Video Pick: Space Eggs

If you try to spin a raw egg on a table, you will notice that it doesn't twirl very well—at least compared to a hard boiled egg. Astronaut Don Pettit wondered what would happen if you repeated the experiment in space. Any guesses?

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IRA FLATOW, host: It's time now for our Video Pick of the Week, and Flora Lichtman, our multimedia editor, is here. Good to see you, Flora.

FLORA LICHTMAN: Hi, Ira.

FLATOW: What have we got? Another space theme this week.

LICHTMAN: This is a very perfect follow. Because if you were listening to that segment thinking, what kind of experiment could I do in space, we are here to give you an awesome example and, for extra inspiration, we have a very special guest with us this week. Don Pettit is a NASA astronaut. He's logged nearly six months on the International Space Station, and he is the guy who gave us the video footage for our video pick this week, and I actually want to have him explain it. Hi, Don. Welcome to the program.

DON PETTIT: It's always a pleasure to be on your program.

LICHTMAN: Oh, thanks. So it has to do with eggs, but maybe you can walk us through what experiment you did in space.

PETTIT: OK. Well, this experiment was trying to answer a space rhetorical question, a future space rhetorical question, and this has to do when future space calling us, living and working in space. They're, of course, going to have those zero-gravity chickens, and they're going to be laying their eggs, and then some ordinary little boy mixes hard-boiled eggs with the fresh eggs. And now you got to figure out which eggs are hard-boiled and which eggs are fresh.

LICHTMAN: What do you do?

PETTIT: Well, any grade school kid knows, down here on Earth, if you do this, you could spin the eggs on a tabletop and a hard-boiled egg behaves differently than a fresh egg. And so you could possibly do the same thing in a weightless environment, but the eggs are no longer confined to the tabletop. And so what is going to happen? Can you determine the difference between hard-boiled eggs and fresh eggs?

LICHTMAN: And here on Earth I did this experiment this week for our video pick, and the hard-boiled eggs spin a lot better, here on Earth anyway.

PETTIT: They do. They do. And for the video that we had talked about earlier, I'd given a number of examples of rotating bodies and how they behaved. And in the course of these examples, I would give the audience enough information so they could figure out for themselves what would happen to the chicken eggs, and have we decided - are we going to tell them what the answer is? Or are we going to let them try to figure it out themselves?

LICHTMAN: No. This a puzzler. When you told me that I couldn't give away the answer when we talked earlier this week, I took it seriously. So we've put this as a challenge to our listeners since that was your stipulation.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

PETTIT: OK. Well, cool. That's good, but we will give them enough information with all these other rotating bodies. And if they pay attention, they could figure out what's going to happen.

LICHTMAN: Yeah. There's - there are some clues. I think if we walk people through it pretty well, although - so what we're asking, if you watched the video on our website, which has the egg spinning, is to tell us the difference, which egg is which, which is hard-boiled and which isn't. And then - here's the kicker, though - then explain why you think...

PETTIT: Ooh, that's already a rub.

LICHTMAN: Yeah. Right.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LICHTMAN: It was for me...

PETTIT: And you see, this is an example that space is really a frontier. Our normal intuition on Earth doesn't necessarily apply when you go into this radically different environment, and so the answers are not in the back of the book. If you go to various textbooks on physics and things, I doubt if you'll find the answer to, what's going to happen to these space colonies with their chickens and their eggs mixed up in a weightless environment. And so this means that when you do go off to these frontiers, these are places that are rich in discovery, which I think is one reason why we go off to frontiers in the first place.

FLATOW: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow with Flora Lichtman, talking about eggs in space with astronaut Don Pettit.

LICHTMAN: Dr. Pettit, what – are there other examples where you felt like your instincts were surprised when you were up in space, you know, things that you felt, that were - that just brought home how gravity-centric we are?

PETTIT: Every day. I - you can't hardly turn around and look at something without realizing how gravity-centric we are. For example, you lose something. Say, you have your glasses, and of course it's hard enough to keep tracking your glasses here on Earth, but you can imagine a weightless environment, you stick them with a dot of Velcro on the wall, and then you turn around and they're gone. And I found - I instinctively would look at my feet because that's what Earth intuition trained you. If you drop something, you look down at your feet, and of course that's not the answer to this equation when you're in a weightless environment because they might be floating over the top of your head.

FLATOW: Is zero G - is a weightless environment a good place to do these science experiments in?

PETTIT: Well, it's a different kind of place. So think about - a lot of science is done when you either create a new environment or invent a new tool. For example, when you invented the telescope, all of a sudden you could look at the planets and you could see that they had moons and that the - our moon had craters, and you could learn all kinds of things that you cannot learn without the telescope, and same things with microscopes. Well, space is just another place in which to do experiments where you can do them in an environment where you are weightless, and this is just one more knob, so to speak, that you can tweak and do experiments and see what happens.

LICHTMAN: I mean - and this is the thing that you see in the video. There are all these examples of, you know, you talk about the textbooks. So we start with a textbook rotating, and you said that you saw this - the people would do this in class, but it would be a lot quicker, right, 'cause you could watch in slow motion in space.

PETTIT: Yeah. And I need to point out that the textbook that I had - and this was on expedition six in 2002, 2003, the - I could fly one book, and the book that I decided to fly was a book written by one of my former professors, Octave Levenspiel at Oregon State University, and he wrote a book called "Understanding Thermodynamics."

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: That is the badge of geekness.

PETTIT: Well...

FLATOW: Benji, what we call Benji now. It's your Benji moment. Any book you could choose, you took - what was the name of that book?

PETTIT: "Understanding Thermodynamics." And mind you, it isn't just thermodynamics, it was understanding thermodynamics, which is a big difference.

LICHTMAN: Another level above.

FLATOW: Tell me about it.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

PETTIT: But it turns to be really useful because you never know when you might be in need of a different variant of the first law of thermodynamics. And just for example, when you're in space station, the only reason you can be there is because you have all these machines that make things for you like air to breathe, and they de-humidify the atmosphere, and they'll recycle water so you could drink it. And inherent in all of that engineering is thermodynamics.

LICHTMAN: Are you headed back anytime soon?

PETTIT: I am headed back in December. So next month I pack up my bags and I go to Star City, Russia. And from there I go to Baikonur, which is Kazakhstan, and I will launch on a Soyuz rocket currently slated for December 21.

LICHTMAN: Any quick previews of an experiment you plan to do while you're up there?

PETTIT: Oh, I've got a number of (unintelligible) but one that I'm really curious about what's going to happen, I'm going to make a large sphere of water, about the size of my head, and I'm going to anchor it with a little bit of wire so that it will stand in front of the video camera. And then we have MP3 players that - and we can uplink various music we can listen to. Well, instead of bringing a book on thermodynamics this time, I have these music files that are - all these different sign wave tones, from 60 hertz all the way up to about 400 hertz. And so I can listen to a peer 220 cycle-tone if I wanted to, which, of course, is pretty boring, but I could play this through the little earphone that I stick next to this big sphere of water.

LICHTMAN: And see what happens.

PETTIT: And I want to see whether I could drive some really neat oscillations in this sphere of water from these pure tones from my little MP3 player.

LICHTMAN: I can't wait for that video. Thanks, Dr. Pettit.

FLATOW: Thank you, Don. We'll talk to you maybe while you're up there in space, hopefully.

PETTIT: Possibly that can be arranged.

FLATOW: All right. We're working on it. And we have a prize for the right answer, don't we?

LICHTMAN: Yeah. Email us eggegg@sciencefriday.com, and you can really geek out with an autographed pocket protector from Ira.

FLATOW: Wow. That's about all the time we have today. Go to our website. All the details are there.

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