Friday, May 24, 2019

You Are Made of Iron

When I was a young man, I worked briefly with the elvish Doug Osheroff, a Nobel Prize winning scientist who taught me something about myself that I didn't know.

Twenty years ago, I worked for the National Science Foundation in a public relations capacity.  And one fine morning, I found myself in an 8th-grade classroom at a public school somewhere in Texas.

I was traveling with Doug Osheroff, a scientist who had won the 1996 Nobel Prize in Physics.  The good doctor was visiting with kids in the schools, in the hopes of getting them excited about science.  

In those long ago days, the American government was concerned that our young people were more interested in rap music and TV shows than they were in science and math.

The thing about a technological society like the United States is we have all the rap stars and sitcoms we need.  Really, more than enough.  But we always need more inventors, computer engineers and mathematicians.  

These are the people who create high-tech start-up companies.  These are the people who make the weapons we use to subdue foreign peoples.  These are the people who send spy satellites into outer space.  

And by around 1999, the government was worried we were going to have to import all these people from places like China, India and Russia.  Because our kids just didn't care.

Which is why Doug Osheroff and I were in Texas.

Here's a bit of odd news.  When they say a cereal is "fortified with iron," they mean it.  

Powerful Magnets

Doug Osheroff is another one of these super geniuses.  

He's also a clever speaker and he has all these neat scientific magic tricks he can do.  I have no idea if his tricks ever inspired a young rap star wannabe to pursue a career in science instead, but they are fun to watch.

A few of his tricks revolve around powerful magnets.  For example, before we ever visited a classroom, we would first have to run to the grocery store and pick up a box of Kellogg's Special K cereal.  

Special K is "fortified with iron," you see.  This is not a figure of speech or a metaphor for something else.  They really do put iron, which is a metal that comes from the ground, in the cereal. 

Humans evolved on planet Earth, and we are made up of things that can be found on planet Earth.  Iron is one of these things.  We need iron in our blood.  If we don't have enough iron, we are considered to be anemic.  This is not a good thing to be. 

Ever notice how blood tastes?  It tastes metallic, doesn't it?  Now you know why.  

Doug Osheroff owns two very powerful magnets.  Magnets, as you know, are attracted to things made of iron.  

Doug's magnets, made of the rare earth metal neodymium, are so powerful that they are kept in separate boxes away from one another.  
WARNING:  This is a magnet made from the rare earth metal Neodymium.  It is not a toy.  Two of them together will take your head off.

The magnets can only be out of their boxes one at a time.  If they are both taken out at the same time, such is their affinity that they will fly across the room, clang together with terrible force, and can only be separated again by a machine.

I have seen this happen.

And one thing Doug does to wow the kiddies is he runs one of these powerful magnets along the outside of a new, unopened box of Special K.  Then he opens the box, and takes all the flakes out.  

Then he pours out what he finds at the bottom, which is a small pile of iron filings that have been yanked right out of the cereal.  Yes, by the magnet.

Strange... but true.

Want to try this trick for yourself?  Easy enough.  

Here's a handy instruction manual on how to do it.  Careful with that magnet, though.

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