Adventures in Spark Gaps

I wanted to build a spark gap transmitter—you know, for fun.  However, things didn’t start off so great.  Here is how it went down.

My first plan was to build this.

I like it, but it uses an ignition coil and some other thing.  However, check out the receiver.  That’s awesome.  It’s a coherer receiver (I think) and it basically detects a spark with those two bolts in the plastic sleeve.  There should be some iron filings or something in between the bolts.  When a spark is detected, the filings jump the gap and make it a conductor.  I’m not sure why the LED light is connected to a 9 volt battery though.

After that, I just did some google searches for spark gap transmitter and attempted to build the designs I saw.  None of them had capacitor values, so I just had to guess.  But they didn’t work.

I honestly thought I knew how to do this.  I tried a step up transformer with a capacitor.  Nope.  Actually, I was getting a spark on the battery side but not the step up voltage side.  How did I even pass physics courses?

Here is my attempt with a transformer.

Finally, I found a page that used an electromechanical bell.  That works.

I decided to build my own oscillator from scratch.

Homework (for me)

  • Make this more solid (the connection to the steel plate is iffy.
  • Could you replace the steel plate with a paperclip?
  • Can you change the buzzing frequency by adding weights to the oscillating bar?
  • Use a step up transformer to get BIGGER SPARKS.
  • What about an antenna?
  • Build a coherer detector.

The Ladder Problem

I like to solve physics problems.  Here is one for you (I just made it up).

A 4 meter ladder leans against a frictionless wall at a 30 degree angle.  The mass of the ladder is 10 kg.  A human stands 1 meter up the ladder and has a mass of 70 kg.  What is the minimum coefficient of static friction between the floor and the ladder so that the ladder doesn’t slip?

Here is the solution—in video form.

But wait! There’s more.  Let’s do another problem.  

Suppose you have the same ladder and the same human.  However, in this case the coefficient of static friction between the ladder and the ground is 0.55.  How far up can the human move before the ladder slips?

I like this question because I don’t know how the answer will turn out.  That makes it fun.  So, let’s do it.

But what kind of problem is this?  I’ll make this a multiple choice question.  Here are your options.

  1. A friction problem.
  2. An equilibrium problem.
  3. A ladder problem.
  4. A work-energy problem.

Your answer?  Go ahead and answer.  It’s important to think about things like this if you want to become an expert problem solver.

Did you pick?  OK, I’ll tell you that there will be quite a few students that will say this is a friction problem because it has a coefficient of friction.  That’s not untrue—but it’s not a good way to classify the problem.  You could also say this is a “ladder problem”—again, not untrue but not helpful.

This is an equilibrium problem.  We are trying to find the point at which the ladder slips—the point it leaves equilibrium, but it’s still sort of in equilibrium.

For an object in equilibrium, there are two main ideas—especially for a rigid object.  First, it must have zero net force.  Second, it must have zero net torque about any point.  In two dimensions, I can write these two conditions as the following three equations.


F_\text{net-y} = 0

\tau_\text{net-o} = 0

Let’s talk about the torque stuff.  I don’t want to get into a whole thing about torque, so let me just say that torque is like a “rotational force” and it can be calculated as:

\tau = Fr\sin\theta

In this expression, F is the applied force, r is the distance from the point at which you are calculating torque, and \theta is the angle between r and F.  This equation is equivalent to F-perpendicular times r or F times r-perpendicular.

Oh, torques that would make an object rotate clockwise are negative.

One last thing about torques—especially the sum of the torques.  If an object is in rotational equilibrium about some point (point “o”) then it is also in rotational equilibrium about any other point.  When you set up the torque equation, you can pick whatever point you like to sum the torques—it’s your choice (but choose wisely).

Now we can start setting up some equations for equilibrium.  I’ll start with a force diagram for the ladder.

I know that’s a little busy—but it will have to do.  Here are some comments.

  • There are two normal forces.  One from the wall (labeled 1) and one from the floor.
  • There are two gravitational forces—and this is a cheat.  There is a gravitational force on the ladder and it is as though it is one force acting at the center of mass for the ladder. If the ladder has a uniform density, the center of mass is the center of the ladder.
  • The other gravitational force is fake.  This force m_2\vec{g} is there to represent the weight of the human.  But that gravitational force acts on the human, not the ladder.  The ladder pushes UP on the human the same as the weight.  Since forces come in pairs, an upward pushing force from the ladder means there is a downward pushing force from the human on the ladder.  It’s equal to mg, but not mg.
  • The friction force is parallel to the floor.  The maximum magnitude of this friction force would be: F_f = \mu_s N_2 where \mu_s is the coefficient of static friction.

Now for some equations.  First, this is the sum of the forces in the y-direction.

F_\text{net-y} = 0 = N_2 - m_1 g-m_2g

Just a quick reminder.  These are not vectors.  These are components of vectors in the y-direction.  That’s why the two gravitational forces have a negative sign.  I guess I can simplify this a little bit.

N_2 = (m_1 + m_2)g

Next is the sum of forces in the x-direction.

F_\text{net-x} =0=N_1 - F_f

Since we are at the point of maximum friction, I can include the expression for the frictional force in terms of the coefficient.

N_1 = \mu_s N_2

Notice that I know the value of N_2 since it only depends on the mass of stuff—but I don’t know N_1.  I’m going to need another equation. That’s where the sum of the torques comes in.  

In order to write down the sum of the torques, I need to pick a point about which I calculate the torque.  I’m going to go with the bottom of the ladder.  At this point, there are two forces applied.  Since they are applied at the point about which the torque is calculated, they contribute zero torque and they won’t appear in the equation.  Winning.

Here is the sum of the torques about point O (at the bottom of the ladder).

\tau_\text{net-o} = 0 = m_2gs\cos\theta +m_1g\left(\frac{L}{2}\right)\cos\theta - N_1 L\sin\theta

What do I want to solve for here?  I want the distance the human goes up the ladder.  This is the value “s” in the expression above.  Really, I have all the values I need in that expression to solve for s.  I just need to set N_1 to the maximum frictional force.  But that would be boring.

Instead, let me make a plot of the frictional force as a function of human distance up the ladder.  That will be more fun, right?

Here’s what I get.

From this plot, the human can go up 1.16 meters before the required frictional force exceeds the maximum.  Oh, here is the code for that plot.

Now that you have the code, you can change stuff—like the angle of the ladder or the mass of the human or whatever.  

The end.

Collection of Energy Posts

Here are some blog posts about energy.

MacGyver Science Notes Season 3: Episode 10 Matty + Ethan + Fidelity

Using a drone to lift a human.

OK, maybe this isn’t exactly a Mac-hack since he didn’t build it.  But can you use a drone to lift a person?  Oh yeah—this is real.

The basic idea of a drone is that it provides upward lift by “throwing” air down.  In order to conserve momentum, the downward force on the air is equal to an upward lift.  This means a couple of things:

  • Faster air gives greater lift (because the air has greater momentum).
  • Larger rotor areas give greater lift (because there is more air thrown down).
  • The power required to hover is proportional to the air speed to the third power.  That means you don’t want to use fast air.
  • Instead, you want big rotors with slower air.

Here is a post with a bit more explanation. But it is indeed possible.  Oh, the drone MacGyver uses could work, but it would be better if the rotors were a little bit bigger.

Cricket Ball Flash Bang

MacGyver tosses a ball into a room.  It then explodes with a flash to stun the people inside.  Is this possible?  Of course—it’s possible to even make your own flash bang.

Since the build for this device is off screen, let’s just leave it like that.  But it’s clearly possible.

Water Cooler Bomb

MacGyver takes a water cooler bottle and puts some stuff in it.  He then rolls it into a room and it explodes.  Again, stunning the people inside.  Yes, very plausible.  

Instead of talking about explosives, here is a related demo using a cooler water bottle.  It’s the woosh rocket.  Check it out.

When you ignite the ethanol, it quickly uses up the oxygen in the bottle (because of the neck).  This causes a type of fluttering with the oxygen being used up and then entering the bottle.  It’s cool.

DIY Jaws of Life

OK, these aren’t actually jaws of life.  MacGyver gets some metal pieces to build a device to pry open a door using an electric drill as a motor source.

Here is a very rough sketch of how this would work.


OK, that’s not exactly the same—but it’s the same idea.  The spinning drill turns the threaded screw and pushes the metal bars apart.  The pivot makes the metal bars push apart on the other side.

Since the door side of the pivot is shorter than the drill side, the change in distance on the door side is smaller.  Why does this matter?  This matter because this is the way all simple machines work.  You can get a greater output force if you decrease the motion distance on the output.  That means on the drill side, there is a small force moving over a greater distance.

It’s the same idea as a basic lever. It’s how your basic garden sheers work too.

Here is something very similar (in physics at least)—a DIY floor jack.

MacGyver Notes Season 3 Episode 9: PAPR + Outbreak

What the heck is PAPR?  It’s an acronym.  It stands for Powered Air Purifying Respirator.  It’s a thing people wear when the are around bad stuff—like a deadly virus.  OK.  Let’s get to it.

Glycerol Lock Hack

Technically, not a “MacHack” since MacGyver didn’t do it.  I’ll proceed anyway.  So, the bad person replaces the mouse lock with a piece of solid glycerol.  Glycerol has a melting point just below room temperature (18 C).  So, in this room it would take a little time to melt.

When the glycerol melts, there is no longer a “pin” holding the door closed and the mice escape.

What other substance could the guy use?  What about something like chocolate?

Positive Pressure

Again, not technically a hack.  If you want a hazmat suit, you want it to be at positive pressure.  Positive pressure means that the interior of the suit is at a higher pressure than outside the suit.  The nice thing about positive pressure is that if the suit gets a hole, the positive pressure pushes the air in the suit out of the suit.  This makes it very difficult for an external virus to get in the suit even if it has a hole.

Sometimes, it’s better to have negative pressure.  In chemistry labs, they use things called “hoods”.  These are essentially enclosed areas that vent to the outside of the building.  They allow a chemist to run an experiment and reduce the risk from fumes.

A hood is at negative pressure.  This means that when the hood door is open, there is air going INTO the hood from the room. That prevents the chemicals inside the hood from getting out.

Oh, here is a video showing the difference between positive and negative pressure.

Detecting Hydrogen Peroxide

The bad guy (again, really he just makes bad decisions—maybe he is not bad, but who am I to judge) uses hydrogen peroxide to dye his hair blonde and to elude the team.

MacGyver then needs to make something to detect this hydrogen peroxide from his hair as the baddie sat in different taxi cabs (OK, the guy has to be bad—who still uses a taxi?).

OK, there is indeed a method to detect hydrogen peroxide and one method does indeed involve a compound from horse radish (yes, that’s weird).  I don’t think it would just turn red, but there would be an interaction between the chemical and the peroxide that could lead to a detection.  It would probably involve illuminating it with a UV light and seeing it change colors.

Battery hooked to a door handle

Again, this isn’t directly MacGyver’s hack.  Instead, Riley sets up a trap—but she said she learned it from MacGyver, so I guess it still counts.

In order to slow down a baddie (different bad guy) she takes a car battery and connects one terminal (I think she uses the positive) to the door handle.  In order for this to work, she has to also connect the negative battery terminal to ground (or something like that).

When the baddie grabs the door handle, he gets shocked.  The key here is that there must be a complete circuit formed when the dude grabs the handle.  That means the negative terminal of the battery would have to also connect to the guy somewhere so that there is a path for the current to flow and shock him.

One way to get this to work would be to have another small wire near the bottom of the door that is connected to the battery.  When the baddie grabs the handle, he also hits the wire—thus making a complete circuit.

Another option would be to use a puddle of water under the door with the negative terminal connected to the puddle. Of course, the dude would need to get wet—so normal shoes might prevent this.  Personally, I like the small wire sticking out option.

Air Wedge

Yes, air wedges are real.  You take this flat bag and stick it in a door—they are usually used for car doors.  When the wedge inflates, the car door is pulled back a little bit—enough to get a stick through the opening to open the lock.

Would this work with a normal door?  Why not.



Thanksgiving Physics

I am honestly not quite sure how many blog posts I have about Thanksgiving.  It’s probably about 1 per year for 8 years.  I’m going to guess it’s 8.  Here goes my internet search.

This is what I found.

MacGyver Notes Season 3 Episode 8: “Revenge + Catacombs + Le Fantome”

SQUID Device

This stands for Safe Quick Undercarriage Immobilization Device (SQUiD).  How long did it take someone to come up with that acronym?  Awesome job.  MacGyver’s version consists of a chain type thingy.  When a car passes over it, the chain hooks on to the axle and wraps up.  This would stop the car.

OK, it would’t flip the car over.  It would stop the front wheels and the car would skid to a stop.  But doesn’t the flip look cool?

Actually, that’s a great physics question.  How fast would a car have to travel such that a sudden stop would flip it over? That’s your homework.

Methanol fire

Yes. Methanol burns—and you can’t really see it.

Carbon Dioxide Putting Out Fire

Fire needs three things: fuel, heat (to start), and oxygen.  If you take away the oxygen, you take away the fire.  If you replace the air (which has 21 percent oxygen) with carbon dioxide, the fire goes out.

So, in this hack MacGyver uses some CO2 tanks to fight the methanol fire.  Yes, an exploding tank would put this fire out.  Oh, but it would also make it hard for a human to breathe.  Better hold your breath.

Pick a lock with a knife

This is theoretically possible.  If you stick something in the lock and use enough torque, it’s possible that the pins in the lock could break.  But otherwise, you need to jiggle the pins.

Comeback Can.

Real.  You can build one yourself.  You should.  Do it.

Chemical Detector

MacGyver puts a chemical detector on the comeback can.  When it rolls down the hallway and back, he can check if it contacted explosive chemicals.  This is very plausible—there are several ways you could make chemical detection paper.

Tarp Bomb Lift

MacGyver uses a tarp under a bomb with a rope over a rafter in the ceiling to lift a bomb.  A couple of notes.

  • If the rope just goes over a rafter (no pulley), you would need as much weight pulling down as the weight of the bomb.  Since two people are pulling, this is at least plausible.
  • A pulley would be better.  A full explanation.
  • Actually, there is a cool physics problem here.  If Riley and Bozer pull at an angle, how much can they lift without sliding towards the bomb?  Don’t do this as a homework problem, I’m going to do it.

Intro to Chaos in Mechanics

This is really just for me so that I won’t forget.  I mean, I will forget—but then I can look back at this post and remember stuff.  Here’s to you Future Rhett.

What is a chaotic system?  Really, that’s the question—isn’t it?  There is the classic example of the double pendulumHere is some code for a double pendulum. And this is what it looks like.

Nov-11-2018 15-57-59.gif

But this isn’t the best system.  The problem is that there are two coordinates—the angle for the top bar and the angle for the bottom bar.  Sure, it’s cool—but what if you want to plot angle vs. time or something.  You have to plot both angles vs. time and that’s a bummer.

OK, how about a model of bounded population growth?  That’s just one dimensional, right?  Actually, it doesn’t even have to be population, it’s just an equation—something like this.

x_{n+1} = 4rx_n(1-x_n)

In this expression, r is some parameter—it really doesn’t matter what.  Let’s just model this expression for different values of r.  I’ll use a starting x value of 0.1 and r values of 0.7 and 0.9.   Here is the code.

GlowScript IDE 2018-11-11 17-55-15.png

Notice that when r = 0.7, the population reaches some stable value—but this is not true for r = 0.9.

Bifurcation Diagram

Now for another way to look at a chaotic systems—the bifurcation diagram.  Honestly, I didn’t really understand these things until I made one.  Here’s what we are going to do.

  • Start with some initial value of x (just pick something—I’m going to use 0.5).  Pick a value for r also.  Let’s just start at 0.1.
  • Run the model for 200 iterations and throw out that data.  This should allow us to look at the long term behavior for that particular value of r (throws out the transient behavior).
  • Now run the model for 100 additional iterations and save these.
  • Create a plot of these final x values vs. r.
  • Next increase the r value a little bit (I will increase it by 0.001)
  • Repeat until you get bored.

So if the model is stable after the initial stuff, then it will just keep plotting the same value of x after the first 200 iterations and you will just get a dot.  If it’s not stable after the first stuff, then you will get a bunch of dots with different x values.

OK, let’s do it.  Here is the code.  Oh, I made a function to iterate the model.  I probably should put more comments in there.

This is what it looks like.

GlowScript IDE 2018-11-12 09-08-29.png

Up to an r value of about 0.75, you only get one final x value.  After that, you get two different values . With r over 0.9, it gets crazy.

OK, that’s enough for now.  I just want to make sure future Rhett knows how to make a bifurcation diagram.

My MacGyver Interview

I would just like to share this video (and then some comments).  This is from CBS KPIX channel 5 in San Fransisco.

OK, now for some comments:

  • I was contacted a while ago by Sharon Chin from KPIX.  She was interested in doing a story on the science of MacGyver.  Actually, I’m not 100 percent sure how she knew I was the science advisor (actually, I’m the technical consultant)—I guess that’s why she’s a journalist.
  • We picked a day for Sharon and a camera person to come visit me at Southeastern—we ended up with Halloween.  That’s just the day that worked.
  • They arrived around 9:00 AM and we first recorded an interview.  After that, we went through probably 5 MacGyver builds.  It was tough recording all that stuff.  We had to do it multiple times to get the camera angles correct.
  • After that, they visited my PHYS 142 class (you know, the one that’s on the chopping blocks).  They interviewed a student and then watched some of the class.
  • Overall, things went great—but I was super tired afterwards.
  • Super grateful to Sharon and KPIX for doing this episode.  It’s great to get some more publicity.
  • Oh, one thing I try to make clear in the interview—I’m not responsible for all the hacks.  Credit goes to the awesome MacGyver writers.  They come up with some great stuff.
  • Oh, double credit also to the editor for this video.  They must have had about 5 hours worth of video to get 3 minutes of air time.  Impressive.  I wouldn’t want to do that.
  • The end.
  • I don’t need this last bullet—but it’s here anyway.

MacGyver Season 3 Episode 7 Notes

Computer Recycling

This is unfortunately real.  There are places where all the old computer crap ends up and people try to get the good stuff out of them.  Here is a WIRED story.

I guess a more important issue—why do we throw away so much stuff?  Perhaps it’s just because we live in an era of rapid technology changes.  This means that computers can become outdated fairly fast.  It’s cheaper to just throw stuff away rather than deal with it properly.

Actually, at one point there was a student project that looked into the financial benefit of getting the useful stuff out of old electronic stuff—in particular the gold.  How do you get it out and is it worth the money?  I think the answer is no—you probably won’t make money by mining electronic stuff for gold.

Take apart a hard drive

This isn’t a hack from the show, but I just have to add a comment.  If you have an old hard drive, you should take it apart.  It might not be super easy since many of them have those stupid “security screws”—but still you should go for it.

There are two great things you can get out of a hard drive: awesome magnets and great mirrors.  The magnets are really what the hard drive is all about—using the magnets to make magnetic fields that write magnetic domains.

There isn’t really a mirror inside the hard drive, but in most cases the hard drive platters (the spinny thing that the data is written too) is super smooth.  So smooth that it works as a mirror.  Be careful.  Most of these platters are metal, but I did find one that was glass-like and shattered when I dropped it.  The metal ones make great mirrors though.

Toothbrush lock pick

Let me just say that I have a friend who is a locksmith.  After talking to him, it’s very clear that just about every lock can be picked.  It’s not even that hard.  Really, locks are more of a social contract than actual physical barriers.

If you want to try picking locks, there are plenty of guides online (and there is the classic MIT lock picking guide.  There are essentially two parts to lock picking.  First, you need to torque the lock cylinder with a torque wrench.  Second you need to jiggle the lock pins (inside the lock) up so that they get stuck up.  Then you can open the lock.

The toothbrush is just a quick quick to jiggle the pins up to open the lock.  I think I’m going to build one of these—you know, for research purposes.

Exploding toothbrush

Actually, I’m not sure what device is used here—but it looks like an electric toothbrush.  MacGyver takes the toothbrush and connects it to an AC power cord and then jams it in the lock.  It explodes.

Of course, it’s not the toothbrush that explodes, it’s the rechargeable battery.  Yes, these things can explode.  More on this later.

Microwave gun to disable cars

Here is the short version of this hack.  MacGyver is in the back of a dump truck with junk in it.  They are being chased by bad guys in military trucks.  OK, they aren’t bad guys—but they want to stop MacGyver.  Really, they are just doing their jobs, right?

OK, so MacGyver finds an old microwave and takes it apart.  He gets out the magnetron and then plugs it into the truck DC power supply.  This creates directed microwaves that he aims the microwaves at the trucks and they get disabled (with fire).

Is this real? Like most MacGyver hacks (but not all), it’s at least based on something real.  Yes, there are microwave guns that can disable a car – These microwaves then screw up the electronics in the car.  I think it works by generating electric currents in the computers that melt tiny wires.  Well, it’s real anyway.

What about the microwave gun?  Yes, that is also real—I mean, you have one in your microwave.  Check out this microwave (real) gun from Allen Pan.

That dude is the real MacGyver.

High frequency sounds and younger humans

Some kids are being held captive by some adults.  MacGyver needs to send them a message—but he obviously doesn’t want the bad guys to hear it.  So, he hacks a tape record so that it plays a high frequency message.  Here is the deal: younger humans can detect sounds at much higher frequencies than adults can.  I think it has something to do with the frequency response of the ear-thingy (which probably has a technical name too).

Oh, what about hacking the tape player?  I think that it’s possible to record a message and then play it back at a higher frequency.  Really, all you need to do is speed up the motor that pulls the magnetic tape over the reader head.  I think that would do the trick.

Lithium battery bombs

Here is another hack that is unfortunately true.

If I understand it correctly, it seems like there is some type of internal short in the battery that causes it to heat up.  When it gets hot, it gets more internal shorts and heats up even faster.  You get some type of runaway reaction and boom.  Bomb.

If you want to make tiny grenade like bombs out of these things, good luck.  It’s pretty tough to make them explode exactly when you want them to.  Oh, don’t do that anyway.