Please Pass The Science
The Glowing Pickle: Born of Boredom
by Scott Berk
Science can be boring at times, but this is not necessarily a disadvantage. Imagine, if you will, scientists hard at work on a new super-adhesive. They've been working on this formulation for months, and their newest batch, number F-197, is ready for testing. Unfortunately, it can barely hold two light pieces of wood together, much less hold a construction worker's head to the bottom of a big steel girder. The researchers put the failed goop into a bottle and start on number F-198. Several batches later, after a particularly miserable test, these poor glue formulators are sitting around, playing with scraps of paper. Ennui has set in, and in a flash of dejected brilliance, one scientist whips out batch F-197, spreads it on the scraps, and sticks them all over the lab, creating a sort of inane graffiti. The next morning, the research group cleans up the mess from the night before. To their surprise, the pieces of paper come off the walls cleanly. More amazingly, they can be stuck right back on again! Thus, the multi-billion dollar Post-It Note(tm) industry was born.
Keep imagining the delight of another group of bored researchers who discovered that their novel, but apparently useless boratosiloxane polymer picked up newsprint photos, which could then be stretched and bounced. What inspired them to try to lift photos with a new polymer? Certainly not the scientific method! And yet, Silly Putty(tm) has shaped a generation, and filled corporate coffers to boot. Indeed, while necessity may be the mother of invention, boredom is, at the very least, its crazy uncle that makes everyone uncomfortable at family gatherings. You know the type. They smoke those god-awful stogey cigars, have tremendous beer bellies, and always end up making a six-year neice or nephew cry. In fact, some of my most traumatic experiences are the result of family gatherings and Uncle Dickie. But I digress. . .
Occasionally, I too have been bored and frustrated with my work. After all, while being staff chemist has its rewards, the constant struggle to improve this magazine scientifically can leave me rather angst-ridden at times. Anyway, my dinner had just arrived - the usual chicken cutlet submarine sandwhich from the local 24-hour market - and, much to my dismay, it was laden with pickles. Cucumbers taste bad enough, but to go and soak 'em in vinegar and salt-water for a few months adds insult to injury, and although I'm a pacifist at heart, in the mood I was in, I needed to do some serious damage. Dissolving the vulgar vegetable in concentrated sulfuric acid was passé, and we had melted a hot dog with the laser two weeks earlier. . . "EUREKA!" I exclaimed as I hit on the perfect pickle torture. I would electrocute it! I constructed a crude "pickle electric chair" out of a wooden box with two nails pounded upward from the inside. The nails were then hooked up to a high-voltage power supply. I couldn't help but feel a bit like Dr. Frankenstien as I pierced the pickle onto the two electrodes and flipped the switch. At first, nothing. Would my boredom-inspired pickle sadism end in failure? My question was answered quickly, as wisps of smoke started to rise from my victim. Then, surprisingly, when a critical temperature had been achieved . . . LIFE!!! The pickle began giving off a yellow glow which was accompanied by an electrical crackling noise that could have been used as "lab sound-effects" in any 1950's science fiction B-movie. After several seconds, the glow sputtered to a halt, as the pickle had literally been fried off of one of the electrodes. I was careful to turn the power off before touching the pickle. It was HOT! And the smell . . . it still haunts my nightmares. But the initial shame I had felt as the result of this wanton destruction of innocent foodstuff was quickly replaced by the exhiliarating sense of scientific curiosity. Could the intensity of the glow be controlled? Could the color of the glow be modified by soaking the pickle in other salt solutions? Do electrified pickles taste any better than untreated ones? Further investigations are obviously necessary, the results of which will be reported in due course.
As I basked in the glow of the pickle electric for the seventh time that night, it mattered less and less that the effect was due to sodium ions in the pickle juice being reduced by the electric current to sodium atoms in the excited state, which upon relaxation emitted a photon of yellow light which was then diffused by the pickle's skin. What mattered was that I was no longer bored. I had once again been captivated and excited by SCIENCE!
Is there really life on Mars? Will an anti-aging pill ever be developed? Which is more scientifically accurate, Dark Skies, or The X Files? Send in your burning science questions to "Please Pass The Science" in care of this magazine.
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