The Amateur Mad Scientist: Quarter-Ton Tomato

You may have noticed that front-loading washing machines are rapidly eclipsing the top-loading agitator variety that was once popular. This is a good thing for two reasons: front-loaders save on water, which is obviously good in these environmentally-conscious times. And two: they allow me to perform all manner of extremely unwise experiments. For you see, my 1985 vintage GE washer, original to my 1985 domicile, finally died. And now, I am equipped with a snazzy new front-loader. It uses a high-speed spin cycle to centrifuge the water out of clothes. It’s really quite hypnotic to watch. And, when it’s spinning at full speed, a little scary. For you see, according to the manual, the drum’s maximum spin speed is 1200 RPM. Yes. 1200 RPM. That’s twenty revolutions per second. Holy shit!

Before I go on to the really unwise part of the experiment, let’s do some quick math. Now, I measured a drum diameter of about two feet, which comes out to a radius of, let’s say, one foot. According to other sources, the maximum spin speed of a washer like mine is 900 RPM. To be on the safe side, let’s assume that, at maximum speed, the drum spins at somewhere between 600 RPM (10 RPS) and 1200 RPM (20 RPS). Centripetal acceleration is given by radius times the square of the angular velocity. Therefore, at 600 RPM, the outer edge of the drum is experiencing a centripetal acceleration of 1.203 kilometers per second per second, or about 122 gees. At 1200 RPM, the acceleration is a terrifying 490 gees. That is to say, under the most conservative estimate, my washing machine generates a hundred and twenty times earth’s surface gravity. I say again: holy shit. And I’d like to add: holy fuck!

Now, the first time I did this calculation, I started having all kinds of unwise ideas. I started wondering if I had any sufficiently compact friends I could coerce into climbing into the drum. I started scouring my neighborhood for particularly troublesome squirrels. Ultimately, I decided to test a tomato. I happened to have some tomatoes that were just moldy enough that I was afraid to eat them. Here’s our test subject:


Now, regular readers will be fully aware of the fact that I am insane. But my insanity has its limits. You see, as fun as it is to centrifuge fruits to death in a washing machine, I realized that at some point in the future I might like to do some laundry in my washing machine. That didn’t stop me from proceeding, by any means, but I decided that a watertight container was probably necessary.

I stuck the container in the drum, closed everything up, set the washer for a “Spin and Drain” cycle, and got ready. Our brave test subject had no comment, but he looked about as terrified as a tomato in a plastic bowl can.

I was a little nervous as the washer spun up to full speed. But I discovered that even my cheap-ass camera could take unblurred photos of the drum, which allowed me to confirm that the bowl hadn’t exploded everywhere and voided my warranty.

Notice the way the duct tape curves down towards the center of the lid. It wasn’t doing that when I first put it in. I guess that’s the effect of approximately 100-300 gees (remember, the force is less on the lid because the lid is closer to the drum’s center). But the container valiantly took the abuse. The same cannot be said for the tomato.

HOLY SHIT! Imagine that was your spleen or your brain or something. I’m glad I didn’t talk any of my cousins into that drum… Because 490 gees turns a 1-pound tomato into a 500-pound tomato (quarter-ton tomato! Get it! …sorry…) If I’d talked my 120-pound cousin into taking its place, that’d be 60,000 freakin’ pounds. But then, I might seriously void my warranty, so I’m glad I didn’t.

The Amateur Mad Scientist – Episode 2

Haha! And you thought this was gonna be another of those Life of an English Major “series” that I lose interest in two weeks later and forget about. But no! There are now at least two episodes of the Amateur Mad Scientist. In the last episode, I put five pillbugs in a nasty-ass recycled deli container and tried to force them to breed. This one’s not quite that mean, if for no other reason than no macroscopic organisms are involved. I present to you: the Super-Ghetto Biosphere.

For an enclosure, I decided to use a little glass jar that totally didn’t used to have tartar sauce in it.

To that, I added sand enriched with organic material. Sand I totally didn’t steal from my hermit crabs. And then the water. Nasty-ass water. Water, like, swimming with little critters. Paramecia ‘n’ shit, yo. Sorry…that joke was fucking stupid. But anyway: the water is also fortified with organic matter (not floating aquarium-snail poop, I promise).

And now the keystone of the entire ecosystem: a cutting of the infamously tenacious water wisteria plant (Hygrophilia difformis). Because if experience has taught me anything, there’s nothing plants like more than being sealed in jars.

So that’s the setup as of 6-22-2011. I’ll post pictures over the weeks to come detailing my resounding success (Ha!). Watch this space!

Update: As pf 7-2-2011, the plant is still (somehow) alive, and has deigned to throw down at least one root. Also, algae.

Update: As of 7-7-2011, the plant is still, in spite of my worst efforts, alive, and the algae has proliferated and started consuming all the detritus I was too damn lazy to screen out.

The Size of the Sun

Sun and Earth

In the above image, the tiny red rectangle towards the middle of the Sun represents (approximately) the surface area of the Earth. Meaning that the sunspot above it is almost big enough (approximately; some perspective effects come into play) to encompass the entire surface of the Earth. Odds are that everything you have ever done or seen has taken place in an area smaller than a sunspot. The universe is odd.

(Image courtesy of NASA’s remarkable Solar Dynamics Observatory)

The Amateur Mad Scientist (Part 1)


Oh hi. Didn’t see you there.

Sorry, I haven’t done this for a while. The ol’ sense of humor is kinda rusty. But, it seems that I’m back, and even geekier than ever.

The amateurish picture you see above is of two pillbugs (probably Oniscus spp. Edit: Probably Armadillidum nasatum), the coolest terrestrial crustaceans in existence. Their main functions in the forest ecosystem are consuming detritus and excreting soil (poop). Also, entertaining lonely twenty-somethings on Friday nights. They’re incredibly cute, completely harmless, easy to keep as pets, and if you don’t mind waiting a while, they make great compost. Ha! who needs cats?

But as well as being a nerd, I’m also a man. A manly man. With at least seventeen confirmed chest hairs. So, I like my coffee hot, my whiskey lukewarm, my women buxom (or plain, I’m not picky), and my bugs HUGE. And since the gigantic (we’re talking the size of my nose, and my nose is big. GRRRR!) pill millipede (see below) is native to the tropics and doesn’t do well in captivity, I thought “I’m a nerd. I’ve got spare time. Why not make my own?”

Glomeris marginata

So begins my new series “The Amateur Mad Scientist.” Experiment 1: the evolution through artificial selection of gigantic f**cking pillbugs! I started out with five of the largest Oniscus Armadillidum adults I could pull out of my dad’s compost heap (I’m almost afraid to look in my compost heap after the maggot episode of a few months ago…). Five is a nice number, and easy to keep track of, and most importantly, gives me roughly a 96.8% chance of having at least one male and one female. When they reproduce and the hatchlings grow to full size, I’ll pick the biggest ones and leave them in the experimental colony (the losers I’ll transfer to my aquarium-sized pillbug-millipede colony, after calling them sissies and stealing their lunch money, of course). I’m honestly not entirely sure how long a pillbug generation is, but I imagine (meaning: I hope) I’ll see the effects before too long. Watch this space!

Other Business: I’m going to try to get back into the habit of posting stuff. I’ve got a couple of NetLogo simulations worth talking about, and some other things. So yeah. Watch this space.

EDIT: So two of the pillbugs died and I got to thinking “How would I feel if someone put me in a Tupperware container and tried to breed me into a race of giants?” And I decided that I would, in response, crawl out of the container while my captor was asleep, shit in his eye, and crawl into his ear and eat his brain. The surviving pillbugs are now back in the wild, no doubt talking all kinds of shit about me, none of which, I assure you, is true.

Poor Man’s Liquid Nitrogen

Liquid nitrogen is hard to get, and being someone with no connections and a wild look in his eye, I don’t think I could actually get my hands on any, so I have to settle for watching videos of the stuff in action. I was doing that a few days ago, and ran across this video:

Being a good science nerd, I happen to know a place where I can buy dry ice. And, being a good science nerd, my first thought when I saw this video was “Don’t try this at home? Pffft! I know what I’m doing!” So, I made Poor Man’s Liquid Nitrogen (which I’ll call PMLN, because I’m lazy). Surprisingly, I didn’t manage to injure myself, but heed the following warning!:


Anyway…onward! (But one more note of warning: I didn’t manage to hurt myself, but I did discover that letting a bunch of dry ice fall in your sink drain is a good way to break a garbage disposal…)

What you need to make PMLN. A 20-liter soda bottle, a 3-liter soda bottle, a knife, isopropyl rubbing alcohol (the video recommends 99%, but the best I could find was 91%), and a pair of gloves to protect myself from frostbite.

In addition to being an excellent way to cool things relatively cheaply, dry ice is also a hell of a lot of fun to play with. Warning: dry ice will make plastic brittle, and is a good way to ruin a plastic colander.

Cut the tops off both containers. Poke holes in the smaller one.

Put the smaller container in the larger one (as if you could do it the other way around…) and surround it with chunks of dry ice. I broke my slab up with a hammer, which is a good way to make really, really cold powdered dry ice, which created a lovely crust of ice on the bottom of my sink.

The “cryo-cell” cooling down. If you decide to disregard my warning and try this experiment, note my safety precautions: gloves, a long-sleeved jacket (in case something splashes), and (not pictured) long pants, socks, and shoes. Just in case.

The alcohol has cooled down to the point that it’s no longer boiling furiously. Time to freeze stuff!

Here’s all the stuff I could find to freeze. At bottom: baby spinach leaves. At the top: a leaf from my jade plant.

Julia the jade plant, from whom I stole the leaf. Sacrificing herself for science once again. Houseplants are noble that way.

The spinach leaf going in…

A shattered spinach leaf. As the fellow in the video advises: do not try to eat stuff frozen this way! Not only will it have rubbing alcohol on it (which is not safe to consume, and could, in fact, kill you), but it will be very, very cold and might freeze to your tongue.

A jade plant leaf freezing in the chilled alcohol. Note: you can’t see it here, but that alcohol isn’t actually liquid. It’s more of a slushy gel-type stuff.

The effects of the cryo-cell. It really works!

I didn’t just want to pour the cola from my 20-liter bottle down the drain, so I put it in a glass. Then, being the amateur mad scientist that I am, I thought “I wonder if you can use dry ice like regular ice…” The answer: you certainly can, but don’t do it with cola. The bubbles from the dry ice will agitate it, and make all the carbonation fizz away. So, the cola was flat, but it sure was nice and cold.

Many, many thanks to YouTube user wbeaty for the demonstration that inspired this post. You should check out some of his other videos. I’m not just saying that so he won’t get pissed off that I copied his experiment; his other videos are actually really cool (no pun intended, honestly).

And one final reminder: don’t do this at home!

Pictures of Other Planets

While injecting my daily dose of Internet news, I learned something incredible: we now have what looks like direct photographic evidence of planets orbiting other stars! I found it pretty hard to believe, but there it is, in black and white (or rather, purple and white).

One of the planets was found orbiting the star Fomalhaut, around 25 light-years from Earth.

Photo courtesy of’s Bad Astronomy Blog.

This is a true “Holy shit!” moment. So far, the only planets we’ve found by direct imaging have either been too large to be properly classified as planets, or they haven’t been orbiting actual stars. In short, this is monumental.

It gets better. Much better. The Keck/Gemini observatory gives us this image of the star HR 8799.

Your eyes do not decieve. What you are looking at is two (TWO!!!) planets orbiting HR 8799. Apparently, they saw a third one, too, but I’m too busy picking my jaw up off the floor to go hunting for images.

I am actually too shocked and giddy to write anything useful. Sometimes, the universe sees fit to remind me why I became a science nerd in the first place.

You can read more about both planetary systems here and get the juicy details about the one orbiting HR 8799 here.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go wipe the drool off my face. And pick my jaw up off the floor.

(NOTE: This seems to me like a pretty good reason to either maintain or replace Hubble. That, and the mystery object it found a couple of months ago)

Hubble Finds a Mystery Object

As is my habit, I was scanning through the news today, and came upon a story that really caught my attention: the Hubble telescope has spotted some sort of mysterious object in space. While this is hardly the first time that’s happened, this time, there’s a twist: the object behaves like nothing else we’ve ever seen. It’s been described as belonging to a possible “new class of astronomical object.” Apparently, it appeared, brightened, and dimmed, and disappeared within a few hundred days. Here’s the really weird part: nobody knows what it is. The way it brightened and dimmed isn’t consistent with a supernova or any other kind of known object. Additionally, it moved so strangely that nobody knows how far away it was. According to astronomers, it could have been anywhere between 130 and 11,000,000,000 light-years away.

Being a sometimes writer of science fiction, it’s hard not to speculate as to what the Mystery Thingy might have been, but even if it was something fairly mundane, this is still pretty exciting.

You can read more about the Mystery Thingy (which I’m hoping will catch on as the object’s official name) here.