NYC attempts to ban soda

Here's an article about how Mayor Bloomberg of New York wants to ban large sodas at restaurants, delis, sports arenas, etc. He has a photo showing the sugar content in various sodas. I find this demonstration even more effective using actual candy (see the photo in Find Hidden Candy.)

USASEF: The NASA/Design Squad Marshmallow Astronauts

A spacecraft shuttling astronauts to the moon has two challenges. First, it has to slow from 18,000 miles per hour to a safe landing speed. Then it needs to land gently enough to keep the astronauts safe. This challenge, sponsored by NASA/Design Squad at USASEF, was to build a landing craft that could absorb the shock of a landing without bouncing out all the little marshmallow astronauts. (These instructions are adapted from the NASA/Design Squad Touchdown handout.)

1 piece of stiff paper or cardboard (about 4*5 in)
1 small paper cup (this holds the astronauts)
3 index cards
2 regular marshmallows (these are the astronauts)
10 miniature marshmallows
3 rubber bands
8 plastic straws

1. Design a shock-absorbing system (think springs and cushions).
2. Build spacecraft by attaching shock absorbers to the cardboard platform.
3. Tape the cup to the cardboard platform to hold the astronauts. Cup must be right-side up, with no lid--no cheating!

Drop the lander from the height of one foot. If the astronauts fall out, modify your design. For instance, you can
--make sure the weight is evenly balanced so that the lander doesn't tip the astronauts out
--add soft pads or change shock absorbers so astronauts don't bounce out.

The "landers" I saw also had fins or paper wings, which slowed them down as they fell. This must be simulating an Earth landing, as the moon has no atmosphere to slow down a lander, no matter how many wings it has!

More info about the sponsors at:

Solar Chocolate

This was the coolest candy experiment I've ever done--or maybe the hottest?

Upon realizing (1:30 am last Saturday morning) that the upcoming solar eclipse was a rare annular eclipse that we'd actually be able to see from the southern US, we packed up and started driving south that very day. 26 hours later (we arrived at a Utah mountaintop in time to watch the celestial spectacle as the moon began to cover the sun. To watch the eclipse, we could use a welding face mask, a telescope flipped backwards to project the eclipse onto a white poster, or a pinhole viewer, in which the light goes through a small hole to project the sun's shape.

Here's the solar eclipse as seen through the backwards telescope, with the moon covering most of the sun.

And here's my pinhole solar eclipse viewer.
See that crescent shape in the middle of the shadow? That's the shape of the eclipse.

Mint for the drive

It was a long post-eclipse drive home from Utah, and, as the driver, I had to rely on some mental stimulation. Since I don't drink coffee, and I don't like most sodas, I decided to try something else.

I recently read a Tufts Health & Nutrition email update which described how scientists in Cardiff had shown that chewing flavorless gum doesn't help with cognitive tasks; therefore, "chewing gum is only considered a performance enhancer as long as flavor lasts." Did that mean that mint flavor was a mental stimulant?

I loaded up on wintergreen Altoids, Tic Tacs, and Lifesavers. The Altoids had enough of a sharp flavor to jolt me into hyperawareness, the Tic Tacs made me laugh as my 4-year-old kept asking for "tic tac toes," and as an added benefit, I could let my kids chew the Lifesavers to make sparks in the dark. Perfect driving aids!


When we were at USASEF, one of the booths down the aisle from us left the floor littered with Lifesavers every night. On the last day I hunted them down, to find out what another group was doing with candy.

At this booth, run by the Society of Women Engineers, visitors were challenged to build sailcars and race them to see whose was fastest. The catch: they could only use the following materials:

3 straws
4 Lifesavers
1 small piece of paper
2 paper clips
50 centimeters of tape

Stumped? Here are some hints:
-Mount the Lifesavers on the straws to make wheels (they spin surprisingly well!)
-Turn the piece of paper into a sail you can blow on

With their candy wheels and their breath-catching sails, these little cars worked surprisingly well! Yet another great way to use candy for science.

Half and Half Label

I'm not a coffee drinker, nor am I on a diet, but I was still intrigued by a recent label for "Fat-Free Half & Half."
How can it be fat-free if it's half cream? A look at the ingredient label showed me the two tricks being used.
1) The first ingredient listed is skim milk. True, that would have slightly less fat than whole milk. But look what they've added next, probably to compensate: corn syrup. 2) The third ingredient listed is "Cream*" The asterisk is important, because it refers to this note: "Adds a trivial amount of fat." How much? We can't tell. I've noticed on other labels that numbers less than 0.5 have been rounded down to zero (that's apparently why 0.49 g Tic Tacs can contain 0 g sugar.)

Fat free? I think not. High-calorie? Yes, especially with all that extra sugar. Deceptive? Absolutely.

Cereal Labels

Ever since I started candy experiments, I've become way more interested in food labels, especially labels that try to convince you that sugary snacks are health food. Here's a new favorite:
"More whole grain than any other ingredient" sounds like a good thing, because nutrition experts are constantly advising us to eat more whole grain. But look what else you get with all that whole grain:
That's right. LOTS of sugar, as well as corn syrup. Which means:
that this candy is more than 1/3 sugar (37%, to be precise).

This snack might make a yummy dessert, but I won't be serving it for breakfast. I won't be serving it for dessert, either. I much prefer cookies.*

*Though I did realize, on the airplane ride home from DC, that serving sugar cereal for dessert might have some advantages. It's so full of air that kids have to eat several pieces of cereal to get the amount of sugar they'd get from a few pieces of candy. In other words, it takes a little bit longer to eat, and on an airplane ride, that matters!

Chocolate classes

Those in the Seattle area might enjoy taking one of these chocolate classes, available for the next few days on Living Social. Kids love learning about chocolate molding, where they get to fill molds with colored chocolate and feel very artistic (we did this for the birthday party activity for our last two birthday parties). I loved the chocolate truffle class, in which Dawn helped us make truffles that tasted gourmet, and also taught us about chocolate tempering. (She was one of the experts I consulted when writing about chocolate bloom for the Candy Experiments book.)

Find more details about the deal here:

You can also learn more about Dawn's chocolate classes (and cake decorating classes and how to buy specialty ingredients) at her website.


Well, we made it to and through the USA Science and Engineering Festival once again. As before, kids played the "Marshmallow Game," in which they tried to sink marshmallows by squashing them to learn about density, showed all the colors that make up M&M brown, demonstrated how sour Warheads bubble when dropped in baking soda water, and let kids weigh candy to find the hidden candy in their other foods. Good moments:

--Every time a child stared at the 10 rolls of Smarties that match the sugar contents of one bottle of orange soda

--The kids who were so interested in their chromatography papers that they took them home

--Every time a parent read our blinding orange sign to their kids, so we didn't have to waste our voices repeating the message: "The candy is for experiments, not for eating!"

--The mother who learned that brown M&Ms actually contain red dye, when she'd always told her dye-sensitive children that brown was all right because it was made of chocolate

--Watching my family members, as well as a bunch of super volunteers, step up to demonstrate these exciting experiments.

This picture gives you only a small idea of just how big the convention center was. We were near the back of the room, nearly halfway down, so there were almost as many booths stretching out on the other side from us as well. One report said that USASEF attracted so many people, it made the second biggest crowd ever to fill the convention center. I'll believe it--it was very crowded!

Everybody joined in the fun--family members, friends, and even my kids. For awhile, my four-year-old was the only person manning the Sink a Marshmallow station. She had the basics exactly right: Squash the marshmallow enough to sink it; if you sink it, you get to try a big marshmallow.

I also found some new candy experiments as I was wandering around. Check back for details!