OK. Here’s the deal. I have lots of emails about my recent post. The post was a back of the envelope type estimation to see what would happen to the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere if everyone planted a tree.

Basically, I estimated the size of a typical tree and then figured out how much carbon dioxide you would need to make that tree. After that, I estimated the number of particles per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide.

Now for the rest of this. Lot’s of people have sent me comments. If you want to talk about this – here is your chance. Comment on this post. Another option: comment on twitter. Here is a good thread.

If you email me, there’s a good chance I won’t reply. These two options are your best bet.

I picked up this introductory astronomy course just a week before classes started. One of my other classes didn’t have enough students in it, so I got this instead. It’s a gen-ed science course for non-science majors. Since it was added late, there are only 12 students in the class.

I’ll be honest—there are some super awesome topics in this intro astronomy course. The historical stories and the “how do we know” stuff is great. HOWEVER, it’s also a really tough class.

I didn’t have time to build something from scratch, so I just went with the order and presentation of topics according to the textbook. This class uses Explorations – an Introduction to Astronomy, 9th ed (Arny, Schneider) McGraw Hill. It’s an OK, text with only a few areas that I don’t agree with. But let’s look at the first 4 chapters:

Chapter 1: The sky. Celestial sphere, motions of the sky, seasons, phases of the moon.

Chapter 2: Historical astronomy stuff. Mostly, this is the geocentric vs. heliocentric model of the solar system.

Chapter 3: Gravity and Motion. BAM. Forces and motion, gravity, escape velocity.

Chapter 4: Light and atoms. DOUBLE BAM.

Chapter 3 is bad. I mean, I have other classes that spend about 1/3rd of the semester on forces and motion and they don’t even get to the 1 over r squared version of gravity at any point. I think it’s possible to get students to understand most of the ideas in chapter 3, but not in a chapter-length amount of class time.

Oh sure. You could just tell the students everything they need to know about forces and motion. You could TELL them that a constant force makes an object have a constant acceleration. But research shows that this doesn’t really work. No, this is a tough concept and it’s going to take time to get it figured out.

Chapter 4 is even worse. The interaction between light and matter could be its own separate course. It’s not just a chapter. Oh, on top of that – there are these instructor power point slides. Here are three in a row that go something like this.

Light is an electromagnetic wave.

Light is also a particle.

Which way light manifests itself depends on the situation.

That’s bad. Of course you know I don’t like the whole “light is a particle” thing.

OK, but there are some good things about this course. I have a small enough class that I can put in some extra stuff. We did some of the NextGEN PET units in class, and that went over fairly well. I have also been doing some of the great online labs from University of Nebraska-Lincoln (https://astro.unl.edu/naap/). Those are nice.

One other quick note. I think I am going to skip over all the planet stuff. It seems like it would just turn into a “memorize the density of Saturn” stuff. I really want to get to stars. There are some great stories about how we know stuff about stars.

I’ll keep you updated on the progress of the course.

Yes, I haven’t posted here in a while. But to make it up to you, I’m going to show you a picture from my drone.

This is a canal in New Orleans. My older son had a soccer game right next to this, so during warm-ups I did a little bit of photography. Actually, these are really weird. You are on ground level and you see a big long hill (there really aren’t many hills in New Orleans). When you walk up the “hill” you see water that could be at a higher level than the ground.

Yes, it’s not a hill. It’s a levee.

It’s definitely odd.

Now for some other random updates.

I have been busy as usual. I picked up a couple of freelance posts for a UK magazine. In the edits, all my “meters” were changed to “metres”. I thought that was fun.

Blogging on WIRED went pretty well this week. I had two posts – one on a rough estimation of the amount of carbon dioxide capture from planting trees. The other was an estimation of Death Star pieces on the surface of a planet.

Another thing I have been working on: making better youtube videos. I have made some modest gains, but I still need more work.

I was thinking about doing a youtube live stream event, but I’m afraid no one would show up.

Finally, my oldest daughter moved to Japan. I’m glad she made it there.

I’m way behind on this one. My plan was to write up something when this question came up in the summer section of algebra-based physics. It was a great question and deserved a full answer. Also, I wanted to make this a tutorial on trinket.io—but maybe I will do that after I write about it here.

So, here’s how it goes. We start off the semester calculating the electric field due to a point charge and then due to multiple point charges (you know—like 2). After that we get into the electric potential difference. Both the potential and the field follow the superposition principle. If you calculate the value due to two charges individually, you can add these together to get the total field or potential.

But there is a big difference. The electric potential difference is a scalar value where as the electric field is a vector. That means that when using the superposition with electric fields, you have to add vectors. Students would prefer to just add scalars—I’m mean, that seems obvious. Does that means that you could just find the electric potential difference for some set of point charges and then use that potential to find the electric field? Yup. You can. And we will.

Let me start with the definition of the electric potential difference. Since it’s really just based on the work done by a conservative force (the electric field), this looks a lot like the definition of work.

Yes, that’s an integral. Yes, I know I said this was for an algebra-based course. But you can’t deny the truth. The “a” and “b” on the limits of integration are the starting and ending points—because remember, it’s really an integral. Also, the “dr” is in the direction of the path from a to b. It doesn’t technically have to be a straight line.

What about an algebra-based course? Really, there are only two options. The most common approach gives the following two equations for electric potential.

The first expression is the electric potential of a point charge with respect to infinity (so the starting point for the integral is an infinite distance away). The second expression is the change in electric potential due to a constant electric field when there is an angle between the field and the displacement.

Oh wait! I forgot to list the value of k. This is the Coulomb constant.

Students can understand the second expression because it’s pretty much the same as the definition of work (for a constant force). The first equation is mostly magic. The one way you can show students where it comes from is to do a numerical calculation of the electric potential difference since they can’t integrate. Did I write about that before? I feel like I did.

Ok, that’s a good start. Now for a problem.

Electric potential due to two point charges

Suppose I have two charges that are both located on the x-axis. Charge 1 is at the origin with a charge of 6 nC. Charge 2 is at x = 0.02 meters with a charge of -2 nC. Here’s a diagram—just for fun.

Let’s start off with the electric potential—as a warm up. What is the value of the electric potential (with respect to infinity) at the location of x = 0.02 meters? Using the equation above for the electric potential due to a point charge, I need to find the potential due to point 1 and then the potential due to point 2—then just add them together (superposition).

First for point 1.

Now for point 2.

This gives a total electric potential:

Finding the Electric Field

Now to find the electric field at that same point. I don’t know how to say this in a nice way, so I will just say it. Since the electric potential is calculated based on an integral of the electric field, the electric field would be an anti-integral. Yes, this means it’s a derivative. But wait! The electric field is a vector and the electric potential is a scalar? How do you get a vector from a scalar? Well, in short—it looks like this.

That upside delta symbol is the del operator. It also looks like this:

Yes, those are partial derivatives. Sorry about that. But you do get a vector in the end. But how can we do this without taking a derivative? The answer is a numerical derivative. Here’s how it works.

Suppose I find the electric potential at three points on the x-axis. The first point is where I want to calculate the electric field. I will call this . The next point is going to be a little bit higher on the x-axis at a location of . The final point will be a little bit lower on the x-axis at . Maybe this diagram will help.

When I take these two end points (not the middle one), I can find the slope. That means the x-component of the electric field will be:

Let’s do this. I’m going to find the x-component of the electric field at that same location (x = 0.02 meters). I don’t want to write it out, so I’m going to do it in python. Here is the link (I wish I could just embed the trinket right into this blog post).

Umm..wow. It worked. Notice that I printed the electric field twice. The first one is from the slope and the second one is by just using the superposition for the electric field. Yes, I knew it SHOULD work—but it actually worked. I’m excited.

Also, just for fun—here is a plot of the electric potential as a function of x. The negative of this slope should give you the x-component of the electric field.

Here you can see something useful. Where on this plot is the electric field (the x-component) equal to zero? Answer: it’s where the slope of this plot is zero (yes, it’s there). Remember, just because the electric field is zero that doesn’t mean the electric potential is zero.

Homework

How about this? See if you can find the electric field due to these two charges at a location y = 0.01 and x = 0.0 meters. This is right on the y-axis, but now the electric field clearly has both an x and a y-component. That means you are going to have to do this twice.

I honestly don’t know how I skipped over this episode with my MacGyver science notes. Oh well, let’s finish this up. There aren’t too many hacks in this episode, so this won’t be too long.

One Way Mirror

Murdoc makes a great point. Is it a one way mirror or a two way mirror? The main idea is that Murdoc can’t see through the glass, but the other people can see through to view what Murdoc is doing.

These things aren’t magic. At the most basic level, a “one way mirror” is just a plane of glass. When light hits glass, some of it is reflected and some of it is transmitted. If you are on one side of the glass and there is WAY more reflected light coming back at you than the light transmitted from the other side, then you can’t see that transmitted light. The glass would look like a mirror.

This is exactly what happens when you are inside a house at night with the lights on. The lights reflect too much and there isn’t much light from outside coming in, so you just see a reflection. It would look like this.

If you are outside on a dark night, the opposite is true. You can see INTO the house.

So, for the one way mirror, you need a glass separating two rooms. The dark room is the room with the observers and the light room is where the prisoner sits.

This is a classic simple machine. The key to all simple machines is that you can make a system that pulls over a greater distance and produces a greater force (or you can do it the opposite of this).

In this case, MacGyver makes a compound pulley. You need two pulleys. If you run the string through these two pulleys, you can make two different distances. The distance one side is pulled is twice the distance of the other side. Here is a diagram.

Yes, that’s a rather crude sketch—I did it fairly quickly. Here is a video that walks through the setup. I mention that there are two ways to set up this skateboard battering ram, this only covers one method.

MacGyver uses a winch cable to connect their truck to Murdoc’s truck. They then slam on the breaks. So, would this work? Yeah, probably.

Assuming the two vehicles have the same material for the tires, then they would have the same coefficient of friction. A basic model for friction says that the frictional force is proportional to the force the ground pushes up on the object (we call this the normal force).

Since both cars are on flat ground, the normal force is equal to the car’s weight. That means the heavier car would have a greater frictional force. Yes, I’m making some other assumptions about the tires “locking up”—but still, this is plausible.

Even if the frictional force wasn’t enough to stop the truck, the cable is attached to the side of Murdoc’s truck. This side force would rotate the truck and also prevent it from driving straight.

It’s funny how the title is sort of a spoiler for the episode. Right?

DIY Safe Cracker

This is technically a MacGyver-hack since it’s from MacGyver, just not from Angus MacGyver.

The basic idea is to open a safe with a dial on it. Instead of trying to figure out the lock combination, a robot can just try EVERY combination. This is called a brute-force hack since it’s not elegant but it works.

Also, here is another brute force hack (on a key code door).

Book Cipher

I’ll be honest. I had no idea how a book cipher worked. But with a little help from the internet, I finally figured it out. Here’s how it works.

You take some text that you want to send. The example I use is the word “cat”—yes, that’s sort of silly.

Next, you need to convert each letter to a number. I’m using the ASCII UTF-8 format to convert each letter to a hexadecimal number (base-16 numbers instead of base 10). For “cat” this would be 43 41 54.

Now I take a word from my “book”—in this case it’s a take out menu from a Chinese restaurant. If I use SPR (from spring roll), I can also convert that to ASCII to get 53 50 52. This is my key.

Now I add my text and my code to get 96 91 A6. REMEMBER these are hex numbers, so you have to add them differently than you would with decimal numbers. This gives me the code—this is what you send.

To decode the message, you just do the opposite.

Here is a longer explanation with a video.

Just for fun, here are some of my notes along with Oversight’s calculations on the dashboard.

Fuel Pump

MacGyver needs to transfer fuel from one car to another. Here is a very cool pump.

The key to most of these pumps is a one way valve. You need to make something so that water can flow the way you want to pump, but not the other way. Here is a very simple way to make a one way pump valve with a turkey baster and small ball.

Belt Handcuffs and Bolo

Really not much to say here—normal MacGyver stuff.

Ascender Rig

MacGyver and MacGyver build a device so that they can get on the roof a building. Yes, it’s an ascender rig. It’s basically just a battery (a car battery in this case) and an electric motor. The motor winds up a rope and causes the whole thing to move up.

Here’s the cool part. You could really do this with just about any electric motor. Yes, even that tiny weak motor could still lift two humans. The only difference would be the speed. If you get the gear ratio right, this tiny motor would slowly wind up the rope and just take longer to get to the top.

Spark Gap Generator

The spark gap generator was the first type of radio transmitter. When a spark is created, it also produces electromagnetic waves (over a broad range of frequencies). That means you can’t really have radio channels, but you can indeed send a signal.

If you want to know more about spark gap generators, here is some info. I even built one mostly from scratch.

But could you make a spark gap generator with a magnetic stirrer? I think so. One of the key things you need is a changing electric current. If you use the spinning stirrer, it can make electrical contacts at different points during the spin. Here is an example.

Here is a great homework problem for you. What physics or technical advice could MacGyver offer to a professional NASCAR driver to improve the track time? It’s tough, right? I mean—you could say “go faster” or “get a bigger engine” or stuff like that. But haven’t they already thought of the “go faster” strategy? Probably.

How about this? What if there is a significant wind at the track? Let me start my explanation with a diagram. Note: I am just a physicist and not actually a NASCAR expert.

I incorrectly labeled the turns as “A” and “B”, but let’s call turn B turn 3 instead (like in the show). So, suppose there is a wind coming from the North. That means that in turn 3, there will be more air resistance (going into the wind) than in turn 4 (going with the wind).

In order to decrease the time in turn, the driver could take the inside of the turn. This would mean that the total distance is shorter (because it’s a smaller circle for the inside turn). If you take the outside turn, the car can travel faster but over a longer (slightly) distance.

But with air resistance, you might be able to make a small improvement on time by driving the slower and shorter distance. Yes, it is indeed true that the normal model for the air resistance force is proportional to the square of the relative speed between the car and the air (but air resistance is in fact quite complicated).

Testing an Unknown Object

MacGyver and Riley meet up with a scientist that is trying to identify an unknown object. You might have missed it, but there is a nice list of tests on the board in the background.

I could probably write a whole book about these tests, but let me just point out that density is a great one to start with. The density is the ratio of mass to volume for an object, but it can tell you a lot. Is it hollow? Is it solid? If it’s solid, the density of a material is one way to identify the exact material. Plus it’s a super simple test that wouldn’t destroy the object.

Salt Water Faraday Cage

Yes, this is essentially a Faraday cage. MacGyver covers the sphere with a lab coat soaked in salt water. The salt produces ions that turns the water from an insulator into a conductor. Once you have a conductor around the sphere, then charges can move around to make an electric field that cancels the field in the radiated electromagnetic wave.

One thing about a Faraday cage like this—it doesn’t stop all electromagnetic waves. Since the electric field oscillates back and forth, the charges in the liquid can’t always adjust fast enough. This means that this could block some frequencies of electromagnetic waves—but not others.

Liquid Metal Isn’t Completely Crazy

What the heck is up with this metal that turns into a liquid? Yes, this is partly science fiction—but at least it’s based on some real stuff.

It’s called a travois—https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Travois. The basic version is just a cloth stretched between two sticks. Then you put a person on the sticks and drag it.

For MacGyver’s version, he uses some wheels.

Celestial Navigation

Here is the line that I recommended:

“The idea of celestial navigation is pretty simple—it’s the precision that’s difficult.”

If you want to find out where you are on the Earth, you need to get your longitude and your latitude. Finding your latitude is really quite simple—especially in the Northern hemisphere. If you just measure the angle that the North Star lies above horizon and subtract from 90 degrees, that’s it.

This is essentially the role of a sextant. It’s just a really fancy way of measuring angles. They really aren’t too hard to build, here is one that I made.

What about longitude? That’s a much tougher problem. One way you can find your longitude is by measuring the time of local noon (the time that the Sun is at its highest point) and comparing that to the noon in Greenwich. So, that means you need a very nice clock. In fact, this was the biggest obstacle to overcome for early navigation, the invention of a reliable clock.

Of course MacGyver has a clock. However, he doesn’t have the Sun since it’s at night. One way to solve this problem is the observe the rising time of some known star (other than the Sun) and compare this to that star’s normal position in the sky. Knowing this time could give you your location, but you need to know the celestial coordinates of a star. MacGyver is enough of a nerd (in a good way) that he might have a particular star memorized.

In order to be over prepared for the show, I made a video going over the exact calculations MacGyver might make.

Don’t try this, but it should work. Those old floppy disks are partially transparent. If you take about the hard part of the disk, the spinning part (where the data is stored) is both easy to cut and could make some welding glasses. https://eclipse.gsfc.nasa.gov/SEhelp/safety2.html

In order to escape from a dinner, MacGyver opens all the gas outlets in the kitchen to fill the building with gas. He then takes apart a pay phone and disconnects the ringer. Super old pay phones (what’s a pay phone?) have a mechanical oscillator that rings a bell.

In order to get some heavy pieces on top of a house (to rebuild the roof), MacGyver uses a rope running over a movable ladder to act as a type of crane. I thought I had a pre-show sketch of this, but I couldn’t find it.

Fixing a flat tire

The truck has a flat tire. MacGyver needs to do two things—plug the hole and fill the tire. To plug the hole, he uses a bit of rubber and heats it up. Then you just push this through the hole in the tire. That’s it. Honestly, I have done this with an actual flat tire and I was surprised that it worked.

For the air, MacGyver connects the tire of the scooter to the truck. Yes, this would add some air to the truck tire from the scooter tire—but only until the two tires reach the same pressure. That might plausibly be enough air to get you going, but likely not.

If you want to get more air from the scooter tire, you could heat it up. When the air in the scooter tire increases in temperature, it increases in pressure. You need the scooter tire pressure higher than the truck tire to get a transfer.

A basic radio really isn’t all that complicated. You need a capacitor, a coil of wire (for the inductor) and some type of diode. Soldiers used to make them from scratch on the front line in WWII—they were called foxhole radios.

Ok, but what if you want a two way radio? Yup, it’s much more difficult to transmit. But still, you get the idea. Here is a sketch from the show notes.

Dye pack explosion

So these banks have these exploding packs of dye. That way they can toss them in with some money when bad guys steal stuff. Some of the packs are radio activated, but others go off (after a delay) when passing out of the main bank area. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dye_pack

MacGyver just puts one in a coffee cup and tosses it past the door. Since it makes a noise, the baddie goes to investigate and BOOM. Ink in the face.

Ethernet rope ladder

MacGyver makes a rope ladder out of ethernet cable so that people can escape from a second story window. It might take a while to make, but this is fairly legit.

Bomb thingy

I honestly can’t remember the exact kind of bomb MacGyver is making here—and that’s fine because I wouldn’t tell you anyway. But he uses some stuff from the bank to get into the sewers below.

Falling telephone pole

For the last hack, MacGyver hits a telephone pole that’s ready to fall over anyway. The pole falls and lands on the bad guys car. The end.