ONTARIO, OREGON — Wild and wacky science was in the spotlight on a fall morning at Ontario High School thanks to an appearance by Dr. Picklestein, the alter-ego of Henry Charlier, Associate Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry at Boise State University.
Dr. Picklestein captured the attention of his audience, mostly sixth graders peppered with a few high school students, with his outlandish antics and intriguing science experiments. He often interrupted himself with anecdotes and one-liners that kept his listeners entertained.
“I have ADD, that’ll become apparent really soon,” Picklestein told the audience, “has anyone noticed that earwax tastes really bitter? Don’t stick your tongue in someone else’s ear.”
Throughout his show, Picklestein gathered hypotheses from his audience before he conducted his various experiments and told them that being wrong is just part of the scientific process.
“If you’re wrong in science, you just adjust your hypothesis and try it again, you can’t do that on a science test, but in real science you can,”Picklestein said. “It doesn’t mean you’re a looser. You might be a looser, but not because you’re wrong.”
One of the first experiments Picklestein demonstrated was with two cups of clear liquid. When the cups were combined, the resulting liquid turned deep pink. Picklestein then reversed the experiment, turning the liquid back to clear. The popular experiment has been dubbed ‘turning water into wine’ and relies on the mixture of a pH indicator, phenolphthalein, and sodium carbonate.
“People ask me if they can drink this,”Picklestein said. “When you’re doing chemistry, it’s not a good idea to drink what you’re mixing.”
That particular solution, however, is not toxic, though it could cause an upset stomach if ingested.
Picklestein also worked with liquid nitrogen, a substance that is kept at around negative 320 degrees fahrenheit. He crammed four regular balloons into a metal beaker full of the liquid, which caused the balloons to collapse and freeze.
After removing the balloons from the liquid nitrogen, they grew back to their regular size without popping. Pickestein amused his audience by shoving them under his leopard-print lab coat to mimmic bulging biceps as they expanded.
He also dipped soda crackers into the liquid nitrogen and ate them, sending streams of liquid nitrogen smoke from his nose.
“If I don’t do the cracker-eating experiment right, it’ll burn me, just like when you eat something too hot,” Picklestein said.
Picklestein adopted his persona in 1997 after watching a demonstration in graduate school where a pickle was electrocuted. He explained that when a charge is put through a pickle, the pickle lights up because it excites the molecules.
“The excited molecules make the pickle glow,” Picklestein said. “This guy that I saw do this, he said he was Dr Picklestein because he brought pickles back to life, so I stole it completely from him and ever since then I’ve been doing that same demo.”
Picklestein’s science obsession began in the third grade, when he got the opportunity to look through a microscope for the first time. He said he had no idea what a microbiologist was at the time, but he knew they used a microscope so he set the goal to become one when he grew up.
“So I got my own microscope, my uncle gave it to me, it was one of those old ones with the mirrors,”Picklestein explained. “I used to carry it all over the place outside and put whatever I could underneath it.”
In the sixth grade, Picklestein got his first chemistry set, which is why he connected so well with the sixth graders in the audience.
“I was a sixth grader once,” Picklestein told his listers, “when I was in sixth grade.”
Once he got his chemistry set, he said he began to conduct every experiment he could think of, with varying results.
“I always wondered, what if,” Picklestein said. “The problem was I wasn’t always safe. I mixed things together, I lit things on fire, I did a lot of stuff that I would not be happy to see other people doing, but I definitely did that.”
Picklestein routinely takes breaks from his teaching duties as Professor Henry Charlier at Boise State University, to do science shows all over the Treasure Valley for people of all ages.
“We have this thing coming up in December, where we have between 700 and 1,000 people show up,” Picklestein explained, “It’s a free event and kids get to actually play with stuff and have take-home stuff.”
Several Boise State professors will be doing experiments along with Dr. Picklestein at the annual event, which is the Holiday Demo scheduled for December 12 at Boise State University. All ages are welcome to attend.
Published in the Argus Observer November 26, 2014. Photos by Jessica Else.