Engineer & Entertain

Ideas I grapple with

Archive for the tag “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.


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.

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.

Shoot ‘Em Up

A study conducted by Frank DeStefano, M.D., M.P.H., evaluated the association of autism and the number of vaccines received in the first 2 years of life.  He came to the conclusion that autism is not linked to the number of vaccines received in early childhood.   I originally heard about the study on NPR.  The study can be read here.

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.

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.

Needs a latte work

I was curious if I could use a macchinetta to make a latte in one fell swoop. The short answer is I cannot.

Tastes like data

Typically, a shot (30 mL) of espresso is brewed and 240 mL (1 cup) of steamed milk is added to it.  In my procedure I added a combination of water and 2% milk to the bottom boiling chamber and had it pass through fine ground coffee.  The coffee beans were not ground fresh.  I heated the pot on medium (#4 on a 7 setting gas range).  The water and milk proportions were

  • 1/2 cup water, 1/2 cup milk
  • 1/4 cup water, 3/4 cup milk
  • 0 water, 1 cup milk

I like my sugar with coffee and cream. Well I got to keep it going keep it going full steam.

Each iteration simply tasted like coffee with cream.  One certainly could add flavored syrup to make a vanilla latte with this, but chain coffee houses make them better. Moreover, there are clearly other methods for making cheap lattes at home.

The experiment did not fail, it just collected more data.

An open letter to Neil Armstrong

Dear Neil Armstrong,

While this is an open letter to you, you likely won’t respond because you are dead. None the less I wanted to express how mind-blowingly awesome you are. When your Gemini craft docked with the Agena target and spun out of control, did you panic? No, you performed calmly as trained. When your lunar trainer went out of control and almost killed you, did you panic? No, you bit your tongue a little and calmly ejected. When the lunar module had 40 seconds of fuel left and 1202 alarms are going off, did you panic? No, you landed the LM calm as a cucumber. There are Zen monks whose brains fluster in comparison. You are an inspiration to thinking things through and practicing until you cannot get it wrong.

Per aspera ad astra,

P.S. It is because of you and the Apollo flight controllers that I learned how to use a slide rule.

Jupiter removes its red spot by taking a meteor shower

The comet Swift-Tuttle orbits every 133 years. Despite its lengthy orbital period we can see an interesting spin off from this astronomical body.  It is the parent of the Perseid meteor shower.  Though the Perseid meteor shower has been observable since the end of July, your best chance of observing it is on Saturday night & Sunday morning.  You can learn more from or by watching the video below.

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