26 Oct 2015

The Science of Fright:
Behind the Scenes

The Science of Fright is our spooky half term show where we perform experiments inspired by Frankenstein's monster!  If you have been lucky enough to see the show and were  terrified by our horrifying story of how Frankenstein’s monster was created, you may be relieved to hear that there is a rational and scientific explanation for everything that you saw. 

Flesh Experiments

To create the ‘flesh’ we used acetone, a chemical that is found in most nail polish removers. Acetone is a solvent, and just like the solvent water can dissolve sugar and salt, acetone can cause specific substances to dissolve. We used it to dissolve pieces of polystyrene, turning a big, solid block of packaging material into a flexible liquid like material that can easily be moulded.

Blood Experiments

To produce ‘blood’ we made liquids change colour using indicators. An indicator is a chemical that shows if a substance is an acid or an alkali.
To make the large cylinder of liquid change from a clear liquid to a blood red colour we used universal indicator. In the cylinder we started with water which is neutral, so when we added the indicator it turned green. Then we added an alkali and the colour changed to purple showing us that the liquid had changed to a strong alkali solution. Finally we added ‘dry ice’ to the cylinder. Dry ice is carbon dioxide in its solid state, with a temperature of -70◦C. Carbon Dioxide is acidic so adding it to solution starts to change how the indicator reacts to the solution. This we see as the liquid changes colour back to a neutral green, then through yellow (a weak acid) and orange to red (a strong acid).

You may have noticed the mist coming from the top of the cylinder. This happens because as the very cold ‘dry ice’ touches the water it sublimes, turning straight from a solid into a gas. Some of this gas forms bubbles which rise to the surface of the liquid and burst, cooling down the water vapour in the surrounding air to create a mist-like effect. 

We also used a second indicator in the show to make a blood-coloured handprint. This time we used golden rod indicator paper. We sprayed a volunteer’s hand with an alkali and when they touched the paper, the indicator in the paper changed to red and looked like the volunteer’s blood.

Brain Experiment

To re-activate the brain we used a plasma ball. At the centre of a plasma ball is a mushroom shaped electrode, which supplies high voltage current electricity. The dome is filled with special gases which light up when electricity travels through them. People are good conductors of electricity, so when our volunteer touched the plasma ball the electricity flowed through the volunteer to get down to the ground. When the volunteer held the light bulb, the bulb lit up because electricity was travelling through the bulb.

The ‘Brain Wake 3000’ hat is just a prop and didn't have any scientific effect.

Emotions Experiments

To create the dazzling coloured lights that represented emotions, we added metal salts to a burning liquid in our cauldron. Each metal salt burns with a particular colour, for example the red flame is made by burning lithium salt, the green flame by burning copper salt and the yellow flame by burning sodium salt. The sparkling effect was caused by adding magnesium, which burns with a bright white flame.

Waking the Monster Experiments

To wake up the monster we started with a van der Graff generator. This is a machine which generates static electricity, using a spinning rubber belt and a metal comb. The dome on top of the machine is earthed using a smaller metal ball. When the metal ball is moved away from the dome on top of the machine, electricity jumps through the air creating a spark. Natural thunder and lightning is also caused by static electricity, which builds up when air particles in the clouds rub against each other and the static electricity generated jumps between the clouds and the ground.

To make the loud bang we ignited a hydrogen balloon. The fire triangle tells us that we need fuel, oxygen and heat to make something burn. Hydrogen is a powerful fuel, the oxygen is in the air already and the burning splint supplied the heat. All three together created the monstrous noise needed.

The Science of Fright shows are free to Thinktank ticket holders.