Things of Science 222.1

Back in the 70’s, there was one year when I got a subscription to Things of Science. What a fascinating, nerdy thing that was.

If you haven’t heard of Things of Science let me explain to you what it was. Every month you received a small blue box in the mail that contained a booklet and often some other small items. The booklet would explain some scientific or mathematical concept and the small items in the box would be used for a series of experiments explained in the booklet. It was a sort of lab science lesson in a box.

One month the topic might be probability and the items in the box would be a pair of dice and some colored tokens. The experiments would involve the dice, etc. If you followed the instructions in the booklet you might learn quite a bit about probability by the time you finished.

Next month is might be about plants of some kind and the box would contain seeds you can plant.

One that I received that stands out in my memory was about Xerography. I now know that the mysterious black powder that came in the bag (in addition to a sheet of acetate and some sheets of white paper) is what we call printer toner. I remember the final experiment had you building up a static electrical charge on the acetate and then “writing” on it with dish soap (not included). Then there was a step where you transferred the electrical charge to a sheet of blank paper. I believe you sprinkled the toner over the sheet of paper and, lo and behold, the toner was attracted to an area on the paper representing the image you had “drawn” with  dish soap. The final step to cure the image involved using a clothes iron (also not included)  to melt or fuse the toner to the paper. I was blown away to see it actually work.

I no longer have my Things of Science units I’m afraid. I have since though picked up a few from eBay. One older unit I picked up involved Atomic Energy (unit #222). Unfortunately the kit was not complete and the uranium oxide and lead sheet were missing.

If a teacher wanted to re-create this unit for the classroom, there are going to be modern difficulties.

The unit begins with experiments in electrostatic (static) electricity. For this you need:

  • 2 balloons
  • Thread
  • A sealing wax rod
  • Saran wrap
  • Either fur or wool

They then move on to constructing an electroscope. For this they suggest:

  • a glass jar
  • a length of stiff copper wire
  • foil (from chewing gum wrapper)
  • a penny

You can throw money and buy an electroscope for about $30. Or search around the internet for a tutorial (if the booklet below doesn’t describe it well enough for you). Here is one I found with a few minutes searching: build a simple electroscope

Soon though the unit calls for Uranium Oxide impregnated paper (the radiation source). I have not found an inexpensive source for this. Nonetheless, I am aware that home smoke detectors contain a radioactive source (Americium, I believe). You can easily get a cheap smoke detector or an old one and open it up for it’s radiation source. While I haven’t tried the experiment in the unit by substituting the radioactive source from a smoke detector, it seems like it should work.

Perhaps you have access to an old watch with a radium on the tips of the hands?

The unit talks about autoradiographs and while do-able (again, if you can find an adequate radiation source) photographic film and the means to develop it are getting to be a more difficult hurdle to overcome. There was a time of course when schools (well, middle schools and high schools anyway)  probably had a darkroom and the necessary film and chemicals. So perhaps autoradiographs can be skipped.

The unit discusses cloud chambers. Building one of these is not as simple as an electroscope. But the construction is discussed. But also, like the electroscope, there are plenty of sites on the internet that detail building a cloud chamber. The chamber should not be expensive to construct and if you do build one, the result of operating one is fascinating.

Here is a page showing how to build a cloud chamber. It was one of the first ones I clicked on.

The unit describes a spinthariscope and how to build one. A double-convex lens is easy to find (a magnifying glass) but the activated Zinc Sulfide will have to be ordered. I found a place that sells the Zinc Sulfide for $10. It turns out they also sell a completed spinthariscope for $35.

Finally, the unit discusses the Geiger counter. They give an electronic parts list and a schematic but it really shouldn’t be attempted by anyone not extremely familiar with electronics. It uses mains-power (household current) and can be dangerous to use if incorrectly wired. Instead, if you have $99 to spare, a clever, modern kit like this one would be a fun addition to a science classroom.

Here is a scan of the booklet that came with this unit:

Things of Science #222 — Atomic Energy