recreating the Aurora Borealis

Have you ever seen the Aurora Borealis (also known as the northern lights)? I haven’t, because where I live seems to be not compatible with that visual effect. I’ve been up north (in the United States), but not at the right time. I’ve seen pictures of it, which is neat, but that’s not quite the same. (But here’s a picture anyway.) ūüôā

Now you may be wondering why I would write about the Aurora Borealis when I’ve never seen it. Well, I’d like to see it. I have a friend who has a great saying for when someone is at the proverbial fork in the road with a situation that needs a solution: “What are you going to do about it?”

Maybe I should make my own! Of course some people might say I should just travel up north to go see it, but that seems like too much trouble. I’d rather bring it here. (That sounds so much like Heinz Doofenschmirtz from Phineas & Ferb, where he planned to take (steal) Big Ben from London and put it next to his skyscraper apartment window, because it was getting harder to read the numbers on his watch. He just wanted a bigger clock, and that was the solution he chose. Honestly, I did not take his idea and modify it — I actually came up with this crazy solution on my own, though you might could argue I’ve watched too many cartoons. You might lose that argument, but I digress‚Ķ)

Okay, where was I? Creating the Aurora Borealis effect where it doesn’t naturally exist. That shouldn’t be too complicated‚Ķ it’s just some color smeared around in the sky. ūüôā But there’s probably some complicated science equations to work out, and maybe I should’ve paid more attention in college‚Ķ but what am I talking about? The goal of education is not memorizing facts but in knowing where to look and how to find the answers you need. I learned about Google, so let’s start there:

Particles discharged from the sun travel 93 million miles (around 150 million km) toward Earth before they are drawn irresistibly toward the magnetic north and south poles. As the particles pass through the Earth’s magnetic shield, they mingle with atoms and molecules of oxygen, nitrogen and other elements that result in the dazzling display of lights in the sky. … Typically, when the particles collide with oxygen, yellow and green are produced. Interactions with nitrogen produce red, violet, and occasionally blue colors. The type of collision also makes a difference to the colors that appear in the sky: atomic nitrogen causes blue displays, while molecular nitrogen results in purple. The colors are also affected by altitude. The green lights typically in areas appear up to 150 miles (241 km) high, red above 150 miles; blue usually appears at up to 60 miles (96.5 km); and purple and violet above 60 miles. These lights may manifest as a static band of light, or, when the solar flares are particularly strong, as a dancing curtain of ever-changing color.

That’s a good start. Combining that with Wikipedia, we basically need to create something similar to solar winds and the resulting geomagnetic disturbance. Obviously we don’t want to cause interference or destruction with electronics, so that has to be accounted for. And it’ll need to be simpler. The solar winds are basically a flow of magnetized hot plasma from the two million degrees outer layer of the sun (the corona), and they arrive at Earth with a velocity around 400 km/s. Recreating that would be considerably costly and dangerous‚Ķ and a lot of work‚Ķ

So this project sounds really difficult, if not impossible. But consider this saying: “Progress is made by lazy men looking for easier ways to do things.” What if there is a simpler way to make it happen? Also, what if no one has really tried before? And it doesn’t have to be at that scale‚Ķ What about making it happen over a smaller area, like over your house? Or in your living room?

So I searched some more, and scientists have recreated the northern lights inside a container, which is neat, but it’s not in the open air, so someone should take this to the next level. Not only would it be awesome, but you could sell this technology (although I must stipulate that the licensing needs to specify no ads are allowed in the sky; we see enough ads).

Do you have any ideas on how to do it? What you would do with a device that could make the air glow?

To answer my own question, I’d like to make lightning appear in different colors. The science might be relatable. Lightning is sometimes as hot as the surface of the sun, and it already moves really fast. (And an interesting side note is that the resulting thunder is because of the air being ionized‚Ķ or in layman’s terms, torn apart. This will become its own post soon‚Ķ I’ve rambled enough here.) ūüôā

crazy contraptions for social distancing

Have you ever heard of a Rube Goldberg machine? It’s a contraption (usually homemade) where the whole point is to make a machine that’s way more complex than necessary to do a simple task. These types of machines were seen often in Looney Tunes cartoons, and they often used the music of Raymond Scott, specifically a song called “Powerhouse“.*

I happened across some YouTube videos of people making their own, which is interesting. They make it look easy, but it takes a lot of practice to make these work reliably. Building one uses spatialization and geometry and physics, which can be a learning experience. It also requires patience and carefulness, plus trial and error, which are good to learn, too. But enough talk — here are a couple of videos that show an impressive one built to help with eating while we’re supposed to be social distancing.

How to pass the salt while social distancing:

And even better, how to pass the pepper while social distancing:

*This is bonus, if you want to know more about that song. It’s often used with either an assembly line or a Rube Goldberg machine (which is also known as a “Heath Robinson contraption” in some parts of the world). This song was used in over 40 Warner Bros. cartoons, also in The Ren and Stimpy Show, The Simpsons, Animaniacs, The Drew Carey Show, The Bernie Mac Show, Spongebob SquarePants, and even a Visa commercial. So you’ve probably heard it.

If you’re still reading and want to hear the song in context with some clips from Looney Tunes, check this out:

One last bit of randomness — Matt Groening (creator of The Simpsons and Futurama) once ranked “Powerhouse” #14 on a list of his “100 Favorite Things”. I’ve never made such a list. Have you? It sounds like a fun thinking exercise.

caption contest, contraption from 1911

Now that the busyness of the holiday season is over, we can get back to normal around here. ¬† And part of normal is a weekly caption contest. ¬† (Thanks to those of you who noticed we missed the last two weeks — it’s nice that someone actually noticed! ¬† I knew there were people who actually read this!)

This week’s photo is an old black-and-white / sepia-tone picture from 1911.¬† It’s a man holding some type of contraption — I don’t know what it is, so you get to make it up.¬† You can also explain who he is and what he’s up to.¬† Is that his invention?¬† Is it to make life better?¬† Is it for a prank?¬† Is it part of some world domination scheme?¬† You get to decide.¬† So think up something funny to explain this picture.¬† Remember, you can create your own context to fit the story.¬† You can even set the scenario in modern times (or include a time machine, which has a lot of potential).

(To see our other caption contests, click on the “Say What?” category in the sidebar.)

caption contest, man with weird invention on head

Well, it’s Monday and I have a headache.¬† So it’s definitely not my favorite day this week. ¬† But perhaps a caption contest will make me feel better.¬† I’ll post a funny picture so you can write funny captions for it.¬† Laughter works like a medicine, so that should help.

This week’s photo features a man with some strange contraption on his head. ¬† I have no idea what the actual context is, so just make something up. ¬† (For ideas, you can make the man be whoever you want, or make up what the device does, or imagine what someone might say to him.)

(To see the other caption contests, click on the “Say What?” category in the sidebar.)