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DIY Summer Hacks, From the Pool to the Grill


Welcome back. I'm Ira Flatow. You know, years ago when I was a kid, way back when I used to hang out with Abe Lincoln in those days, when it was really hot, when it's really hot before everybody had air conditioning I'd go down to my basement or maybe a cool spot, right, cool spot in the house, basement or a garage.

And you go tinker down there and build all kinds of little things because it was to hot to go outside and play or too hot to do anything. You took out your saw, your drill and maybe you drove by Radio Shack and picked up one of these kits that you could build 100 little electronic devices. Remember that? Down here in New York used to go down to Vesey Street, or a place they used to call Radio Row where you could pick up all kinds of parts and build things.

Well, you can still do that and it's now hot again and it's the peak of the summer and everybody's melting outside. It's time to go back into your basement, into your garage, maybe into your backyard with the sprinkler going, because it's our do-it-yourself SCI FRI weekend. We've got all kinds of projects and folks who can tell you how to build some kinds of cool stuff to do around the house.

And you can, you know, you get your saws and drills ready, maybe a pencil and paper, or just turn on the recorder because we're going to talk about what to do with my guest Eric Wilhelm. He's founder of Instructables. It's a do-it-yourself website. He joins us from KQED in San Francisco. Welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Eric.

ERIC WILHELM: Thanks very much.

FLATOW: I'm sure it's cooler out there than where we are today.

WILHELM: It is quite nice here.

FLATOW: It always is in San Francisco. Mike Szczys is managing editor for Hackaday.com. He's based in Madison, Wisconsin and he joins us from Wisconsin Public Radio. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Mike.

MIKE SZCZYS: Thank you for having me.

FLATOW: You're welcome. And then I'll ask your listeners, our number is 1-800-989-8255. If you'd like to talk about a do-it-yourself project, maybe you've got an idea for one, something you want to, you know, you could do and put together, please join us. You can also Tweet us @scifri. Eric, you're the founder of instructables.com and you guys have a whole page of summer projects. It's linked on our sciencefriday.com website.

Let's go through a couple of your favorites. Give us your favorite.

WILHELM: So the favorites for me are stuff that you build that then gets the kids wet. So the two I'll start with, there's a water mortar, which is a PVC syringe or piston that you can fill up and then have your kids slam down against the ground and it squirts up into the air. So it's like a big squirt gun. You can make it bigger and bigger as the kids get bigger and bigger.

Another one of my favorites is making a cardboard boat. So you can cut out the shape of a boat, and there's the outline is actually on the site. And you can then cover those pieces of cardboard with packing tape to make them water resistant, assemble the whole thing into a boat, and send the kids out. People are thinking, like ok, a cardboard boat, isn't that going to sink?

And I think that's part of the point is you make a boat that will sink slowly so it becomes a lot of fun.

FLATOW: You have to abandon ship.

WILHELM: Exactly.

FLATOW: Do this in the pool and not in the ocean. Better in the pool. Mike, you write for hackaday.com. What's your favorite project on that side?

SZCZYS: Well, I'll tell you, my favorite project is building a model steam engine. If it's just too darn hot to be outside, you probably already have what you need on hand to do this. It's kind of the pinnacle of garbage engineering. So it uses things like drinking straws, empty plastic water bottle, coat hanger, cardboard and hot glue is the thing that holds it all together.

It's going difficult to describe each part, but log on and watch the video because once you get it running, it runs by itself using a balloon that's blown up really full as the pressure that kind of feeds the system.

FLATOW: You also have on your site how to build a nightlight that's not just your ordinary kind of nightlight, is it?

SZCZYS: No, it's not. It's actually a bioluminescent nightlight and for a long time this has been a popular science project. I like it because I think biology projects are often underrepresented, but they're really not very hard to take on. In this case it's - if you're not sure what bioluminescence is, think about fireflies in the backyard in the summer lighting up green.

This is actually a marine life form called Pyrocystis fusiformis and it's pretty inexpensive. You can buy a starter culture. It comes in a bottle in the mail for around $25. It's non-toxic. They live for about two months and at night you shake up the bottle and it glows kind of a purple ghostly color. It's very nice.

FLATOW: Are these algae?

SZCZYS: Yes, they're a dino-flagellate.

FLATOW: Yeah. This is the stuff you see in the water at night sometimes glowing and people...

SZCZYS: Yes, exactly. If you're lucky enough to have seen that phenomenon, it's quite interesting. And, you know, this opens up a lot of possibility for asking questions and performing different types of experiments. So you could split your sample between a couple of different bottles and see what happens under nature light. It shouldn't be in direct sunlight because the heat is not good for it.

But you could see it in natural light versus artificial light and how many hours of light each day and then at night you can look and see is one brighter than the other. That sort of thing.

FLATOW: Eric, you actually have a recipe for sunscreen on your site. I didn't know you could make that yourself.

WILHELM: Yeah, you can. And I think that a lot of people want to make their own sunscreen so they know exactly what's going in it. We actually have a couple recipes. The first one is using zinc oxide and titanium, dioxide as the material that blocks the UV. And then you put it in a carrier oil to make a lotion and you can spread it on and make it fresh and have it for your own sunscreen.

And then the other neat thing is that there's some natural oils that actually act as UV blockers as well, like avocado oil will act as a UV blocker. SPF isn't very high, but if you don't want to have anything that you don't recognize on your skin, you can load yourself up with avocado oil.

FLATOW: Yeah. Have you gentlemen found that your interest in things to build have changed over the years, the kinds of stuff you want to build?

SZCZYS: Well, I'll say that...


WILHELM: I was going to say that having two little kids makes it so that I want to build stuff for the kids, so I built a, for my four-year-old's birthday party I built actually a wind tunnel where I took an air pump from one of those bouncy houses and then ran it through a tube and then all of her friends, we could take balls and stuffed animals and shoot it up this tube that would then fire the animal or the ball 25 feet in the air.

And they had a ton of fun just collecting trash, animals, all sorts of stuff and just shoving it in the tube and seeing what happens.

FLATOW: Mike? Do you agree?

SZCZYS: Yeah, I'll say that, you know, you can go out and buy a toy and that might be interesting for a little while, but once the interest in that toy wanes you don't really have anything left. Now, if you build the toy, the process allows you to look down several different avenues that might be interesting, and I find that one project leads to three projects which themselves each lead to three projects.

And before I know it, there's more things I want to do than I'll ever have time for in my life.

FLATOW: With brownouts, we're having brownouts here in New York. You know, they're voluntary where people are reducing - the landlords of office buildings, our office, they're turning the lights down, they're turning some of the elevators off because of the, you know, they'd rather have the air conditioning running in this heat.

Are there any projects we could do for the hot weather. It may be, you know, if you suspect there's going to be a brownout in your house and you want to keep your refrigerator going, can you take your car battery and turn it, you know, turn it into alternating car and run your refrigerator from that? You don't want to lose all your food there.

WILHELM: You sure could.

FLATOW: I though I was asking something...

WILHELM: It seems less efficient, but one of the things that - we have a project on the summer projects for an evaporative cooler. It does require a fan, but it's going to take less energy than an air conditioner or something. And what you're doing is just blowing air over water to evaporate it and then you can cool some of the other water that you put into your pool.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. Let's go to Brian in Lowden County, Virginia. Hi Brian.

BRIAN: Hi, how are you doing today, guys?

FLATOW: Go ahead.

BRIAN: Hey, just want to make a quick comment. You talked about your cardboard boat and drawing it out and all that. The municipal park system that I work for, for about the past 20 years have been doing an annual cardboard boat regatta where, whether it's boy scouts or high school students or whatever, families build a cardboard boat and they have to sail it across the lake with themselves in it.

WILHELM: That sounds fantastic.

BRIAN: Yes. I mean, it's a really cool event. Like I say, it's - and it just was, I was pleased to hear that you're talking about them.

FLATOW: How many boats actually make it across the river?

BRIAN: Well, you know, some of it's more just for the fun and the style of it. And...

SZCZYS: I think that's the whole point.

BRIAN: ...we always have successful one though.

FLATOW: Yeah, it's the fun and it's, you know, the act of building, right?

BRIAN: Exactly. And family and community and all that kind of stuff.

FLATOW: And your regatta, is that in Lowden County, Virginia?

BRIAN: That's actually in Fairfax County that I work for, Fairfax County Park Authority.

FLATOW: All right. And have you got it - has it happened yet this year already?

BRIAN: Unfortunately for anybody who wanted to participate, it's already happened. Generally it's the first weekend in June.

FLATOW: All right. Well, we'll wait for next year.

BRIAN: There you go.

FLATOW: Thanks a lot, Brian. And I'm sure they're happening all over the country, all these regattas. Either that or with bathtubs. Something like that. You have another project for a swimming pool cooler, Eric. Why would you need to cool down - Well, I still would ask in this weather why you would want to cool down your swimming pool.

WILHELM: You don't want your swimming pool to be like a bath.

FLATOW: Right.

WILHELM: So I think that...

FLATOW: And so how do you do that?

WILHELM: Well, that's the evaporative cooler I was mentioning earlier.

FLATOW: I see.

WILHELM: So you pump some water through some fins and then blow air over it. And it's like a swamp cooler. So some folks who don't have air-conditioning have swamp coolers, where you're blowing air over water to evaporate it. You're taking advantage of the evaporation to cool.

FLATOW: You know, one of the oldest projects I think I remember as a kid you talked about the desire to get kids wet. You know, there are a lot of watery projects. And I remember that pump-up water rocket. Remember those? You may not be old enough.

WILHELM: Yeah. I built...


WILHELM: I built a bunch of those.


SZCZYS: I definitely had one when I was a kid as well.


SZCZYS: They're a lot of fun.

FLATOW: And so how do you build one? If you don't want to buy the store-bought one, how do you build them?

WILHELM: The easiest way is to get a two-liter plastic bottle, like a soda bottle, and then a rubber stopper, and then you take apart a bike tire to get the Schrader valve. You put the Schrader valve through that rubber plug, and you then make some cardboard fins so it can stand up. And when you fill it up about half full of water, tap it with the plug, turn it upside down so the nozzle is facing down. And then you hook it up to a bike pump, and you start pumping it up. And eventually what happens is the pressure inside the container will burst out the plug and the whole thing will then shoot up into the air.

FLATOW: You have to make sure it's pointing up into the air.


WILHELM: Well, you can...


WILHELM: You can have a lot of fun, but, yeah, for the most part, you're trying to send it up into the air.

FLATOW: What's the phrase every mother says about a project or some sort of thing that's dangerous? It's going to take out your eye, you know?


FLATOW: It's going to take your eye out with that project. So you want to make sure that...

SZCZYS: This one was on my list of favorites as well.


SZCZYS: And it's not surprising that it's on Eric's. I actually saw one by a guy named Lou Wozniak who is known as How To Lou on the Internet. And he used an air compressor on the one side and your garden hose on the other. So you can use two valves to mix pressurized water with pressurized air. The release mechanism is a nail with a long string. But the rocket is still made out of water bottles. And you can see if I put more air or less air, more water, less water, how high does the bottle go? And then going with what Eric said, you could try out different fin designs, different nose cone designs and have a lot of fun that way.

FLATOW: Interesting. Let's go to Clarissa(ph) in Norwich, Connecticut. Hi, Clarissa.

CLARISSA: Hi. How are you?

FLATOW: Fine. How you got a project for us?

CLARISSA: Yeah. I was thinking - so I've got a Raspberry Pi for my birthday and I was...

FLATOW: Whoa, whoa. What is a Raspberry Pi for the rest for us who don't know what that is?

CLARISSA: It's a very small computer. It's very cheap, around $45. And it has limited processing power, but it's really good for like home projects and stuff like that.

FLATOW: Right. It's not - it doesn't have a crust on it. That's what I wanted to make sure that we were talking about. Yes. So go ahead.


CLARISSA: So I was thinking - I was wondering if it was possible to make sort of a lunchbox computer with a Pico projector and the Raspberry Pi and sort of partition the Raspberry Pi so that there's an operating system and like a streamlined media center and...

SZCZYS: Oh, absolutely. That sounds like a great project.

CLARISSA: Yeah. I was, you know, I was thinking like a USB - a powered-USB hub to power the Raspberry Pi and the Pico projector and then have like an audio system, like a small speaker within the lunchbox and the venting(unintelligible) on the side. So that altogether it's like mobile sort of you can take it camping and hook it up to like a battery and then...


CLARISSA: ...watch a movie.

FLATOW: Wow. You've got it all scoped out. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow talking with Clarissa in Norwich. So what's the question? Is it not working for you? What advice...


FLATOW: ...would you like?

CLARISSA: It's sort of in like the theory phase at this point. I need to save enough money for the Pico projector. That's the limiting factor. But would you have any suggestions for like how I would set up the wiring? Would a USB hub - would that be a good source of power for the Raspberry Pi?

FLATOW: Is this beyond your pay grade, guys?

SZCZYS: No, this is right...

WILHELM: I'd say just...

SZCZYS: This is right up our alley.


WILHELM: I'd say just try it out.

CLARISSA: Yeah, yeah. And I'm just wondering like would a lunchbox be too weak? Should I get sort of like a hobby box or something, or would a lunchbox work?

SZCZYS: I would start off with a tackle box for fishing, you know, just molded plastic because they're quite inexpensive. And for the first round of your prototype, you'd probably don't want to run into size constraints because then like you mentioned you also run into problems with heat sometimes that way.


SZCZYS: So pick one of those up as cheap as you can get it and then you won't feel bad about cutting holes in the ends of it.

FLATOW: Exactly. Thanks, Clarissa, and good luck to you.

CLARISSA: Thank you.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Mike, do you do a lot of DYI projects these days involving what's called the Arduino microcontrollers? She didn't have one in hers.

SZCZYS: Absolutely. And this is - for anyone that doesn't know a microcontroller is what run the mobile electronics that we have around us. So your cellphone has a microcontroller, and your microwave has a microcontroller. And the Arduino is kind of the first widely adopted method for the average person to program these little computers on a single chip. It plugs in with USB to your computer, and then you can do a ton of different things like light up LEDs or even drive a small video screen like you have on your cellphone.

FLATOW: You see a lot these at the maker fairs now, all these things that are being driven by their Arduino controller.

SZCZYS: Absolutely. There's a huge community around it.


SZCZYS: So even if you have no experience before with electronics or with programming, you can get one, take it out of the box and have it hooked up to your computer and blinking an LED I would say within an hour would be no problem at all for most people.

FLATOW: Mike, our managing editor for video, Flora Lichtman, is going to be joining us in a little bit. She actually found your site and was fascinated by the kebab skewer quadcopter.

SZCZYS: Ah, yes, I love that one.

FLATOW: What is that?

SZCZYS: Well, so a quadcopter is a helicopter with four blades, and I think that one is actually an octocopter. It has eight blades on it.

FLATOW: Uh-huh.

SZCZYS: And, you know, I don't have the gentleman's name in front of me who actually did that project, but in speaking with him, he actually took a replacement part for a commercial quadcopter, and buying the replacement was a lot less expensive. What that replacement part does is it can tell where the aircraft is in 3-D space, and it automatically drives the eight propellers on it to make sure that it doesn't veer off one way or the other or crash. And then from there, it's kind of like a remote-controlled car, except for it's a helicopter floating around in space, so a drone maybe is a better word for it.

FLATOW: All right. We've got a lot of more projects ahead. Our number, 1-800-989-8255. We're going to take a break. We're talking with Eric Wilhelm of the - the founder of Instructables, that's a DIY website, and Mike Szczys, managing editor for Hackaday.com. And when we come back, we're going to talk about some cooking tricks to impress your friends at your next barbecue, and we'll be talking about things that cook, well, maybe not the way you think they should. So stay with us. We'll be right back after this break.


FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.

Welcome back. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking this hour about sort of geeky do-it-yourself summer projects with Eric Wilhelm of Instructables and Mike Szczys of Hackaday.com. But even Benji(ph), even geeky people have to eat, right? And you want to find an interesting way to cook. I'm going to introduce a guest now. Andrew Knowlton is the restaurant and drinks editor at Bon Appetit. He's also the writer of The Foodist column. He joins here in our New York studios. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

ANDREW KNOWLTON: Thanks for having me.

FLATOW: You're very welcome. In this month's issue of Bon Appetit, you show people how to make Texas-style smoked beef brisket on a home grill. I'm getting water in my mouth just talking about this.


KNOWLTON: Right. So it's basically becoming a pit master in your own backyard, and you don't need a huge trailer. You don't need one of these $5,000 smokers. So what we...

FLATOW: Now, barbecuing is sort of the oldest do-it-yourself project.

KNOWLTON: It is. I mean I'm from the South, and all you need is basically a garbage can or an oil barrel cut in half.

FLATOW: Right.

KNOWLTON: I mean that - it was basically back then it was DIY or starve, you know? So how do we cook this pig? We got all day. We've got some beer. So let's do this. So we wanted to kind of bring that back. And, you know, right now, in the food world, what you guys are talking about hacks and DIY, that's the thing because we're kind of back to the farm to table. So making your own mozzarella, making your own sausage or charcuterie, make your own kombucha; just kind of all these things that if you go wrong will basically kill you.


KNOWLTON: No, I'm kidding.


KNOWLTON: But you've got to be careful.

FLATOW: But let's get to the brisket on the grill there, that recipe for it.

KNOWLTON: So, yeah, so, you know, traditionally, if you go to Texas, you know, it's all wood smokers. But - and even some charcoal smokers. And they have these huge pits. But we wanted to get that same flavor but bring it to people who maybe don't have a charcoal grill or don't have a huge smoker. And most of us I think 90 percent of Americans have gas grills.

FLATOW: Right.

KNOWLTON: And I'm sure there's some purists right now who are just turned off. But I will bet any of them that if we did a blind taste test between our method and your favorite place in Texas, it would be comparable. We would make you proud. So basically, you know, most gas grills have three kind of burners on them. If you only have two, that's fine. So what you want to do is you want to turn off all but one of the burners. So then - and then above that burner, you're going to get a smoke box or you can even use an aluminum tray, put some holes through it. And that's where you're going to put the wet woodchips, and that's going to create your smoke.

FLATOW: What kind of wood?

KNOWLTON: It doesn't matter.

FLATOW: It doesn't matter.

KNOWLTON: Whatever is indigenous to your part of the country, whatever just fell down because of a storm, hack that up, and put it in there. So it doesn't really matter. You can buy all this stuff at a barbecue...

FLATOW: Right, right.

KNOWLTON: ...supply store, whatever. And then you're going to - get a brisket, which comes from the kind of the breast of the cow. You need about a 10- to 12-pound brisket. So it goes from the fatty part and the really good part that's what you order when you go get barbecue, you want the fatty part. And then it goes down to the lean, which is what you give your kids because it's not the best. So then you basically turn that. You start smoking it, put the brisket on the opposite side of the smoke. And then underneath the brisket of the other pan, you put another drip pan because you're going to get - there's a lot of fat because with barbecue you usually get these kind of tough pieces, a lot of connective tissues. Low and slow is how you get all that fat out...

FLATOW: Right, right.

KNOWLTON: ...in the connective tissues and break it down. And the most important thing you're going to need is probably a six pack of beer because you're going to be doing this for about 10 to 12 hours.


KNOWLTON: This is an all-day project, but we guarantee you all you need is a gas grill and a little bit of time. That's all you need.

FLATOW: How about a baseball game on the TV?

KNOWLTON: And a baseball game, a doubleheader, how about a doubleheader?


KNOWLTON: So, yeah, and then it's just basically sitting back...

FLATOW: Right.

KNOWLTON: ...you know, maintaining that temperature. I mean, we recommend it's about 100 - or you want the meat after 10, 12 hours should register about 195 to 205 degrees. And you want to - to get that, you want to maintain - I think you maintain a temp about 200 degrees...


KNOWLTON: ...throughout. And it takes 10 to 12 hours. And that's the gas method.


KNOWLTON: And when it's done...


KNOWLTON: ...you know, you get that beautiful kind of smoke ring that you look for in good barbecue. That's like pink ring around the brisket. And it's a wonderful thing. We did it very many ways. We, you know, if you have a charcoal grill, we have a recipe on our website, bonappetit.com, for charcoal and also to do it in a smoker. And it's funny because we didn't just make this up as a bunch of city folk. We went to Aaron Franklin, who owns a place called Franklin's Barbecue in Texas, which we think is the best brisket in America and Texas Monthly just named him number one. And it's interesting, he actually - this is how he got started. He used to do this in his backyard with just a Weber grill, having people over on the weekends, basically doing what we're talking about. And then he, you know, four years later, is the greatest barbecue pit master in the world.


KNOWLTON: So you, too, can own your own barbecue joint.

FLATOW: If you're not interested now in do-it-yourself...


FLATOW: And the thing is about the briskets not sitting on the fire, right? The fire is off on that part.

KNOWLTON: Exactly. I mean, one big thing that I would like to mention is there's a difference between barbecuing and grilling. Most of what we do at home in America is grilling. You're grilling over direct heat. Barbecue - classic pit barbecue is where you have a separate heat source that then funnels that heat into the meat that's not sitting on the meat, and it's that low and slow.

FLATOW: Right.

KNOWLTON: What we're doing here is basically indirect grilling, so kind of the best of both worlds. So yeah, the flame is never heating the meat. It's just that smoke is permeating in the heat. You're basically turning your grill into an oven. And you'll probably need about a - you'll need a full propane tank when you're going to - if you're going to do the gas method. You will need that.

FLATOW: Yes, because 12 hours of gas.

KNOWLTON: Yeah. Don't start this with a quarter of a tank then have to run out and do that.

FLATOW: Yeah. Let me bring in my other guests, Eric Wilhelm of Instructables and Mike Szczys, a managing editor at Hackaday. Tell us about, Mike, any cooking project you have on Hackaday.

SZCZYS: Sure. One of my favorites, I was shown by a guy named Robert Hart, and he took an old satellite dish and turned it into a summer cooker. And, you know, this is just what you have right on your roof to get satellite television. Chances are, someone you know, your neighbor, your friend is going to have one. Ask them if you can have it. Go to the home store and buy a roll of foil tape. This is used to seal up duct work, and it's very reflective. It's like aluminum foil that sticky on the back. And cover the entire satellite dish with that, and you have made yourself a parabolic reflector.

Then you just need to hang a cast iron pot from the horn that normally gathers in the radio signals. And it's different from other solar cookers because it's providing heat from the bottom because it's focusing from underneath the pot. When Robert did it, he was able to measure a temperature between 329 and 428 degrees Fahrenheit inside of the vessel. The only draw back to this is you have to reposition it every 15 minutes because the sun moves as you're cooking.

KNOWLTON: Well, that's good because you can get up and drink your beer...

FLATOW: That's it.

KNOWLTON: ...and move the satellite, right?

FLATOW: Andrew, you got a whole - you can have a whole issue on just, you know, the satellite dish cooker.

KNOWLTON: Yeah. It sounds like a - kind of a wok block party, like, if you could just saute a bunch of stuff in a huge satellite.


FLATOW: Andrew, tell us about - this was really interesting, your cooler corn, how to cook corn in the cooler that we...

KNOWLTON: In the cooler.

FLATOW: You have to take out the beer first out of the cooler?

KNOWLTON: Yeah, you do, yeah. Well, you have two coolers, obviously.

FLATOW: Oh, of course.

KNOWLTON: Right, right. So you - this is an old camping trick. I mean, I've done this several times in Maine when I go is - and even at home because a lot of people - if you're having a lot of people over and you're doing corn, you don't have a pot where you can do 10 to 12 ears of corn. Maybe some people do. I don't. So you take a cooler. You clean it out, obviously. You shuck the corn. And you can put 12, 15, 20, doesn't really matter.

And then you basically take two kettles filled with boiling water, and you pour the water into the cooler. And then you just shut the cooler for 20, 30 minutes, and your corn is pretty much done. And the best thing about is as that - the heat kind of decreases, it kind of maintains the temperature. So it's really hard to overcook the corn at all.

So campers would do this because, obviously, they can boil water and they didn't have huge pots and all that. So you do that. And, you know, we've even done it, you know, I'm not going to say that everyone should go run out and try this because it's basically a sous-vide technique where maybe you can introduce some bacteria to the thing.

But you can do it with shrimp, any kind of quick cooking thing. I've done it, you know, if you take a Ziploc bag, put shrimp, even, you know, if you could parboil potatoes or something or even corn all together and you're basically making a shrimp boil in the cooler. You know, the one caveat, it's like I'm sure there's some plastics in the cooler that maybe, but I've done it several times and I'm still sitting here.

FLATOW: Well, you could put in a Ziploc bag unless you don't...


FLATOW: ...trust the Ziploc bag.

KNOWLTON: Yeah. It's - yeah.

FLATOW: Right. Eric, Mike, what is your reaction to that? Is that a good (unintelligible) project?

WILHELM: Yeah. It's sounds a lot like the beer cooler sous-vide. And actually, I've been experimenting with something called controlled-vapor ovens, which is - my interest in that is trying to do bagless sous-vide. So I got a - actually a commercial Cook & Hold oven, which is these ovens that cook and finish chicken or beef or something, and I then reprogrammed it with an Arduino to control the oven. And I've been cooking pork shoulder, filets of salmon, all sorts of great stuff.

And the neat thing about the controlled vapor is it's similar to sous-vide, but you could also brown the outside of the food at the same time. So what it does is it has a water bath that controls the temperature of the water vapor in the oven, but then it also controls the air temperature. So you're simultaneously controlling the wet-bulb and the dry-bulb temperature whereas a normal oven only controls the dry-bulb temperature. And so...

KNOWLTON: Yeah, you're going to have to - oh, sorry.

WILHELM: I'll put a pork shoulder in there, cook it to 160 internal temperature so it's perfect falling off the bone. It takes about 12 hours and - but then also, I can caramelize the outside skin so it's nice and brown.

KNOWLTON: I was going to say you need to come over to Bon Appetit magazine and give us a demo. You could be onto something there.


FLATOW: We do get people together on SCIENCE FRIDAY, who not normally - science in the arts, science of cooking. We're into that a lot. And I want to bring on - speaking of someone who's into a lot of different things and a lot of interests - Flora Lichtman is here with our video pick of the week. And guess what, it's a do-it-yourself project, right?

FLORA LICHTMAN, BYLINE: Couldn't resist.

FLATOW: I - no.

LICHTMAN: Look, I mean, if we're going to talk the talk, feels like SCIENCE FRIDAY had to walk the walk a little bit this week.

FLATOW: Right.

LICHTMAN: So I chose a DIY project that seemed so simple that I couldn't mess it up although it was much harder than I had imagined. But anyway, this week's video is about how to make your own robotic hand. It's a gripper. And it takes really easy ingredients.

You need coffee grounds and a balloon primarily. The one tricky item is that you also need a small vacuum pump, which you can get online. And we have info on our website about where to find that.

FLATOW: You have it there in front of us.

LICHTMAN: Are you ready?

FLATOW: Well, get us a little hook up of what it sound - sounds like.

LICHTMAN: All right. Well, here is how out sounds. OK.


LICHTMAN: That's it in action.

FLATOW: That's it working.

LICHTMAN: That's - it's how it's supposed to sound.

FLATOW: It's almost like one of those fish pumps on your - it's a vacuum pumps, so it's...

LICHTMAN: Yes. So it is actually just like that, but it's sucking in. So the premise here is that coffee grounds, when they're loosely packed, like if they're in a balloon and that the air isn't sucked out, will flow around kind of like a fluid. But when you sucked all the air out of that balloon using your vacuum pump, it hardens up and it will grip things that you've pressed into them.

FLATOW: Hmm. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. Talking about making a robotic hand gripper. So you can pick up any - just about anything it - when it's a balloon - it's on our website at sciencefriday.com as our Video Pick of the Week. We show you how to make it and all products that you could get. You bought something, a RadioShack, you got something at the hardware store.

LICHTMAN: Right. So it's - just to imagine it...


LICHTMAN: ...imagine a balloon filled with coffee grounds, not too full, stuck through a showerhead. Attached to that...


LICHTMAN: ...is a little hose that goes into a vacuum pump, and that's what drives your hand.

FLATOW: Right, right. So if you have a balloon just filled with coffee grounds, imaging just flopping down on things...


FLATOW: ...and it will take the shape of the things that you plop it down on.

LICHTMAN: Right. And then if you had a straw attached to that balloon and you could suck out all the air, the coffee grounds would scrunch together and they would become a solid, and you'd be able to pick something up.

FLATOW: Picking up. And on website at sciencefriday.com, Flora's Pick of the Week, she shows you how she built this, and how you can make this, and all the different - it doesn't matter what shape the object is. That's the good part about the coffee grounds or, as you say, it acts like a fluid when it's in the coffee ground state.

LICHTMAN: Right. And this is the interesting thing. So this design comes from a couple of scientists, including Heinrich Jaeger at the University of Chicago. And one of the guys I talked to this week was John Amend. And they were sort of playing with fluids and the physics of fluids and they thought, wow, this is a way for a robot to be able to pick up anything because it's very hard to develop a robot hand that can actually pick up a penny, for example.

Where as this, you know, they have actually - in the video, I used some of their footage and they show how it can just pick up sort of anything in front of it. And if you have a strong enough vacuum, you can pick up heavier things. Mine was maxed out at a pen.

FLATOW: Yeah. What's a 12 volt little - maxed out at a pen.

LICHTMAN: It's not...

FLATOW: Eric, Mike, something that might interest you guys? Have you - do you know about this vacuum gripper?

WILHELM: I wonder if the same thing would work with sand. Do you think if you filled the balloon with sand, you'd be able to do something similar?

LICHTMAN: I do think that sand would work as well. They thought that granular materials - that's the key. So sand, coffee grounds, but I only tried coffee grounds.

FLATOW: Well, coffee grounds are much lighter, also I would imagine than sand. And it might be, you know, a weight thing might be a problem.

LICHTMAN: Maybe you don't need this powerful vacuum with coffee grounds.

FLATOW: Yeah. So we've got - you've worked all of our themes in today.


FLATOW: Food, we're talking about food.

LICHTMAN: That's right.

FLATOW: You guys have coffee in there.

LICHTMAN: You could use it to a brew a cup later.

FLATOW: You could use it...


KNOWLTON: Could you do that for me because the coffee is a nice touch? Is it Ethiopian or doesn't matter?

LICHTMAN: It's Chock full o'Nuts. And...


FLATOW: It's a New York coffee.

LICHTMAN: ...every time you use it, it smells like coffee.


LICHTMAN: So a little bonus of the device.

FLATOW: Right.

LICHTMAN: But other than that, I can't really figure out why you would want - I really enjoyed making it and I got a lot of satisfaction out of doing this project. But as far as I can tell, it's like totally useless.

SZCZYS: I think what you underscore is the value of finding the research because within a few days of this video of the serious research making the rounds in the Internet, these things were popping at people's basements all over the place, and they are being built for a few bucks.


SZCZYS: And I think that's probably the lesson to take out at this one.

FLATOW: Yeah. Well...


WILHELM: And you actually - you don't even need the vacuum pump. You could probably use the vacuum sealer for - that you have for your (unintelligible) set-up.

LICHTMAN: Yeah. I've seen that actually.

SZCZYS: I think some people have altered aquarium pumps to use instead. And you just get them for a few bucks at the big-box store.

FLATOW: So gentlemen thank you. And, Flora, thank you. It's our Video Pick of the Week. It's up there in our website at sciencefriday.com. It's amazing. You'll make this yourself if you want to.

Eric Wilhelm, founder of Instructables, a DIY website. Mike Szczys, managing editor for Hackaday. Andrew Knowlton, restaurant and drinks editor at Bon Appetit. He's also writes the Foodist column. Thank you all for taking time. We'll see you next week, Flora.

We would like - before we leave today, I got to say thanks to a special person who is leaving our SCIFRI family, executive producer and sci arts editor, Annette Heist. She has been with this show for over 15 years. And it's not just her longevity that makes her important or the fact that she was more or less my right hand. We all miss her supreme professionalism, attention to detail, her dogged determination to get the story right. And we will miss her critical contribution, her rye sense of humor, and her stories about her life in Kunkletown, P.A. She is a critical component to why were are SCIENCE FRIDAY. She is going to be missed. And we only wish her the best of good luck and happiness. Thank you, Annette, for all those years.

You missed any part of our program, you can go to our website, subscribe to our Podcasts, audio and video on iTunes and Android apps, point your tablet to our website at sciencefriday.com. Also we're tweeting - tweet, tweeting - I keep saying we're tweeting.


FLATOW: Our Twitter is, @scifri. If you like us, like us on Facebook at facebook.com. And there, of course, is our Video Pick of the Week up on our website; teach you how to make that gripper. Have a great weekend. I'm going to take a week off and Flora is going to be sitting for me next week, so we'll see you next two weeks. I'm Ira Flatow in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.