Messing with Physics – Uphill Water, Super-hydrophobic, Rattlebacks & Ice Cream

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Messing with Physics

The world is full of awesome and useful inventions, like the George Foreman Grill. But for every invention with a clear purpose, there’s one that was apparently just invented to make you question your own sanity. Such as…

10. The Gomboc

The gomboc is what mathematicians like to call a “mono-monostatic object,” which is a fancy way of saying that it’s impossible to put this thing down the wrong way. If you do, it will right itself like it’s full of angry, obsessive-compulsive ghosts.

This may not sound impressive until you realize that there’s literally only one way you can put this thing down on a flat surface. Regardless of how you place the gomboc it will always revert back to its singular point of equilibrium thanks to some clever math. And, well, that’s about all it does.

In other words, the gomboc’s only practical purpose is demonstrating what a gomboc is, which would be fine if it didn’t cost 2oo Euros. There’s no way to justify spending that kind of money just to be able to be annoy people by betting them they can’t turn this thing upside down, unless you’re betting them a significant amount of money.

9. The Rattleback

Like the gomboc, the rattleback is a shape that was designed seemingly just to make people accuse you of being a wizard. It’s a small, elliptical object that can only be spun either clockwise or counter-clockwise, depending on its design. If you try to spin a rattleback in the opposite direction it will actively resist the motion and then turn in the direction it’s intended to go, because suck on that, physics.

Watch it in action and try to tell us it doesn’t look like a cheap effect from a crappy horror movie. Amazingly, rattlebacks aren’t the result of scientists working tirelessly in a lab, or mathematicians trying to solve a long-standing equation — people have been using these things as toys for thousands of years.

Though scientists have kind of figured out how rattlebacks work, the fact that they’re able to completely reverse their direction is so unbelievable that it’s not uncommon for scientists to assume they’re the work of trickery when first seeing them. Like this guy who went out and made his own when he saw one on TV because he couldn’t believe it until he saw it first hand.

8. The Uphill Water Fountain


The uphill water fountain is the brain-child of engineer James Dyson (yes, the vacuum cleaner guy). According to Dyson, he created the sculpture purely to see if it could be done, and it took him just over a year to build it.

Revealed in 2003, Dyson’s water sculpture — aptly named “Wrong Garden” — immediately drew the attention of the media when no one present was able to adequately explain how Dyson had managed to make the water flow uphill against the force of gravity. The secret was that it used compressed air to pump water uphill. To create the illusion that the water was flowing naturally, the pressurized water was sandwiched between two sheets of clear plastic and the upper layer had a thin film of water running down it. The end result was a babbling brook that appeared to flow naturally uphill like it wasn’t no thing, and a bunch of people scratching their heads wondering out loud how the illusion was accomplished.

7. One Way Bulletproof Glass

Considering that the only real purpose of bulletproof glass is to stop you from being shot to death, it shouldn’t surprise you to learn that it’s tougher to crack than an egg laid by a diamond hen. But then you have glass that’s only bulletproof from one side. This isn’t a theoretical prototype or a pipe dream of a mad scientist, it’s a real thing that exists today and is super cool.

The reason unidirectional ballistic glass is such a mind-screw for physicists is because it’s able to maintain its structural integrity while being shot at from two different directions at the same time. It simultaneously allows bullets to pass through one way while striking down the bullets heading from the opposite direction like a planar Gandalf.

The secret to the glass lies in its composition. One side is covered in a thin sheet of polycarbonate, while the other side is covered in a thick sheet of bulletproof acrylic. Bullets fired from the acrylic side are immediately flattened on impact, robbing them of the energy they’d need to penetrate the glass, while bullets fired from the other side are caught by the polycarbonate first, which doesn’t deform them and allows them to pass through unscathed. Which is just a long way of saying that the people who invented this found a way of turning unicorn tears into a window.

6. The Effortless Wood Splitting Axe

If we could point to a single reason why lumberjacks are portrayed as barrel-chested, beard sporting woodsmen who could just as easily crush a man’s head with their bare hands as they could cup a newborn baby squirrel in them, it’ssplitting wood. Along with requiring an immense amount of upper body strength, splitting wood also requires keen hand-eye coordination and a surprising amount of technique. In short, it’s really, really hard. Unless you happen to use this axe.

Designed by Finnish inventer Heikki Kärnä, the Leveraxe uses a wedged design that shifts its center of gravity ever so slightly to the side. That means the axe will almost never randomly deflect off of a particularly tough piece of wood because all of the energy is “dissipated gradually” as opposed to being violently redirected at your groin. Thanks to this, splitting wood with the Leveraxe is way easier than it is with a regular axe to the point where even an untrained jackass could hold their own against a seasoned woodsman.

5. The Machine That Cooks Ice Cream

Imagine a machine that’s capable of hiding an entire scoop of ice cold ice creaminside of a freshly cooked, piping hot French pastry. We didn’t just describe something from God’s kitchen — it really exists.

Aptly dubbed the Oxymoron Maker 2, it was invented and designed by Andreu Carulla during his tenure at a famed Spanish restaurant, El Celler de Can Roca. As much as we’d love to explain how it works, we can’t because Carulla has refused to license it. As a result, the only way to see it in action is to physically to go to Spain. All we know for sure is that the machine is somehow capable of sealing a blob of ice cream inside a fresh brioche in seconds, without compromising the taste of either. Oh, and it’s partly made of bamboo. You could probably reverse engineer one just based on that information, right?

4. The Glass That Tells You What’s Inside It


The main problem with drinking from a clear glass tumbler is that it often fails to properly advertise your beverage of choice to others. Sure, they could ask you, or make an educated guess based on the color of the liquid, but wouldn’t it be better if the glass magically displayed the name of what it contained? If you found yourself slowly nodding your head during the latter part of that sentence, you may wish to invest in a set of Cipher drinking glasses.

The Cipher appears to be nothing more than a regular drinking glass that’s been decorated with thousands of tiny dots. But when you pour something into the glass some of the dots disappear, spelling out the name of whatever drink you chose like some sort of liquid witchcraft.

And before you ask, yes, it can tell the difference between Coke and Pepsi,seemingly for no other reason than the designer anticipating that everyonewould try that. If you put one of these in front of us and showed us it in action, you’d leave that room with our wallet.

3. The Mighty Mug

We’re just going to cut to the chase with this entry — the Mighty Mug is a punch-proof travel mug.

Using what the inventors refer to as “Smartgrip Technology,” the Mighty Mug is practically impossible to knock over once it’s placed on a suitable surface. It requires no force whatsoever to move — you just pick it up like a regular mug. However, while it’s attached to a surface, the Mighty Mug can be knocked, shaken or even punched and it won’t move an inch. How does it tell the difference between someone trying to gently pick it up and an elbow nudging it towards a brand new Macbook? We have no idea, but our current working theory is either elves or a particularly one-sided deal with Satan.

There’s no fancy trick or hidden button you need to press to make it stay in place, it just does because the Mighty Mug has no time to mess around. You could even stick it to a vertical surface and then punch it if you really wanted to.

Now, we’re not saying you have to go out and buy one of these things, because they’re like 20 bucks and regardless of how well it defies gravity it’s still just a mug. But if you did decide to buy one, we’d really love to see a video of you freaking out your friends by putting it next to their laptop and punching it.

2. Super-hydrophobic Spray

Without getting too technical, once a given object has been covered with a super-hydrophobic coating it “literally cannot be touched by liquid.” As long as the coating remains in place it will repel any and all liquid it comes into contact with. That’s not us being hyperbolic, that’s a direct quote from a company selling such a product and, as we all know, companies never lie about the capabilities of the things they sell (now we’re being hyperbolic).

Since “our product can literally repel any and all liquid” is a bold claim, many of the companies making super-hydrophobic sprays have released videos demonstrating exactly what the product can do. In this video you can see materials repelling water, wet cement, paint, mud and oil. There’s a second video where they throw even more crap at objects coated in this stuff just to film it sliding off like they were recently scrubbed with orphan tears.

Sadly, super-hydrophobic sprays (or at least the good ones) can only be purchased for commercial use. Although that’s probably for the best, because if we had access to a can of this stuff we’d spend all day spraying it on our socks so we could keep them on when we went swimming.

1. Starlite

Starlite is a heat-resistant plastic invented back in the ’80s by hairdresserMaurice Ward. But don’t let that description fool you into thinking Starlite’s a joke, because it could easily change the world… if anyone knew how to make it.

According to Ward, he was driven to invent Starlite in 1985 after witnessing the aftermath of the British Airtours Flight 28M disaster. Several dozen people died when their plane caught fire on the runway, which inspired Ward to try and create a substance that simply couldn’t burn. And he apparently succeeded.

The substance, which Ward created in his kitchen blender, displayed remarkable insulating properties. In one famous experiment, Ward coated a raw egg in it and then placed it three inches away from a lit blowtorch. Five minutes later the egg was cracked open to reveal that it was still completely raw.

Many were skeptical of the lofty claims Ward made about Starlite (named at the request of his granddaughter), but experiment after experiment seemed to confirm everything Ward claimed. Scientists have exposed Starlite to everything from high-powered lasers to the equivalent of a nuclear flash without damaging it, or even burning it or producing smoke. Experts have theorized that Starlitecould be hugely beneficial.

Unfortunately, Ward was paranoid about his idea being stolen. Although he was happy for people to experiment with Starlite, he never actually licensed it to anyone. That’s not to say people didn’t try — Ward spent years talking with defense contractors, private companies and even NASA, but nothing ever came of any of them because Ward refused to sign confidentiality agreements, even when hundreds of millions of dollars were on the table. In the end, Ward took the secret of Starlite to his grave in 2011, leaving behind thousands of annoyed scientists. We guess that’s almost as great of a legacy as a world-changing plastic.


Messing with Physics –

Uphill Water, Super-hydrophobic, Rattlebacks & Ice Cream

The 1st Selfie

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A Brief History

On February 21, 1947, a new era in photography began with the demonstration of the first “instant” photos!

Digging Deeper

Digging deeper, we find inventor Edwin Land showing off his new Polaroid Land Camera to an adoring public.

Able to take a photo and develop it right there in your hand in a minute or so was a great advance over having to send out exposed film to a photo lab or laboriously developing the film in your own darkroom.

The privacy of taking photos that could be developed outside the prying eyes of lab techs was another buyers incentive, and Polaroids became synonymous with privately taken racy photos!

The practical use of instant photos was also  apparent for the instant production of driver’s license and other ID photos, as well as booking pictures, souvenir photographers in tourist traps, and quick snaps of job applicants, shoplifters, etc..

In 1983, with the retirement of Ed Land, the Polaroid Camera stopped using the “Land” part of its name.  For obvious reasons, many people had erroneously thought that the “Land” part of the name referred to the camera being unsuited for underwater photos, although in a way, that was true!

Polaroid was originally known for making “polarized” sunglasses, a method of reducing glare.   Another Polaroid invention, instant movie film was a huge flop and cost Land his chairmanship of Polaroid.

In 2008, Polaroid stopped making its signature instant cameras and began making only digital cameras.  The day of the instant Polaroid had passed!  In 2003 the hip hop duo Outkast immortalized Ed Land’s invention with the line in their song, Hey Ya!, “Shake it like a Polaroid picture” referring to the part of the early Polaroid process where preservative would be rubbed on the fresh photo and shaken to spread it evenly.


The phrase has come to mean (in urban parlance) to dance or move provocatively in an alluring manner.  Jenna Bush, daughter of President George W. Bush, used the phrase at the Republican National Convention when she said of her parents, “…they’ll even shake it like a Polaroid picture!”

Ed Land died in 1991 at the age of 81, no longer shakin’ like a Polaroid picture!

The 1st Selfie

“Did I Say THAT?” – Historical Perspective

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Top Tenz Armageddon

Top Tenz Bad Predictions


Top 10 Famously Bad Predictions

Experts Didn’t Actually Make

We all enjoy pointing fingers at experts when they make mistakes. Popular sites love to publish hack lists of embarrassingly wrong predictions by famous people, complete with snappy image macros and a dump truck full of condescension . It’s understandable: seeing someone successful make obvious errors of judgment helps us feel better about our own bloopers.

Yet in our eagerness to point out their blunders, we often end up getting it very wrong. For instance:

10. “We Can Close the Books on Infectious Diseases.”



William H. Stewart was a U.S. Surgeon General from 1965 to 1969. He is the man responsible for those cheerful warning labels you see on your cigarette packs. In 1969, he supposedly made the above statement to the U.S. Congress. His claim was soon disproved by the emergence of AIDS and other virulent diseases. Even William’s 2008 obituarymentions the criticism he received because of his optimistic prediction.

But Actually:

William never spoke those words. Two authors performed a rigorous search for the primary source of this quote. They failed to find any. More than that, secondary sources disagree on the date of the alleged statement: was it 1967 or 1969?

There is only a single book that points to the primary source of the quote. The book claims it comes from a speech William gave in 1967, at the 65th Annual Meeting of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officers. But guess what? That speech contains no such quote at all! Not only that, but in that same speech William actually said this:

“Warning flags are still flying in the communicable disease field … While we are engaged in taking on new duties … we cannot and must not lose sight of our traditional program responsibilities.”

That doesn’t quite sound like a man “closing books” on infectious diseases, does it?

9. “This ‘Telephone’ Has Too Many Shortcomings to be Seriously Considered as a Means of Communication.”



In 1876 William Orton, the president of Western Union, was offered to buy a patent from a man you may have heard of – Alexander Graham Bell. The patent? A little invention called the telephone. William Orton’s response? That shortsighted quote above! How could it be that William Orton didn’t immediately see the potential of this technology?

But Actually:

The answer is simple: he did! He just didn’t want to pay for Bell’s version. In fact, what William Orton likely said was “this electric toy has too many shortcomings … ” He was trying to downplay the importance of specifically Bell’s invention, not the idea of telephone as a whole. How do we know this? Because in less than a year Orton had started another company – American Speaking Telephone – to develop his own version of the device. What’s more, Orton’s telephone even ended up being superior to Bell’s. Aggressive market competition followed, culminating in a court case. Something about Orton supposedly stealing Bell’s ideas, which seems silly. It ended in 1879 with Western Union giving up the telephone business. More importantly, all of Western Union’s telephone patents wereassigned to Bell Company.

We bet William Orton wished he had just bought Bell’s patent in the first place.

8. “Computers in the Future May Weigh No More than 1.5 Tons.”



This chuckle-worthy quote comes from an old Popular Mechanics magazine. The quote found its way into many compilations of bad predictions. Anyone reading it today on their tiny smartphone can only laugh at the hilariously conservative estimate.

But Actually:

This quote is from an issue of March 1949. Only two short years before that the first general purpose computer was launched. It was a little thing called the ENIAC and it weighed 30 tons. Popular Mechanics were making their prediction within that specific technological framework. In fact, here’s the full quote:

“Where a calculator like ENIAC today is equipped with 18,000 vacuum tubes and weighs 30 tons, computers in the future may have only 1000 vacuum tubes and perhaps weigh only 1½ tons.”

To be fair, Popular Mechanics did fail to anticipate revolutionary inventions like transistors and microchips. But even so, their prediction still stood the test of time almost ten years later. In 1957, the IBM 608 came out. It was the first transistor-based computer. Its weight? 1.2 tons. In the rapidly-evolving computer industry, this prediction isn’t quite the laughable gaffe we make it out to be.

7. “Fooling Around with Alternating Current is Just a Waste of Time. Nobody will Use It, Ever.”



This 1889 quote is brought to you courtesy of Thomas Edison, one of the most well-known American inventors. It’s enough to look at almost any electrical appliance in your home to discover how wrong his prediction was. Nowadays, alternating current (AC) is exactly whatdelivers electricity to households. Yet Edison called it “a waste of time.” Oops!

But Actually:

Edison’s words are far from a genuine attempt at predicting the future. If anything, they were the desperate cry of a man personally threatened by the invention of AC. You see, Edison was earning money on his own invention: the direct current (DC). Any progress on the AC front was automatically bad news for Edison. Thus, Edison stopped at nothing to undermine and discredit AC. He lobbied the US government to ban it. He went to great lengths to portray AC as dangerous. He even staged public AC electrocutions of animals, including a freaking elephant. Unfortunately for Edison, AC won the ensuing “war of the currents” and became the main method of distributing electricity.

Seen in that light, Edison’s words are no more than a failed smear campaign. They are the equivalent of Sony claiming that the X-Box lost the console war. That actually happened, by the way … in 2001.

6. “I Think There is a World Market for Maybe Five Computers.”



This 1943 quote is attributed to Thomas J. Watson, who was the chairman and CEO of IBM. What a puzzling statement from the head of a company that would eventually become one of the leading computer manufacturers in the world. Was Watson ill when he said something so bafflingly wrong?

But Actually:

Watson never said anything like that. This quote is not mentioned by any major newspapers or magazines. There are no speeches, meetings notes or letters that hint at him entertaining this idea. The attribution first appeared in 1986, when a Usenet poster used the alleged quote as his signature. However, an earlier Usenet discussion points at these words having nothing to do with Watson.

Instead, a similar sentiment was supposedly expressed by a Cambridge Professor Douglas Hartree in 1951. It’s not certain whether Hartree indeed said something along those lines. But notably, even if he did, he was talking about the first, large, very specialized computers that he himself developed. They were to modern PCs what Godzilla is to a pet lizard. Suddenly his market-size estimate sounds a lot less off base.

5. “There is Nothing New to be Discovered in Physics Now. All That Remains is More and More Precise Measurement.”



Lord “Absolute Zero” Kelvin is said to have spoken these words in 1900. To a bunch ofphysicists at the British Association for the Advancement of Science, no less. That’s not an audience you want to make such an obvious blooper in front of, is it?

But Actually:

The quote is disputed. There are no primary sources documenting Kelvin’s words. Even some people who have previously used this quote as an example are questioning its origin. More importantly, in the same year as he supposedly made the wrong prediction, Kelvin spoke about “two clouds on the horizon [of theoretical physics.]” These clouds were eventually addressed by the emergence of revolutionary ideas like quantum mechanics and the theory of relativity.

So it appears Lord Kelvin was just a tad more open minded about new possibilities than his alleged statement would have us believe.

4. “There is No Reason for Any Individual to Have a Computer in His Home.”



This was said in 1977 by Ken Olsen – founder, president and chairman of Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC). DEC was a major player in the computer industry and the first company to introduce a mini computer to the market. How foolish it was of Ken to dismiss a huge potential market for personal computers, when his own company was busy developing computer equipment.

But Actually:

Yup, Ken Olsen did say something like that. But he wasn’t talking about PCs. He was referring to a central computer controlling things at home. That’s right, he was essentially describing the dangers of HAL 9000. Olsen was actually exasperated over what he felt was a “ridiculous” interpretation of his words. He stressed that, at the time of the quote, his whole family was already using the equivalents of personal computers.

So, did Ken wrongly predict the future importance of personal computers? Most likely not. Did 2001: A Space Odyssey make him a little paranoid? Quite possibly.

3. “Who the Hell Wants to Hear Actors Talk?”



Harry Warner of Warner Brothers spoke these words in 1926. How strange to see such lack of foresight from the co-founder of a huge movie studio. Really, Harry? You’d rather movies stayed silent forever?

But Actually:

Not at all. Harry was just being a shrewd businessman. Here’s the full quote: “Who the hell wants to hear actors talk? The music – that’s the big plus about this.”

Harry was not dismissing the use of sound in movies. He was, however, suggesting to use it for music as first priority. In the silent era, movie studios employed musicians to provide live accompaniment to films. By “canning” the music, Warner Brothers could spare the musicians’ salaries, which would be a significant cost cut. On top of that, prior attempts at making “talking” films had flopped, so Harry was naturally being cautious. It also didn’t help that actors of the era were hired for their looks and many had terrible voices. Anyone who heard Pierce Brosnan sing in Mamma Mia may look more kindly upon Harry Warner.

2. “640K Ought to be Enough for Everybody.”



This 1981 quote comes from none other than Bill Gates himself, referring to the amount of usable RAM. For a man who started the Microsoft powerhouse, and one of the richest people alive, he sure was laughably mistaken. Many of today’s games need 4GB of RAM to run smoothly, which shows just how wrong Gates was.

But Actually:

The quote seems to be an urban legend. Bill Gates himself, while admitting many past errors of judgement, denies ever saying it. Nobody can identify the true origin of the quote. We do know Gates is responsible for the optimistic prediction of eradicating spam by 2006. Check your mailbox. That didn’t quite pan out, did it?

However, the specific 640K quote is just a myth that manages to get Bill Gates really fired up. Maybe that’s exactly why people keep bringing it up?

1. “Everything that Can be Invented has Been Invented.”



Charles H. Duell was the commissioner of US Patent Office. In 1899, he definitively concluded that people were just about done with the whole “inventing new stuff” business. Soon afterwards, the 20th century proved him wrong by giving us the miracle of human flight, space travel, and blankets that you can wear directly on your body. As the man in charge of the US Patent Office, Duell should really have known better!

But Actually:

Oh, he knew better. In fact, he was convinced that inventions of the 20th century would dwarf all prior progress. So why would he say something so patently (yes, we went there) stupid? The answer is simple: he never said it. A librarian named Samuel Sass set out to find the original source of the alleged quote. He concluded that, far from pulling the brakes on innovation, Duell actually lobbied for improvements to the US patent system to encourage potential inventors.

So where did the quote come from? Sass suggests that it surfaced as the result of a 1843 report by the Henry L. Ellsworth – Patent Office commissioner at the time. Henry used “a bit of rhetorical flourish to emphasize that the number of patents was growing at a great rate.” At some point, his words were taken out of context, misquoted, and then wrongly attributed to Duell.

Authors Cerf and Navasky were behind a 1984 book The Experts Speak, which repeated and popularized the misattributed quote. This is what Sass had to say about them: ”Evidently it did not occur to Cerf and Navasky to question that statement. They simply copied it from the earlier book. One can expect that in the future there will be more such copying because it is easier than checking the facts.”

Oh snap, now that’s some Sass!

You can read more of Daniel Nest’s words on his blog or on

“Did I Say THAT?” = Historical Perspective