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FORK IN THE ROAD: Cool science in your warm kitchen

From oozy oobleck to experiments you can eat, this coming winter calls for fun
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MAKING FOOD FUN Nathan Johnson Graham, a.k.a. Unspeakable, and his assistant Kayla. They’re making 10,000 pounds of oobleck using 23-kilogram bags of bulk cornstarch in a wading pool. YouTube screenshot

We need 10-year-olds for all kinds of reasons. They’re funny. They’re smart. And they know about all kinds of cool things like oobleck. 

It was at one of our safely distanced picnics this wonderful, golden fall that Noah, my 10-year-old great-nephew (great-nephew, as in son of my nephew, Lee, although he’s definitely a great nephew, too) introduced us all to oobleck. 

For me, the whole event nicely illustrated how Noah is a true Bartosh, taking after his great-grandad in his enthusiasm for science and discovery. In the grander scheme, I loved how Noah’s excitement about oobleck centred on the crazy fun of it as much as the fact it’s made from simple ingredients. For if anything is going to get us through this long, boring pandemic-style winter rolling in, it’s going to be a sense of fun and discovery with a big dollop of simplicity. 

After all, how many Netflix shows and virtual Zoom events can you pile on, anyway, before glazing over? So let’s get to that real-life oobleck …

Noah learned about oobleck watching one of his favourite YouTubers, 22-year-old Nathan Johnson Graham from Texas, better known as Unspeakable. Nathan’s a loveable, high-energy prankster kind of guy. 

Moms love him because he doesn’t swear. But what I like about his projects—besides the fact they’re fun and use everyday stuff—is how they hover around art and science. Like Unspeakable wrapped an entire house in bubble wrap, à la that famous husband/wife duo known for their huge-scale environmental art interventions, Christo and Jeanne-Claude. Their first well-known project back in the ’60s entailed wrapping a million square feet of coastal cliffs near Sydney, Australia, in erosion-control fabric. It took four weeks and 17,000 manpower hours to do it, and all the fabric was recycled.

While Noah and his mom just used a bowl of cornstarch and about a quarter cup of water to make oobleck, and mixed it up with their hands, Unspeakable and Kayla, his assistant, used an inflatable wading pool and needed paddles and, eventually, their feet to mix thousands of pounds of oobleck. (Note: If you handle cornstarch when it’s totally dry, it’s amazingly silky and beautiful. “I’ve never wanted to be a baker more in my life,” says Kayla as she runs her hands through a giant sack of it.) 

But here’s the crazy thing about oobleck—it defies traditional boundaries between liquids and solids. Like Unspeakable discovered when they made their pool full of it, it can be all oozy and gooey, or grab you like quicksand. Noah and his mom discovered a similar contradiction. 

“When you go really fast, do impact on it, like if you punch or slap it, it reacts as a solid. But if you go nice and gentle, it’s slime,” says Noah.

You can add food colouring to your oobleck and make it colourful, and once you’re done playing with it, you can leave it to harden as a solid and toss it in your organics bin, or just add lots more water and wash it away. 

COKE-POWERED ROCKETS

Fireworks banned this year in your neighbourhood for Halloween? No prob. Noah’s got more experimental fun you can try. 

For this one you need a two-litre bottle of Diet Coke, a roll of Mentos peppermints, and lots of space outside that doesn’t matter if you make a mess and where you and your pals can run for cover. 

All you do is carefully unscrew the bottle of Coke, drop in the Mentos super-fast, then screw the lid back on and shake it up. The more Mentos you add the higher your rocket will go. Once you’ve got it all shaken up, toss it as high as you can straight up in the air — then run like heck before it lands. Once the bottle hits the ground, the cap usually breaks off, then the bottle will fly six to nine metres into the air, propelled like a rocket.  

Be prepared—it makes a mess. All the better if it already snowed. The results will be even more exciting as all that brown Coke makes a spontaneous drawing on the beautiful snow canvas. 

Don’t forget to eat the rest of the Mentos, and wear your mask when you’re near your pals!

KITCHEN EXPERIMENTS MEANT FOR EATING

For more fun in the kitchen this winter or anytime, Vicki Cobb has created one of the best books any kid or kid-at-heart will enjoy: Science Experiments You Can Eat. Her Mango Egg Yolks, for instance, teach us the basics of molecular gastronomy—the food trend that applies the basics of chemistry and physics—plus you’ll have yummy results you and your friends can enjoy. (Pass them around on a cookie sheet to keep your distance.)  

Her fun book also teaches you about buffers, and how and why colour changes in chlorophyll when you cook spinach, and what’s really going on when you whip egg whites (that nine per cent protein in the whites is what gets them to whip up into shapes).

Another great book for kitchen fun is National Geographic’s Edible Science: Experiments You Can Eat. From Baked Alaska where ice cream is insulated in the oven using that meringue mentioned above to colour-changing cookies, you’ll have loads of fun playing with your food while learning real scientific principles. 

Who knows? Maybe you’ll even be inspired to invent your own names for what you make and discover. I’m sure you’ll find a tasty match for Unspeakable’s “oobleck.” 

Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning journalist who’s always encouraged the spirit of invention and discovery.



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