Could bubbles aid NASA in catching comets?

Scientist, author, and self-proclaimed science evangelist Ainissa Ramirez joins Hari Sreenivasan to discuss the structural properties and lesser known science applications of bubbles and foam.  For more, check out her podcast Science Underground.

TRANSCRIPT

AINISSA RAMIREZ IS A SCIENTIST, AUTHOR, AND A SELF-PROCLAIMED SCIENCE EVANGELIST.

SHE IS CALLING FOR BIG CHANGES IN SCIENCE EDUCATION AND JUST LAUNCHED A NEW PODCAST SERIES CALLED 'SCIENCE UNDERGROUND.'

HERE TO DISCUSS ONE OF HER LATEST PODCAST EPISODES, 'HOW BUBBLES CATCH COMETS,' IS AINISSA RAMIREZ.

SO, FIRST, WHAT ARE THE PROPS?

WHAT ARE WE DRINKING HERE?

WELL, FIRST I WANT TO TALK ABOUT HOW KIDS USUALLY THINK BUBBLES ARE GREAT, BUT BUBBLES ACT MAKE OUR LIFE ENJOYABLE, TOO.

ONE OF THE THINGS I LEARNED IS THAT BUBBLES ACTUALLY STOP YOUR DRINK FROM SPILLING.

OKAY.

IF YOU HAVE A DRINK AND YOU HAVE SOME FOAM ON THE TOP, IF YOU WERE TO SLOSH IT AROUND, IT WOULD SLOSH AROUND LESS THAN IF YOU HAD ONE WITH LESS BUBBLES ON IT OR NO BUBBLES AT ALL.

WHY IS THAT?

THAT'S BECAUSE THE BUBBLES PUSH AGAINST EACH OTHER, AND THAT EATS UP THE ENERGY OF THE SLOSHING.

SO IF YOU HAVE TO TRAVEL A FAR DISTANCE AND YOU HAVE COFFEE, PUT FOAM ON IT.

FOAM WILL STOP IT FROM SLOSHING, AND YOU WON'T GET THAT SECOND-DEGREE BURN.

[ CHUCKLES ] DID NOT KNOW THAT. ALL RIGHT.

SO, WHAT'S THE CONNECTION BETWEEN BUBBLES AND FOAM?

SO, THESE ARE BUBBLES, BUT BUBBLES CAN ALSO HAVE A SOLID FORM, AND THAT'S CALLED A FOAM.

A SPONGE IS A FOAM.

BREAD IS A FOAM.

THAT'S WHERE YOU HAVE HOLES IN A SOLID.

PUDDING IS A FOAM.

ICE CREAM IS A FOAM.

THESE ARE ALL WONDERFUL AND YUMMY FOAMS.

AND ACTUALLY, IT'S THE AIR BUBBLES THAT GIVES THE FOOD A WONDERFUL MOUTHFEEL.

SO IT'S A MIX OF THE AIR THAT MAKES SOMETHING A FOAM.

IT MAKES IT A FOAM.

IT ALSO CHANGES --

IT'S VERY STRANGE FOR ME TO THINK OF BREAD AS A FOAM, BUT OBVIOUSLY, NOW THAT I'M THINKING ABOUT BREAD, IT'S LIKE, OF COURSE, IT'S GOT TONS OF AIR BUBBLES.

AND ICE CREAM -- I MEAN, THERE'S --

THAT'S RIGHT.

IT'S GOT AIR POCKETS, LITTLE BITS OF AIR IN IT, AND THAT'S ACTUALLY WHAT MAKES IT TASTE SO GOOD, THESE LITTLE POCKETS OF FLAVOR.

BUT THE THING THAT I WANTED TO SHARE WITH PEOPLE IS THAT SCIENTISTS ARE EXCITED BY FOAMS.

THERE IS A FOAM CALLED AN AEROGEL, WHICH IS ALSO KNOWN AS FROZEN SMOKE.

IT'S KIND OF HARD TO SEE.

I'VE BURNED THE BOTTOM SO YOU CAN SEE IT.

AND YOU CAN SEE THAT IT'S EXTREMELY LIGHT.

IT'S 98% AIR.

98% AIR, SO I'M REALLY HOLDING 2% OF SOMETHING.

THAT'S RIGHT.

AND THE 2% THAT YOU'RE HOLDING IS SILICA.

AND SILICA IS SAND.

WOW. SO THIS IS AIR AND SAND,

THAT'S RIGHT.

AND YOU'VE BURNED IT SPECIFICALLY JUST SO WE CAN SEE IT -- OTHERWISE, IT COULD BE CLEAR.

WELL, I BURNED IT BECAUSE THE GREAT THING ABOUT THAT IS IF I HAD MY HAND ON TOP OF IT AND A BLOWTORCH UNDERNEATH, MY HAND WON'T FEEL THE HEAT.

IT DOESN'T CONDUCT HEAT VERY WELL.

SO IT'S LIKE AN INVISIBLE CLOAK-SHIELD THING OUT OF SCI-FI MOVIES AND COMIC BOOKS.

BUT IT'S SCIENCE FACT.

NOW, THIS THING CALLED AN AEROGEL IS HOW WE CATCH COMETS.

COMETS ARE FLYING AROUND AT 40 TIMES THE SPEED OF THE BULLET.

AND IT'S HARD TO CATCH THEM BECAUSE, WELL, THE COMET PARTICLE WILL DISINTEGRATE OR THE THING THAT YOU'RE TRYING TO CATCH IT WITH WILL DISINTEGRATE.

SO WHAT WE USED IS THIS FOAM.

THE COMET PARTICLE HITS THE FOAM, AND THE LITTLE BITS OF THE FOAM BREAKS APART, SLOWS DOWN THE COMET, SO THAT WE CAN CATCH IT.

THAT CAN SLOW DOWN A COMET?

THAT SLOWED DOWN A COMET.

THAT'S RIGHT.

SOMETHING THAT'S TRAVELING SO FAST, WOULDN'T IT HAVE A TREMENDOUS AMOUNT OF ENERGY AND FORCE AND SHATTER OR --

SURE. IT'S A BIGGER PIECE THAN THIS, BUT THE LITTLE FIBERS JUST START TO BREAK, AND THAT TAKES UP ENERGY UNTIL IT JUST SLOWS DOWN THE PARTICLE UNTIL WE'RE ABLE TO CATCH IT.

OKAY. AND WHERE ARE WE CATCHING THIS?

IS THIS ON A TELESCOPE SOMEWHERE?

THIS IS IN NASA.

THIS IS OUT IN SPACE.

YEAH. AND WITH THAT INFORMATION, WE GET MORE INFORMATION ABOUT THE CREATION OF THE SOLAR SYSTEM 'CAUSE COMETS WERE CREATED AROUND THAT SAME TIME.

WHEN DOES ALL THIS INFORMATION GET BACK TO US?

I MEAN, NOW --

WELL, THEY'RE ANALYZING IT RIGHT NOW.

YEAH. SO THEY HAVE THE COMET PIECES, AND THEY'RE ANALYZING IT NOW, AND FROM THAT, WE'LL BE ABLE TO GET SOME INFORMATION ABOUT HOW WE GOT HERE.

ARE THERE ANY OTHER USES FOR THIS BESIDES COMET CATCHING?

OR PREVENTING YOUR HAND FROM BURNING NEXT TO A BLOWTORCH?

I MEAN, THAT'S PRETTY IMPRESSIVE.

WHAT DO YOU NEED?

[ LAUGHTER ] THE THING IS THAT IT'S ALSO VERY STRONG.

I CAN PUT A BRICK ON TOP OF THAT, AND IT WOULDN'T CRUSH.

SO IT'S ONE OF THESE WEIRD MATERIALS, BUT IT'S GOT A USE THAT WE CAN CATCH COMETS WITH IT.

WE ALSO USE IT FOR INSULATION.

IT DOESN'T -- LIKE I SAID, IT DOESN'T PASS HEAT THROUGH IT.

SO THERE'S A COUPLE OF MORE HIGH-TECH USES FOR IT BECAUSE IT IS VERY EXPENSIVE, BUT THAT'S AN AEROGEL.

I WAS GONNA SAY IT'S PROBABLY NOT AVAILABLE ON AMAZON FOR STOCKING STUFFERS.

NO, BUT IT'S AMAZING WHAT YOU CAN GET ON eBAY, THOUGH.

ALL RIGHT.

AINISSA RAMIREZ, THANKS SO MUCH FOR JOINING US.

THANK YOU.