We’re Not Mad, We’re Scientists!

By Matthew K.

Fourth of July weekend. A time of joyous celebration for Americans as we commemorate the founding of the United States. Even for the international folk that may not celebrate the Fourth of July, we could all enjoy some time together away from our research projects and instead form additional social connections and bonds. Unfortunately for us in SSP, our time together on Saturday, July 3, was limited, but it was more than enough for a fabulously memorable way to kick off the beginning of the weekend.

Today, we had the esteemed honor of having Dr. Larry Sverdrup as the guest lecturer today. Unlike previous guest lectures that were only restricted to the IU campus, today was very exciting, including all 180 participants (or shakespereans as we often call ourselves) from all campuses hosted by New Mexico Tech. It was refreshing to see all of the participants together in one Zoom, anxiously waiting to see what was in store for the intriguing lecture titled “Mad? Science Show.” 

Before Dr. Sverdrup started with his lecture, Executive Director Richard Bowdon noted how Dr. Sverdrup has been a guest lecturer for SSP for a whopping 34 years! Since 1984, he has only missed the year 1996 and lectured at both the programs at UC San Diego (when it still existed) and at NMT, making today a milestone being his 50th presentation! When I heard this and the history he has with SSP, I knew we were in for some real good science, and I was not disappointed in the least.

In a sense, I wouldn’t even call Dr. Sverdrup’s lecture a “lecture” as I feel it deserves a much better and worthy title than that. I think a “science extravaganza” suits what his lecture was like. In addition to learning some amazing new science facts spanning physics, chemistry, and biology, he was able to incorporate mind-blowing, eye-captivating demos that popped and boomed out the screen. The only way his presentation could have been better is if we were in person directly witnessing and feeling the impact and effects of his demos. Curse the wretched COVID-19 for this being a remote rather than in-person experience!

One of the primary focuses or themes of his extravaganza was atoms. Centering on atoms, he performed demos that were a testament to how remarkable it is that everything in the world and universe, including us, are made of these tiny structures that dictate a multitude of different properties. 

Rather than having huge blocks of text explaining what happened, I think it would be much more effective to just SHOW you what he did through screenshots with some of my commentary throughout. Enjoy the highlights!

When he first showed us this device, called a Jacob’s Ladder, he warned us that it could produce dangerous amounts of voltage, up to 15,000 volts! By just seeing it, it is hard to believe such power exists in such a puny looking thing, so his first demo essentially showed us he wasn’t kidding around with the combustion of nitrocellulose.

Starting off with a bang! 😉

When the explosion hit, I could feel it through my monitor. With all the flammable books in the background and other seemingly important scientific objects in the room, I can only really describe this explosion with one word: crazy. This was truly going to be Mad Science after all.

This was a cool optical illusion that he shared with us. When staring at the middle red point while the blue crosses circled around, the yellow dots would disappear. He explained how although light is going into our eyes, our brain controls what we see due to evolution. As he said, a predator would be more important to focus on a flower than on a hill.

His next demo had to do with electricity with a transformer that converts a 9 volt battery to I believe 75 volts. He described how people sometimes have difficulty letting go of a device like this. He explained how if the outside electricity from a shocker is stronger than the electricity our bodies run on, there is a loss of control of muscle. By having his supposed volunteers hold hands when the electric shock device was turned on, he showed the conductive nature of human beings as all of them could feel the shock by completing a circuit.

He further demonstrated the properties of electricity by showing how when the two remaining volunteers put their hands into distilled water, they did not feel anything, showing that it does not conduct electricity very well. However, when normal tap water was used, there was a physical reaction to jump away as they expressed it definitely felt worse. The impurities in the normal tap water facilitate the transfer of electrons. These demos certainly showed the potential dangers of electricity and why it is necessary for precautions to be taken.

The next demo he did was interesting as it was an example of visual adaptation. When first shown the neutral face, there’s really no emotion to it. However, when shown the angry face for some time and adapting to it, the original neutral face appears much more happy when it reappears with a smile. This was meant to show just how biased humans are, and plus it feels quite wacky having your brain involved in these weird tricks!

The upcoming part of the lecture was one of my favorite and coolest sections as it showed all the fun you can have with a thermal infrared camera and how applicable it can be to daily life and societal issues. This camera detects infrared rays and essentially shows the heat of different objects. Something hot appears white while something cold appears black. 

Pouring ice cold water into a cup
Pouring hot coffee into a mug
The volunteers are drawing on their faces with ice. You can see the remnants of the cold ice!
Hot hair by being blown by a hair dryer. The electrons in the hair move faster, thus radiating more.
Because infrared rays, not visible light, is detected, we can see through objects!
A “thermal footprint” being made using hands.
Spraying an aerosol to show how some chemicals absorb infrared, like the greenhouse gases.
A mirror that only works in infrared? Dr. Sverdrup explained that a surface needs to have scratches smaller than the wavelength of light to show a reflection. With this aluminum plate, you cannot see a clear reflection with visible light, but it has scratches small enough for infrared (½ micron) to show a reflection.

As you can see, thermal infrared cameras are pretty amazing, and their potential applications are very interesting too as they essentially open up a new set of eyes. For example, if a criminal shoots a gun then throws it into a bush, it would be hard to find that gun with just our regular eyes. However, an infrared camera can be used to spot such a gun in a bush as it would still be hot from being used. Another application I found intriguing is when trying to locate a car that just drove into a parking filled with thousands. The hottest car should be the one that just drove in and would appear more white on the camera.

Now comes to the projectiles of the most powerful weapon researched extensively during World War II: vortex rings. 

Vortex rings, as shown above, are essentially jets of air or fluid mixing with one another to form this perfect ring capable of travelling very large distances. During WWII, the Germans were running out of bullets, so they researched vortex rings and actually created successful weapons. The one Dr. Sverdrups used was a simple one made out of cardboard, but the vortex rings traveled far for such a seemingly crude looking device. I liked how Dr. Sverdrup described the vortex rings as looking “alive” as they are such a cool phenomena to witness and just shows how incredible something as simple as a ring of air can be. 

An interesting point that Dr. Sverdrup made was about the science “Washing Machine” and how ideas become theories that must pass a “Barrier of Bastards” to be incorporated into accepted standard models and be recognized. He gave stories of several examples of the natural tendency of people to reject new ideas, which makes it difficult for scientists to have their theories accepted or even considered. It reminded me much about our wonderful TA Rachel’s lecture about public advocacy and communication in science.

The second to last set of demos Dr. Sverdrup was all centered on liquid nitrogen. Dr. Sverdrup was able to create captivating and unique liquid nitrogen demos that I had never seen before and even incorporated facts and stories that made the experience even more fun. He talked about the ways a person can die from liquid nitrogen, which essentially boiled down to directly inhaling or consuming the pure nitrogen and keeping it a confined space since it will expand. 

Here’s a balloon filled with some tablespoons of liquid nitrogen that will continue to expand until it pops. Unfortunately, time ran out before getting to pop, but you will notice the balloon getting very big in the background in the upcoming pictures.

With a variety of materials, he demonstrated how objects can have very different properties when in extremely cold temperatures by submerging them in liquid nitrogen, and how temperature changes is one of the many challenges faced by engineers.

When this copper tube is extremely cold, it takes much longer for the magnetic ball to go through.
Dr. Sverdrup is equally cooling down a rubber ball with liquid nitrogen…
… which completely shatters like glass when thrown

And of course, I must show you the legendary banana hammer:

What freezing a banana at extremely cold temperatures with liquid nitrogen can do… SCIENCE!

The very last demo he did involved an aluminum tube with, if I remember correctly, some type of hole or slit a quarter of the way up from one end, which he heated up with a blowtorch. What resulted was a persistent loud honking noise. 

He related this to the dinosaur Parasaurolophus, which had a hollow crest that is believed to produce a low pitched sound in similar respects to what was done with the hollow tube.

This particular specimen is actually at the Field Museum if you are wondering!

And that was essentially the lecture! I did not include everything Dr. Sverdrup did or covered, but I included some of the most major and memorable demos to me, and I hope you enjoyed seeing the highlights or reliving the moments with me! He was truly a remarkable lecturer, presenter, and scientist, and I could absolutely understand why he has been guest lecturing at SSP since 1984. His demos are just unforgettable and fantastic!!

You may be wondering why I specifically included the part of Parasaurolophus he mentioned at the very end of his lecture. As a dinosaur and fossil fanatic extremely passionate about paleontology, these few slides got me really excited that I just had to include them. In fact, I would like to share with all of you something that relates to Parasaurolophus just for fun!

Here’s me with the same Parasaurolophus as the one in the lecture. What a coincidence!

Parasaurolophus was a dinosaur that lived during the Late Cretaceous period around 75 million years ago and was considered a hadrosaur, more commonly known as duck-billed dinosaurs. Another hadrosaur that lived during the Late Cretaceous, although with a somewhat different geographic distribution, was Edmontosaurus. What’s cool about Edmontosaurus is that mummified Edmontosaurus specimens have been found before that include rare and exceptionally well-preserved features of delicate structures, like skin impressions.

The fossil below is a specimen from my fossil collection of an Edmontosaurus skin impression that was found in association with a partial skeleton in South Dakota. You will never really see actual skin being fossilized as it is incredibly rare for soft tissue to undergo such preservation. Skin impressions like these are still extremely rare but undergo a more complex fossilization process. When the Edmontosaurus died, its skin would have had to form an impression in the sediment. The hardening of that impression would form a mold that would then also be filled with sediment to harden into a cast that became this fossil. The conditions would have to be exactly right in order for such fossilization to occur before the skin would completely decay.

What makes specimens like these really awesome are the scale structures that are still visible and give an idea of what the skin of the dinosaur when it was alive was like. You may have noticed in the second picture an area of the fossil that appears somewhat different than the rest with less defined scales. This portion is believed to be a healed wound, but there may also be other explanations.

With my own little paleontology lecture concluded as well, I would like to end off by thanking all of the staff, faculty, TAs, and especially my fellow participants that make SSP possible! We are now around half way done, and I cannot believe how fast time went by. I guess time flies when you’re having fun? In retrospect, it hasn’t even been very long since SSP officially began, but we have all already made so many amazing memories and have a collection of inside jokes that makes it seem as if we’ve been together for much longer. 

Just to name a few in no particular order:

  • Romeo and Juliet (performed by Rachel and Devin)
  • Dr. One
  • The Ikea Theme
  • The Commentary Game
  • Writing rap bars
  • The hilarious captions from “Caption This!” 
  • Aaron’s voice and cover of the “Gettysburg Address”
  • Micah
    • Eating lemons, then brushing his teeth directly after (RIP enamel)
    • His Zoom backgrounds
    • Bonjourno
    • Nick Jonas, a tunic, and Joseph
  • Choosing a career for a fellow participant 
  • Mr. John Whitney from the lab demo videos
  • MOE and its difficulties

Shout out to the early bois, Ellen and Sanju (Go Team Butcher Block Countertops!), and everyone else in the early block for making waking up early a fun and entertaining educational time! As of now, early block reigns superior!!! Just kidding, the late block is awesome too. 

With all the bright, talented individuals in SSP and everyone supportive of each other, I learned that asking lots of questions is what really facilitates science and the immersive educational experience. If I don’t know or understand something, someone else may know. And if they don’t know, maybe the TAs or professors will know. And if they don’t know, it’s time for all of us to learn something new! I’ve probably asked more questions in the breakout rooms than I have ever done before in regular school! It just goes to show how breaking barriers of anxiety or fright of asking questions helps to create an overall more engaging learning environment.

As we soon return back to the packed schedules of the class activities and TA blocks with work needing to be done for our research projects, I would like all of us, the participants, to remember that we all contribute to making SSP the way it is and that each of our inputs builds the program into the once in a lifetime experience that it’s known to be.