The Optical Engineer
Do try this at home…
NUSTEM’s interpretation of an Exploratorium classic
We loved the idea of Light Play, and our colleagues at the Centre for Life were keen to produce a set for use here in the North-East of England. But while the Exploratorium’s setup is wonderfully dramatic, for our purposes there were some challenges around component availability, ease of construction, and cost.
So we simplified the components considerably. The results aren’t as gorgeous, but they’re still pretty good. The activity has prompted the response and interactions we wanted, so we’re happy.
Here are a few more details about what we – Think Physics and the Centre for Life – built:
Effects, outcomes, and miscellaneous notes
We love this activity. Here’s what it looks like in the hands of secondary students:
Science for Families: Activities supporting the ‘Light’ session
This resource is designed to accompany the Science for Families course delivered by NUSTEM or one of our partners. It’s a six-week parent and child course delivered in primary schools.
You’re welcome to use the resources for other purposes, but they might not make quite as much sense!
Investigating light with your spectroscope
Investigation time! You’ll need your spectroscope, a source of light and a camera for this. The camera on your mobile phone will work perfectly.
Choose a light source, maybe the screen of your computer, and point the spectroscope at it. Then carefully take a photo through the spectroscope using your camera. This can get a bit awkward, don’t drop your phone!
Now try again with a different light source. Once you have a few photos, compare them and try to spot similarities and differences. Here are the photos we took…
Don’t use your spectroscope to look directly at the sun. We’d prefer everyone doing this course to finish with just as much eyesight as they started. Thanks.
So… what’s going on?
The colours you see depend upon the type of light source you’re looking at. To be super-accurate, the colours depend on the chemical elements that are involved in giving off the light. You’ll have heard of some elements before: oxygen, hydrogen, carbon, aluminium, and gold are all examples of elements.
Different elements produce different patterns of colour – different spectra. Typically, a light source that’s trying to represent white will use several elements, and hence several spectra, to produce a good enough blend to fool your eye into seeing pure white.
The pictures below show some images of common spectra. If you compare these with your photos you might be able to work out what elements are in use in your light sources.
More experiments to try at home
(not a Bond film)
However, visible light is just a small part of the electromagnetic spectrum.
Infrared radiation and ultraviolet radiation are also electromagnetic waves. They are not detected by our eyes, but can still be very useful to us. Infrared radiation can penetrate some things that visible light cannot, so using an infrared camera we can see things that would otherwise be hidden:
Uses of infrared radiation
A modern camera and the human eye work in similar ways, with even the structure of the eye relating to the parts of a camera; the lens, aperture (iris) and detector (retina). In the workshop, we look at some simple pinhole cameras and lenses before having a go at light painting.
Advanced Light Painting
Combine light painting techniques and stop-motion animation, and you can (with a huge amount of patience) produce something more like this:
If that looks like too much effort, you can automate the process to some extent using a phone or tablet app. One example is Holographium.
…but things are about to get easier. A company called Pixelstick have created a way to insert pictures and graphics into photos. They can even make time-lapse videos of moving images. The Pixelstick flashes up different sequences of light and as it moves in front of the camera they appear like a fully formed image. By taking a series of photos you can put them all together to make some amazing animations.
Whether you’re in the bath or washing-up in the kitchen, nothing makes a daily chore more fun than bubbles. No, really. Bubbles are fun. Serious fun. The science behind bubbles is fascinating, because it relies on the physics of water. We’re so used to water being all around – heck, it falls out of the sky! – that we don’t stop to think about how weird it is. That ice cubes float is amazing, because with almost every other material the solid is more dense than the liquid, so they sink. Whereas ice takes up just a little more space than liquid water, so it floats.
Whether you’re in the bath or washing-up in the kitchen, nothing makes a daily chore more fun than bubbles.
No, really. Bubbles are fun. Serious fun.
The science behind bubbles is fascinating, because it relies on the physics of water. We’re so used to water being all around – heck, it falls out of the sky! – that we don’t stop to think about how weird it is. That ice cubes float is amazing, because with almost every other material the solid is more dense than the liquid, so they sink. Whereas ice takes up just a little more space than liquid water, so it floats.
You can get an idea for just how weirdly water behaves even more easily: fill a glass all the way to the brim, then keep going. You’ll see the water bulge upwards, like this. That happens because water molecules interact with each other and with the glass, just a little bit. It’s a very small effect, but it’s enough to cause water to tend to clump together, to flow a little distance up the side of a glass, and to bulge like this.
Gently place an object on the surface – like this rather tatty-looking paperclip we found kicking around in the Think Physics office – and you can see the curve of the water surface around the object. That curve is what provides the force balancing the weight of the object.
Exploring bubbles with the RI
Other fun with bubbles
Viewing soap film colours
Your Guide to the Solar Eclipse
A solar eclipse occurs when the Moon passes between the Earth and the Sun – a rare occurrence. Don’t miss your chance to watch celestial mechanics in action, on 20th March 2015, from 08:30 to 10:44. Observers across the UK will be able to watch as the Moon’s orbit passes in front of the Sun. The transit of the Moon across the Sun will begin at 8:30am. As the eclipse reaches its maximum (90%) coverage at 9:35am, the sky will darken and the temperature will drop. Although there will be more partial eclipses in the coming years, the next total eclipse viewable from the UK won’t happen until 2090. So there’s no excuse not to download our eclipse viewer (see below) and head outside on the 20th March to watch the eclipse as it happens. The video (below) from SciShow Kids is a great introduction for young children on the mechanics of the solar eclipse.
A solar eclipse occurs when the Moon passes between the Earth and the Sun – a rare occurrence. Don’t miss your chance to watch celestial mechanics in action, on 20th March 2015, from 08:30 to 10:44.
Observers across the UK will be able to watch as the Moon’s orbit passes in front of the Sun. The transit of the Moon across the Sun will begin at 8:30am. As the eclipse reaches its maximum (90%) coverage at 9:35am, the sky will darken and the temperature will drop.
Although there will be more partial eclipses in the coming years, the next total eclipse viewable from the UK won’t happen until 2090. So there’s no excuse not to download our eclipse viewer (see below) and head outside on the 20th March to watch the eclipse as it happens.
The video (below) from SciShow Kids is a great introduction for young children on the mechanics of the solar eclipse.
What is a solar eclipse?
When we draw pictures of the Moon’s orbit around the Earth, and their orbit around the Sun, we tend to draw them flat – like the diagram below. Looking at that, you’d think the Moon would pass in front of the Sun every month. It doesn’t, because the diagram is over-simplified.
In reality, the Moon’s orbit around the Earth and the Earth’s around the Sun are inclined relative to each other by about 5°. The points where the two orbital planes meet are called lunar nodes, and solar eclipses only happen when a new Moon occurs near a lunar node.
There’s one other feature of the Solar System that makes solar eclipses possible: the Sun is 400x further from the Earth than the Moon, but it’s also 400x larger. So to us, standing on Earth, they appear to be the same size in the sky. This is a staggering coincidence, and we get to enjoy the spectacle of an eclipse only because of that accident of geometry.
Solar eclipses are regular and predictable, but because everything has to be in the right place simultaneously they’re also very rare. Experiencing one is astonishing.
The diagram shows how different parts of the planet experience a solar eclipse. The small area in the centre, in the track of the moon’s shadow across the Earth, is called the umbra. That’s where we experience a total solar eclipse. The more extended region to either side is called the penumbra: there, you’ll experience a partial solar eclipse.
So on 20th March, Newcastle is in the penumbra.
Different types of eclipse
“Partial solar eclipse Oct 23 2014 Minneapolis 5-36pm Ruen1” by Tomruen – Own work.
In the penumbra. You’re much more likely to see a partial eclipse than a total eclipse.
Next viewable from Newcastle:
21 August 2017
Want more eclipse information? We’ve got you covered.
- Time and Date have a handy eclipse calculator for Newcastle
- NASA keep an eclipse page up-to-date too
- The Royal Astronomical Society have a page of further information for schools and teachers
- Reading University are running a National Eclipse Weather Experiment – join in here
- ABC News have some nice animations in their report on the 1999 total solar eclipse (do check this works with your IT system before trying to show in your school!)
Watching the eclipse online
Everyone loves soap bubbles. Most of us really love them. Particularly when they’re huge hovering things, hanging in the air or floating gently away.
Making large bubbles is easier than you might think. People argue endlessly over different soap mixtures (they’re a classic subject of after-dinner
arguments conversation for science communicators), but standard household washing-up liquid is almost as good as even the finest formulations. The real trick is in the way you blow bubbles, as this film will show you.
This is another film from the Royal Institution’s ExpeRimental series, all of which are worth checking out.
We’ve written up an entire page about bubbles, including a beautiful way of viewing soap film colours.
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Hey there Heaton Manor! As promised, here are all your light painting images that you created this afternoon. Good work! But don’t stop there – check out our light painting page, get inspired and have a go at making your own at home. If you do, we’d love to see the results, so feel free to send us a copy. Get creating!
That’s some good Light painting, Heaton Manor! I particularly like the spooky skeleton hanging in the background!
Head over to our workshop page for more details on how you can create your own and learn more about light and the EM spectrum.
Today, Carol and James visited Heworth Grange to run two workshops.
We did Space Maths – for more on that, check out our page of extra activities. Trust us, you really want to follow the link to the ‘Tediously accurate scale model of the solar system.” No, really.
We also did light and photography: we’ve another page of extra material around light painting, including some jaw-dropping videos. Here are the light painting photos you took in the workshop:
Great to meet you all today. We enjoyed working with you, and hope we’ll be back soon!
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