Square eggs and home-made magnets
Being an overly curious youngster, I was fascinated by famous discoveries and inventions. I had hoped that reading about these remarkable scientific milestones will demystify the experimental process and endow on me the same level of artistic creativity as that possessed by the inventors I admired. My family can bear witness to my shenanigans, many of which I cloaked with a blanket of pseudo-scientific enquiry and a “sorry, I didn’t mean to” countenance.
However, I believe that an account of the rationale underpinning two of my less successful ‘scientific’ endeavors is ample evidence to absolve me of all my ill-conceived conduct.
We kept chickens in our yard, mainly for their eggs but also for the occasional Sunday roast. My chore at the tender age of eight was to collect the eggs and nourish the chickens with dry food pellets, roughly spherical in shape. Daily, I watched our chickens scurry about, pecking at the feed I nonchalantly tossed in front of them. And then came my epiphany. It struck me that there is a one-to-one correspondence between the shape of the egg and the shape of the pellet. I dismissed as irrelevant that eggs are actually oval and pellets are not quite spherical.
I summarised that our contented fowl were fed exclusively with round pellets, and therefore they produced round eggs. As a disciple of the Socratic method, I reasoned that a diet of square pellets must therefore produce square eggs. At the time, my mathematical knowledge was limited. In my mind I correctly visualised an egg in the shape of a rectangular-based prism with sides of equal length, (a cube), but I could only think of it as a square.
Elated by this revelation, I briefly pondered why no-one had produced square eggs.
“Anyhow, it’s my job, now,” I thought, overwhelmed by the enormity of the task that lay before me. I assumed that chicken feed was not manufactured in square form, otherwise hens would already be laying square eggs.
The first order of business was to make square-shaped pellets. To this end, when an opportune moment presented itself, I grabbed a jar of honey and the pestle and mortar from the kitchen cupboard. As quietly as I could manage, I sneaked out, heading for the shed.
Once inside, I grabbed the bag of pellets, poured a handful in the mortar and ground the contents to a fine powder. I then poured in the honey and mixed the gooey mess with a stick until it was uniform. The next step was to take a small portion of the mixture and swirl it like a master chef between my palms until it was about the same size and shape of a pea. After repeating this arduous duty many times, I placed the food spheres onto a discarded plastic tray and laid the tray on the shed’s hot tin roof to set overnight.
Next morning, at about the time the chooks were usually fed, I raced to the shed. The pellets were reasonably round and had just the right amount of firmness without feeling like concrete. Now for the litmus test. I scooped the pellets in my hands and went outside. The chickens, following their daily dietary routine, ran towards me. As I scattered the pellets around me, chickens swarmed down on them voraciously. So far, so good.
I repeated my machinations for several days, until my mother asked, “George, any eggs today?”
“No,” I replied truthfully.
“That’s strange,” my mother commented. “They’re usually reliable in the egg production.”
And the next day, “Eggs?” from my mother.
“No,” I answered, thinking that maybe square eggs are harder for chickens to lay.
And the day after the next day the whole family was present.
“No eggs, again?” my mother asked in a strange way.
“Not today,” I said, hoping the matter will be forgotten.
“Okay, George, what’s going on?” my father demanded.
And I confessed all. The expected tirade and options for punishment followed, and the vet was summoned. I was forced to repeat my story to him, and he, after visiting the unfortunate patients, pronounced them healthy, despite the weirdness of their new diet. Egg production, he added, would resume when their diet reverted to the original menu.
The vet was right, eggs began appearing. To my chagrin, they were not square eggs. The upside was that they tasted particularly sweet, almost like honey!
The second episode took place in my early teens. I had read about how electromagnets can be made by placing metal inside a solenoid that produces a magnetic field using an electric current. Fascinated, I decided to replicate the process, even if it meant considerable improvisation in terms of resources and limited practical knowledge.
Treating it as a top-secret project, I retreated to the garage, well away from inquisitive parents and siblings. My approach was to use a rectangular piece of steel destined to become a bar magnet. I found a length of discarded metal cylinder of approximate diameter 5 cm to use as a solenoid. I excitedly rummaged and found an old discarded lamp that had about two metres of electric cable. I cut off the end attached to the globe using my trusty pen knife, cut through the outer thick cover of the cable and exposed about 30 centimetres of copper in the brown wire and in the red wire. I left the green (earth) wire alone.
What was I planning?
First, place the rectangular piece of metal inside the cylinder. Then pass an electric current through the solenoid which in turn will generate a magnetic field. The electric current will come from the brown and red wires which will be making contact with the ends of the cylinder. Satisfied with my planning, I plugged the cable into the power outlet, which was in the OFF position.
Holding the brown wire in my left hand and the red wire in my right, I touched each end of the cylinder. Nothing happened. Of course, I said to myself, the power point is not on.
I reached over, still holding the wires, a finger ready to press the power button to ON.
“John, where are you?”, I heard my mother calling. “What are you up to, now?”
“Here, Mum. I’m just looking for something,” I called back as I hastily gathered my gadgetry and tossed them in the bottom of an old chest of drawers.
Alas, the experiment was over before it had begun. At the time I felt cheated, but today I realise I’m here only because I was cheated. You see, back then there were no such things as power surge safety switches that automatically cut off power if there is a short-circuit in the wiring. If the live wires in my hands had made contact with the cylinder, the voltage and amps would have roasted me!
And I would not be here to tell the tale.