He's not so mad after all

Rick Schnee cre­ates bubbles us­ing dry ice and a secret in­gridi­ent at the Mad Sci­ence pro­gram in Holmes­burg Lib­rary, Monday, June 20, 2011, Phil­adelphia, Pa. (Maria Pouch­nikova)

“I wear a white lab coat,” the mad sci­ent­ist said. “Why? Be­cause it looks cool.”

The 35 or so kids gathered in the base­ment of the Holmes­burg branch of the Free Lib­rary of Phil­adelphia last week seemed to think so. Even cool­er, judging by their en­thu­si­ast­ic re­ac­tions, were the sci­ence ex­per­i­ments Ra­dio­act­ive Rick per­formed with fire, wa­ter and dry ice. 

Rick’s June 20 show was the kick­off to the Frank­ford Av­en­ue branch’s sum­mer read­ing pro­grams, said lib­rar­i­an Car­ole Barta.

“Ra­dio­act­ive” Rick Schnee, who lives in Ben­s­alem, works for Mad Sci­ent­ists of West New Jer­sey, a Pen­ning­ton, N.J., or­gan­iz­a­tion that con­ducts sci­ence ex­per­i­ments de­signed to en­ter­tain as well as edu­cate.

To say the kids were in­spired by Schnee’s hour-long show would be an un­der­state­ment.

They were stoked. Un­der­stand­able, really. They saw a lot of neat stuff.

There was an egg that got sucked whole in­to a lab beak­er. There was the pa­per that dis­ap­peared in flames. There were spooky-look­ing ef­fects when Schnee put dry ice in­to warm wa­ter. Then, there was the bubble vol­cano, and, fi­nally, there were the long, clear plastic tubes that gave off loud pops when Schnee dropped matches in them.

Wheth­er they real­ized it com­pletely or not, the chil­dren were learn­ing about oxy­gen, air pres­sure and va­cu­ums, and they loved it all, es­pe­cially be­cause they were able to par­ti­cip­ate throughout the pro­gram.

Schnee, who also wore a Phil­lies base­ball cap, star­ted off his pro­gram by ask­ing the chil­dren to sit still, not to shout out an­swers to his ques­tions and to prom­ise to have fun.

They read­ily agreed, but since most of the kids were 5 to 10 years old, Schnee oc­ca­sion­ally had to re­mind them of their first two prom­ises. They nev­er had to be re­minded to have fun.

In one of the first ex­per­i­ments, Schnee showed the kids how fire needs oxy­gen, but he warned them that, of course, “only mad sci­ent­ists are al­lowed to play with fire.”

He showed the chil­dren an egg that was too big to fit through the top of a glass lab beak­er. Even peeled, it was too large to get through the open­ing. Schnee re­moved the egg and dropped in a burn­ing piece of pa­per and then put the egg back on top of the beak­er.

As the kids squealed with de­light, they saw the egg sucked in­to the beak­er, through its slim neck and in­to the wider bot­tom.

“Why did that hap­pen?” he asked the chil­dren, fur­ther ex­plain­ing that the oxy­gen in the beak­er got used up as the pa­per burned, but the egg blocked more oxy­gen in the air out­side the beak­er from get­ting in so that the fire, try­ing to pull in more oxy­gen pulled in the egg.

Add some spe­cial chem­ic­als to pa­per, he showed the chil­dren, and it will burn “su­per duper fast.”

To il­lus­trate that, he put his light­er to a small piece of “mad sci­ent­ist pa­per” that ig­nited and was gone in a flash. That turned out to be a very pop­u­lar demon­stra­tion, so Schnee did it again.

As cool as that was, there was something far cool­er to come.

Dry ice.

Don­ning gloves, Schnee showed the kids a big piece of dry ice. He had to wear gloves be­cause the ice, which is frozen car­bon di­ox­ide, was much, much colder than the ice cubes in their re­fri­ger­at­ors at home. That much cold didn’t re­gister with some of the kids; they wanted to touch the dry ice.

No, you can’t touch it, Schnee said.

Why not, the kids asked?

“Be­cause it’s so cold it would hurt your skin,” Schnee said.

Some of the kids re­mained un­con­vinced.

They had to hear a spoon scream.

Schnee rubbed a large met­al spoon against the dry ice, and the con­tact of met­al on ice forced a hor­rible wail in­to the room. The littlest kids held their ears. An­oth­er ex­ample of how cold af­fects met­al was the wig­gling quarter. Schnee stuck a George Wash­ing­ton quarter in­to the ice. The kids were amazed as the coin began to vi­brate.

Schnee got to know his audi­ence quickly and kept things mov­ing.

“Now, I’m go­ing to make some mad sci­ent­ist po­tions,” he told the ooo­hing-and-aah­ing kids.

The first one was easy.

Schnee put a piece of dry ice in­to a lab beak­er of wa­ter. Im­me­di­ately, the ice turned to car­bon di­ox­ide in gas form and poured out, fall­ing to the floor.

Ra­dio­act­ive Rick asked the chil­dren if they wanted to taste the gas, and 7-year-old Mat­thew Ed­wards was one of the first vo­lun­teers.

“It tastes like soda, doesn’t it?” Schnee asked his vo­lun­teers. “That’s be­cause soda has car­bon di­ox­ide in it.”

Schnee then showed the chil­dren a little con­tain­er of dish­wash­ing de­ter­gent and held up the beak­er still spew­ing vis­ible car­bon di­ox­ide.

“What will hap­pen if I add dish­wash­ing de­ter­gent?” he asked.

“It’ll blow up,” one of the chil­dren said.

Schnee told the kids that noth­ing so dra­mat­ic would hap­pen, but still ……

He ad­ded a few drops of the li­quid de­ter­gent, and the beak­er turned in­to a soap bubble vol­cano.

He took a hand­ful of the suds and blew on them. They dis­ap­peared as they headed to­ward the chil­dren.

Next, the mad sci­ent­ist put chunks of dry ice in­to a buck­et of warm wa­ter. A cloud poured out as the frozen car­bon di­ox­ide re­turned to gas.

“OOOOH!” the kids said.

He held the buck­et up over the heads of some of the chil­dren as they all watched the little heads dis­ap­pear un­der the gas.

“Why does the ‘fog’ go down?” Schnee asked the kids.

“Be­cause it’s heav­ier than air,” he told them.

For his last ex­per­i­ment, Schnee put a “secret” li­quid in­to a few large tubes and then dropped matches in them one by one. Loud pops res­ul­ted each time. The kids were en­chanted — but also warned.

“Don’t try this at home,” the sci­ent­ist said.

Out­side the base­ment meet­ing room in which Ra­dio­act­ive Rick had wowed the kids, there were plenty of sci­ence books for the kids and their par­ents to look over.

San­aa Webb, 5, said her fa­vor­ite part of the show was “the loud noises.” She found Silly Sci­ence to take home and read. Her sis­ter, Stefani, 7, and friend An­nie Torres, 7, both liked the bub­bling beak­er.

Mat­thew Ed­wards said he liked everything he saw. When pressed for a fa­vor­ite, he went for the car­bon di­ox­ide demon­stra­tions. Asked if he really thought the gas tasted like soda, Mat­thew shook his head.

“It didn’t taste like any­thing,” he said.

Last week’s free pro­gram was paid for by the Friends of Holmes­burg Lib­rary, which is look­ing for new mem­bers. Barta said the Holmes­burg branch will con­duct an eight-week sum­mer read­ing con­test that kids can sign up for any­time. 

Young­sters in­ter­ested in get­ting in­volved in the con­test and adults who want to join the Friends of Holmes­burg Lib­rary can vis­it the branch, at 7810 Frank­ford Ave., Monday through Fri­day. ••

Con­tact re­port­er John Loftus at 215-354-3110 or jloftus@bsmphilly.com

You can reach at jloftus@bsmphilly.com.

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