This piece marks my third by-line in Popular Science. It opens the “Manual” section of the October 2015 issue. Besides designing the circuit, writing the copy, and building the solder-free breadboard-based device shown in the photo, I also carved the pumpkin. Fun fact: Halloween magazine content has to be in bed in the summer, when nobody is selling pumpkins. There is, however, a high quality brand of carve-able fake pumpkin, called a Funkin, which is apparently the industry standard for this sort of thing. It carves easily with a special tool which is somewhere between a paring knife and a fine-tooth hacksaw.
I’m indebted to Lenore and Windell at Evil Mad Scientist Laboratories for the two circuits on which the electronics are based. My breadboard is really just a simple mash-up of their dark detecting jack-o’-lantern and solderless flickery flame designs. Their online store remains the best place to buy candle-flicker and other specialty LEDs in the known universe, as well as tons of other cool open-source electronics you can’t get anywhere else.
Here’s Popular Science Projects Editor Sophie Bushwick building the project on camera:
Of course I knew for months in advance that this was coming, but what I did not know, until I actually received my copy of the March 2015 print issue, was that I also got a coverline.
This project actually started as one of six ideas I sent to littleBits when I began negotiating to develop projects for their Explorer Series kits in late 2014. It was inspired by the well-known “Kelvin” hovercraft activity developed for primary-school STEM educators. There was a lengthy prototyping process in which I tried to produce a workable styrofoam-plate hovercraft using littleBits components; when it became clear that the single 5V case fan bundled with their Premium Kit was not going to be able to lift its own weight, I pushed forward anyway, adding fans and stripping away other components as needed until I got to a reliable power-to-weight ratio. The 5V fans that I used in the final build (Sunon #MB50100V2-000U-A99) are exactly the same part used in the littleBits Fan Bit (though they are deliberately overdriven at 9V).
Here is some heretofore unpublished video of the finished prototype in action. On a fully-charged 150mAH NiMH 9V, it will float for about 5 minutes. You can see that it tends to precess in the same rotational direction as the fans themselves; I would like someday to try a similar build using counter-rotating fans to cancel the net torque, but it will have to use bare motors rather than all-in-one case fans, because case fans all turn the same direction and are not, to my knowledge, ever available in the opposite handedness.
If the torques could be made to cancel, the next logical question is whether they could be modulated to provide steering. It seems likely to me that a four-fan configuration using impellers counter-rotating across the centerline and controlled by a “Herbie” type BEAM circuit with two photo-diode sensors could in fact be arranged, fairly easily, to both float the vehicle and steer it towards the brightest light source in the environment using a “net torque” steering mechanism.
Chemical & Engineering News is the American Chemical Society’s print organ, which is mailed to each of its 160,000-plus members weekly. Their back-page human interest column is called Newscripts. The most recent issue, dated November 21, 2011, features two chemistry-related projects from my grad-school years: my trick for using starch packing peanuts to build nil-cost molecular models, and my organic chemistry tutoring business card featuring a reversible cyclohexane chair drawing template. Always fun to see my name in actual, physical print! Thanks to C&EN staff writer Jyllian Kemsley for the ink.
Jaak Treiman is Estonia’s honorary U.S. consul in Los Angeles. If I understand correctly, this position, among other duties, keeps him meeting and greeting various Estonian dignitaries, businesspeople, and government officials when they’re in LA. And, if the occasion warrants, showing them around the city. Which, I presume, is what prompted him to write a tour guide.
Back in March, I got an e-mail from Jaak asking if he could use one of the photographs from the novelty diplomatic bags I was selling on Etsy awhile back on the cover. At least at the time, this shot was one of the few decent photos online of anything even respectably pretending to be a diplomatic valise.
I said sure, man, just send me a signed copy when it comes out. And last week it arrived. A Diplomatic Guide to Los Angeles is on sale now, sporting my novelty diplomatic bag there on the lower-right-corner of the front cover. Looks great, if I do say so myself.
Sorting old files today, discovered this clipping from the UT student newspaper dated 2002-10-15. I noticed the buried capsule and wrote to the inscribed address to satisfy my own curiosity, then mailed the packet of stuff they sent me to the Texan mostly so I’d have something to do with it. I had never worked as a journalist at that time, so I had no idea how easy it was to feed one a story.
The Johns Hopkins University
Applied Physics Laboratory
11100 Johns Hopkins Road
Laurel, Maryland 20723-6099
Wednesday, August 21, 2002
Dear Sir or Madam:
I am a Chemistry student at the University of Texas at Austin. I am writing because my curiosity has been piqued by a bronze plaque affixed to the top of a small underground concrete installation I’ve recently noticed beside the University’s moldering old WPA-era exhibit of “A Texas Dinosaur Trackway.”
The plaque, which I have reproduced photographically herein, identifies the installation as “Transit Satellite Tracking Station 002”; the fields provided to indicate the operational lifetime of the station are conspicuously blank. The last lines implore the curious, “For information write to the director.”
I am curious. I would like information: What does this installation do, and how does it do it? What function does it serve, and for whom? If it operates under the auspices of a particular government agency, to whom might I address a FOIA request?
Thank you for your attention to this matter.
Sean Michael Ragan
I kind of hope they’ll dig it up. It’s not clear to me if the plaque was intended to mark some kind of larger installation that is no longer present, or if the “tracking station” itself is still contained in the concrete somewhere below the identifying plaque. It’s also not clear to me whether the equipment the station might contain is or is not still operational. If I were to put on a hardhat, carry an official-looking clipboard, rent a jackhammer, and go dig it up, would anyone notice or complain? If so, who?