Yesterday, Nick Kahn sent me the following report on his Friday, May 11th experience with Professor Alex Norquist, who had pledged “to spend 30 minutes blowing stuff up” with the winner:
Hey John, I did a little write-up on the plane. Sorry it’s so long; as Mark Twain said, I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.
I met Professor Norquist in his office, and after having congratulated me (which still makes me feel strange), he took me downstairs into a sort of garage that the INSC has. He had already loaded up a cart full of fun explosives.
The first thing we did was right outside that garage. He held out a beaker full of powder that was a sort of dull red color. I asked him what it was: iron oxide–rust. There was also aluminum powder inside which didn’t sound really cool; but it was, as I found out. Then Professor Norquist picked up a huge blowtorch. It reminded me of the kind that they use to burn crème brulée–my sister was gifted one last year–only it was the monstrous version. Very cool, but I thought a simple lighter would have sufficed to light the little sparkler that he lit.
We placed the beaker of rust into a contraption that suspended it in a clay flower pot, over a bed of sand. Professor Norquist plunged the sparkler into the flowerpot and immediately ran backward. The pot began to fizzle, and then to shoot sparks in all directions. Then it shot a fountain of incredibly bright liquid iron down into the bed of sand for about ten seconds. When the fireworks were over, there was a gooey puddle of iron gum, and Professor Norquist let me poke it with a stick.
Next, he said we were going to shoot a trash can into the air. There was a huge thermos and some two-liter bottles on the cart. The thermos was full of liquid nitrogen, which, as he told me, is -300F. My only prior experience with it was very painful–a traumatic wart removal that i remember vividly from when i was pretty young, probably around ten. After explaining how cold it was, he popped the cap and sloshed it forward, spilling liquid nitrogen all over my shirt. I thought I was dead, but only for a second until I realized that it didn’t actually hurt. It was actually a nice cool sensation, and looked pretty neat steaming off of my shirt. I guess it only hurts if you press it to a concentrated spot on your skin for more than a few seconds.
We filled a two-liter bottle as full as we could with the liquid, Professor Norquist screwed on the cap, I overturned the trash can on top of it, and we ran back twenty yards. We waited. I stopped a few friends who were walking by and told them to stop and watch.
After about a minute, Professor Norquist said that darn, he was sorry, he must not have put the cap on tightly enough. We waited longer. My friends were getting restless. I think that they were on the verge of leaving when there was an enormous “BANG!” and the big industrial-sized trash can was launched probably forty feet into the air. Shreds of bottle were everywhere in a twenty-yard radius. I think that the trash can went higher and farther than the professor thought it would, because it came within a yard of hitting a car that was parked right by us. He said that we should probably move to the cricket pitch.
When we got there, we launched the trash can two more times, and then froze some grass with what was left of the nitrogen. I’m sure we must have woken up too many napping Haverford Kindergarteners already, and Professor Norquist was hoping that the next thing we had would be even louder.
There were three things left on the cart, all of them balloons. The first one we rigged was full of some gas whose name begins with an “A,” which I was told was the gas that heats welding torches. And we were lighting a balloon full of it on fire. Good, I thought. He tied a fuse to the balloon, lit it, and joined me where I was cowering at a safe distance. I don’t like loud booms–I was terrified of fireworks until I was at least fifteen, and the anticipation was a little bit nerve-wracking. Professor Norquist looked at me and said that, oh yeah, he should probably mention that he hadn’t ever lit a balloon filled with this stuff on fire before, and he didn’t really know what would happen. I took an additional step back. Waiting for the fuse to reach the balloon wasn’t quite as bad as waiting for the bottles to blow up. When it reached the balloon, a five-foot jet of flame burst out of the balloon and propelled it in all directions so that it flailed around and did quite a dance before it went up in a big ball of flames.
The next two balloons–hydrogen and then hydrogen and oxygen mixed–were quicker-burning. They went up in big flame-balls pretty instantaneously. After the hydrogen balloon I looked across the street and there was an awe-struck five-year-old holding the hands of his horrified parents, all watching.
We cleaned up the bits of bottle and balloon that were left all over the field. Professor Norquist asked me if I knew if the cricket season was over, which it thankfully was–it will take at least a few months for the grass to grow back. We were standing on a ten-foot-wide circle of well-blackened grass.