The Great Adamantium Heist – A chemistry themed escape room



For the last couple of years I’ve put together home escape rooms to entertain the kids over the festive period.

This year’s effort has a chemistry feel, and so I thought I’d share it in case anyone wants some inspiration for their own home-escape room. You might need to adapt things a bit depending on what you have to hand (mine includes a 3D printer!)

The Scenario:

The Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory have succeeded in creating Unbibium, element 122! And it’s smack in the middle of the Island of Stability! Scientists are amazed by the fact it has a staggeringly long half-life of 524 thousand years. The team have even managed to make a few grams of the new element. Enough for them to test its physical properties. It looks like the Ubb has an incredible tensile strength. In fact it is so strong the press have taken to calling it adamantium

It turns out there are people who would like to get their hands on this new super metal. And that’s where you come in. You and your team have a reputation for being able to break into anywhere and steal anything. You’ve been approached via your dark-web chat room, to acquire the sample of adamantium. The unknown buyer will pay you £10 million for the sample that’s locked away in the Lawrence Berkeley Lab.

You quickly accept the job and hatch a plan.

The lab is world famous and lots of people want to see where new elements are made. So they regularly hold tours of their facilities. Your plan is to join one of the tours and then slip away and hide in the janitors cupboard in one of the labs. Then once all the scientists have gone home you’ll creep out, find the adamantium and make your escape. You know that the security guards come by about every 63 minutes, so if you time things right you’ll have just over an hour to get the job done. It probably won’t take that long, after all science labs aren’t known for their top-notch security!

The Set Up

I used the following to set up my escape room:

  • A padlocked box.

  • A combination lockbox (code set to 1716). Hidden in a draw.
  • A partial URL for a file on dropbox or similar e.g  https://universityofhull.box.com/v/MORSE, hidden in the combination lockbox. The URL will not work in this form. It needs to be completed by replacing  ‘Morse’ with the deciphered morse code found in the picture of Lise Mietner.
  • Computer – password protected with the ‘DEFGF
  • Postcards, on a notice board

  • One postcard contains a description of a holiday in Sweden and particularly Ytterby.

 

  • A 3D printer and and 3D files of the key for the padlock (you can find a printable lock and key at https://www.thingiverse.com/thing:2564541). If you don’t have access to a 3D printer, then just use a combination lock for the padlocked case and replace the STL file for the key with the combination for the lock.
  • Some bismuth to represent Ubb, placed inside the padlocked box.
  • A lab coat 
  • A selection of popular science books, including Sam Kean’s The Disappearing Spoon and Simon Singh’s The Code Book
  • A USB stick – hidden in a draw.
  • Pencils, paper for note taking. 
  • Smart speaker streaming music.

I used printed copies of:

  • Ubb and a radioactive symbol to stick to the padlocked box
  • A selection of  element infographics from Andy Brunning’s Compound Chem (mainly for decoration and red herrings)
  • The periodic table of element name origins
  • A picture of Lisa Meitner, hidden within the picture (just under her name) is some Morse code. Once deciphered this gives the final part of the URL. 

 

    • Sheet music for Tom Lehrer’s Element Song. Screwed up and left in the waste bin. If none of the players can read music you may need to include a musical note crib sheet
    • A ‘signed’ picture of David Guetta (singer of Titanium) and a ticket from a David Guetta concert.

 

  • Morse code crib sheet hidden in The Code Book.
  • Definitions of isotope symbols stuck to the wall e.g.

Element - Key Stage Wiki

Clues 1-3,

Together the first 3 clues provide the number for the combination locked box. All three clues are on a handwritten note placed in a lab coat pocket. 

Combination = AxBxC

Z of my favourite song = A 

Z of lightest element named after Sonia’s 1937 holiday = B

Z of ‘Seek p15 within literature on vanishing cutlery’ = C

Each of these clues refer to the atomic number of an element.

‘My favourite song’ = Titanium (Z = 22) by David Guette. The players should get this from the signed picture and ticket to the Guette concert. If they aren’t familiar with his music they can use the smart speaker to play through his songs.

‘Lightest element named after Sonia’s 1937 holiday’ refers to one of the postcards. And along with the periodic table of element name origins should give them Yttrium (Z= 39)

‘Seek p15 of the literature on vanishing cutlery’ should take the players to page 15 of ‘The Disappearing spoon’. When the note is placed over page 15 the hole in the note reveals ‘helium’ (z=2).

Once they have all the numbers they can work out that 22 x 39 x 2 = 1716, which provides the combination of the lockbox.

Clue 4

Within the combination lock box is a scrap of paper with https://universityofhull.box.com/v/MORSE typed on it, and for an extra clue  ‘Meitner’ is written on the back.

The URL will not work until the ‘MORSE’ section is replaced with the deciphered morse code hidden in the picture of Lise Meitner. 

The Morse code crib sheet is hidden in The Code Book. Together these allow the players to complete the URL with ‘Meitnerium109’.

Clue 5

To access the URL the players obviously need a computer.  The password to the computer is on a sticky note on the back of the monitor. It reads ‘Password: Rust notes from Mr Riddle and a german teacher’s song’.  Mr Riddle refers to Tom Riddle (Harry Potter fans should get this) and  ‘teacher’ in German is ‘Lehrer’. 

Clue 6

 In the waste paper bin is a copy of sheet music of Tom Lehrer’s element song. The player’s should get iron and oxygen from the reference to rust, and then reading the notes from the sheet music to get ‘DEFGF’, which will unlock the computer.

Once the players open the computer and go to  https://universityofhull.box.com/v/meitnerium109 they will be able to download the files to 3D print the key to the lock. A USB stick can be used to transfer the data to the printer (As an alternative, hide the combination to a second lock at a URL).

Then players simply print the key, open the padlocked case, retrieve the Ubb and make their escape!

 

By December 29, 2020 0 comments entertainment, fun, Uncategorized

The sort of repeating table of things that make up everything


I really like XKCD. One of the pictures I like the most is the Up Goer Five. I sometimes use it to show other people how you can explain hard ideas using just the words people use the most.

So I got to thinking whether I could explain some of the facts about the table that we all like a lot and is 150 years old,  but just using the ten hundred words people use the most.
I ended up falling down a home made by a long eared jumping animal. But it was fun and because I spent too much time doing it I thought I might as well share it with you all.
Thanks to Theo Sanderson for making the Up-Goer Five writing thing.

You can get a big picture of the table here.

EDIT: Thanks to Emma for telling me this has been done before, so please do look at it  in Thing Explainer.

By February 3, 2019 7 comments fun

What links self-heating drinks and the D-day landings?


The imposing cliffs of Pointe de Hoc overlook the Normandy beaches where Allied troops landed on June 6 1944. The assaults marked the beginning of the liberation of German-occupied Europe. And the cliff tops were the perfect spot for artillery pieces capable of devastating any troops who tried to attack the Omaha and Utah beachheads.

The Allied command knew this and so, to shore up the attack, the navy bombarded Pointe de Hoc. Afraid this might not be enough, they also had a backup plan. A team of US Rangers scaled the 30-metre cliffs and, after locating the weaponry, deployed grenades, destroying the guns. The key to success was the choice of thermite-based charges. Yup, just good old iron oxide and aluminium.

 

 

Ok, so what this got to do with self-heating cans?

Link number 1:  Some of the same troops who were landing on the Normandy beaches that day had self-heating soap cans.

These were essentially a stove and can rolled into one, with a tube of cordite (more typically used as the propellant in small arms ammunition) running through the centre of the can to act as fuel. The cans were quick and easy to use and could be lit with a cigarette, allowing troops to prepare a hot meal in under five minutes. Unfortunately, they also had a tendency to explode, showering the assembled squaddies with piping hot soup.

Self-heating cocoa. University of Cambridge

Since then, there have been numerous attempts to make self-heating cans into a mainstream product. Most relied on a rather less volatile reaction to provide the heat, although some have still struggled with explosive issues.  Calcium oxide heats up rapidly when mixed with water. But it’s not particularly efficient, producing about 60 calories of energy per gram of reactant.

The upshot is that, to heat the drink by 40℃, you need a heating element that takes up nearly half the packaging. That’s just about OK if you want a small drink on a warm day, but in the depths of winter, when you might really want a hot drink, you only end up with a tepid coffee.

More powerful cans

What’s needed is a much more efficient reaction. Something, like thermite perhaps? As crazy as packing a can with a reaction capable of disabling an artillery gun may seem, that’s just what HeatGenie is planning. Over the last ten years, the firm has filed numerous patents describing the use of thermite within self-heating cans. It turns out the reaction used by the US Rangers is still too hot to handle, so they’ve dialled things back a bit by replacing the rust with a less reactive but no less familiar material, silicon dioxide. So the latest generation of heated cans is fuelled on aluminium and ground-up glass.

When this reaction is triggered it still kicks out a whopping 200 calories per gram of reactant and can achieve 1,600℃. Given the troubled history of self-heating packaging, releasing this much energy from the can in your hand might be a bit of a concern, so several of HeatGenie’s patents cover safety issues.

These include a complex arrangement of “firewalls” that can block the so-called “flamefront” should things get too hot, and energy-absorbing “heatsinks” to ensure the heat is efficiently transmitted around the drink, as well as vents to let off any steam. With all that is place, the company claims just 10% of the packaging is taken up by the heating elements, which can still produce a warm coffee in two minutes (although the exact temperature hasn’t been revealed).

A US technology firm is hoping to make a very old idea finally work by launching self-heating drinks cans. HeatGenie recently received US$6m to bring its can design to market in 2018, . Yet the principles behind the technology go back much further – to 1897, when invented the first self-heating can. So how do these cans work, why has no one has managed to make them a success, and what’s HeatGenie’s new approach? To answer that, we have to go back to World War II.

The ConversationSo, well over a century on fromRussian engineer Yevgeny Fedorov first attempts to make self-heating cans and more than 15 years after Nestle abandoned a similar idea, has HeatGenie final cracked it? Judging from the patents and investments, the firm might have sorted out the technical side, but whether it really has a hot product on its hands is another thing entirely.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

By June 22, 2018 9 comments general chemistry, science news

Graduating My First PhDs

It’s been far too long since I’ve written a blog post, but I think I have a good excuse: I’ve been focusing on getting tenure. It’s been a 5-year, assistant professor roller coaster ride. But the ride is nearly over. Weirdly, it feels like just yesterday, but also a lifetime ago, that I shared my experience during the job search, wrote my memoir of a first year assistant professor, and captured our first year in lab with a time-lapse camera. My tenure package is submitted and my external letter requests are out. Thankfully, my group has been very productive and we’ve published some really solid science. I’m optimistic about tenure and it is honestly a relief to have my portion of the process behind me.

My tenure timeline also coincides with the bittersweet experience of graduating my first PhD students. While I am not a fan of ceremonies for the sake of ceremonies, I can get behind the pomp and circumstance surrounding a PhD graduation. I sat through two different 3-hour graduation ceremonies, one for the College of Arts & Sciences and one for the College of Engineering, and it was worth it. It isn’t every day that you get to be a central part of a centuries-old tradition. I hooded my students, just as my advisor hooded me, and his advisor before him, in a chain that dates back to the earliest Ph.D.’s over 500 years ago. While the thesis defense is typically anticlimactic, the Ph.D. hooding ceremony has a formal grandiosity that’s well-earned following 5 years of dedicated effort.


I have mixed emotions about losing (err…graduating) my first students:

Pros:
• My students certainly earned their ‘Dr.’ title
• I’ve contributed the growth and development of some truly exceptional scientists and I look forward to seeing what they accomplish next
• I got to hood my first PhDs!
• I got to wear my most expensive outfit (hood + gown = ~$1,000)
• My lab now has room for more new students
• I have several new connections entering the academic and industrial communities
• It’s time. There isn’t much more they can learn from me
• Now that I have academic progeny, I’m more motivated to add my information to my graduate and postdoc advisors’ academic family trees

Cons:
• I lost fifteen years of combined practical lab knowledge in a weekend
• Now that they are especially good at writing papers, they are leaving
• I had more time with these students while creating our lab than I will probably have with any others. I am going to miss them
• I am not entirely sure that all of our instrument and account logins and passwords have been handed down
• They each have their own unique skills. While some of these skills will be replaced by new students, others are irreplaceable

 

In preparation for their departure I contemplated two questions:

1) How do I commemorate my students time in lab?

I really wanted to do something tangible and long lasting to commemorate their time in my group.

Approximately five years ago we started Photo Friday by sharing one photo of our research every week on our Twitter and Instagram accounts. Since then, my group has captured some truly remarkable images. One was selected as C&EN’s 2015 Chemistry in Pictures photo of the year. This included a spread in an issue of C&EN and a grand prize award of a DSLR camera.

My wife and I liked the photos so much that we decided to incorporate them into our home decor. We found an online printing company to create 8” x 12” metal prints of our favorite photos. The number of prints grew and below is a photo of our current collection.

Each photo has its own story. For example, the second photo down on the far right was included in the TOC image of our first corresponding author paper.

So, in a kind of wonderful but unintentional way, we happened upon a way to commemorate my students: we asked them to sign their work. On the back of their photo is I asked the students to write their name, signature, degree, and year of graduation.

2) How do I keep track of them after they leave FSU?

Two years ago, at the Fall 2016 ACS meeting, I organized a special symposium to celebrate the 75th birthday of my postdoc advisor, Thomas J. Meyer. The event included three days of presentations and a dinner for both the speakers and all Meyer group alumni (AKA The Meyer Mafia). Part of my organizing duties involved contacting and inviting as many alumni as I could find. Thankfully, Prof. Meyer’s secretary had an excel spread sheet containing over 150 names spanning more than four decades. While it was not comprehensive, and some of the email addresses and webpages had long-since died, the list was impressive and very helpful nonetheless. The symposium and birthday party were ultimately a huge success. The proceedings even helped populate a book, aptly titled The Ru(bpy)3 Legacy, commemorating Prof. Meyer’s impact on the research community and his students. The book also included a list of all his academic children and their current affiliations.

The symposium allowed me to meet, face-to-face, the people behind the papers I had read for years. It also made me very reflective. How was I going to keep track of my students? Over the course of 4 or 5 years you spend hundreds of hours in meetings together, exchange thousands of emails, and learn a hundred little details that you might not even recognize. For example, I can identify who’s about to enter my office based on the rhythm of the steps coming down the hallway. The advisor / student relationship can sometimes be a love-hate but hopefully it is still deeply rooted in mutual respect. And while we (mentors/advisors/professors) don’t always show the impact students have on us (I for one am an emotionless robot) the bonds of a quality mentor-mentee relationship run deep.

It is for this reason that I am going to do my best to collect private email addresses and current affiliations. My hope now is that they will continue to contact me and update me on their major milestones. It is always a pleasure to hear from Hanson Research Group undergraduates who’ve moved on (even though they have only been gone for a few years). In the future I will look forward to hearing from my newly minted PhD students too.

By June 18, 2018 1 comment Chemistry Art, fun