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Looking for help and suggestions on an illusion/science experiment/bit of alchemy I can perform.
January 26, 2007 12:07 PM   Subscribe

Looking for help and suggestions on an illusion/science experiment/bit of alchemy I can perform.

I need help coming up with some tricks/illusions/actual transformations I can perform at a costume party where I will be an "alchemist." Think snake oil salesman wandering around in a top hat with arcane artifacts, boasting of having the power to transform objects, that's what I'm going for.

I'm not interested in card tricks, but rather some sort of trick/illusion/chemical reaction that I could classify as "alchemy" turning X into Y or combining X and Y and getting Z.

I'm open to buying a trick at a magic shop (I live in Seattle), combining chemicals and compounds, or using a shill in the audience.

I'm looking for a couple of stunts that might create smoke, a flash of light, turn water into wine, turn something small into something big, and otherwise establish my alchemist character . . . which is key to the big surprise/finale I cannot yet divulge.
posted by donovan to Grab Bag (13 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
flash paper is always cool, even when you know what it is (it's paper that burns very very quickly).

Also, if you could get to your local welding supply or gas supply (ie AirGas), you could fill a balloon with SF6, which is much denser than air, and the balloon will drop like a rock. Dunno if they have it it small quantities to purchase, or if you could just go in and ask them to fill up a balloon for you.
posted by toomanyplugs at 12:23 PM on January 26, 2007

I don't know how well it would work in a party setting but you can easily turn copper pennies into Gold (well semi-easily)

1. Gently heat a solution of Sodium Hydroxide on a hotplate with some Zinc metal shavings.

2. Into this solution place a few copper pennies (older ones work better supposedly but I never saw much difference) move them around with tongs and in a few minutes they will turn silver. You can take them out, dip them in water to rinse off the Sodium Hydroxide and show how you turned copper into "silver"

3. Take a blowtorch (I said this may not be party safe) and again holding the coin with tongues move it in and out of the tip of the flame. In a few seconds the "silver" penny will turn to Gold! (it's actually brass but again it LOOKS like gold).

4. Profit! By selling your magical copper to gold formula to the highest bidder and hitting the road!

We did this in college for science weeks and elementary school demos so it's mostly safe but Sodium Hydroxide (Same stuff in drain cleaners can cause nasty chemical burns and a blow torch..well...goes with out saying)

good luck!
posted by Captain_Science at 12:29 PM on January 26, 2007 [1 favorite]

These are just the sort of suggestions I was hoping to get!
posted by donovan at 12:51 PM on January 26, 2007

Magic stores should sell "fire from the hands" tricks. Basically, it's like the striker on a disposable lighter attached to a small cup, which has a ring that you can put on a finger. Fill the little cup with some flash paper, and with a deft movement of the hand make a spark with the striker. You'll have a little ball of fire come out of your hand.

You can bring some dry ice to the party and add it to your drink, making a bubbling concoction with roiling fog coming off of it.

How about a small blacklight flashlight that you could conceal in your sleeve? Tonic water glows under a blacklight, so if you really like gin and tonics you could have a glowing drink in your hand.
posted by backseatpilot at 1:13 PM on January 26, 2007

Aerogel is pretty easy to buy - you could pretend to have frozen smoke!
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 1:22 PM on January 26, 2007

If you have access to phenolphthalein and sodium hydroxide you can turn water into wine:

You need two glasses. In one glass put water and phenolphthalein, which will be colorless at this point. The second glass will contain a small amount of sodium hydroxide solution. With enough misdirection, nobody should notice that there is anything in glass two. When you pour the contents of the first glass into the second, the solution will turn pinkish red, looking somewhat like wine.

But you would not want to drink these substances.
posted by peeedro at 1:27 PM on January 26, 2007

Along the lines of what Peeedro just suggested, there's also "water into ink", aka Prussian Blue. You need Potassium (or sodium) Ferrocyanide and Ferric Ammonium Sulfate. (Note that neither of these are poisonous. The LD50 for potassium ferrocyanide is twice that of table salt.)

The effect is pretty cool. The usual way of doing it is two equal containers which contain what looks like water. Actually one is a dilute solution of potassium ferrocyanide and the other a dilute solution of ferric ammonium sulfate. When you pour them together into a third container, it turns black in an instant.

Beginner chemistry sets always contain both of these chemicals precisely because they're so safe and because the effect when they're mixed is so dramatic.

Regarding Peeedro's experiment, sodium hydroxide (which can be quite dangerous) is not needed. Anything soluble and alkyline works. Phenolphthalien is a pH indicator which changes from clear to pink between pH 8.2 and pH 10.0. Some experimentation ahead of time would probably be worthwhile, but sodium bicarbonate (e.g. baking soda) is probably a better choice. (You don't need much, so I don't think you'll see any foaming.)

Indicators are a lot of fun. The easiest and safest one I know of is the pigment in red cabbage. Slice it up and boil it for a long time, and the water turns red. It will change to blue when you add alkaline to it, and back to red when you add acid. (In fact, that's what red and blue pH test papers use.)

Cobalt salts are fun to play with, too. Cobalt Chloride is a moisture indicator. Make a heavy solution of it and soak filter paper in it, and then let it dry, and it'll be blue. Spritz a bit of water on it and it turns red.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 2:02 PM on January 26, 2007

I was wrong about something: red and blue test papers use litmus, a pigment found in certain lichens. But the pigment in red cabbage works the same way. For an acid to use to cause the change, all you need is white vinegar. For alkaline, sodium bicarb works just fine. You don't need much of either.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 2:06 PM on January 26, 2007

Hmm... maybe you don't know what "LD50" means. It means "lethal dose 50%" based on experiments with lab rats. It's given in grams of chemical per kilogram of body weight and it refers to a dosage which resulted in 50% deaths. The LD50 for potassium ferrocyanide is 6.4 grams per kilogram of body weight. The LD50 for sodium chloride (table salt) is 3 grams per kilogram of body weight.

For a 75 kilogram man, the LD50 dosage would be 225 grams of salt. It would be 480 grams of potassium ferrocyanide -- about a pound. There's no way anyone could choke down that much, needless to say.

This chemistry set contains the things you need for the phenolphthalein illusion and the Prussian Blue illusion, but it might be more money than you want to spend. ("hexacyanoferrate" is ferrocyanide, but it doesn't look as scary.)
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 2:24 PM on January 26, 2007

I have always had luck amazing small kids by blowing on a cup of water to turn it to ice. You just need two cups, some ice cubes, and a sponge.

1. Cut the sponge to fit in the bottom of one of the cups. I used a big travel coffee mug, since it had a handle. You should not use a clear cup.

2. Put a few ice cubes in the mug, on top of the sponge.

3. Partly fill the other cup with water (it helps the illusion if this cup is clear so they can see the starting product).

4. Tell them you can turn water to ice because you have artic breath (or, pick someone in the crowd who you suspect may have arctic breath).

5. Take a sip of the water, to prove it's, well, water.

6. Pour some of it into the sponge/ice cube cup. The sponge will absorb most of it.

7. Blow (or have the audience member blow) across the top of the cup.

8. Hold it high in the air, and tip it over (I always had the audience member/kid hold out their hands to catch the cubes).


Also, I seem to remember something about styrafoam cups and nail polish remover ... in high school, I think we poured nail polish remover onto semi-deep plates (like, an inch or so of liquid) and then pushed cups down into the plate. The nail polish remover 'dissolved' the cups, and it looked like they were disappearing. But I think we might have ended up with a slimey, somewhat silly-putty-ish glob of styrafoam at the bottom of the plate.
posted by inging at 2:51 PM on January 26, 2007

Not so practical (uses sulfuric acid so safety issues are probably more than you want to deal with), but I remember this one being pretty impressive.
posted by juv3nal at 3:42 PM on January 26, 2007

i believe phenolphthalien is the active ingredient in some laxatives, if you read the back of some boxes at the drugstore, it's probably easier than buying a whole chem set. crush up the tablets or whatever. then you just need a dilute acid and a dilute base to change the solution's color back and forth. vinegar is an acid. baking soda is a base. easier to get a hold of than sodium hydroxide... bonus: the vinegar and baking soda fizz when they react!
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 4:25 PM on January 26, 2007

and yes, acetone (nailpolish remover) does dissolve the styrofoam. It basically takes all the air out of it, so it's a pile of slime, which eventually turns into a hard plastic. packing peanuts (make sure they're not the ones made from corn) work really well for this. if you color them green with a sharpie first, you get green slime. i was alone and bored in the lab at work one day... let's just say at home i have a beaker filled with now hard as a rock purple polystyrene. it was an experiment to see how many peanuts i could get in 50mL of acetone...a lot.
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 4:37 PM on January 26, 2007

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