thing, though, is that one spot has risen up about half a centimeter higher than the rest. What caused this to happen? Why isn’t the surface totally flat, like it was when I put it in?

Details that may or may not be important:

  • I know there is liquid water underneath because I thought there wasn’t and flexed the tray to crack the cubes loose, and some water came out and then there were air bubbles floating around under the cubes.
  • I kinda over-filled the tray, so that all the cubes are connected by a thin sheet of ice that goes over the plastic dividers in the tray.
  • When I filled the tray with water, there were some small bits of ice stuck in the bottom of the tray, maybe a third the size of a normal ice cube. These were left over from cubes that had cracked in two, where I used the top part but couldn’t get the bottom part out. I expect they’ll become part of the new batch of ice cubes, but I haven’t checked on that yet.

Scientists are Awesome: Robert Sapolsky

(via the guy behind Laughing Squid)

Yes, it’s about cat parasites. No, it’s actually awesome and surprisingly easy to understand.

edit: The video can no longer be embedded. The video and full transcript are here.

This dude, Robert Sapolsky, is a neuroscientist at Stanford, winner of a McArthur “Genius” Award, and an amazing speaker.

I could listen to him all day long. Even his daily class lectures sound fascinating (part 1, part 2; admittedly these require more of a background in the field to fully understand).

Question for a physicist and/or chemist

I have some wild rice. The instructions on it say to boil some water in a saucepan, stir in the rice, cover, reduce heat to a simmer, and wait a while. When I stir the rice into the boiling water, I also stir in some butter and a spice mix (sugar, powdered soy sauce, onion, sesame seeds, garlic, and some other stuff). I mix everything thoroughly, cover it (so I can’t see what happens), reduce the heat, and wait.

When the rice is done, I uncover it, and all the sesame seeds are in a ring around the edge of the pan. The ring is maybe an inch thick; the pan is about 8 inches in diameter. The butter and sugar are mixed throughout and not clustered in any place, but the other spices, like the sesame seeds, seem to be in higher concentrations in the ring and lower concentrations in the center of the pan. I have a gas-powered stove, if that makes a difference.

Why does this happen?

Science is Awesome: Speciation Happening Within Our Lifetimes

(found via the Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe)

The short version: British bird enthusiasts have (unintentionally) split a population of birds into two separate groups, and over the past 50 years they have slowly but surely been turning into two separate species.

The long version (copied here for fear that the original article will disappear):
Article behind cut →

An Interesting Idea

Will It Lens? Temperature Breakthrough!

In case you missed it, here are the other parts of the Will It Lens? series. I know I haven’t updated in a while, and I’ve got a huge backlog of pictures. So, part will be discussed here and I already have enough for another post as well.

Remember that all the safety warnings from the other posts in the series still apply here, though I don’t have anything new to add. Thanks for all the suggestions you’ve given us; we’ve tried some, and there have been quite a few good ones!

Improvements to our setup and more pictures of results →

The photograph lies at my feet, falls from my fingers, is in my hand.

Dearest Internet, I write you today to share a discovery that excited my very being. I have found a wonderful connection between two ideas in which I merely dabble, and the way they complement each other so perfectly has given me new insight into both. The phrase “strawberries and cream” comes to mind. I am, of course, referring to quantum electrodynamics and video games.

If the complementarity is not immediately obvious, let me direct your attention to a particular video game, Braid. Oh, Internet, it is a marvelous game, full of challenge and fun! In the way that Portal is a puzzle game wherein you must manipulate space to solve the puzzles, Braid is a puzzle game wherein you manipulate time. Braid is also an homage to Super Mario Brothers, which gives it a nostalgic feel. But on top of the usual “go left,” “go right,” and “jump” commands, you have at your disposal a “rewind time” button that is your main tool throughout the game. You control a character named Tim, whose goal is to go from the door on the left of the level to the door on the right side, while solving any puzzles preventing this (yes, I am simplifying, but that’s the important part for now).

Although the connection to QED may already be coming into focus, I should like to take a moment to remind you about the discipline. As you may recall, Internet, a man named Richard Feynman worked many a year on QED. He invented something called Feynman Diagrams, which are a very simple way to visually represent interactions between particles. He drew them as graphs with time along one axis and space along another, such as this:

In this image, the horizontal axis is time and the vertical axis is space. Depicted is one possible interaction between an electron and a photon. If one views time as monotonically moving forward (in the intuitive sense by which one normally perceives it), the photon coming down from the top spontaneously degenerates into an electron-positron pair (note that the positron is an anti-electron), and then the positron encounters the electron near the bottom of the diagram, and the two annihilate each other and turn into another photon.

However, there is another way to view this event. Anti-particles behave just like their (non-anti) counterparts moving backwards in time, since they have opposite charge and opposite spin but are otherwise identical. In other words, my good Internet, we could just as easily view this diagram as depicting an electron moving along the bottom of the diagram, then spontaneously “turning around” and moving backwards in time, while shooting off a photon as it reverses direction. It continues to move up the diagram, traveling backwards through time, and then spontaneously reverses its direction once more to travel forwards through time, sending out another photon as it does so. Although this photon gets sent backwards in time, we would perceive it normally because the photon is its own antiparticle (because it has no charge).

This reminded me quite strongly of certain levels in Braid, wherein time goes forwards as Tim moves to the right and backwards as he moves to the left. Here is an example, though it contains spoilers if you have not yet played the game. To give a better illustration of their similarity, consider the following diagram. Living things are in blue, photons are in red, and objects and platforms are in black.

If one were playing the game, one would see Tim come out of the door at the bottom left of the image, travel to the right (going forwards through time) until time E, then shoot out a photon, turn around, and jump up onto the platform (going backwards in time), jump over the Goomba at time B (Goombas can only be killed when going forwards through time). Tim would then turn around at time A (shooting a photon to the left in the process), jump forwards through time and land on the Goomba to kill it, then jump at time D to get to the platform with the door and exit the level.

If, instead, we needed to watch these events as time monotonically increased, we would observe a photon on the platform and a Tim on the floor. At time A, the photon spontaneously decays into a Tim-antiTim pair. The Tim jumps immediately, while a moment later the antiTim unjumps. At time B, a Goomba comes into existence and is killed by the descending Tim. The antiTim, meanwhile, is high above and dodges the event. At time C, the Tim and antiTim collide, annihilate each other and become a photon again, though this photon decays into another Tim-antiTim pair at time D. The Tim jumps and the antiTim unjumps. Then the platform winks out of existence, and the antiTim falls through the space where it used to be. At time E, the antiTim encounters the Tim from the floor, the two annihilate each other and become a photon. The platform materializes above, the remaining Tim lands on it and encounters the final door, finishing the level. When I first realized this, it was a very exciting connection for me. I imagine, dear Internet, that you now share my spark of insight.

If you desire to play Braid for yourself, it is available for download on XBox, Windows, and Mac. The demo is free, and the entire game is $15.

If the arctic ice cap melts…

…where would Christians tell their children that Santa’s workshop is located?

Will It Lens? Table of Contents

Welcome, all! Here are links to everything in the “Will It Lens?” series.

  • Part 1: introduction, melting pennies, dimes, toothpaste, Tylenol, milk, chalk, gourd, can.
  • Part 2: equipment upgrades, CDs, disposable silverware, brass penny, burned pennies.
  • Part 3 (Food Edition): popcorn, grape, kumquat, Frosted Mini Wheat, jelly beans, Reese’s Pieces.
  • Part 4: wood, quarter, soap, dishwasher detergent, bacon, egg, honey, seashell, almonds, gummy bears, M&Ms.
  • Part 5 (Temperature Breakthrough): marshmallow, peeps, copper, iron, sand, glass
  • More to come soon eventually!
  • Gallery of all pictures: This contains every picture we took. There’s a lot of junk in here; the good pictures are in the blog posts above.


  1. Can you melt glass?

    This surprised us, but yes! Normal glass is more properly called “sodalime glass,” which has a much lower melting point than pure silicon dioxide (which we originally thought glass was made of, and which we haven’t been able to melt yet). However, we have trouble melting clear things because they don’t absorb the sunlight. Nonetheless, we melted a dark brown glass in part 5.

  2. Can you melt sand?

    Kinda. The sand we tried is a mixture of quartz, feldspar, and iron. We can melt the last two, but we haven’t melted quartz yet. Look at part 5 for more details.

  3. Can you lens electronics?

    We probably could, but we don’t want to because the fumes are really noxious. There’s lead and other stuff that’s terrible for your lungs in there.

  4. Can you use a second lens to focus the light even more?

    No, that’s not how optics works. For a slightly more thorough answer, see the Light Sharpener FAQ over at

  5. Where did you get the lens? How much did it cost?

    I think we got it from here. When we ordered it, I think it was about $120, plus shipping. If you include the wood for the frame and stand, the welding goggles, and the skillet, we’ve probably spent over $200 on lens-related stuff so far.

  6. You should lens something that will burst and explode all over the place!

    That would be very entertaining, but we need to clean everything up before lunch is over, so we’re not doing anything too messy in the foreseeable future (no unopened pop cans, no aerosols, etc.). If we ever take the lens out to the middle of the desert, we will consider lensing messy things.

  7. You should lens an iPhone, iPod, or other hip status symbol.

    First, see question 3 about electronics. Then, remember that we’re paying for all of this with our own money. We’d prefer not to lens anything that costs more than a couple dollars. Everything we’ve tried so far has cost under $1 each (almost everything is under $0.25 each).

  8. Isn’t it illegal to destroy money?

    Not unless you do it with the intent to defraud someone. Remember the last time you went to the zoo? You probably saw one of those machines that will take your penny, flatten it out, and stamp an image of a penguin or something on it as a souvenir. Melting a penny is no more illegal than one of those machines.

Other articles that link to this series:

Will It Lens? Part 4

If you’ve missed it, here are parts one, two, and three of our adventures with a 4’x3′ fresnel lens, along with a gallery of all the pictures.

Our lens arrived with a corner chipped off, so the lens company sent us a second one for free (which also had its corner chipped off on arrival, but we didn’t get a third for free). I’ve been holding off writing this post because I was hoping to title it “Episode IV: A New Lens,” but we still haven’t built the frame for the second lens or the frame for the mirrors that will reflect light from both lenses onto a single point. So, instead of waiting for that to happen, I’m posting the results I’ve already got.

The same SAFETY NOTES as before apply, as always. In lieu of new safety warnings (we haven’t had any new dangers come up!), I’ve got a few tips for anyone trying to duplicate this. Some tips for fellow lensers, followed by more pictures of results →