He’s not so mad after all

Rick Schnee creates bubbles using dry ice and a secret ingridient at the Mad Science program in Holmesburg Library, Monday, June 20, 2011, Philadelphia, Pa. (Maria Pouchnikova)

“I wear a white lab coat,” the mad scientist said. “Why? Because it looks cool.”

The 35 or so kids gathered in the basement of the Holmesburg branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia last week seemed to think so. Even cooler, judging by their enthusiastic reactions, were the science experiments Radioactive Rick performed with fire, water and dry ice.

Rick’s June 20 show was the kickoff to the Frankford Avenue branch’s summer reading programs, said librarian Carole Barta.

“Radioactive” Rick Schnee, who lives in Bensalem, works for Mad Scientists of West New Jersey, a Pennington, N.J., organization that conducts science experiments designed to entertain as well as educate.

To say the kids were inspired by Schnee’s hour-long show would be an understatement.

They were stoked. Understandable, really. They saw a lot of neat stuff.

There was an egg that got sucked whole into a lab beaker. There was the paper that disappeared in flames. There were spooky-looking effects when Schnee put dry ice into warm water. Then, there was the bubble volcano, and, finally, there were the long, clear plastic tubes that gave off loud pops when Schnee dropped matches in them.

Whether they realized it completely or not, the children were learning about oxygen, air pressure and vacuums, and they loved it all, especially because they were able to participate throughout the program.

Schnee, who also wore a Phillies baseball cap, started off his program by asking the children to sit still, not to shout out answers to his questions and to promise to have fun.

They readily agreed, but since most of the kids were 5 to 10 years old, Schnee occasionally had to remind them of their first two promises. They never had to be reminded to have fun.

In one of the first experiments, Schnee showed the kids how fire needs oxygen, but he warned them that, of course, “only mad scientists are allowed to play with fire.”

He showed the children an egg that was too big to fit through the top of a glass lab beaker. Even peeled, it was too large to get through the opening. Schnee removed the egg and dropped in a burning piece of paper and then put the egg back on top of the beaker.

As the kids squealed with delight, they saw the egg sucked into the beaker, through its slim neck and into the wider bottom.

“Why did that happen?” he asked the children, further explaining that the oxygen in the beaker got used up as the paper burned, but the egg blocked more oxygen in the air outside the beaker from getting in so that the fire, trying to pull in more oxygen pulled in the egg.

Add some special chemicals to paper, he showed the children, and it will burn “super duper fast.”

To illustrate that, he put his lighter to a small piece of “mad scientist paper” that ignited and was gone in a flash. That turned out to be a very popular demonstration, so Schnee did it again.

As cool as that was, there was something far cooler to come.

Dry ice.

Donning gloves, Schnee showed the kids a big piece of dry ice. He had to wear gloves because the ice, which is frozen carbon dioxide, was much, much colder than the ice cubes in their refrigerators at home. That much cold didn’t register with some of the kids; they wanted to touch the dry ice.

No, you can’t touch it, Schnee said.

Why not, the kids asked?

“Because it’s so cold it would hurt your skin,” Schnee said.

Some of the kids remained unconvinced.

They had to hear a spoon scream.

Schnee rubbed a large metal spoon against the dry ice, and the contact of metal on ice forced a horrible wail into the room. The littlest kids held their ears. Another example of how cold affects metal was the wiggling quarter. Schnee stuck a George Washington quarter into the ice. The kids were amazed as the coin began to vibrate.

Schnee got to know his audience quickly and kept things moving.

“Now, I’m going to make some mad scientist potions,” he told the ooohing-and-aahing kids.

The first one was easy.

Schnee put a piece of dry ice into a lab beaker of water. Immediately, the ice turned to carbon dioxide in gas form and poured out, falling to the floor.

Radioactive Rick asked the children if they wanted to taste the gas, and 7-year-old Matthew Edwards was one of the first volunteers.

“It tastes like soda, doesn’t it?” Schnee asked his volunteers. “That’s because soda has carbon dioxide in it.”

Schnee then showed the children a little container of dishwashing detergent and held up the beaker still spewing visible carbon dioxide.

“What will happen if I add dishwashing detergent?” he asked.

“It’ll blow up,” one of the children said.

Schnee told the kids that nothing so dramatic would happen, but still ……

He added a few drops of the liquid detergent, and the beaker turned into a soap bubble volcano.

He took a handful of the suds and blew on them. They disappeared as they headed toward the children.

Next, the mad scientist put chunks of dry ice into a bucket of warm water. A cloud poured out as the frozen carbon dioxide returned to gas.

“OOOOH!” the kids said.

He held the bucket up over the heads of some of the children as they all watched the little heads disappear under the gas.

“Why does the ‘fog’ go down?” Schnee asked the kids.

“Because it’s heavier than air,” he told them.

For his last experiment, Schnee put a “secret” liquid into a few large tubes and then dropped matches in them one by one. Loud pops resulted each time. The kids were enchanted — but also warned.

“Don’t try this at home,” the scientist said.

Outside the basement meeting room in which Radioactive Rick had wowed the kids, there were plenty of science books for the kids and their parents to look over.

Sanaa Webb, 5, said her favorite part of the show was “the loud noises.” She found Silly Science to take home and read. Her sister, Stefani, 7, and friend Annie Torres, 7, both liked the bubbling beaker.

Matthew Edwards said he liked everything he saw. When pressed for a favorite, he went for the carbon dioxide demonstrations. Asked if he really thought the gas tasted like soda, Matthew shook his head.

“It didn’t taste like anything,” he said.

Last week’s free program was paid for by the Friends of Holmesburg Library, which is looking for new members. Barta said the Holmesburg branch will conduct an eight-week summer reading contest that kids can sign up for anytime.

Youngsters interested in getting involved in the contest and adults who want to join the Friends of Holmesburg Library can visit the branch, at 7810 Frankford Ave., Monday through Friday. ••

Contact reporter John Loftus at 215–354–3110 or jloftus@bsmphilly.com