You’re Getting Warmer! [W/Video]

The Little Shop of Physics has developed a series of videos called Flash Science, which show some exciting experiments that can be done with everyday items to demonstrate physics principles in a unique way. All of these experiments have been designed to be done by trained adults using proper safety equipment.


In physics, heat is something you do; it’s a verb. It is defined as the thermal (non-mechanical) transfer of energy. When you heat an object, you transfer energy to it, which can raise its temperature or even cause a phase change. Traditionally, three sources of heat transfer are cited: convection, conduction and radiation.


Radiation is the transfer of thermal energy using electromangetic waves, which includes visible light, infrared radiation, ultraviolet radiation, x-rays and microwaves and radio waves. A camera flash is designed to give off a whole lot of visible light in a short amount of time. The black ink in the newspaper absorbs this radiation and increases in temperature, while the blank paper reflects the light and does not warm up nearly as much.

Conduction and Convection

When a flame is held underneath a balloon, it’s no surprise that the balloon pops. The flame is at a high enough temperature to heat and melt (or even burn) the balloon, and the air under pressure inside quickly escapes. However, when the balloon is filled with water, the flame no longer pops it. The balloon is very thin, and the thermal energy quickly gets conducted to the water on the inside. The water has a very high heat capacity, so it takes a large amount of energy to increase the temperature of the water.

The water is also effective transferring the thermal energy away from the flame. The water will undergo convection; the warm water by the flame will move upwards, and be replaced by colder water coming in from the sides. Also, since water evaporates at 100°C, liquid water has a limit on how high of a temperature it can reach.


Evaporation is an extremely important and sometimes overlooked form of thermal energy transfer. Evaporative cooling is the mechanism behind human sweating, and the energy stored in evaporated water is extremely important in the Earth’s weather system.

In this video the flame hounds are soaked in a mixture of rubbing alcohol and water. While the alcohol burns, and releases thermal energy, the water evaporates and takes much of that thermal energy away from the flame hounds, so that it does not burn!

If you’re careful, you can even hold flaming bubbles in your hands!


Running electricity through the graphite pencil-lead causes the tip to get extremely hot, so hot that the graphite vaporizes and the vapor ionizes. These hot ions are used to cut aluminum foil, similar to how a plasma cutter or arc cutter works.

Erasing With Heat

Some erasable pens use thermochromic ink, which changes colors from dark to light when it is heated. When the ink is cooled (such as through the evaporation of a liquid), the ink becomes dark again. With this ink, you can erase and re-write messages over and over again!


Newspaper Radiation! [W/Video]


Radiation is the transfer of thermal energy using electromangetic waves, which includes visible light, infrared radiation, ultraviolet radiation, x-rays and microwaves and radio waves. A camera flash is designed to give off a whole lot of visible light in a short amount of time. The black ink in the newspaper absorbs this radiation and increases in temperature, while the blank paper reflects the light and does not warm up nearly as much.

Let us know in the comments below if you think this demo is something you would use in your classroom.

This video was produced by The Little Shop of Physics at Colorado State University in partnership with GE.


DIY: Erasing With Heat [W/Video]

The thermochromic ink used in erasable pens has a unique quality; it changes color with temperature. The molecules in the ink are oriented in layers, and when light passes through, the wavelength with the greatest constructive interference is reflected back. When applying heat in excess of 140℉ to the ink, the color changes form dark (black) to light (clear – appears to disappear). The change in temperature changes the spacing between the layers of molecules in the ink which changes the reflected wavelength leading to different colors. When the ink is cooled (such as through the evaporation of a liquid), the ink becomes dark again. With this ink, you can erase and re-write messages over and over again! NOTE: Please pay attention to the safety concerns expressed in the video when using as a demo.

Let us know in the comments below if you think this demo is something you would use in your classroom.

This video was produced by The Little Shop of Physics at Colorado State University in partnership with GE.


DIY: Baby Plasma Cutter [W/Video]

Pencil lead and some batteries make a small plasma cutter that is used to etch a pattern in aluminum foil.
In this simple but cool demo, you are able to observe how a high velocity ionized gas (plasma) conducts electricity across a small gap between the tip of the pencil lead (graphite) and a conductive solid (aluminum foil). When electric current is applied, the carbon atoms in the graphite vaporize and ionize creating a small ball of plasma that heats and melts the aluminum foil.

Let us know if you think this demo is something you would use in your classroom. See comments below!!!

This video was produced by The Little Shop of Physics at Colorado State University in partnership with GE.


Fun and engaging activities using the Energy Stick [W/Video]

Welcome to our March 2015 Issue of our CoolStuff Newsletter. This month, we are featuring a simple, safe and Cool device called an Energy Stick. Physics teacher James Lincoln demonstrates several experiments that help students understand the principles of electric current and light. James has authored many of our past CoolStuff Newsletters, and teachers have really enjoyed his insight, passion and creativity. We encourage you to let us know what you think, and please feel free to contribute to the conversation by submitting a comment. Thank you for being a CoolStuff subscriber – enjoy!

Arbor Scientific
We find the CoolStuff

The Energy Stick is a fun and easy way to demonstrate many of the principles of electric current and light. These topics are important for both the physics and the chemistry teacher. In this article I will outline several of these such experiments including new ones not seen anywhere else.


To operate the Energy Stick, make bodily contact with both ends of it. This sends a microcurrent through your body which is amplified by the circuit inside and sent to the LEDs and speakers inside. This is how you can know whether a measurable electric current is able to flow from one side of the stick to the other.

One of the first experiments you will want to do with the Energy Stick is check what other objects conduct electricity. This is a good lesson in the properties of metals for chemistry, physics, or middle school science. You will find that mostly metals conduct electricity. I have also found that even distilled water conducts electricity well enough to have an effect. This should not be a surprise since the human body is mostly water and the human body works well.

Miscellaneous household items are good candidates for conductivity tests.

The open circuit fails to light

Closing hands completes the loop and current can flow

An important lesson is that for current to flow the circuit must complete a closed loop. Thus, if there is a break anywhere in the circuit electricity cannot move through any part. This can be dramatically demonstrated by having several members of the class join hands in a ring and complete a very large circuit.

The Energy Stick’s Voltage is only about 30 milliVolts. The current output depends on the circuit it is connected through but is always only a few milliamps at most.

Connecting the two ends of the Energy Stick with a wire activates the circuitry inside. You can connect that wire to other electric devices such as a ammeter and voltmeter. In both cases the measurements will be quite small so it helps to have sensitive meters. The Energy Stick is a safe way to familiarize students with these probes.

5) THE PLASMA GLOBE and the Frequency of Light
A plasma globe can also be used to turn on the circuitry of the Energy Stick. Since the circuit inside amplifies very small currents, the electric field near the plasma is enough to get an effect. Inside the Energy Stick the red, green, and blue diodes turn on at different distances. This is a lesson in modern physics and chemistry. That is the meaning of the formula E=hf.

The Red Diode is the first to turn on.

As the Energy Stick is brought nearer the plasma globe, the other colors turn on. Next green, then blue last.

Red light having a lower frequency (longer wavelength) than blue and green light will can be produced at a lower voltage (energy/electric charge). Therefore, the blue diode is the last one turn on. This recalls the idea of the photoelectric effect that it is not the brightness of the light but its frequency that determines how energetic it is.

James Lincoln

Tarbut V’ Torah High School

Irvine, CA, USA

James Lincoln teaches Physics in Southern California and has won several science video contests and worked on various projects in the past few years.  James has consulted on TV’s “The Big Bang Theory” and WebTV’s “This vs. That”  and  the UCLA Physics Video Project.

Contact: [email protected]



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Liquid Crystal Sheet Demos [W/Video]

Safely demonstrating the principles and properties of heat can sometimes be a risky proposition. But it needn’t be. Watch as Physics Teacher James Lincoln uses the safe, simple, and inexpensive Liquid Crystal Sheet to visually display some very cool things about heat we usually only TELL our students about.

These Liquid Crystal Sheets are heat sensitive and offer a wide-range of possibility for experiments. Because they change color based on temperature, they can be read visually and quickly, at a distance, allowing the whole class to enjoy your demonstrations. The sheets easily warm to the touch and as they do, will display the visible spectrum ROYGBIV – with blues and purple signifying the warmest temperatures. If they get too hot, they will become dark again. The color change is caused by tiny crystal layers – on the micron scale – twisting as they warm.

heat_article-1 hand on sheet

The thin layer responds rapidly to the touch. These sheets offer a wide range of possibilities.









Fun and Easy Explorations
After warming a sheet with your hand, try putting some cold water or ice on it. Then, you can put some hot water on it and demonstrate evaporative cooling (blow air on the hot water and it cools rapidly). The thin design of the sheet allows for rapid color changes. Another cool thing to try is to compare the hands of male students to female students. Male hands are usually warmer because of higher blood pressure and surface area-to-volume ratios. This is plain to see using the Liquid Crystal Sheet.


A streak of warm water beautifully demonstrates the color changes. Notice the far end is already demonstrating evaporative cooling.









Efficiency of Light Sources
One experiment you should conduct is to compare the heat output of various light sources. Of course the candle puts out an enormous amount of heat. This is easily tested by holding the Liquid Crystal Sheet above the light source, since heated air rises by convection. The classic incandescent light bulb is next and it puts out a medium amount of heat, because it has to heat up to glow. But the fluorescent bulbs barely put out any heat at all compared to these other sources – they are much more efficient. This topic is appropriate for Physics and Environmental Science. The more modern light sources are light-emitting diodes (LEDs), and they are the most efficient of all, putting out almost no heat. You can get one of the new, futuristic diode bulbs at your local hardware store.

Insulation and Conduction
You can demonstrate insulation using a piece of Styrofoam. Place the Styrofoam below the sheet to delay the transfer of heat to the tabletop and hold the thermal images longer. Once you have your image, use a piece of metal to demonstrate thermal conductivity. The metal takes the heat away faster. You can also demonstrate that friction generates heat when the metal is applied to the surface.


Placing the sheet on Styrofoam will lengthen the duration of the thermal image.

As an example of how well the sheets can display ‘what’s hot & what’s not”, I offer the thermocline. Cold water and warm water will sort themselves based on temperature due to density differences, called a thermocline. Thermoclines occur in swimming pools, lakes, and the ocean. Generally, the warm water rises and the cold water sinks. However, in the ocean there are also haloclines, which are density differences caused by salt content. This is a good chance to probe the water line and determine which color corresponds to which temperature.

Measuring the Microwave’s Wavelength
In this experiment, we are going to measure the wavelength of a microwave with a ruler, a piece of Styrofoam, and the Liquid Crystal Sheets. Insert two sheets on a plate into the microwave; make sure that they do not rotate by using a tube or rack to hold the plate up, then let it cook for only a few seconds. When you take the sheets out the pattern you will see patterns in the shape of the microwaves. You can measure the wavelength of the microwave by measuring the distance between these hot spots. You will probably notice two different distances between spots. Between two close spots measure only half the wavelength (antinode to antinode distance) but when spots are far apart, it is a full wavelength (think cosine). The full wavelength is about 12 cm. Using the microwave oven’s frequency (usually stamped on the back or the inside), you can calculate the speed of light. My microwave oven is 2450 MHz. Multiplying this by .12 meters, and using v = λ f gives us the speed of light: 3 x 108 m/s.

I have found that these sheets absorb heat well from red, and sometimes blue, lasers. Though I haven’t thoroughly tested the effect of different colored lasers, my belief is that the red is absorbed more readily than the green, for example, and so it can be used to write messages. Awesome!


With a red laser you can write not-so-secret messages. Light waves transfer energy.


  James Lincoln

Tarbut V’ Torah High School

Irvine, CA, USA

James Lincoln teaches Physics in Southern California and has won several science video contests and worked on various projects in the past few years.  James has consulted on TV’s “The Big Bang Theory” and WebTV’s “This vs. That”  and  the UCLA Physics Video Project.

Contact: [email protected]


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See Energy Transformation with a thermal camera or steel spheres [W/Video]

You can calculate the thermal energy created when the ball hit the bat by using the Law of Conservation of Energy. Before the collision, the center-of-mass of the bat (mass 1kg) was moving at about 70mph (31m/s) and the ball (mass 0.15kg) was moving at about 90mph (40m/s). Now, calculate the initial kinetic energy.
[Answer: 600J]

After the collision, let’s estimate the speed of the bat at 50mph (22m/s) and the speed of the ball is 30mph (13m/s). Calculate the final kinetic energy. [Answer: 255J]. Now use the Law of Conservation of Energy to find the thermal energy created during this ball-bat collision. [Answer: 345J]

This thermal energy is detected by the camera as a higher temperature on the bat and ball. The camera shows higher temperatures as white.

Now you can try to estimate the thermal energy created the collision of the Colliding Steel Balls? What information do you need to find or estimate? Paper burns at about 200˚C. Do your numbers suggest that the paper’s temperature could rise that much?


About the Author

Dr. David Kagan has been at CSU Chico for over thirty years. During this time, Dr. Kagan has served in numerous roles including: Chair of the Department of Physics; founding Chair of the Department of Science Education; and Assistant Dean in the College of Natural Sciences to name a few. He is a regular contributor to The Physics Teacher having had over thirty papers published in the journal. Kagan continues his deep devotion to quality teaching by avidly engaging his students with methodologies adapted from the findings of Physics Education Research. In addition, he has remained true to his lifelong obsession with baseball by using the national pastime to enhance the teaching and learning of physics.

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Behind the Scenes with Light & Color: 10 Great Demos


Light and Spectrum is a common topic among all of the sciences. You will find a chapter devoted to it in Astronomy, Chemistry, Physics, and Biology. Therefore, enhancing your ability to teach this topic is going to benefit every member of the science department.


The RSpec-Explorer empowers teachers to have their entire class to experience quantitative spectroscopy at the same time and in a meaningful way. Up until now, it was very difficult to manage to get more than one person to be sure they were seeing the same thing through a diffraction grating or a refraction table. But with the RSpec-Explorer you can easily point out features in a gas tube line spectrum, a sodium lamp, or anything you can think of.

a lemon, an apple, and a green pepper are being studied using the RSpec-Explorer

In this picture, a lemon, an apple, and a green pepper are being studied using the RSpec-Explorer. The yellow lines in the left picture indicated that the apple is currently being investigated. The graph on the left shows that the apple is lined up (on the yellow line) and that its spectrum is mostly red, with a peak around 625nm.

In this article, I provide 10 examples of experiments you can do on light and spectrum, all of which are made easier by using the RSpec-Explorer.

1. Experiments on Color

white light of the iPhone flashlight turns out to be deficient in the light blues

The white light of the iPhone flashlight turns out to be deficient in the light blues. Unlike the even spread of color that would come from sunlight.

One of the first experiments you should do is to demonstrate that white light is made of colors. The term “white” is often used by scientists to refer to a light source that emits or reflects all visible wavelengths (400-700nm). However, the human eye cannot distinguish this real white light from a light source that is made of only a few colors. For example, if you examine a cell phone flashlight feature through a diffraction grating (such as the one on the RSpec Explorer’s camera) it will reveal that this apparently “white” light is actually missing some of the deep blues. Also, if you look at a “white” fluorescent lamp tube, it will reveal that it is made of several distinct colors but not a broad spectrum (like say for example a sunbeam, or a white incandescent lamp).

If you have a color mixing device (three colored lamps would work, or three lamps with filters) you can demonstrate to yourself that “white” light can be created by mixing Red, Green, and Blue (RGB). This is how a cell phone screen makes white light, and a computer screen, and most projectors! There are many sources available for this experiment.


Magenta being faked by mixing red and blue. The pinkish looking light is diffracted revealing it is a mixture of red and blue. The spectrum on the right reveals the peaks of these two colors: 425 and 610nm.

A better trick is to mix just two colors and get a new color that will completely fool the eye. A major example is to mix red and green light and make “yellow.” I put the quotes here again because it only appears yellow – there is nothing yellow about green and red light mixed, except that it can fool the eye by appearing to be yellow. Mixing red and blue light makes “magenta” light and mixing blue and green makes “cyan” (again the quotes describe the appearance not the reality of the light).

The advantage of analysis through a diffraction grating is that it can easily discern the two colors, which diffract differently. The spread or “dispersion” of the light is linearly-dependent on its wavelength (to a good approximation). That’s how we can separate the light by its wavelength and reveal whether we are looking at a true color or only a synthesized one.

2. Ionized Gases

Ionizing Gases to display their spectra is an important activity in most science classes. Of course, you want to point out that different gases have different spectra and these can be used for identification. Every noble gas was identified first based on its spectrum. (How else could you tell Neon from Argon, seeing as how they are both chemically inert?!!)

Gas tubes discharging

Gas tubes discharging: Hydrogen, Helium, Neon, Mercury.

The most important example is hydrogen, which is not a noble gas, but which has a readily recognizable spectrum. The Balmer Series (n=2) is the visible portion of the spectrum. It has a very obvious and bright cyan (486nm) colored line, a somewhat less bright red line (656nm), and a few violet lines (434nm, 410nm). Invisible is the Lyman (ultraviolet, n=1) and the Paschen (infrared, n=3) series. The hydrogen spectrum is important, not just because it is so familiar, but because it can be calculated easily (using the Rydberg formula), and it was also the spectrum that was used by Niels Bohr when he applied quantum theory to explain atomic spectra for the first time.

The Balmer series

The Balmer series for hydrogen contains the four visible lines of hydrogen’s spectrum and all of these transitions involve the n=2 orbital (marked in yellow).

The Rydberg Formula

The Rydberg Formula for Hydrogen’s spectral wavelengths

Helium, on the other hand, is not as familiar but can be made so by learning to recognize it by its bright yellow (589nm) line. Also, the story that the helium absorption lines were first seen in a solar eclipse is a good history of science tidbit. That is how helium got its name, from the sun god – Helios. Also, helium looks yellow-pink when ionized, where hydrogen usually looks red-purple.

four characteristic spectral lines

The four characteristic spectral lines in the Balmer series for Hydrogen.

Recognizing Helium

Learning to recognize Helium based on its very bright yellow discharge line and its pale yellow spectral tube.

Neon is amazing to look at even without a diffraction grating. Its pastel-electric red glow earned it its name as the “new” element for the electric age. The diffraction grating reveals that it is saturated with reds, yellows, and a few scattered greens.

In the plasma globe you can find ionized gases and with the RSpec-Explorer and (if you can line it up carefully) you can identify the gases inside (helium is the main one).

paper clip bent

A paper clip bent to include a small loop does a great job of carrying salt to the flame.

It is also possible to burn salts and reveal the spectral lines.  The most obvious salt is table salt, sodium chloride, which burns well in a paper clip loop held over a candle flame. Teachers often dissolve a lot of salt in a little water which can sometimes help (dissolved ions have more surface area/volume than crystals so they burn easier). The yellow sodium “doublet” (two very close wavelengths at once) easily identifies it. You can also recognize sodium in yellow streetlights at night. Other salts that emit good colors will contain copper, strontium, calcium, potassium, and iron. Which you can usually find in the chemistry storeroom. All of these are often used in fireworks (usually mixed with magnesium and gunpowder) and if you need help getting the fire hot enough, you should try dissolving them in methanol. Safety first! Be sure to have safe water on deck for emergencies and a fire extinguisher is a good idea, too.

3. Investigate Different Light Bulbs

These days people are very interested in how all the different types of light bulbs make light. Diffraction is the best way to identify how the light is made. If you look at an ordinary incandescent bulb you will see it has a broad spectrum with a lot of yellows and reds giving it a “warm” glow. On the other hand, fluorescence light bulbs contain mercury and will have several easily recognizable spectral lines that correspond to that element. Mercury is a good choice for fluorescence because the many energetic purples and UVs in the spectrum can give energy to fluorescent paints which reradiate that energy as visible light. If anyone doubts that there is mercury in our light sources, they should be easily convinced by this demonstration!

mercury discharge tube

A mercury discharge tube demonstrates several violets and greens. But very little red and yellow. Invisible is the UV.


fluorescent light bulb

A fluorescent light bulb shows many of the same spectral lines revealing that it contains mercury.

Compared to incandescent bulbs, fluorescent bulbs tend to make people look drained of color. This is because the high amount of blues and purples can cast an “unhealthy” purple glow on you. A 100W incandescent bulb nearly imitates the sun’s spectrum. Which peaks in yellow-green, giving you that healthy glow.

Incandescent Bulb

An incandescent bulb reveals its warm colors by peaking in the reds and yellows.

You can also investigate other light sources such as white diodes (which have a lot of purples because they fluoresce, too), yellow sodium parking lot lights, or even a plant light. Plant lights aim to provide the two spectral colors of photosynthesis – blue and red. Green plants reflect green light and thus they do not absorb it for making glucose. Red light also provides a signal to the plant to let it know that the day is long enough (i.e. spring or summer) to start investing itself in growth. (Some plants actually suppress their growth in summer to take advantage of a less competitive winter season.) Anyways, plant lights provide these non-green colors in high supply.

4. Analyze the Wavelengths of Lasers and Diodes

Light Emitting Diodes are a ubiquitous source of light in our lives. In most cases, diodes will be sold to emit a specific wavelength of light but in actuality, there will be a spread of color about this “nominal” value. (Nominal is an engineering term meaning “named” or expected, as opposed to what actually results during the experiment.) For example, a “626nm” LED might emit 96% of its light between 610 and 632nm. This amount of spread can be measured by the RSpec-Explorer and it’s interesting to compare this with laser light.

orange diode

The orange diode demonstrates that its wavelength is quite spread out over the 30nm that surrounds its nominal value.

A HeNe laser

A HeNe laser demonstrates both that it is monochromatic and that it contains neon by emitting the 626nm red that helium lacks.

Lasers have “monochromatic” light. This means that it is very nearly only one specific wavelength. These wavelengths are usually listed on the laser itself. A good experiment would be to verify that the wavelength printed on the laser is actually the wavelength it emits.   Even diode lasers are usually quite monochromatic. “Lasing” requires the light to be nearly one wavelength – lasers are a good example of light standing waves.

helium neon laser

A bare helium-neon laser glows yellow pink with helium but emits a neon red beam.

When it comes to red lasers there are many different types. Helium-Neon lasers will have different wavelengths than red diode lasers. You can use the RSpec-Explorer to prove that it is actually neon that emits the red light in the helium-neon laser. This is a good demonstration of the power of spectral analysis to identify elements. If you have a bare helium-neon laser it can be particularly engaging in this activity.

5. Investigate Fluorescence

tonic water

A violet laser energizes the quinine in tonic water.

Fluorescence is always an engaging activity.   Energetic light (such as UV or violet) lands on a substance that can absorb it and that energy is re-emitted as less energetic visible light. For example, a black (UV) light might shine on your socks (which have fluorescent detergent) in them and then white visible light will be emitted.

Good candidates for investigation with the RSpec-Explorer include tonic water, highlighters, extra virgin olive oil, Willemite, and phosphorescent vinyl sheets. All of these will glow under UV or violet light (such as a violet laser or black light) but the olive oil works better with a green laser (the yellow olive oil absorbs violet light very quickly).

light off

Above: UV Light is turned off. 

Lights On

A few fluorescent rocks with UV turned on. Willemite is in the middle.

Phosphorescence is a special type of fluorescence in which the emission of the light is suppressed for an extended period of time (the atomic transition is slower). In fluorescence, the emission of light is nearly instantaneous. In either case, the wavelength of the emitted light is always longer – less energetic. The words phosphorescence and fluorescence are only historical. Not all phosphorescent materials contain phosphates (though most do) and not all fluorescent materials contain fluorides (though many do, including toothpaste). Willemite, which is a fantastic glow rock, contains neither phosphorus nor fluorine.

6. Measure Temperature Using the Blackbody Curve

Turn on your electric oven, toaster, or electric stove and it will first glow red-hot, then yellow-hot, and if we went further it would glow white-hot. This change in color with temperature was described mathematically by Lord Rayleigh, James Jeans, Wilhelm Wein, and finally Max Planck. The Rayleigh-Jeans Law described the long wavelengths and Wein’s Law described the short wavelengths, but both “laws” failed outside of those conditions. Planck was the first to solve the emission problem for ends of the curve. Planck’s function is also called the “blackbody” curve because even a black object will be seen to emit light in these proportions if it gets hot enough.

We can use this curve to determine how hot our light bulbs are. The problem is that most of the light they emit is infrared which is generally not visible. If you are willing to accept that there is an enormous amount of invisible light, then you will be able to approximate the temperature of a glowing hot object by this method. You may be surprised to find out that even little circuit-lab style bulbs are actually heating up to about 4000K – but this is consistent with theory.

Reference Library

The Reference Library includes Planck Curves which can be used to fit to our spectrum. Hotter objects have steeper slopes on the left side. The right side is incomplete due to invisible infrared light.

I am not saying that you can get a highly accurate measurement with the RSpec-Explorer camera, but you can approximate the temperature reading, and probably within 15% (be sure to turn the brightness down in the settings). It is impressive that lightbulbs get this hot to glow. It also helps us appreciate why they must be contained in bulbs – if they were exposed to the oxygen in the air at these temperatures they would immediately burn up and break the circuit.

It’s fun to compare these light bulb filaments to the temperature of the sun which is a G2V star (there is a star reference collection in the References, too). The temperature of the sun can be determined from the black body curve as well. In fact, this is how we measure the temperature of the sun – at least on its surface!

Measuring temperature using the blackbody curve is a good way to get Modern Physics concepts into your classroom.

7. Diffraction Experiments

In Astronomy and Physics, the idea of Diffraction is a commonly taught subject. Diffraction of light is one means by which we can separate it based on its wavelength. A diffraction grating is made when a laser cuts tiny grooves into the surface of a piece of plastic or glass. A good example of one is a CD.

Some themes of diffraction are that the smaller the distance d between the grooves, the more dispersion, X, you will get. The light will spread apart further from its straight line path. Also, the longer the wavelength, λ, of the light the more easily you can disperse it. And of course, the more space it has to travel before it lands on a screen the more it will disperse. This length is usually called L (the distance to the screen or camera). All of these ideas come together in the diffraction formula:


Xm = m λ L / d


where m is an integer, usually 1, that tells you the “order number.” We need m because the pattern will repeat itself about twice as far out, and that is called the 2nd order. Usually, the 2nd order is much less bright than 1st order diffraction. This formula is an approximation, assuming that the light is not being diffracted at large angles from the straight-ahead path, it works well for angles under 30 degrees (ie first order).

measure both

You’ll have to measure both the dispersion X (left) and the distance to the camera L (right) if you wish to apply the diffraction formula. The wavelength λ is given in this case, which is unusually convenient. What is not given is the groove spacing d.

A good lab would be to use this formula to try to measure the line spacing “d” for the diffraction grating of the RSpec-Explorer camera. The units should be in meters/groove or meters/line. Use meters as the unit for X, λ, and L.


8. Measure the Wavelength of Infrared

The wavelength of Invisible Infrared Light can be measured with a diffraction grating and a digital camera (which can see the infrared light). But, the RSpec-Explorer makes this easier because it can tell you the wavelength based on the distance the light is diffracted on the video screen. A TV remote control can provide a source of near-infrared light (should be between 800 and 1000nm) but I have had more success with loose infrared diodes because I can crank up the voltage and get them to shine very bright. To ensure success, have a very dark room with the diode close to the camera. Also, when you rotate the camera you should be able to see the first order diffraction of the infrared light.

infrared diode

An infrared diode (bright circle) and its lens flare (dimmer circles) are plainly visible in this screen capture. Lens flares occur when bright lights are improperly focused by lenses. Like all cameras, the RSpec-Explorer demonstrates this feature.

To perform this experiment, get your diode showing up very bright, and line it up on the yellow calibration line. You will not be able to see the diffracted light because it will be diffracted so far that it will not appear on the screen. So instead we will have to recalibrate the camera to see further than the visible spectrum. First, line up a second light source with a familiar visible spectrum such as a Hydrogen gas tube or a white diode. Then, once you have it on the yellow line, rotate the camera to the right. This should cause the two light sources to be off-camera to the left but the color spectrum will remain. Based on your knowledge of that familiar spectrum you can recalibrate the camera. Go to Tools à Calibrate à Linear. Click on the first familiar pixel and enter its wavelength (in the case of hydrogen this would be the 486nm cyan line). Then click on the second pixel and set that to another wavelength (in the case of hydrogen this would be the 656nm red line). Now “apply” that calibration and close the window. Turn off your familiar light source and the infrared light should now be visible around 900nm. Be sure to move the yellow bars to sample it and explore its peak brightness. Like all diodes, infrared ones have a significant spread.

explore the infrared

A screen capture took after recalibrating the camera to explore the infrared. In this case, the hydrogen spectrum was used as a familiar reference. The next step would be to double check that the infrared diode was lined up with the hydrogen tube at the origin, and then turn off the hydrogen tube to reduce accidental light contamination.


9. Experiments that use the Intensity Feature 

Crossing Polarizers

Crossing Polarizers can reduce the Intensity of the light that comes through.

You probably have already noticed that brighter spectral lines show up as higher peaks on the y-axis. This is particularly obvious with the hydrogen spectrum’s cyan line at 486nm which is much brighter than its red 656nm line. This intensity reading feature can be helpful in other experiments as well. To take advantage of this feature, be sure to turn off the “Auto-Scale Y-Axis” feature on the bottom right panel of the screen.

A good experiment to try out is to block a light source with two polarizing sheets. When the polarizers are rotated they block more of the incoming light. As the relative angle increases (to 90 degrees) the blocked light source dims to nearly zero transmittance. This reduction in brightness is supposedly dependent on the square of the cosine of the relative angle between the polarizers. This intensity function I(θ) = Imax cos2(θ) is known as Malus’ Law. It is helpful if the source of light is monochromatic.

Another experiment that you can try (one that probably belongs in a Chemistry class) is that a higher concentration (molarity) of dye will block a proportionately larger amount of light. This is known as Beer’s Law. It might be best to start with a clear water sample for calibration then slowly add dye. I have had a lot of success with Coca-Cola. Again, it is helpful if the source of light is monochromatic.

Beer’s Law Experiment

In this Beer’s Law Experiment, the concentration of the solution is increased, causing the intensity of light to be decreased. Moussing over the central plateau makes an intensity measurement. It is important to set a constant scale for the y-axis. I have chosen not to fill the graph with color because the wavelength of light is not being measured, only brightness.


10. Astronomy Experiments

The RSpec software that is employed with the Explorer camera was originally produced to serve astronomers. Thus, there are many vestigial traces of this in the reference libraries and in the training videos that accompany the device. It can be fun to take advantage of these features and see how far one can push the camera.

reference library

Here the reference library is used to investigate a g2v star. This is the same type of star as the sun. The next move would be to click Planck and check that 5700K is the right temperature for this curve.

You can view the solar spectrum by reflecting sunlight from along the length of a needle at the camera. Since all that is required is to view it is a bright source of light lined up along the yellow 0 nm line, it is quite possible to take advantage of this and observe the sun. Most visible in the spectrum will be the g2v black body curve and, if you zoom in, the Fraunhofer Absorption lines.

Perhaps an easier demonstration is to view the clear, blue sky through a slit. This reveals that the blue sky is actually a mixture of all colors with more blue than any other color. The truth is that there is actually a little more violent than the camera can reveal but like the human eye the camera is less sensitive to violet than to blue. This “unsaturated blue” (meaning blue + white) is consistent with the Rayleigh Scattering Model for why the sky is blue.

If you own a telescope you may be able to analyze the spectrum of the stars with the RSpec-Explorer. Because of the sensitivity limitations of the camera, it is not possible to observe stars without a telescope. But, a telescope can help a lot. Be sure to know which star you are looking at (I recommend Sirius, Betelgeuse, and Vega), then look up what type of star they are (a1v, m2i, a0v respectively).



spectrum analyzing equipment

Old-fashioned – but not obsolete – spectrum analyzing equipment.

Experiments on light can be very engaging, but they can also be very confusing. It is important that we take steps to ensure that our students are able to view what they are supposed to be seeing, and recognizing what is being pointed out. The RSpec-Explorer projected overhead for your students’ benefit is probably the best way to in engaging your students in spectroscopy (especially if used in conjunction with hand-held spectrum analyzing devices). I have found that students are very interested in cameras and how they can see things that our eyes cannot. If building a community of learners in your science classroom is your goal then you should add this device to your collection of lab equipment.

Projecting Image

Projecting this image for your class will ensure that they will understand what you mean when you say, “Yellow light is dispersed further than violet light, and red light is dispersed the most.”


James Lincoln

Tarbut V’ Torah High School

Irvine, CA, USA

James Lincoln teaches Physics in Southern California and has won several science video contests and worked on various projects in the past few years.  James has consulted on TV’s “The Big Bang Theory” and WebTV’s “This vs. That” and the UCLA Physics Video Project.

Contact: [email protected]


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Kinetic energy into thermal energy [W/Video]

Watch how silly putty and simple steel spheres can be used to demonstrate the conversion of kinetic energy into thermal energy! (And you thought Silly Putty was for copying comics from the newspaper!)

One of the most important concepts in physics is the principle of energy conservation, especially the idea that energy can change forms and be transferred from one object to another. An important application of this idea is that kinetic energy can be transferred to heat, which is just another form of energy. One way to demonstrate this idea is to have students simply rub their hands together, showing that friction transfers energy into heat. However, it may be less obvious to students that impacts also generate heat, since the role of friction may not be as clear when the objects are not actively rubbing together. One easy way to demonstrate this is with a set of Colliding Steel Spheres. When I use this demo in class I ask for a “brave student volunteer.” I have the student volunteer hold a sheet of paper vertically and then I dramatically smash the spheres together with the paper in between. A small hole results and I have the student examine the hole, in particular noticing that there is a smell of burning paper. This clearly shows the class that the kinetic energy of the moving spheres is changed into heat energy when the spheres collide. I then typically make several more collisions to drive home the point, and sometimes allow students to try it for themselves.


Another dramatic and visual way to demonstrate this concept uses silly putty, a hammer, and a temperature probe connected to computer data acquisition system. Simply embed the temperature probe inside the silly putty, start the data acquisition, let the temperature come to equilibrium and then smash the hammer down on the silly putty. You should then see a rise in temperature recorded on the screen, again showing how kinetic energy is transferred into heat energy, resulting in a rise in temperature of the silly putty.

fire syringe
Another great way to show energy conservation, and connect to thermodynamics concepts, is the Fire Syringe. This is basically a piston that you can use to rapidly compress a column of air with a bit of cotton ball; the rapid compression heats the air and ignites the cotton ball. This again is an illustration of converting kinetic energy into heat; you can also present this in the context of the idea gas law, where the compression increases the temperature. A couple of things to watch out for when using this device: the seal needs to be good, so the o-rings should be lightly lubricated and when you compress the piston it should bounce back rapidly; use a small bit of cotton ball and pull it apart so there is a lot of surface area to heat. You need to give the piston a quick compression, and it helps if the cotton fibers are near, but not sitting on, the bottom of the column.

These demos are visual and, for many students, surprising, and can really drive home the idea that energy can change forms and particularly that kinetic energy can be changed into heat energy.

Brian Thomas is an Associate Professor of Physics & Astronomy at Washburn University’s College of Arts & Sciences His Career Accomplishments include but are not limited to: Principle Investigator on a $500,000 research project funded by NASA’s Astrobiology program, in collaboration with the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, author or co-author on approximately 20 peer-reviewed articles. Invited speaker for several international conferences. His work has been featured in news articles, as well as in several television documentaries.

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Top 10 Demonstrations with Tuning Forks [W/Video]

I have been using tuning forks in my classroom for 10 years, and in each of those years I have discovered several new tricks.  I hope you can learn many of these from this publication.  For a more complete treatment and my references, please see my article in “The Physics Teacher” March, 2013.

General Usage

0.     General Usage

When a tuning fork is struck it will vibrate wildly in unintended ways.  Imagine putting your arms straight above your head and clapping.  That is the proper motion of a tuning fork.  The problem is that it is also wobbling at the “elbows.”  You can get rid of the unwanted vibrations by touching gently near the joint after striking the fork.  The vibrating tuning fork should be almost silent when used properly.  Hold the tines near your ear and you will hear it clearly.  It is best to hit the tuning fork on a knee or the ball of your hand, avoiding metal on metal.  This is because when tuning forks become chipped they change their inertia and will vibrate at different frequencies.  Spin the fork as you listen and notice that it is loudest right between the tines.  (Constructive Interference.)

Water Dip

1.      Water Dip

Putting a tuning fork in water is one of the best ways to get students accustomed to handling it.  Give a tuning fork to each student or every other student.  Set out several cups of water.  It is always a surprise to see the splash, students will gasp.  These introductory activities are important for laboratory management because the tuning fork is a fun toy and does require some getting used to; the sensation of hearing the tines vibrating is new and somewhat alarming.  It is also a good idea to have boxes or desks or the whiteboard cleared off for students to place the base of the tuning fork against and cause the vibration to resonate.

Strobe Lights

2.     Strobe Lights

A fun demonstration is to put the tuning fork in front of an adjustable strobe light (or a CRT computer monitor).  The strobe light can be adjusted to make the vibration appear slower or even stop!  This works better on a larger tuning fork.  The flashing must match the frequency of the tines, or be very close.  I found my 100 Hz tuning fork to be 99 Hz after investigation.

This effect comes from the strobe light “animating” the fork slowly through time by only making it visible after almost full cycle has passed.  At that moment, the fork will look as though it has only moved slightly.  The difference between the strobe rate and the tuning fork frequency determines the perceived rate of vibration.  The CRT monitor can also act somewhat like a strobe light, but because of its trace across the screen, it causes a wobbly effects in the vibration.


3.      Oscilloscope

Verifying the frequency of the tuning fork can easily be achieved by using an oscilloscope.  This is done by hooking a speaker removed from its housing to the scope’s leads.  You will need to have a proper connection (usually a BNC connector with probe) to achieve this.  You can also use a microphone.  Hold the tuning fork up to the speaker and adjust the settings.  You can see that the fork’s tone is a pure sine curve.  Compare this with the human voice or other instruments such as flutes and kazoos.  Also, try comparing tuning forks of various frequencies and noting the different periods & wavelengths.


4.       Resonance

Two tuning forks that are the same frequency can be made to resonate audibly if the vibration is loud enough.  For this purpose, I prefer using the large box-mounted versions.  Most large glass or wooden objects will have so many resonance frequencies that any tuning fork will cause them to resonate.  Tuning forks that are not the same frequency will not resonate.   The important phrase to understand is “Forced vibration at natural frequency causes resonance.”  Where “resonance” is high amplitude oscillation.  We all experience resonance when singing in the shower; the longer notes resonate better and it makes our voice sound purer in tone.  Also, when our wheels are not aligned in the car and we drive at the natural frequency of our shock springs the car will resonate up and down – but only at specific velocities.

Sound via Light

5.      Sound via Light

Shine a laser on a solar cell from across the room, hook that solar cell to a set of computer speakers and demonstrate the transmission of sound via electromagnetic waves.  This is analogous to radio signals that we listen to because they are also modulated electromagnetic waves.  The laser’s color doesn’t matter much.  I sometimes add smoke to enhance the demo visually.  You will get a less distorted sound if the fork is further into the beam rather than just barely touching it when vibrating.  Clipping to the speakers may require some trial and error.  The “male end” of a stereo cable has its tip going to the left speaker, the middle ring goes to right, and the inner metal goes to ground.  Clip one end of the solar cell to either left or right, but you must clip the other to ground.  A guitar amp will work fine, probably even better.  Clip similarly to the plug of the guitar cord.


6.     Interference

Demonstrating interference is important because it is a property of all waves.  In this case I am using two close frequency waves to show the phenomena called “beats.”  Beats are sometimes also used to tune musical instruments (see #10).  The beating frequency is the difference between the interfering frequencies, the note you hear is the average of the two original frequencies.

This pattern can also be achieved by taking two identical tuning forks and heating one of them with a fire.  (I demonstrate this in the introduction to the video.)  Be sure to wear a hot glove!  The heat reduces the Young’s modulus (similar to spring constant) of the aluminum and the vibrations no longer match.  You can easily tell the difference even with a non-musical ear.

Measure the Speed of Sound7.     Measure the Speed of Sound

With a tube and some water in a bowl it is easy to measure the speed of sound by resonating it with a tuning fork.  The wavelength of the sound must match the length of the tube, but the whole wave doesn’t have to fit inside for this to happen.  Most commonly, the bottom is sealed and becomes a node (a place where the air can’t move) but the top is open and the air can vibrate liberally (anti-node).  The smallest fraction of a standing wave that can fit in here is a ¼ wavelength.  Multiplying wavelength and frequency gives the velocity of sound, usually within 1% error!  If you don’t have a glass tube, this demonstration can also be done with a graduated cylinder that is being filled with water until resonance is achieved.

graduated cylinder


Smoke and Mirrors
8. Smoke and Mirrors

Reflecting light from the end of a mirrored tuning fork can lead to exciting effects.  It gives us a chance to view the motion of the fork by amplifying it as the reflected light is projected across the room.  In the video, I add smoke to help you see the beam.  Because the tuning fork’s motion is sinusoidal in time, it can be made to trace a nearly perfect sine curve in space when it is rotated smoothly at a point far away.

Lissajous Figures

Lissajous Figures are an old method by which tuning forks were tuned.  Excess fork was shaved off to bring the frequency down.  These days, Lissajous Figures are mostly they are used to analyze electromagnetic oscillations in LRC circuits, but originally they were produced by tuning forks reflecting light that is pointed at two mirror loaded forks vibrating at 90 degree angles.  When the frequencies are in ratio you get a Lissajous Figure.  They come in the shape of donuts, pretzels, fish, and other edible items.  It is best to have the forks close, but the wall far away because that will increase the size of the figures and reduces aiming difficulties.

 Strike a Chord

 9. Strike a Chord

Tuning forks come in various frequencies.  You can use them to inform students that music is a branch of physics.   With help you can create chords or even play songs with your students.  Take time to notice that there are specific ratios between notes that are in harmony.  For example, between G and C there is a 3/2 ratio – this is called a fifth.   Between E and C is a 5/4 ratio – this ratio is used in the C major chord.  And between C and A is a 6/5 ratio which is used in the A minor chord.  All octaves (such as middle C and the next C above middle C) are separated by a doubling of the frequency.  These ratios apply to both scientific and musical tuning fork frequencies and it is a fun game to try to discover them by reading your tuning fork labels.

10. Tuning

Tuning an instrument with a tuning fork can be done in many ways.  Typically, the tuning fork is merely listened to or held to the body of the instrument while it is tuned by ear.  But the fork can also be used to resonate the strings into vibration (if they are already in tune).  A completely different method is to strike the note and listen for beats as the sound from the instrument interferes with the sound from the tuning fork.  As the two are brought into tune, they will beat less and less frequently until they are matched with no beating.


It is important to note that the scientific tuning forks do not match the musical frequencies.  For example, A 440 Hz is a musical note, whereas A 426.7 Hz is the scientific note.  In the figure, my guitar tuner thinks my scientific tuning fork is flat by a half step.  The scientific scale is arranged around middle C being 256 Hz (C is 261.6 Hz on the musical scale).  The setting of the musical scale was done somewhat arbitrarily done by German musicians in the early 20th century.  The scientific scale is convenient where all C notes are a multiple of 2; for example, the first C above middle C is 29=512 Hz.  Many of the other frequencies are also whole numbers, such as G 384 Hz and D 288 Hz.

James Lincoln

Tarbut V’ Torah High School
Irvine, CA, USA

James Lincoln teaches Physics in Southern California and has won several science video contests and worked on various projects in the past few years.  James has consulted on TV’s “The Big Bang Theory” and WebTV’s “This vs. That”  and  the UCLA Physics Video Project.

Contact: [email protected]

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