Building Atoms with Arduino and Processing

BannerThis post is coming to you live from the Elephant & Castle Mini Maker Faire being held today at the London College of Communication.

The Atomic Arcade—an atom building game

The Atomic Arcade—an atom building game

The atomic arcade is an atom building game from Springtale funded as a science communications tool by the Institute of Physics. Whilst the game is still in early beta, it’s already made an appearance at the Dundee Science Festival.

I talked to Sonya Hallett—one of the people behind the intriguing game of proton smashing—about the game and why they brought it here to Maker Faire.

If you can’t make it here to the faire, you can also play the Atomic Arcade online.

The Elephant & Castle Mini Maker Faire is being held at the London College of Communication from 10am till 6pm. Entry is free to children (under 16) and students, tickets are £5 otherwise and available on the door.

Can Teachers Build a Physics-Go-Round?

The Joy Wheel, at the now mostly defunct / relocated Playland at the Beach. Read on for a vivid, gorey memory of physics experiments by a San Francisco teen employee there decades ago. Photo courtesy of Mike Winslow's  Playland at the Beach

The Joy Wheel, at the now mostly defunct / relocated Playland at the Beach. Read on for a vivid, gorey memory from decades ago by a San Francisco then-teenaged employee. Flashback photo courtesy of Mike Winslow’s Playland at the Beach site.

How would you build a giant turntable or merry-go-round for the physics classroom? I was recently sent a discussion among teachers from the Exploratorium’s Teacher Institute on this very subject. It reminded me of the summer before my senior year of high school, when I took a physics class at Caltech with a juggling grad student who looked a lot like Jesus. Our best lesson of the summer? He took volunteers to a nearby park to see him and his pal juggle on a roundabout, and a few of us got to join him on the rotating platform. He gave us a playful metaphor to understand the alphabet soup of the calculus-rich vector exercises we did in the classroom.

Back to this teacher’s query. Ben posed the original challenge:

Our physics teacher and I have been fantasizing about having a large turntable on which students could explore a variety of concepts. Ideally we would like a surface around 3 or 4 meters in diameter that will stay flat, turn smoothly, support three or four high school students, and be sturdy enough to survive the wear and tear of years. Have any of you built a large turntable for class demonstrations? I would appreciate any plans, suggestions, or cautionary tales. It’s a long-term goal. We’ve been going round and round (so to speak) about size, materials, safety, bearing setups, used vs. new, placement etc.

Mandy suggested our oversized spin-art machine, but Ben needed something a bit slower. He defined it more clearly:

Courtesy of

We want the students to study motion on a rotating surface, from various perspectives. I’d like to use it to demonstrate the Coriolis effect, for example.

We would like students to be able to sit on it, throw and roll balls between them, and film the ball’s motion from on, above, and beside the surface, both moving with the surface and not moving with it.

It needs to be strong enough to support them, and large enough to be able to observe the motion of objects moving above the surface for some distance.

Ellen Koivisto of Asawa School of the Arts in San Francisco chimed in with a clever, STEAMy suggestion:

Talk to your theatre teacher/s and tech people. Turntables have become common set items again in recent decades (after Les Miserables). They were often built for Victorian melodramas, then fell out of favor with the rise of movies and kitchen sink naturalism.

I’m doing a show right now that uses a relatively small turntable — 11′-6″ in diameter. There are three concentric rings of casters that take the weight. I believe it’s two layers of 1/2″ ply, laid perpendicular to each other and glued together. One person can push it with their foot, or there are pole holes so a person can stick a metal pole into the hole and pull the turntable around. It moves smoothly and easily.

I did a show once with an 18′-diameter turntable. That required more people to move and bigger casters, but it was lovely to work on. I haven’t done a motorized turntable yet, but there’s tons of info on making and using them in technical theatre magazines and websites and books.

Caren Kershner similarly suggested checking in with the old Creede Repertoire Theatre in Creede, Colorado about how their three stages mounted on a turntable function.

While looking for images for this post, I found this detailed how-to on how Texas A&M’s Scene Shop built this rotating stage turntable for its production of Th3 B3ggar’s Op3ra.

Texas A&M's Scene Shop built this rotating stage turntable for its production of Th3 B3ggar’s Op3ra." Read more about how they built it here.

Texas A&M’s Scene Shop and its rotating stage turntable in progress.

Raleigh McLemore had lots of ideas:


Photo: wikipedia

My first thought was that you could build off of a platform like a playground merry-go-round. Some simple welding or carpentry might be all that it takes to either remove the uprights or add structure to them to build a platform that a student could safely stand on. You are working with bigger kids and some of the cheap (about $750) small structures may not have enough carrying capacity. Larger built spinning structures are heavy and expensive (around $2K). Outside chance your local parks department might have a broken one, or one that is in storage after a playground change up.

Another idea might be to start with a junkyard car wheel and wheel bearing. A front wheel kingpin might be pretty cheap and could be located vertically in a strong base with the wheel and bearing slipping over the kingpin to become a center to the car wheel spinning on it horizontally. Not sure how it would happen, but I’m sure the car wheel would be a very strong point to begin to weld or assemble a wooden structure upon. I haven’t thought it through very far but I would start with buying a wheel with a wheel bearing(s) and a kingpin if they were reasonably priced.

If a kingpin doesn’t seem right then I would look for an appropriately sized shaft to support the wheel and bearings. Perhaps even a hardwood axle could be fashioned although first thoughts seem to me that it wouldn’t be strong enough. Any upright axle that could be located into a solid plywood base would get you started. The junker car wheel bearing would fit upon the upright axle, the wheel would then be the spinning base of the structure. Done correctly you should have a stable spinning base. The platform couldn’t be too heavy or unbalanced, or it would wiggle and wobble. Putting additional support wheels around the outside of the large spinning platform might make the platform more level and add to stability.

Seems a bit elaborate, but I suppose you could use a dryer motor and belt to spin the wheel by mounting it on the plywood base at a distance to put tension on the horizontal spinning wheel using the dryer belt. You need guards and a speed control for this. What with the variable loads this could be a mess and deserves a lot of thought unless you can get the junk for free. Done poorly you could have a fire or a short.

Last, I wonder if you could hang something from a rafter/joist support (use rope? wire rope?) and put some good wheels around the outside of the platform so that the center is supported from a high point and the outside edges are held up by the wheels? This might be reasonably cheap if the overhead support is equal to the load. This might not be very smooth or stable for the experiments you have planned. Not sure how you would have a smooth controlled motion without a rail to guide the wheels. You wouldn’t have a clear center with this, the support rope popping out of the center of the platform.

Detail of a mural hanging at Playland Not at the Beach. Photo by Jef Poskanzer.

Detail of a mural hanging at Playland Not at the Beach. Photo by Jef Poskanzer.

Raleigh wrote again a little later to reminisce about his time working the Funhouse “Joy Wheel” at San Francisco’s old Playland at the Beach.

This thing was a very large flat, slick, spinning disk with about 20–25 folks climbing on, sitting as close to the center as they could squoosh. My job was to control the speed and spin the disk as fast as it needed to go to spin the folks off and have them slide hopefully to the padded wall and away from the spinning wooden platform. It was lots of fun until folks frantically grasped others and took off a large clump of people who slid off together. The resulting crush of humanity wouldn’t fly off of the disk completely and over and over again somebody would get jammed into the edge of the wheel, unable to move away due to the others being pushed against the wall. I had a “panic stop” button but it really didn’t stop the device very quickly when I hit it. Very gruesome injuries would sometimes occur, never life-threatening, but bloody. My job was to clean that up too.

When the midway had no customers, and I was free to move about the site freely, I used to roll stuff across the slick Joy Wheel surface, pour water at different places and occasionally even be able to anticipate where my experiments might exit the wheel. I remember thinking that somehow if I threw a dart in the air over the spinning disk the dart would begin to rotate with the spinning wheel before it hit…it is still surprising how much I want the disk to alter the trajectory of the dart, although I know it can’t.

From Raleigh’s description and the photo at the top of this post, I’m finding myself wishing there were a giant rotating disk in every city. It sounds like such fun! Except the bloody part. If you can’t quite make out the sign in the top of that picture, it reads “The best cure for blues is joy. Get cured here” (Also, who else thinks that might be Raleigh in the picture?)

We now turn to the Maker-verse. Have you built a large rotating disk? Can you share plans and tips for building it?

Seven Maker Faire NY Projects that Look Cool Before they Even Work

It’s a great feeling to look at something a maker brings to the Faire and know it’s going to be awesome even though they’re still putting the pieces together. I found this over and over today as I walked around the grounds for Maker Faire New York. Here are some that I liked the most, and I hope you like them too.


What IF…Festival of Innovation and Imagination

Colorado Springs What IF... Festival

Colorado Springs What IF… Festival

Only three days left until the What IF… Festival in Colorado Springs!  Yes, my family and I have been counting down all summer, and finally we are in the home stretch.  Hopefully this post will reach makers in the Colorado Springs area that may, for some reason, not yet know about this special event.  Even if you are a little farther away and can make a day trip—do it, you will be glad you did.

Saturday, Sept. 7 at 10am is when the fun begins. There will be something there for everybody, and it is FREE!  With over 100 interactive experiences, the hardest part will be trying to narrow down which ones to visit.  We have set our sites on the 3D Printers, Slingshot Water Balloon Catapult, Artful Robotic Contraptions, Tesla MagicTinker Station, Clayfest, and Giant Bubble, exhibits, just to name a few.  I can almost hear the joyful squeal from my 2 year old as he tries to make a giant bubble.

Local non-profit, Cool Science, will have a Ping Pong Particle Physics exhibit, which is also a must see for us, and will surely have my older kids saying, “Sic!”.   I could go on and on about all there is to look forward to at the festival, but really every one should experience this first hand.

Just a taste of festival fun

Just a taste of festival fun

For music lovers, or music makers you will not be disappointed.  There will be live music, on four stages, all day long.  You may also want to checkout the Indy Music Awards on Thursday night, and the First Friday Downtown Concert, Friday night for some pre-festival entertainment.

If you are looking for a little exercise, don’t miss the Fun Costume Run.  Or just watch the run to see the many hysterical costumes that will surely provide entertainment of their own.

What IF...

What IF…

MAKE Asks: Teachers that Inspire

MAKE Asks: is a weekly column where we ask you, our readers, for responses to maker-related questions. We hope the column sparks interesting conversation and is a way for us to get to know more about each other.

This week’s question: We’ve all had teachers along the way that have inspired us. How has a teacher (or teachers) inspired you as a maker?

My High School physics teacher, Al Levik, was a former aeronautical engineer who dropped out of the industry because he was sick of helping to build killing machines. However, his real-world experience infused his teaching style with practical examples of the concepts he put across.

For our final project in AP Physics, the students were given carte blanche for final projects. A few students built potato guns, but I decided to rewire a gutted electric guitar I had sitting at home. Al was a guitarist himself, and was really into the project. He helped me lay out the schematic, and taught me the finer points of soldering. I’m forever grateful for it.

Post your responses in the comments section.

Ask MAKE: Gears and Chains and Pulleys and Belts

Ask MAKE is a monthly column where we answer your questions. Send your vexing conundrums on any aspect of making to If we don’t have the answer, we’ll scare up somebody who does. chain-sprocket

On the Google+ Make: Forum Jesse Acosta asks:

Currently I am trying to build a zoetrope, but at a larger scale. The “bucket” I built is 24″ in diameter, I’d like to have larger and more detailed frames for the zoetrope animation strips. But my snag is the crank, gears, and belt. I have no idea where to find suitable parts. I’ve seen some pulleys, and even some hand cranks for windows, but not really anything that I can imagine would benefit me. Any suggestions for parts to look for, or even a website to find parts? My plan is to enter the zoetrope in an upcoming art show, and illustrate several strips that attendees could change out at their viewing leisure. I think half my problem is that I’m an artist, and not much of a Maker as I’d like to be.

Dear Jesse, Lucky for you, there is an online store that is perfect for your application. Check out McMaster-Carr. They have almost everything you’ll need to build the drivetrain for your zoetrope. For an online store that specializes in parts, they have one of the most organized and intuitive interfaces around. Check out the pages for pulleys, belts, chains, sprockets, shaft couplings, shaft collars, and crank handles.

Everything on the site is organized by size and type, making it easy to find parts that match. When I was first building the Magnetotron, I had never assembled any linkages myself. I ordered the parts from McMaster and it worked on the first shot.

Pulleys and belts are generally less expensive, but chains and sprockets are much less prone to slippage, and are what I’d recommend. An easy way to mount your drivetrain is to attach one sprocket directly to the zoetrope, make a loop of chain that’s approximately the length you want, then mock up the second sprocket before mounting it on your substrate. Shaft couplings link shafts together, shaft collars hold them in place.

To choose which gears to purchase, check out this bicycle gear ratio calculator. Find out at what speed users are generally going to turn the crank, and what speed is optimum for the zoetrope to function effectively. Set the wheel size to 24″ (the width of your zoetrope) and season to taste.

Thanks for reaching out for help on your project, and I hope it goes well. If any readers have info they’d like to add, please do so in the comments.

Make your own Magdeburg Hemispheres


Way back in the 17th Century German scientist Otto von Guericke demonstrated the power of vacuum forming by joining two steel half domes that two teams of horses pulling in opposite directions could not pull apart. In this video, MAKE Contributing Editor William Gurstelle recreates the experiment with two cake pans. And you can, too, in this easy to follow experiment.

How-To: Glass Klein Bottle

Klein Bottle


Dutch glass crasftman Ramon Vink runs a studio called Poelgeest Glass. Using modern lampworking techniques and tools, he makes scientific apparatus and artistic pieces like this Klein bottle, the forming of which he has documented in a series of five YouTube videos. The videos themselves are pretty raw, with minimal post-production and no narration, but taken altogether they do a good job of documenting not just the general process of forming a Klein bottle from stock glass tube, but the specific tools and skilled manipulations required for each operation. If you were to just watch one of them, I think part 4, in which the interior portion of the bottle’s neck is installed inside the bulb, is probably the most interesting.

Klein Bottle Key Step

  1. Making a Klein Bottle pt 1/5 (bending the neck)
  2. Making a Klein Bottle pt 2/5 (forming the bulb)
  3. Making a Klein Bottle pt 3/5 (bending the interior tube)
  4. Making a Klein Bottle pt 4/5 (attaching the interior tube)
  5. Making a Klein Bottle pt 5/5 (attaching the neck)

Scientific glassblowing is not a skill that most people can pick up without a fair amount of practice, but if you have the basic tools on your bench and the basic skills under your belt, already, following along with Ramon’s Klein bottle videos could be a rewarding challenge.

Poelgeest Glass

How an Architect Uses a 3D Printer

3D_printed_things Marcele Godoy is a Chilean architect and recent MPS graduate in the Interactive Telecommunication Program at New York University. She worked as a Junior Professor and Professor Assistant in three different schools of architecture in Chile, where she taught about architecture, physics and structures.

Marcele is interested in combining design with all kinds of disciplines and technologies that can be applied to create new ways of thinking about architecture. In her opinion, we should start thinking of buildings as things that are organic and kinetic rather than static, and we can use technology to generate physical interactivity between architecture, environment, and users.

I took some time to talk to Marcele about how she uses 3D printing in the context of being an architect.

What software do you use to create your 3D models?

I use Rhino because it’s easy, similar to AutoCad and free for Mac (Beta version) . Also, you have the possibility to work with Python if you like to design using code, or Grasshopper if you work in Windows.

What is your favorite 3d printer to use, and why?

I haven’t used many of them, but I like the Makerbot because it is a printer that you can have at home and allows you to create prototypes relatively fast. I was able to make a model in school with a very professional 3D printer, but you cannot do it by yourself. You have to go with your files and a person there will check them and print them. It’s not very useful if you are in a trial-and-error process.

What is a 3D printed project you’ve made that you’re especially proud of?

Last summer I worked on an interactive installation for the London 2012 Festival in celebration of the 2012 Olympics. I was part of the team of the collective YESYESNO, that included Zach Lieberman and Molmol Kuo. The project consisted of hundreds of weather balloons along Hadrian’s Wall in UK, and I developed the physical part of the project.

I designed and 3D printed two pieces using the Makerbot Replicator. One of them was to hold the electronic pieces on the top of a pole and inside the balloons. The other one was a kind of guide to organize ropes that held the balloon to the pole. This last piece was designed mainly because the volunteers had to assemble almost 400 balloons in a couple of hours and this pieces allowed that process to go quicker.

They are not very complex, but the 3D printer was a great tool to prototype and try different alternatives in the studio. I think these kind of home-digital fabrication machines are especially good when you are designing things that you have never seen before and what you find in the market is not enough for your purposes.

What can we expect to see in the world of architecture as 3D printing becomes more common?

As this becomes easier to use and readily available, we can explore more and more shapes that our brains cannot imagine by themselves, as well as shapes that we cannot make by hand. For architects, the potential of these machines and computer-aided design is that we can forget all that exists so far to design with no preconceptions, not only to achieve aesthetically pleasing results, but also to optimize the architectural design. [printing]

Raspberry Pi Heat Maps

Thermal imagery of operating Raspberry Pi

Remy at Spanish-language tech site Geektopia is a Raspberry Pi enthusiast with access to a thermal imager. Sounds like my kind of guy. He writes (per mine and Google’s hack Spanish):

After a long wait since its release, I recently came into possession of a Raspberry Pi computer, and the first thing that struck was not how easy it is to use or the incredible community that’s built up around it in such a short time: I was surprised at how hot it gets. Since I have access to a Fluke Ti35 thermal camera, I set out to do a little study of this miniature computer in operation.

Remy identifies three integrated circuits on the RasPi PCB that generate most of the heat: the processor (Broadcom BCM2835), the ethernet controller (SMSC LAN9512), and the voltage controller. Click through, below, to read about his conclusions and methods and to see the heat maps of his Raspberry Pi at rest, while playing video, while transferring files over the network connection, and while running a special “stress test” program that Remy wrote himself.

Thanks to Jacob Marsh at UK’s ModMyPi for assistance with this post. If you’re concerned about your Raspberry Pi’s heat dissipation, they’ve got a 3-pack of ready-made RasPi heat sinks available for just five quid.

¿Se calienta el ordenador Raspberry Pi? Estudio de sus temperaturas en funcionamiento