Popular Science Logo

Popular Science Column


I've been writing a monthly column about chemistry, elements, blowing things up, etc, for Popular Science magazine since July, 2003.

These articles are available on the Popular Science website, and I have collected them here as well. My versions have less other stuff on the page and probably load faster, their versions look more professional: Take your pick. (If you find the titles a bit too cute, I agree. Let's just say they work better in print, and when you see only one per month.)

Please note, this list is often way out of date!
I'm really lazy with getting them scanned, so this list has been as much as a year out of date sometimes. Just because it looks like I haven't written anything in years doesn't mean I haven't. Check the Popular Science website too, they are usually more up to date with recent articles, though not so good with older ones.

November   Spark Fun
(An Elemental Recipe for Creating Great Showers of Sparks)
October   Flash Bang
(The Hidden Uses of Everyday Explosives)
September   Gone in a Flash
(Diamonds Are For, Well, a Couple of Seconds)
July   Power Sculpting
(Carve Steel with Saltwater, Electricity and a Tin Earring)
June   Cold, Hard Facts
(How to Cast Solid, if Fleeting, Shapes in Mercury: Just Add a Lot of Liquid Nitrogen)
May   The Other White Heat
(You Know Bacon is Delicious, But Did You Know it Has Enough Energy to Melt Metal?)
March   Blowing (Up) Bubbles
(A Dramatic Demonstration of Why the Same Gas That Heats Your House Can Also Make it Explode)
February   Building a Tough Bit
(Making a Tungsten Carbine Tool Than Can Cut Nearly Anything)
January   Homemade Titanium
(With Heat and Common Chemicals, the Author Turned Ore Into Metal)

December   Glass Grill
(The author creates an ornament-using his barbecue)
October   Metal's Hidden Treasure
(All metal is made of crystals; you just can't see them—without a little acid, anyway)
September   Make Your Own Ammo
(How do you turn molten metal into perfect spheres? Just pour it off the roof)
August   Quantum Physics in a Glass
(Two chemicals create a glowing (and poisonous) mixture that's a window into the weird world of quantum physics)
July   Shattering the Strongest Glass
(Explosive glass drops demonstrate why your car windshield is so strong and safe)
June   Let Burning Metals Lie
(There's not much you can do to put out a magnesium fire. Douse it with water or spray it with a fire extinguisher, and the results can even be explosive)
May   The Instant Hot Tub
(If a few ounces of quicklime mixed with water can make self-heating soup cans, we figured 500 pounds of it could create a self-heating hot tub)
April   Flaming Oxygen Drops
(In large quantities, pure liquid oxygen is powerful enough to launch rockets. But even a tiny bit packs a wallop too)
March   Trap Lightning in a Block
(To create beautiful electrical-charge patterns like this, you could use a giant particle accelerator. But shag carpeting will also do just fine. Watch how Lichtenberg figures are made in our amazing video)
February   Fire Without Flame
(Precious metals in your car burn up the dirty exhaust, with no flame to be seen)
January   Titanium or Plain Ol' Steel?
(Cut through titanium-marketing hype—take a grinder to your stuff)

December   Plate your 'Pod
(How do you keep the back of your iPod clean? Sandpaper and electricity)
November   Burning Metal
(Send steel up in flames--as long as it's in wool form)
October   Transform Hand Warmers to Liquid Ice Sculptures
(The mysterious material inside hand warmers "freezes" almost instantly)
September   How to Make a Lamp out of Lime
(Create a superbright spotlight just like the stagehands of old: with a blowtorch and a hunk of quicklime)
August   Make Your Own Ethanol
(Brewing your own fuel is easy--it's also dangerous and potentially illegal)
July   Pretty Penny
(Turn your cheapest coins inside out using some hardware-store chemistry)
June   Atoms and Eves
(Before lava lamps and laser light, all you needed for romance was some radioactivity)
May   Spark of Destruction
(The plugs inside your car fire a charge hot enough to wear away metal. Here's how to re-create that process, only bigger)
February   A Tall Glass of Juice
(Power your stuff like it's 1899 by building your own liquid battery)

December   An Elemental Fascination
(How the author's element-collecting hobby turned into a real periodic table--and a free poster for you)
November   Soup-Can Searchlight
(Strike an arc between two battery rods for a superbright light that peers deep into the dark)
October   Making Salt the Hard Way
(Sodium + chlorine = your favorite popcorn condiment (and lots of smoke and fire!))
September   Playing With Poison
(Mercury used to be lots of fun--before we knew that it could kill you. Here's how several pounds of it made the first electric motor spin)
August   Dry Ice Cream
(Skip the fancy ice-cream maker--all you need is a pillowcase and a fire extinguisher)
July   Ice Capades
(Ice is supposed to float, but with a little heavy water, you can make cubes that sink)
June   Rocket Food
(Want to see a real sugar high? Launch a model rocket with Oreo cookies.)
May   Stir Up Some Nylon
(As one of the first synthetic materials ever made, nylon changed fashion-and the world. Now you can make thread yourself by pulling it from a glass of chemicals.)
April   Nickel Growing in Trees
(Electroplating makes bumpers shiny and rustproof. It also makes these beautiful bits of industrial waste.)
March   Save a Snowflake for Decades
(Create a lasting cast of nature's perfect crystals with a drop of chilled superglue.)
February   Making a Deadly Sun
(From urine to firebombs--white phosphorus is among the nastiest of elements.)
January   Making a Perfect Match
(How do you create a mixture that can easily burst into flames, but only when you want? Just use one of the most unstable mixtures on Earth, plus Elmer's glue.)

December   Make Your Own Lightbulb
(Want to feel smarter than Edison? Build a lightbulb the modern way with some helium and an old welder.)
October   Making Silicon from Sand
(In a chemical reaction straight out of Harry Potter, you can turn dirt into the building block of every computer.)
August   Titanium in Technicolor
(With a battery and a can of soda, you can anodize the surface of titanium to create colors that will last forever.)
July   Calling Van Helsing
(A hands-on investigation into the myth and reality of the original anti-werewolf weapon: silver bullets.)
June   Make Everything Golden
(Using sheets so thin they're measured in atoms, you can cover anything with a lasting coat of pure gold.)
April   The Original Photo Flash
(Magnesium is great for shiny wheels and really bright explosions perfect for lighting old-time photographs.)
March   Seeing the Subatomic
(With a cloud chamber, you can actually watch the subatomic radioactive particles all around you.)
February   Gag with a Spoon
(With the right mix of metals, you can make an alloy that turns to liquid at any temperature you choose.)
January   The Worst Way to Inlay
(Sulfur is stinky and noxious, but that didn't stop people from using it to beautify their furniture.)

November   Grow Crystals in a Cup
(Melting and cooling bismuth reveals the secret crystalline life of metal.)
October   The Amazing Rusting Aluminum
(Rust can hold an airplane together or dissolve it to bits.)
August   For that Healthy Glow, Drink Radiation!
(In the early 1900s, radioactive water was all the rage. Hard to believe smart people could fall for such twaddle--right?)
August   Making Steel with Beach Sand
(Thermite powder yields pure, white-hot iron when lit. Don't try this one at home.)
July   Uncovering a Natural (Magnetic) Attraction
(A long walk on the right beach could reveal magnetite hiding in plain sight.)
May   The Most Potent Force in Science Today!
(In DIY science, eBay offers amazing access to gear, supplies, chemicals-a whole universe beyond Pez dispensers.)
May   Melting the Unmeltable
(There are many ways to melt metal, but an arc furnace can liquefy almost anything you put in it, using only electricity.)
April   Getting the Lead In
(Unlock the mystery of the pencil by turning out a few of your own.)
March   Futuristic Metal Cutting for the Masses
(Plasma-arc torches are sci-fi made real. And they slice through steel so easily, anyone can use them.)
February   Ignorance = Maglev = Bliss
(For 150 years scientists believed that stable magnetic levitation was impossible. Then Roy Harrigan came along.)

December   The Subatomic Assembly of H2O
(Tired of waiting for our fuel of the future to come of age? Grab a cup of water and a 9-volt, and read on.)
October   Making Small Change Smaller
(The art of shrinking coins using copper coils, magnetic fields and enough energy to power a small city.)
September   Smelting in a Microwave
(Our scientist zaps tin and silver, shatters glass, and arcs his oven to prove a point.)
August   Casting About, from Al to Zinc
(The best metal for the job isn't always the ideal one.)
July   Microcrystalline in 30 Seconds
(Behold the smooth, sweet powers of liquid N.)

My regular columns are always one page with a few beautiful pictures (at least as much effort goes into the photographs as into the text). I've missed a few months, and a couple of times I've written two articles for one issue, but by and large it's a pretty steady thing.

I have to admit I didn't actually read Popular Science when I was growing up (I was raised in a Scientific American household, if you know what I mean), but it's a venerable publication dating back over a hundred years, and it's the largest circulation science-related magazine in the world.

I happened to run into three boxes of Popular Science from the '60s and '70s at an auction once, and they are quite fascinating, with articles about such new wonders as the Ford Pinto and those fantastic giant Fresnel lenses you used to be able to get from Edmund Scientifics. It's enough to make you shout "Where's my jet car already!" (Unfortunately I was asked to remove them from the office on account of the moldy smell.)