Note (12/2015): Hi there! I'm taking some time off here to focus on other projects for a bit. As of October 2016, those other projects include a science book series for kids titled Things That Make You Go Yuck! -- available at Barnes and Noble, Amazon and (hopefully) a bookstore near you!

Co-author Jenn Dlugos and I are also doing some extremely ridiculous things over at Drinkstorm Studios, including our award-winning webseries, Magicland.

There are also a full 100 posts right here in the archives, and feel free to drop me a line at with comments, suggestions or wacky cold fusion ideas. Cheers!

· Categories: Physics
What I’ve Learned:

Faraday cage: If you can't keep your wavelength in your pants, keep it in your Faraday.
“Faraday cage: If you can’t keep your wavelength in your pants, keep it in your Faraday.”

They say too much of anything can be bad. Sunshine. Children. Tribbles. Jalapeno chili dogs, probably, though I frankly can’t imagine how.

Too much electromagnetic radiation can be a problem, too. Whether in the form of a devastating lightning strike, a searing high-voltage current or dangerously delicious microwaves, some sorts of electricity you don’t want zapping through you. Because it might sting. Or leave a hole.

When you need to avoid catastrophically harmful electric charges, you have a couple of options. You could train really hard to get fast enough to outrun electromagnetic waves. But they move at the speed of light — since light is an electromagnetic wave, after all — so that’s probably slightly impossible. You could swap yourself out with someone who doesn’t mind going through life extra-crispy. Or you could climb into a Faraday cage.

Let’s walk through that last option. It seems the easiest. Also the least murdery.

To climb into a Faraday cage, you’ll first need to build a Faraday cage. Or buy one; maybe somebody on Etsy sells them. What you’re looking for is an enclosure made of some material that conducts material, like metal. The cage can be solid or made of mesh, so long as the holes in the mesh are smaller than the wavelengths of radiation you’re trying to keep out. Make your mesh-holes too big, and you’ll still get cooked; you’ll just get cooked in an interesting pattern. Like a steak with crosshatch grill marks, or a sunbather with “friends” who drew on his back in Coppertone.

Faraday cages work by distributing electrical charge around the structure. Since the whole cage conducts the charge, a constant voltage is created all around. Electrons in the conducting material crowd to one side or the other, effectively cancelling the electrical field zapped in. Anything (or anyone) inside the cage is protected, as there’s no voltage differential in there to generate electrical current.

The contraption is named for British physicist Michael Faraday, who conducted experiments back in the mid-1800s to prove that cages work for protection. We’re not sure if he started with cages, but since you don’t see any Faraday aquariums or Faraday litter boxes around, it’s safe to say that cages probably worked the best.

There are lots of scientific uses for Faraday cages; any time it’s useful to block an electromagnetic signal of some kind, the cage comes to the rescue. They’re used to protect computer equipment — and also car and airplane passengers — from lightning strikes and electric surges, to eliminate electromagnetic interference from sensitive tests (including MRI readouts) and to screen electrical cables from outside signals.

In less-than-scientific applications, Faraday cages have been used to keep people from electronically spying on pope-picking sessions at the Vatican, by shoplifters to block RFID signals on swiped merchandise and by thousands of doomsday preppers, paranoids and conspiracy wingdoodles to line their wallets, bomb shelters and tinfoil hats, so “the gummint” can’t track them, read their thoughts or steal their secret varmint gumbo recipes.

(Or maybe it’s the aliens they protect against. Or the Illuminati. Hell, it could be the chili dogs. Whatever.)

Also, since Faraday cages can dissipate signals that originate inside the box as well as outside, they’re very useful for shielding potentially harmful electromagnetic energy sources. Like an electrical power plant or microwave ovens or Jamie Foxx in that Spider-Man sequel, maybe.

(Maybe a Faraday cage wouldn’t hold Electro. But electrical line workers do wear “Faraday suits”, which are modified cages that keep them from getting shocks while working on high-voltage lines.

So if Foxx’s character had just worn the proper safety equipment, nobody would’ve had to sit through that hodgepodge of nonsense for two hours.)

Anyway, Faraday cages are pretty simple, really useful and great for keeping nasty electromagnetic waves away from tender vulnerable computers, equipment and humans. And those gumbo recipes. I’m sure those were exactly what Michael Faraday had in mind.

Image sources: Life on the Blue Highways (Faraday cage demo), Drop the Beat on It (sucky sucky sunburn), The Telecom Blog (tinfoil Bart), Coop on the Scoop (Electro, crackling)

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· Categories: Biology
What I’ve Learned:

Electric bacteria: And you thought your 220V plug adapter was impressive.
“Electric bacteria: And you thought your 220V plug adapter was impressive.”

First they came to make our stoves electric, and I said nothing. Because I’m a terrible cook. I can’t even brown bagels.

Then they came to make our lawnmowers electric, and I said nothing. Because who can afford a yard these days?

Then they came to make our cars electric, and still I said nothing. Because Teslas are sexy, and only occasionally burst into flames.

But now we have electric bacteria, and there’s no one left to speak up. Presumably because they’ve been zapped by electric freaking bacteria. What’s next, nature? Chickenpox with tasers? Athlete’s foot fungus armed with bazookas? Napalm-spewing cooties?

Fear not, science fans. Unlike that Electro dude in the Spider-Man sequel, these “electric bacteria” aren’t out to fry humanity like a trillion tiny bug zappers. They’re just efficient little critters trying to cut out the middle man.

All living organisms need energy. We get ours in the form of coffee or cheese sticks or chicken cacciatore. Likewise, animals and plants ingest nutrients in various forms to get the oomph they need. Eating equals energy.

But once the grub goes down the gullet — or up the rootstalk — things get complicated. Nearly all organisms gain energy by transferring electrons from food molecules onto another molecule called ATP.

(No, not the tennis tour ATP. The only thing stored there is Roger Federer’s six thousand watches.)

ATP stands for adenosine triphosphate, possibly the most important bit of microscopic fluff in living cells, because it can hold onto electrons — and therefore energy — until they’re needed. Organisms spend a ridiculous amount of effort getting these electrons onto and off of ATP, using enzymes and cofactors and quite possibly David Blaine is involved — all because our cells can’t deal with bare electrons directly.

But some cells can.

Scientists have known for a while that certain bacterial species can gather energy from an electrical source — that is, a pool of electrons. No ATP needed; these microbes sip electrons like espresso and use them directly.

Dubbed “electric bacteria”, because they survive on raw current — rather than, say, raw currants — researchers believed they were relatively rare. But new experiments have jammed a proverbial fork into that outlet: electric bacteria aren’t rare; they’re everywhere.

Several new types of electron-munching microbes have been recently discovered. How? By jamming electrodes into the ground, turning on the juice (gently) and seeing what grows. Some bacteria in the lab can thrive on just the juice from a simple battery. No food. No water. No Chicken McCoenzymes. Just pure, unadulterated voltage. They’re like tiny little toasters, only alive and creepy and also terrible at browning bagels.

These weirdo electrical bacteria are interesting in a number of ways. Some live deep underground, slowly slurping electrons off the surrounding rocks. These may give us a hint of what primitive life on other planets might look like. They could also help us figure out the bare minimum energy cells need to survive. And they might be engineered to clean up biowaste or toxic spills, powering themselves with loose electrons as they work.

Some species even have filaments called nanowires that help regulate the electrons flowing in and out. These cells can link together, forming a bacterial bridge to transfer electrons several centimeters away. That’s not lightning shooting out of Jamie Foxx’s hands, maybe. But for teeny-ass microbes, it’s like Zeus firing thunderbolts at a bullseye on the moon.

So even if they won’t tase you, bro, don’t mess with electric bacteria. These crafty critters will shock you.

Image sources: Real Simple Science (plug-in microbe), Tampa Bay Times and Flickr / Dusty_73 (cootie napalm), Silver Screen Serenade (Electro charging), CityNews Toronto (electric Blaine)

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