Mason jar science: Make Unicorn Poop, enormous bubbles and more at home

Turns out these durable, heat-proof and sealable jars with embossed measuring lines are ideal for physics demonstrations, holding various biological specimens, performing chemistry experiments and more.

  •  In this gravity-defying Walking Watercolors experiment, colored water flows uphill and over the edge of a jar like magic. For the instructions, turn to C3. Carl Tremblay Snowflake Studios

  • Walking watercolors Carl Tremblay Snowflake Studios

  • Smooth, rubbery goo can be stretched and squished — and is a cinch to make at home. Carl Tremblay Snowflake Studios

  • Made from white glue, baking soda and contact lens solution, Goo will keep for months if stored in the jar with the lid on. PHOTOS COURTESY Carl Tremblay Snowflake Studios

  • Carl Tremblay Snowflake Studios

  • Multicolored Goo — aka Unicorn Poop — is created by twisting several colors of Goo together.

  • Glitter Goo gets its sparkle from, yep, glitter.

  • Goo galore! Foamy shaving cream creates this green Fluffy Goo variation.

  • A better bubble Carl Tremblay Snowflake Studios

  • Carl Tremblay Snowflake Studios

  • A better bubble Carl Tremblay Snowflake Studios

  • A wide, flat container of bubble mix accommodates a homemade string wand (at right), which uses a long piece of yarn or string to create immense bubbles. Carl Tremblay Snowflake Studios

  • A better bubble Carl Tremblay Snowflake Studios

  • To turn a wire coat hanger into a wand (above and below, right), bend it into a large lollipop shape. For monster bubbles, wrap the wire hoop in a cotton shoelace to hold even more liquid. Tape the handle for a grip. Carl Tremblay Snowflake Studios

  • You can also bend pipe cleaners into lollipop-shaped wands. The fuzz holds the soap mix like a paintbrush. Carl Tremblay Snowflake Studios

  • Add a clothespin for a handle to turn the metal ring from a mason jar into a homemade bubble wand. Carl Tremblay Snowflake Studios

  • Project #1: Walking Carl Tremblay Snowflake Studios

  • Carl Tremblay Snowflake Studios

For the Gazette
Published: 5/21/2019 5:26:16 PM

A few years ago, while cleaning out my son’s closet, I came across a mason jar nestled at the bottom of an old backpack. My son had grown up and moved away, but inside the jar, rolling around like a petrified Brussels sprout, remained a two-inch-long marijuana bud. This was before cannabis’s rehabilitation, before you could legally buy $400-an-ounce artisanal strains from a budtender in a recreational cannabis boutique, of course. But also back when I thought I was the only one in my family who appreciated the functional beauty of the mason jar’s durable glass and sealable lid.

As an avid home canner, I associated these shiny vessels with self-reliance and country frugality. But in recent years, while I was busy filling mine with jams and pickles, they had become the Pabst Blue Ribbon of kitchen accessories, rediscovered and made hip by a constellation of new enthusiasts: Instagram foodies, Etsy crafters, fermenting fanatics, compulsive organizers, and, yes, millennial cannabis connoisseurs.

No matter. I remain a mason jar originalist. Each summer, I rely on my jars to do what they have done for generations: hold and preserve my raspberry jam, wasabi dills, hot peach salsa, jalapeno jelly, and all the other canned goods that make my basement look like a survivalist’s dream bunker. Each jar is a snapshot from the growing season, a bit of summer sealed up for harder times. But each is also a testament to the power of science, a demonstration of how human ingenuity and perseverance, coupled with the right technology, can solve even our most challenging problems — in this case, how to keep a perishable harvest deliciously edible for years.

We gardeners know that the arrival of a bumper crop brings a challenge often more vexing than its cultivation: preserving all those fruits and vegetables before the relentless forces of rot and decay reduce them to their earthly elements. Before refrigeration, humans turned to drying, salting, fermentation, and the like, but these were only temporary stays, and all had their drawbacks.

In 1795, Napoleon offered a 12,000-franc reward to anyone who could figure out a way to preserve food for an army on the move, an X Prize that confectioner Nicolas Appert claimed fifteen years later, using heat-treatment and glass jars. Trouble was, Appert’s technique called for simply sealing the jar’s lid with melted wax, a sanitational crapshoot that didn’t always exclude harmful microbes. (Of course, Louis Pasteur wouldn’t discover harmful microbes for another century, but that didn’t make their gastrointestinal consequences any less horrid.)

Then, in 1858, John Landis Mason, a New Jersey tinsmith, patented a glass jar for preserving fruit that used a metal screw-on lid and a rubber gasket to create a hermetic seal. Mason’s jars worked far more predictably than their predecessors and became hugely popular, particularly among homesteaders settling the America West, but after his patent ran out in 1879, other makers jumped into the jar business. Mason died a pauper, but his name for the jars stuck. And with good reason: it was literally molded into the glass. For patent reasons, and to capitalize on Mason’s reputation, his competitors’ jars bore his name as well.

When I was a kid in the 1970s, mason jars seemed on their way out. Refrigeration and industrial canning had made the idea of putting up your own food seem absurdly old-fashioned, seeing as we now had Space Food Sticks, Tang and TV dinners. You might find yourself drinking from a mason jar in some Western-themed bar, or you’d notice your grandmother had filled one with her button collection, or you’d be forced to craft one into a lantern at summer camp. But mostly, it seemed, mason jars were a quaint relic used by free-thinking back-to-the-landers to stockpile organic beans in dingy commune basements.

A confluence of trends helped change all that. The artisanal food movement rose in rebellion to Big Food and its inscrutable processed offerings and the hipster DIY craft movement discovered how cheap and versatile jars can be, thanks to their heatproof tempered glass and standard size screw-on lids. Indeed, scroll through Pinterest these days and you are as likely to see a mason jar serving as a tabletop aquaponics tank (just add a beta fish and basil seedling!) as a container for kimchi. As a result, sales of Ball brand mason jars have more than doubled since 2001, increasing at a 20 percent clip in recent years.

Even a mason jar originalist like myself can find reason to celebrate these new off-label uses. For my book, “Mason Jar Science,” I set out to find and develop kids’ science activities that can all be done using common pantry supplies and mason jars. After a few weeks of work, I had come up with more than fifty projects, from a simple lava lamp to a functional barometer to a bug vacuum that lets you suck ants into a viewing jar (but not into your mouth!). Turns out, these durable, heat-proof, and sealable jars with embossed measuring lines are ideal for physics demonstrations, holding various biological specimens, performing chemistry experiments, and more. Who needs an Erlenmeyer flask and Bunsen burner when you’ve got a wide-mouth quart and a microwave?

So, thank you, John Landis Mason. Your invention lets me enjoy my canned peach salsa without fear of microbial diarrhea, and it just might encourage a new generation of kids to discover the wonders of science. Who knows, maybe one of them will come up with a container that’s even more functional and versatile than yours. It’s hard to imagine — but, then again, before you came along, so was the mason jar.

The former editor of FamilyFun, Jonathan Adolph of Amherst is a gardener, canner and author of ” Mason Jar Science” (Storey Publishing).

Project #1: Make bigger, stronger bubbles

Once upon a time, kids blew soap bubbles just for fun, and no one thought much about it. Now, adult “bubble masters” use secret soap mixes and custom wands to create monstrous bubbles as big as city buses. On stage, on television and on YouTube, “bubble sculptors” create bubbles within bubbles, caterpillars made of bubbles and even bubbles they can stand inside.

Soap bubbles have come a long way, and we have science to thank for it. By understanding the laws of chemistry and physics, today’s bubble masters have taken their art to new heights. You can get in on the action yourself by blending your own custom bubble mix. Then you can experiment to see which produces the biggest, strongest, and most colorful bubbles.

You can make bubbles with a mix of just dishwashing soap and water, but they won’t be very big and they’ll pop very quickly. That’s why serious bubble makers add other ingredients to make their bubbles more stretchy and durable. Just a little bit of a key ingredient can make a huge difference in your bubbles!

A Better Bubble Mix

Quart-size mason jar with two-piece lid
3 cups water
2 tablespoons dishwashing soap (bubble experts generally recommend Dawn or Joy.)
Glycerin for strength (sold at drugstores and craft stores)*
Guar gum for size (look for this food thickener in the bulk section of a supermarket like Whole Foods so you can get just the amount you need.)**

*Also known as glycerol, glycerin is a humectant, a substance that keeps things moist. Bubbles burst when they dry out, so adding glycerin can make them last longer. Most formulas call for about 2 teaspoons per batch, but for extra strong bubbles, experiment with adding up to 4 tablespoons (2 ounces) per batch. The drawback: it makes your bubbles heavier and doesn’t make them bigger.

**For amazing monster-size bubbles, you need an extra stretchy formula. You can achieve that by adding a small amount of a polymer, such as guar gum, a food thickener.

To help the guar gum dissolve better, mix ¼ teaspoon of the powder with enough glycerin to create a paste. Mix the paste into the water in the jar, add the dishwashing soap and give everything a good stir.

Pro tips

Since bubbles pop from evaporation, the best time to blow them outdoors is when the air is calm and muggy, such as after a rain shower. On colder days, however, your bubbles may fly higher, because your warm breath is lighter than the cold air. In extremely cold weather, you can watch your bubbles freeze into ice orbs (or watch it on YouTube). And if you really want your bubbles to last, keep them in a sealed jar with a little bubble solution on the bottom. Bubble entertainer Eiffel Plasterer (Google him!) is said to have kept a bubble this way for nearly a year!

Homemade Bubble Wands

Sure, you could use those plastic rings that come in store-bought bubble mixes. But other options are all around you. Try using one of these.

A string wand. These devices use a circle of string wick to make immense bubbles. For a simple homemade version, thread about 3 feet of string or yarn through two straws and tie it in a knot. Holding a straw in each hand, dip the device in a wide flat container of mix.

The metal ring from a mason jar. Add a clothespin for a handle and pour your bubble mix into a shallow plate for dipping.

A pipe cleaner. Bend it into a lollipop shape. The fuzz holds the soap mix like a paintbrush.

A wire coat hanger. Bend it into a large lollipop shape. Use a plate, Frisbee, or any other wide and flat container to hold your mix. For monster bubbles, wrap the wire hoop in a cotton shoelace to hold even more liquid. Tape the handle for a grip.

Project #2: Make your own Goo

This smooth, rubbery material can be stretched and squished.

Materials

Pint-size mason jar with two-piece lid
4 ounces white glue
1 teaspoon baking soda
Paint stirrer or other mixing tool
1 tablespoon contact lens solution — look for a brand that contains boric acid.
5 or so drops of food coloring

Instructions

1. Pour the glue into the mason jar.
2. Add the baking soda and stir to combine thoroughly. Add the food coloring and stir to combine. (For Multicolored Goo, Glitter Goo or Fluffy Goo variations, add any extra ingredients now.)
3. Add the contact lens solution and start stirring. Now comes the amazing part. The mixture will become harder to stir, and a blob will start to form around your stirrer as the substances react to form the goo.
4. Keep stirring the blob, or knead your goo with your hands. If it’s too sticky, add a ¼ teaspoon more contact lens solution. Adjusting the amounts of glue and lens solution will give you goos of varying consistencies. The more lens solution, the firmer your final goo, but don’t overdo it or your goo can become too stiff to stretch.

Stored in the jar with the lid on, your goo should keep for months.

Goo variations

Multicolored Goo (aka Unicorn Poop)

If you mix up goo in several colors and then twist them together, you’ll have made the latest rage in homemade concoctions.

Glitter Goo

For a more interesting look, stir in some glitter or use glow-in-the-dark paint instead of food coloring (but be careful using the goo on wood or fabric surfaces where it could leave a stain!).

Fluffy Goo

For fluffier goo, add about 2 ounces — a few squirts — of foamy shaving cream (not gel) to the glue and baking soda mixture, and stir it in.

Project #3: Make colored water move from jar to jar

Sometimes science seems like magic, as it does in this Walking Watercolors experiment. How can water flow uphill and over the edge of a jar? What happened to gravity? The answer is capillary action, which you’ve experienced if you’ve ever accidentally stepped in a deep puddle and later felt the water slowly climbing up your pants. Here, that same force moves the colored water from one jar to another. As a bonus, you get to see another bit of science magic: how three colors can become six.

Materials

7 half-pint (or pint-size) mason jars
Food coloring
Water
Paper towels

Instructions

1. Fill four jars with water. With the food coloring, color two of them red, one blue, and one yellow. We used 10 drops in each.
2. Arrange the jars in the following pattern: red, empty, blue, empty, yellow, empty, red.
3. Roll six sheets of paper towel into wicks about an inch wide, then fold them in half. Carefully place one end of each wick in a jar, as shown on C1.

What’s going on

After a few minutes, the water from the full jars will climb up the wick and start flowing into the empty jars. Watch what happens when the colors start to mix.

The water rises up the paper towel because of capillary action, the same process that explains how the hairs of a paintbrush soak up paint, how plants draw water up through their stems, and how a polypropylene sports shirt wicks sweat away from your skin. Water wants to stick to things, a force called adhesion. It also wants to stick to itself, a force called cohesion.

Those forces make water flow into narrow spaces (such as into the air pockets of a paper towel) and are so strong that they can overcome gravity for a short distance. Once the water wicks its way over the high point of the paper towel, gravity takes over and the water flows down the other side, stopping when the level in each jar is the same.

Excerpted from “Mason Jar Science” by Jonathan Adolph, photography by Carl Tremblay, used with permission from Storey Publishing.




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