Sam the Science Kid Experiment #5: Fire!

Continuing my blogging project for 2011 where I do a science experiment per week with my seven year old daughter.

Following last week’s failed attempt to create a stalactite, Sam and I decided to go for something that looked a little more reliable. As a bonus, it involved FIRE. Here’s the equipment:

  1. A shallow baking dish
  2. A candle
  3. Some colored water
  4. Something small to set the candle in or on (I used a baby food jar)
  5. A drinking glass or glass jar big enough to cover the above

I also had a fire extinguisher handy, just in case. Sam seemed hopeful that it would be needed.

Before we set fire to anything, though, I explained to Sam that fire needed two things to burn: fuel (like wood, gas, or a candle wick) and oxygen. The latter, I explained, was a gas comprising a good chunk of the air we breathe, along with nitrogen and a few other things. Nitrogen doesn’t do much in a fire, but oxygen, on the other hand, makes stuff burn REALLY good.

So I lit the candle, propped it up in in the little jar, then put the jar in the dish of colored water as you can see in the photo above. I then held up the drinking glass and asked Sam what she thought would happen if I put the glass over the candle, creating an airtight seal because of the water.

She paused a second. “The flame will go out!” she said.


“Because the fire will burn up all the air.”

So she HAD been listening. “Okay,” I said, “do you think it will go out right away? Good scientists are make their predictions as detailed as possible.”

She thought for a moment. “Ten seconds. No, 12 seconds. Then it will grow out.”

So, I asked Sam to write her prediction down in her journal.

Experiment 5: Brning oxagen. I prdekt that it will drn 12 sikints. Than it will go owt.

After she did this, I put the glass down, and after 16 seconds (according to my stopwatch) the fire dimmed and winked out.

Sam was interested in seeing the fire go out for no apparent reason, but seemed happy that her prediction was correct, if off by a few seconds. She claimed that the air was all gone inside the glass, but I explained that there was still some gas in there, but that the oxygen was pretty much gone, having been used up in the fire.

I asked her, though, to study the scene carefully and tell me if she noticed anything unusual about it:

Almost immediately she pointed and said, “The water inside the glass is higher!” I agreed that it was and told her to think back about what she had learned about air pressure in Experiment 1 and Experiment 3. Almost immediately she said that the air pressure inside the glass must be lower, and the air outside the glass must be trying to get in there and pushing the red water down and up into the glass.

Actually, I think it’s because the low air pressure inside the glass is sucking the liquid up but maybe it’s 6 of one half dozen of the other and I was pretty impressed by her quick answer. But she impressed me even more by asking a very astute question of her own: “How come, if candles need air to burn, they go out when we blow on them, like on a birthday cake? Why don’t they just burn more?”

At the risk of crooning about my kid, this struck me as a pretty damn insightful question, and I’m glad to see that she’s taking what she’s learning in these little experiments and trying to apply the facts to other phenomena in her world. Unfortunately the best answer I could come up with to her question was that when we blow out candles we’re blowing the air past the flame so fast that it doesn’t have a chance to react with the oxygen. However, some subsequent web searching suggests that this answer is, in fact, wrong or at least incomplete. The real reason candles go out when you blow on them is that the fast air is actually lowering the temperature around the flame enough to stop the reaction and put it out –a temperature high enough for ignition being the third requirement for flame that I forgotten to mention.

While I had to go back to Sam with this information and admit to not being as omniscient, it did give me a nice opportunity to explain the value of peer review to science. I think the laptop computer will be a standard piece of equipment to include with future experiments if for no other reason that we can take to the interwebs in the event of any more astute questions.

Book Review: The Hunger Games

Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games was one of those books (a trilogy of them, in fact) that people kept recommending to me, but which I kept ignoring because it was written for young adults and because for some vague reason I kept thinking it had some kind of severe right-wing slant to it. Turns out that while the former is true, the latter isn’t, and I enjoyed the book quite a bit.

The Hunger Games is set in a near-future dystopia where North America and its sundry governments have been replaced by the totalitarian state of Panem. Radiating out from Panem’s capital city of, uh, Capitol (I did mention this is a YA book; we’ll let that one slide) are 12 territories, or districts. Capitol is where the money and power are, with its inhabitants enjoying high technology and wealth sufficient to let them pursue silly vanities and distractions, while the districts occupy positions of varying –but generally insufficient– wealth and status. District 12 is the home of our heroine Katniss Everdeen and one of the poorest districts, located in the former Apalacian region. Sixteen year old Katniss is having trouble keeping her young sister and emotionally crippled mother fed and alive, but her troubles deepens when she’s ensnared as a “tribute” in The Hunger Games. These are a kind of gladiatorial games cum reality television that Capitol uses to keep members of the 12 districts under its thumb, with two children from each region fighting each other to the death in a carefully controlled wilderness while the whole ordeal is broadcast to all of Panum. Supposedly it’s a display of the capital’s power and reinforcement of the idea that the districts are subjugated to its whims.

What Collins does very well in The Hunger Games is describe the grueling action and suffering that all these kids (Hunger Games tributes range from 12 to 18 years old) go through. The book is very engaging in a constant cliffhanger kind of way and the situations that the Gamemakers contrive to torment the participants are pretty creative. So it’s a good page turner, to be sure.

But I also admire Collins’s subtle handling of the characters pretty well, especially for a YA book. Katniss tells the story from a first point of view, so the action sticks entirely to her, but it becomes pretty clear early on that she’s a bit of an unreliable narrator. Katniss thinks of herself as unlikable and hard, but utterly outclassed in the Hunger Games. And while she has surely been toughened by her lot in life, the astute reader will notice from the way that other characters react to Katniss that there’s more to her than that –townspeople seem to like her and her opponents in the games seem to fear her. She’s both much more capable and inspiring than she gives herself credit for.

This unawareness of how people perceive her is a nice bit of literary complexity that also feeds directly into Katniss’s relationship with her fellow tribute from District 12, a baker’s son named Peeta. The potential romantic relationship between the two characters is central to both their arcs, but it’s not as simple as you might expect. The pair play up the romantic angle for the Hunger Game so that they can get help from sponsors, but the way the book is written neither Katniss nor the reader is 100% sure about how genuine it is until the end. Since we know for sure that Katniss is going to survive the games (she’s the book’s narrator, after all) Peeta’s fate and their relationship make a nice stand-in for something for the author to imperil.

That all said, The Hunger Games isn’t perfect. The whole conceit of the games being a way for Capitol to control its districts is a bit flimsy in that it’s hard to imagine such a thing working in the absence of economic, cultural, or military forces also working to keep the people down. If those things are supposedly also at work, it’s not touched on much, and I was left unconvinced that the people of Panem would tolerate these ritualistic and wanton murders of 23 of its children every year. I’m also left somewhat disconcerted that while Katniss is a very capable and strong role model for young female readers, her whole fate nonetheless hinges on pretending to fall in love. I get the vague feeling that Collins may be engaging in some kind of commentary here by making at least part of the romance a sham forced upon our heroine, but at the same time I don’t think I’m totally getting it. Maybe that’s my problem.

At any rate, I liked the book and plan on reading the two others in the series.

Sam The Science Kid Experiment 4: Stalactite Interrupted

Well, 4 weeks in and we’ve got our first failed experiment. The idea was to make some homegrown stalactites and stalagmites, and here’s what was involved:

  • Two jars
  • Some yarn
  • Two binder clips
  • Baking soda
  • Warm water

Sam filled both jars with warm water, then spooned baking soda into each one. She kept trying to lick her finger, coat it in baking soda, then lick it off, which I found gross but ultimately harmless. This made her want to eat more of it.

I had her keep stirring until no more baking soda would dissolve in the water.

Sam asked the pretty astute question of where the baking soda was going when it seemed to disappear, to which I replied “Uhhhhh…” as I frantically cast my memory back to my 10th grade science class and tried to remember. I gave her some kind of half-assed explanation about the baking soda molecules sticking to the ends of the water molecules and sort of fitting “in between” the water molecules. It turns out that this explanation was indeed more right than wrong, but it was all over her head in any case. So I focused on teaching her the concepts of a “solution” and “saturation.”

Anyway, after we had our warm water saturated with baking soda, I cut a piece of string, weighted the ends down with binder clips, and dropped one end in each jar:

I told Sam that I hoped the baking soda would form gather on the yarn and drop down the center to form a stalactite just like water and minerals do in caves over years and years. I asked her for her prediction:

I predekt it will grow 2 inches in 7 days.

Unfortunately things didn’t work out. After about 7 days we got this:

Something about this reminds me of Tetsuo in that Akira movie.

That’s got a pretty good head going on it, but the progress pretty much stopped there. I don’t know why –maybe we didn’t get enough baking soda in there, maybe the yarn wasn’t supposed to hang down into the jars that far, who knows?

Alas, this was Sam’s entry after 8 days:

It grow 0 inches in 7 days. Crest is grow on the yorn. It was wite.

Maybe we’ll have better luck next week.

Sam the Science Kid: Experiment #3: Crush With Air

Continuing my blogging project for 2011 where I do a science experiment per week with my six (soon to be seven) year old daughter.

This week’s experiment returned to the world of air pressure and was actually conducted right after experiment #2 from last week. Sam wanted to do another, and who was I to say no? Equipment for this week consisted of…

  1. A 2-liter soda bottle (empty) and cap
  2. Some hot water
  3. Some ice water
  4. A large pan full of ice

We started by having Sam fill the bottle with the hot water and putting the cap on after a few seconds. We used a funnel, but there was still mess. I think she makes the mess on purpose, but you know what? That’s okay. Nobody ever did science without making a mess and/or killing a bunch of graduate students.

She then lay the bottle down in the pan of ice and slowly poured the ice water over it. Again, more spillage. I think I should invest in some proper science-ey beakers so that we at least look the part.

We then sat back and watched, which for Sam was probably the most grueling part. Soon, though, the plastic bottle began to crinkle and pop as the cooling air inside began to contract and thus lower the air pressure. Sam thought this wanton deformation of grocery items was exciting, so I explained to her about how gasses expand when they get hot and contract when they cool. I tried telling her about the three-way relationship between volume, pressure, and temperature, but she was too busy poking the bottle and asking (perhaps hopefully) if it would explode.

This being a pretty simple experiment, I asked Sam to focus in her journal on describing what we did. I told her that this is an important part of doing science, since one of the qualities of a good experiment is that it can be copied and repeated by other people. Here’s what she wrote:

Experiment 3 Crush with air. We pot hot water in a bol. Pot the led on. The dottle felt hot. We pot it in ice it crushed. The air crushed it.

Next week: we grow stalactites and learn about the importance of careful measurement! Maybe. If that doesn’t work out, we’ll crush something else.


Limbo is one of those video games in 2010 that people wouldn’t stop talking about. Some people just couldn’t seem to rave enough about this atmospheric side scroller where you guide a silhouette of a boy through dangers and puzzles and how the game does so much with so little. I finally got around to playing it, and frankly I’m not quite sure what all the buzz was about.

Well, that’s not completely fair. Just about all the praise for Limbo’s looks is well deserved even though –or perhaps because– it’s completely devoid of color and almost without a musical score. It does a lot to create a sense of dread and gloom with just shapes and the saturation slider pinned at zero. And the minimalist mentality extends to the story, which is so scarce as to not actually exist –you’re just a lad who wakes up in a dark forest where the only way out is littered with deadly obstacles and various creatures bent on your grisly murder. It’s moody and mysterious and captivating, so it’s safe to say that Limbo is pretty great, artistically.

The early levels of the game are the best.

Unfortunately the game part didn’t reach quite the same heights. It’s frustrating not being able to figure out a puzzle. But it’s WAY more frustrating to be perfectly capable of figuring out a puzzle but then be unable to execute on the solution because doing so requires precise timing. And it’s most frustrating of all to think you’ve figured out a puzzle, fail repeatedly at executing the solution, decide that your solution was wrong, then look up the answer on the Internet only to find that you WERE right after all despite repeatedly hurling this little boy to his doom. The puzzles in Limbo weren’t all that difficult to figure out –I actually only had to look up the answer to one, and I turned out to have had the right idea all along as described above. But too often my enjoyment of them was clipped short by fighting with the game’s controls and timing. Maybe this is inherent to all platformers and I should just try sucking less, but there you go.

There’s also the issue that Limbo starts off strong and then sputters towards the end. The opening levels in the wilderness where you’re stalked by a giant spider are awesome and really draw you into this little kid’s situation. It’s mysterious and the puzzles feel organic –they’re either environmental hazards or traps left by foes you can see. The game eventually turns to more urban environments, though, and while they offer chances for more varied puzzles they start to feel pretty contrived. By the time you’re flipping switches to raise platforms and reverse gravity, Limbo feels less like a kid trapped in a mysterious wilderness and more like a kid trapped in a video game.

Better get the timing on this jump right...

But don’t think that Limbo is a BAD game for all that. It’s actually pretty good even if not the best game EVAR. If you think you might like it, try the demo (on Xbox Live Arcade). If you like that, you’ll probably like the rest of the game well enough to get your money’s worth. If you don’t like it, you’re not.

Sam the Science Kid, Experiment #2: Grow Mold

As I mentioned earlier, my pet blogging project for 2011 is going to be a weekly recap of 52 kid friendly science experiments in 52 weeks. I’m doing at least one little project each weekend with Samantha where I’ll teach her some miscellaneous science facts by doing the experiments in addition to familiarizing her with the scientific method in general by having her use a notebook to make predictions, record observations, and describe what she’s doing. (Practice with writing, spelling, and grammar is a nice bonus, too.)

This week we learned about mold and what makes it grow. To start, I collected some aluminum tins to hold the following:

  1. A piece of bread
  2. A toasted piece of bread
  3. About 8 ounces of yogurt
  4. A peeled orange

I then explained to Sam that mold was a fungus, which is a kind of plant. There are tiny mold spores in the air that will grow on food if you set it out. She surprised me a bit by sitting up and saying “Oh, like decay!” Yep, mold could definitely be part of the decay process. I then asked her to write down in her journal what she thought would happen. She wrote:

I thigk the tost will grow the most mould. I think the yogrt will grow the lest mould.

Sam, forming her hypotheses.

At this point I asked why she thought that, and she said, “Because I think mold will grow best in dry stuff.” Bam. That’s a model, folks. Not a complicated one or a very accurate one as it turns out, but that’s beside the point. She articulated a model of mold growth!

Final step: we labeled our specimens:

After that, I placed them on a shelf in the basement and we let them alone for a week. At this point I should point out that I kind of screwed up by not covering the tins with plastic wrap per the book’s directions, which probably affected our results a bit by drying the bread out. Fortunately Geralyn did this for me before all was lost.

A week later we retrieved the specimens and laid them out. The bread that was robbed of its moisture by the toaster was mold-free as far as we could tell. Unfortunately so was the untoasted bread, most likely because I had let it dry out. Normally I think it would have grown something:

The yogurt, on the other hand, was just starting up a good green head, but nothing spectacular:

The orange, fortunately, came through and provided the moldy jackpot:

Eugh. We took a good look and I asked Sam to write down what she was observing.

The yogurt grew a letl mold. The ornge grew the most mold. The tost and dreb ded not grow aney. The mold is green and wite on the ornge. It looks fussey. When you poke it dust comes off.

(As you can see, she still sometimes flip-flops her “b” and “d” letters. Working on that.)

At this point I asked Sam what other sense she could use –besides touch!– to make observations about the mold. She made the face below then wrote “it ded not smel good.” in her journal. This was true.

At this point I asked her to read back over the predictions she had written several days earlier and tell me if they had been correct, which resulted in her writing this in her journal:

My prediction was wrong. Mold gros in wet plases not dry.

She seemed disappointed in herself, but this was a great chance to point out that one of the reasons science works so well is that even wrong guesses can be very useful. Science is iterative, meaning that every result is the entry point for a new repetition of the process, leading to refinements and better predictions. Wrong answers are helpful if they help us point ourselves in the right direction, which her “Mold gros in wet plases not dry” comment illustrates.

It can almost go without saying, though, this is all beside the point if you’re not doing science with a fancy sparkly pen: