Archive for the 'Cool Picture' Category

As Ice Balls Age

Last winter I had a whim and a handful of cheap balloons, so I made a set of colorful ice balls. This post does show how to make them, and what mistakes I’d made. But unlike other posts you’ll find on making ice balls, I show the odd thing that happens as they age. So read to the bottom.

First, wear gloves if you don’t want colorful hands for a week or so.

Then make sure that you have a place to put them to freeze. I chose to do them naturally outdoors, and will explain what I did wrong there below.

MVI_7642bSo, take a balloon and put a few drops of food coloring in it. Then fill it with water, somehow. Caution, if the balloon pops, you may get sprayed with permanent dye. Wear an apron, or clothes that you don’t care about.


Gently place the jiggly ball of dye in a cold place. Below 25ºF is best. If you use a freezer, put them in a bowl or something that will catch the liquid if the balloon fails. I put them on a stoop in the snow. Unfortunately, the warm balls melted the snow and they rested on the warmer concrete. IMG_7645So they froze unevenly, and I tried to move some of them too soon. Next time, I will place them on a chair or bench or anything allowing an air gap between their resting surface and the ground.

But most were solid enough for me to pop and remove the balloons. The blue one up close ruptured and leaked, but the other blue one bounced to the bottom of the stairs without losing its cool.


But I did get a nice set of balls to stack as a decorative accent. They got snowed in, and the snow faded and stuck to them over the course of a few weeks.


But note this weird thing! When the temperature got up close to freezing and then cooled at night for a few days, the dye settled within the solid ice!IMG_7752You can see the distilled, purer water ice at the top, and the more concentrated color collecting lower down.


So The Object at Hand today is either the literal ice balls, or the lesson in physics showing how simple natural processes can cause dye to un-mix from frozen water; an apparent reversal of entropy.

This process is similar to Zone Melting, by which silicon is ulta-purified to make semiconducting wafers to make the chips that make it possible for you to read this.

Bowled Over

A woman at a rummage sale handed me this item because she thought that I looked like I would like it. No charge. My first glance did not win me over, but as soon as it hit my hand, the feel sure did. At first touch I knew it would sound with a deep and full-bodied ring; like a bell.

So today’s Object at Hand is an aluminum bowl. I could use this Indian import to make a case for vanishing American industry, or to get into the fascinating subject of where aluminum comes from and what unexpected things it can be used for, or to get nerdy about acoustics and neurology of sound and pleasure.

But today I feel like presenting an object just because I like it for itself.

Aluminum bowl

You can see at a glance that it has thick walls, and that It suffers visually from having been used to hold wet stuff, as the interior is etched with parallel rings from the air-liquid boundary. What is not visible is the mechanical tension that it holds from being cold-pressed into shape. This tension is what gives it such a nice tone. I usually leave it on the kitchen counter because a) it looks nice enough there and b) I can strike it with a knuckle as I pass to hear it sing whenever I pass by.

Perhaps I am too easy to amuse. I do try to limit the ringing when my spouse is around, not just because it is wise to avoid annoying those who handle your food and regularly see you unconscious.

But what prompted my post today is that picked-ripe produce is now coming in from friends. On a whim, I dropped a few items into the bowl, saw the reflections, and just had to snap a picture.


And, yes, it makes the same rich sound with these items sitting on the bottom. A feast for all the senses.

Shear Shadows

It is quite a warm summer. With all these triple digit days, it only makes sense to do yard work early in the morning, while the temperature is still down in the 80’s. One of those mornings I was setting up to trim the hedges, when I noticed this shadow.

I have always enjoyed images, objects, and illusions. Long shadows never cease to amuse me. There are three times of day to reliably find them: When the sun is low at dawn and dusk, casting horizontal shadows on the ground; and when the sun is high, casting long shadows on walls. Note how the ½” wire has a two inch shadow. It had been a little wider when I first saw it, but it took a while to find my camera.
Anyway, the object at hand this morning is the image of the shadow of the hedge trimmer, evoking to me the front end of a saw fish.

Running Out of Light

This morning I had an idea. But then I looked up at that cartoon light bulb hovering over my head, and decided to write about that object, instead.

This marvelous still-working antique makes for a better image than the collection of dead light bulbs that were actually my inspiration. You see, the world is running out of tungsten. So I am starting to salvage the filaments from my dead light bulbs.

May I assume that you don’t think about tungsten very often? This metal is rarer and harder to purify than gold. But it sells for only a few dozen dollars a pound. Every electrical light bulb, whether incandescent, fluorescent, or arc, contains tungsten. So do x-ray tubes, cat-scanners, and (believe it or not) commercial airplane wings.

What’s so special about it? It has a high melting point. It is the only element that would be a liquid on the surface of the sun. This is why it is so useful in light bulbs. It is also one of the heaviest elements: As heavy as gold, or eleven times as heavy as magnesium. This density is why it is in the wings of large airplanes, as dynamic turbulence compensators. You can see many examples and learn lots of cool stuff about tungsten here at I get lost in that site, either geeking out or admiring the photography and stories.

Anyway, this rare and useful material  is getting hard to find in the Earth’s crust. And every day, tons of it go to the landfill, mostly in burned-out lightbulbs. All the original tungsten is still in that sealed ampule, mostly as a strand of wire with a small gap. And we throw this rare stuff away.

Although we are generations away from needing to mine the landfills for valuable materials such as this, I have decided to start collecting tungsten from my dead lamps. At the rate they burn out, I may have a pound by the end of my life. But it feels vaguely satisfying to know that it will be easy to recycle, once they (we) realize its value.

Magical Field

I’ve always been fascinated by the contrast between images and objects, between what you can see and what you can feel. I loved the disconnect of invisible forces and of intangible visions. Today’s object serves to illustrate both mysteries.

Magnet on Fridge casting light and shadow

Magnet on Fridge casting light and shadow

Magnets have always fascinated me. Their invisible forces are so strong up close, yet fade so fast over distance. I like the way they feel. The way they affect things without any visible connection. The way they -click- together, but pull apart like stiff taffy. This little guy is one of many that I order wholesale from (If you buy some via my links, I might earn some credit toward my next order.)

Magnet Closer UpLight has also been an active interest of mine. This day I was fascinated by the way the sun hit the side of my fridge and created this marvelous separation of bold beams of dark and light from the apparent poles of this magnet. (Actually,  This odd magnet is magnetized across the diameter; the better to make bracelets and such.)

Vision is so innate to us that most people don’t realize how incredibly complex our internal algorithms are that detect actual objects from the sea of illusions that is the visible world. The mystical world of light. It always amuses me to tease this sense of vision; the better to extend my view. And then to try to share.

Maxwell's EquationsI’d had the years of calculus and physics  necessary to understand Maxwell’s Equations (about how radio, magnets, light, electricity, static, and such are related). Contrary to popular belief, understanding the mysteries of nature increases ones appreciation. Mystery for the sake of wonder is another way of saying “ignorance”. With the math-enhanced mind one can see the forces, the vectors, and the field lines involved in holding this nickel-plated, sintered cylinder of neodymium alloy to the fridge, and the related fields of light and shadow reflecting from it. It’s wa-ay cool when you see it that way. Kinda like this comic.

Simpler math (basic integral calculus) shows why magnets stick so hard and pull away so quickly. Dipole forces (like a magnet or an atom) reduce at inverse-cubed rate, as opposed to the inverse-squared rate of light, electric fields, sound, and most other things. Knowing this in no way diminishes my childish delight in feeling the pull, in testing each new magnet, or in levitating neodymium between blocks of bismuth.

And I can’t resist: Electric fields are what keep the magnet from simply sinking into the fridge. Every “solid” object has a vibrating surface of atoms. More precisely, a surface of electron fields. What makes that hard “clack” when you slap hard things together is the electric fields around those surface electrons pushing each other apart, like quadrillions of little springs. But springs that obey the dipole inverse-cubed law of forces, where the radius is half an atom wide (the positive pole is each nucleus and an atom is about 1/10 of a nanometer wide). So it seems like you go from zero to sixty pounds of force in no distance at all. But there is squish on the nano-scale.

Thus my eye catches photons bouncing off of a shiny cylinder on the fridge, and I see those myriad little force fields of which everything is made, and try to illustrate them with a fridge magnet.