Magic of making the mundane amazing

By Colin Smillie | April 4, 2024

Last year in Science Bites edible demonstrations were used to explain the science behind everyday items and the scientific principles of light and colour, what happens inside a chemical reaction, and even how clouds form in the atmosphere.

Colin Smillie is the Public Programmes Manager Science for Experience Wellington.

A rainbow is always a beautiful thing, a vibrant slice of colour in the sky. You might think understanding the principles behind it would take away the wonder, but for me it makes the phenomenon even more remarkable.

Appreciating the mechanisms of what actually happens – light enters a water droplet and bends (or refracts) and reflects off the droplet’s back surface, then bends again as it exits – makes this everyday magic even more amazing. The rainbow phenomenon, called dispersion, is when longer wavelengths of light (like red) bend less than shorter ones (like blue). That’s why red appears at the top of the rainbow, while blue sits at the bottom in a more compact curve. It doesn’t matter where you see that rainbow ‒ in a rainy sky or a crystal hanging in a window ‒ these colours will always be in the same order.

Unless of course you get a cool double rainbow, which forms when light undergoes two reflections within one raindrop. As a result, you observe two distinct reflections, each arriving from different angles. This results in the secondary rainbow having its colours in the reverse order!

This principle of exploring the unseen is what’s behind the school holiday science workshops we run at Te Ara Whānui ki te Rangi Space Place. We take an everyday something and explore the science behind it to show that understanding more, makes the mundane amazing.

A series of fun activities and demonstrations exploring the forces involved in air and space flight and what it takes to get humans into the air is the theme for this month’s Flight Club. We grapple with the concepts of air and atmosphere by expanding shaving foam inside a vacuum chamber, and fighting the drag of a bowling ball; we look at lift using a roll of toilet paper and a leaf blower to understand the forces involved in lifting an airplane off the ground and we examine thrust by launching rockets.

By the end of the day our young audience will have a better understanding of what air is made of, how airplanes, balloons, and rockets fly, and a basic understanding of the wider scientific principles and concepts.

Last year in Science Bites! An Edible Science Workshop we used edible demonstrations to explain the science behind everyday items and the scientific principles of light and colour, what happens inside a chemical reaction, and even how clouds form in the atmosphere.

Simple can be amazing. I used glow-in-the-dark jelly to discuss fluorescence and phosphorescence, then asked the kids to sort packets of Skittles into colours, what seems like a simple task. When I turned on only red lights and set the kids to their challenge, every group was supremely confident they had sorted them correctly, only to be flabbergasted when the lights came up and they found all their Skittles mixed together. Their excitement and confusion set us up to explore how the colours we see depend on the wavelength makeup of the light shining upon it.

Sparking curiosity at last year’s Science Bites!

We used liquid nitrogen to show how differences in temperature and pressure affect liquids, gasses, and solids. Through dipping a rose in liquid nitrogen so the rose can be smashed against the table, or dumping boiling water into the nitrogen to form a cloud, we illustrated how atoms move in different states. Adding liquid nitrogen to a “chemical solution” of cream, vanilla, and chocolate to make ice cream was a popular way to round off the scientific concepts of the day.

We can’t teach all the science involved and we don’t try. My job is to spark curiosity about the wonders of science, technology, engineering and maths. One of the best parts is watching kids rushing to tell their friends and family about the cool things they’ve just seen and done, as they leave the workshops. They should leave with lots of questions answered, but also paying more attention to the world around them and the desire to go and find out more for themselves.

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