Engineer & Entertain

Ideas I grapple with

Archive for the category “Science”

Science Friction

After watching “The Hot Seat Card Magic Trick” episode of Scam School I became interested in the Pilot Frixion pen. Watch the video below if you want to learn the trick in full, but what interests me is that the pen’s ink is erased by heat.

Previously I was only aware of the erasable pens which used an ink mixed with a rubber cement like material. Until the rubber cement set, the ink was erasable.

My first thought, “Could I use this pen to journal my plans of taking over the world and then throw it in a hot place to erase the evidence when the FBI raids me?”

The answer is yes, but really no. While the ink does disappear with heat from an open flame, oven, or vigorous rubbing, the content is still easily read by applying a raking light to view the impressions made by the pen.  Not to mention the FBI could use electrostatic detection to read my plans for global domination.

A raking light is applied so the impressions can be read.

Highlighting some of the impressions.


Furthermore, the ink reappears when the paper is chilled in a freezer. It is not as dark as when it was first written, but it is very legible. I like the idea of writing a secret message, erasing it with heat, writing a non-secret message over it, and then having the recipient freeze the letter to read the hidden message.

The original message

The message reappears after being frozen for less than a minute.


Microwaving the ink would require a considerable amount of time to be erased. I microwaved an index card with a message for 10 seconds, 20 seconds, 30 seconds, 60 seconds, and 120 seconds. When microwaving the card, I also microwaved 1 cup (250 mL) of water. The water was there for safety reasons as I was unsure if the index card would catch fire if it was microwaved alone. The message remained intact until it was microwaved for 120 seconds. After being microwaved for a two minute duration, small portions of the message were erased. Not enough for me to recommend microwaving the message as a method of erasing it for a magic trick or removing evidence of a plan for global domination.

After microwaving for 120 seconds

After microwaving for 120 seconds.


The Frixion pen is useful for magicians, people who schedule their calendars with ink, and students who want to appear they live life on the edge by taking a math test in ink. Despite all of these uses I cannot recommend it for planning the crime of the century.


Cobalt F. Milanowski, M&M

He wrote hit Ke$ha songs


On 09 Dec 2013 at 1200 MST, Cobalt Foxunit Milanowski, my greyhound, died at a kennel. A staffer at the kennel passed the hound before letting some other dogs out and noticed he was laying around like greys typically do. A few minutes later he returned and noted blood was coming from Cobalt’s mouth. The kennel called several veterinarians and determined Cobalt died quickly and peacefully in a matter of minutes. The kennel called me immediately. I was mid-flight, returning home from a vacation and planning on picking up the dog that day.

The kennel offered to cover a necropsy. The logical side of me that wants to know what happened also told me to let go and let Cobalt have peace. The idea kept turning over in my head; ultimately, my clinical compulsion won and I ordered the autopsy.


Cobalt had swelling on his right rear ankle on 12 Nov 2013. He saw a veterinarian on 16 Nov. The vet’s differential diagnosis included valley fever, a tick borne disease, and osteosarcoma.

A blood panel came back negative for valley fever. Rather than run a tick panel, doxycycline was given prophylactically to treat any tick borne illnesses. A radiograph displayed cortical bone loss which is a sign of canine osteosarcoma. The vet recommended we periodically x-ray the site to insure the loss did not become greater.

The swelling reduced some, but resumed a day before the vacation. My plan was to make a vet appointment for him upon my return, but death intervened.

Cobalt’s past medical history includes a heart murmur when dehydrated, a bout of vomiting (which was never diagnosed, but resolved itself), and cryptorchid which was resolved surgically before we adopted him.


Another vet performed the necropsy. Upon gross examination the vet observed petechiae on the abdomen and free blood in the abdomen and thoracic cavity. He found a tumor on the left atrium (hemangiosarcoma). The disease typically begins around 8-10 years of age. Cobalt was 7; he was detrimentally precocious.

The vet reported Cobalt likely had an underlying malignancy which triggered an autoimmune storm.  A cascade of events occurred in a matter of hours and Cobalt’s death occurred in a matter of minutes.  His end was sudden, quick, and peaceful.


A hemangiosarcoma would not show up on radiographs and would only be visible on an ultrasound. If the disease was detected in its very early stages, then treatment might have been a possibility. Chemotherapy would be performed in addition to a very vexing and delicate surgery to remove the tumor from Cobalt’s atrium. Even with surgery and chemotherapy the hound’s life is only extended by 8-9 months. Furthermore its treatment is generally limited to the expertise of a veterinary cardiologist, something not found in Flagstaff. Cobalt’s life might have been extended, but at what cost to the dog’s quality of life?

Given there were no outward signs nothing could have been done. Even if the disease was detected, at this stage the animal’s death could occur at any time. Early detection is the key to cancerous conditions in both humans and animals.

I am grateful for Cobalt. I am also grateful he did one last thing for me and expanded my knowledge of canine health. I miss my hound. Hopefully his dog brain was able to understand that my wife and I love him dearly.

Ricin to the finish

One of the greatest series in the history of television ended a few weeks ago. Before you continue reading this post, please note there will be Breaking Bad spoilers in this post.
While I am not surprised by debates of its meaning and other post game analysis, I was surprised to see people question the logistics of Walt poisoning a nervous, stevia addicted, tea fancying, methylamine supplier. This is the guy who built a meth empire, destroyed several ring leaders, had ten people killed in prison in two minutes, and jump started a RV with science.
Ricin is a poisonous protein from castor beans. It kills by shutting down the protein factories in your cells called ribosomes. The signs and symptoms a person experiences depends on how the poison is introduced to the body. If it is inhaled then the person will die of respiratory failure, while ingestion will terrorize the GI tract. Eating 5-20 castor beans can cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, tachycardia, and seizures for 4 days until your inevitable the death. There is no antidote and treatment typically focuses on treating symptoms and organ failure.
A stevia packet contains 1 gram of stevia. If you wanted to poison a 120 pound executive of a German conglomerate which owns a fast food chicken company, then you would need roughly 109 mg of ricin. With a LD50 of 20 mg/kg, if Lydia weighed 180 lbs you would only need 1.6 grams.
180 lbs * 1 kg/2.2 lbs * 20 mg/kg = 1636 mg
There is clearly enough space to accommodate the poison and sugar substitute. So how do you get the poison in the packet and reseal it?
I am not a sucrologist so I could not tell what the packet was made from. If it is plastic then you could cut it open, add the poison, and reseal it using an iron or other heating element. Not all that different than how it was made.

If it is a paper sachet then the glue keeping it closed could be dissolved with acetone or goo gone, the poison added, and then resealed.
So what would hinder this plan (aside from having the ethics to not kill people)? Not a whole lot. Ricin is very stable over a wide pH range and does not break down when exposed to UV light. If it is exposed to 80*C temperature for over one hour though it will denature and become nontoxic. Depending on the tea, it should be prepared 76*C to 100*C. The temperature is hot enough to render the ricin useless, but the tea is not likely to be at the temperature for a long enough time.
The biggest issue with the plan is making sure Lydia received a packet with ricin. There might be one stevia packet at the table or a waiter could be bribed to bring her a specific packet.

In conclusion, poisoning Lydia was a minor task for Walt. Let us go back to discussing color and its meaning in Breaking Bad.

Bohemian Gravity

Had I the ability to the sing I would have made this years ago. All I would have needed was the ability to sing. And know physics. And the ability to make sock puppets. But I could have totally made this years ago.

Awesome cover and physics lesson.

Red Flags Of Quackery

Created by Maki at Sci-ence, the Red Flags Of Quackery inforgraphic below lays out many of the gambits and logical fallacies you may encounter by charlatans and true believers.

Talking about the Higgs Boson

Cosmologist Sean Carroll talking about the Higgs Boson.

He says we won’t get jet packs from this, but I’d bet that hover boards arise from the discoveries at the LHC.

Secret cadavers are encrypted

My love of puns finally meets up with my love of steganography.  The goal of steganography is to hide a message in plain view.  A microdot might be affixed to a postage stamp for example. To the uninitiated the stamp simply paid the tax for carrying a letter. A spy; however, would know to look for the microdot and view it under a microscope to read a message.  With U.S. mail delivery being eliminated on Saturdays, I wonder how many secret spy plans will be postponed until Monday.

Another method of steganography is to hide a message in text.  Awkward lines invariably appear, stegasaurus.  Awkward grammar, spelling, syntax, and topics are welcome with puns considering their punchlines often rely on such eccentricities. Abdelrahman Desoky, a computer scientist at University of Maryland, used bad jokes to hide messages in plain view.  His work can be found here, but he used a joke generator from MIT to craft the messages.

As I am not a spy, I am not sure how useful this technique is.  None the less, now seems like the time to invest in Laffy Taffy.

Jerry Rig

I recently met Astronaut Jerry Ross at a book signing. He is the first human to be sent to space 7 times. He has spent over 1,393 hours in space; 58 hours were spent over 9 EVAs. This record breaking astronaut was kind enough to sign my circular slide rule.

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It goes without saying that I was ecstatic to meet him.  In less exciting news, I glued two pieces of wood together.

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This board is my circular saw guide. Rather than rely on my ability to make a straight cut, the saw rides on the lower board and is kept straight by the top board. While this is not as impressive as creating a carbon dioxide filter out of a sock, I do enjoy the simplicity and efficacy of this jig.  If you need more instruction than the thousand words I provided, you may find them on the Family Handyman website.

Even if I could not cut straight I also made jig to allow me to joint an edge with my router.

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A wavy edged board is started at the infeed, run through the bit, and is straight at the outfeed. A half inch straight bit is used to joint the piece. The infeed and outfeed areas are parallel, but the infeed fence is offset by 1/16 of an inch.

Neither of these jigs are all that impressive, but they are helpful.  For the sake of comparison, Col. Ross was test flight pilot when he was my age. I’m happy I can make a board straight.

Ignaz to know you

I am participating in No Shave November, but since it is also flu season I am also participating in Wash Your Hands To Reduce Communicable Diseases. This is actually something I participate in frequently through out the day, but now seems as good as any time to celebrate it – unless you count Global Hand Washing Day on Oct 15th.

I digress. I cannot stress the importance of hand washing enough; however, Ignaz Semmelweis can.

In the mid-19th century, 25% of women who caught puerperal fever while delivering their baby would die.  Dr. Semmelweis was an obstetrician in Vienna and worked between two clinics run by the Vienna General Hospital.  The first clinic had an average mortality rate of 10% from puerperal fever.  The second clinic had a rate of 4%.  The clinics admitted delivering women on alternate days.  Some women opted to give birth at home or in the streets rather than go to the first clinic.  These women had lower rates of puerperal fever.  How could the streets of Vienna be a better place to give birth than a hospital?

Ignaz compared the two wards and took into account the population, techniques, even religious practices.  The only difference were their students.  The second clinic trained midwives only.  The first clinic trained medical students and they were required to perform autopsies and learn from cadavers.  The med students and their instructors would go from handling dead, decaying bodies to delivering infants. To our modern eyes this is clearly a horrible idea, but the germ theory of disease would not be proven for another 30 years.

Semmelweis was not the only person to hypothesize doctors could transmit disease to their patients.  There were many reasons why physicians did not immediately wash their hands.  Semmelweis and the other physicians only had anecdotal evidence and they lacked a clear explanation of what was being transmitted.  The thought that disease and cleanliness are linked went against medical training at the time.  Also not helping matters, was that Semmelweis bullied other doctors and hospital staff into washing their hands.  Furthermore, washing your hands did not involve soap and water at the time, it involved a bleaching agent would could irritate the skin.

Ignaz was obsessive about puerperal fever and hand washing. It consumed his life.  Eventually he was committed to an asylum where, in tragic irony, he would die of an infection.  Works by Dr. John Snow, Joseph Lister, and Louis Pasteur would vindicate Semmelweis’s observations and recommendations.

Physicians should have listened to him. Ignaz was money.

The pleasure of finding things

I am a big fan of public libraries. They not only contain vast amounts of information and entertainment in books, videos, and other media, but they also have librarians to help you quench your thirst for knowledge.

Recently at a library book sale I found volume 2 of Feynman Lectures On Physics.

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Richard Feynman was a Nobel Prize winning physicist who was as good as a showman as he was a scientist.

I found Paul A. Kaminskas’ copy actually. Along with some homework. Maybe your teacher will let you turn it in for late credit?

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Paul, if you have volumes 1 & 3, I would love to purchase those too. Or you can donate them to the library, so I can buy it from them and continue supporting my library.


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