Lemon Sent

I’m not sure if this counts as a separate article from my interview of Limor Fried (a.k.a. LadyAda). But I’d like to take this opportunity to talk about crafts, games, and experiments.

When my editor gave me the go-ahead for the interview, she asked me to submit a related experiment or project as well. The issue was called “Try This!” and had a DIY theme. So one of my interview questions to LadyAda was whether she had any suggestions for a DIY project. She suggested the lemon battery, for which there was a nifty video on her website for kids. Anyone familiar with the potato battery or the glowing pickle knows the general concept: stick some wires into something acidic, and make current flow. Of course it’s much more complicated than that. To make current flow you need two different types of metals —one that likes to give electrons away, and one that accepts them—in this case, copper (a penny) and aluminum (foil). I looked at a bunch of different websites to see how various people did it, and I ran into a problem.

I have this Thing about access. I don’t think you should be wealthy to do science. In fact, letting only wealthy folks do science has done damage not only to the field, but it’s set American science back, giving it a reputation for elitism and generally damaging its credibility. All this is a very long way of saying that I like experiments that anyone can do at home, not just kids whose parents can order electrical components online.

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The fancy version (with proof that I’m really generating a voltage. With a lemon.)

So this lemon battery couldn’t have alligator clips attached to a digital multimeter, and it couldn’t light up an LED. It had to use folded-up aluminum foil for wires and paperclips for alligator clips. Luckily, at least one website claimed that you could feel the current from such a contraption.

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The not-so-fancy version

The fun thing about experiments, crafts, and games, of course, is doing them yourself. I have a very silly series of pictures of every step of the process, which only serves to illustrate why I’m not a photographer. But I had fun, as did the college students who stopped by my office and witnessed the pile of pennies, wires, chopped-up lemons, paperclips, and bits of aluminum foil strewn all over my lemon-juice-soaked work table. But actually doing the experiment is very important. For one thing, it helps you to refine the step-by-step instructions. And you know your editor is going to try it herself. Not to mention all those kids and their parents who read your article. So you’d better be sure it works!