How to Extract Iron From Breakfast Cereal With a Magnet
I’ve been reading a book called How to Fossilize Your Hamster. It’s written by Mick O’Hare of New Scientist magazine and, yes, it will be available at The Naturalist’s Notebook when we open for the season next month.
I don’t have a hamster, nor would I want to fossilize my pet, but O’Hare’s delightful book is filled with other strange experiments and fascinating insights. I now understand why some types of cheese melt lusciously under the broiler and other types sit there in a lump. I’ve learned how to measure the speed of light using a chocolate bar, a ruler and a microwave oven. (Warning: possible future Notebook blog.)
I was startled to discover that I could remove visible pieces of iron from a bowl of cereal using water and a magnet. The steps are shown below. O’Hare suggests doing the experiment with a high-iron cereal, so I chose Total.
I started by crushing about two-thirds of a cup of the cereal with a mortar and pestle.
I wasn’t sure if the experiment would work. The two-inch magnet I’d bought at Home Depot seemed fairly strong, but I was worried that my mixture was too soupy. Per O’Hare’s instructions, I tilted the Ziploc bag to allow the cereal to gather on one side and then moved the magnet beneath the soggy Total particles. Iron, being the heaviest element in cereal flakes, would supposedly sink to the bottom, just as iron and nickel descended to the core of the Earth when the planet was forming 4.6 billion years ago.
O’Hare reveals an interesting fact about the iron in your cereal—a fact that also explains why this experiment is possible. He says that cereal companies don’t fortify their products with iron ions (a form of iron that would combine with the other cereal ingredients more thoroughly and be easier for humans to digest) because that would make the cereal spoil faster. Instead, the companies use the regular metal form of iron, much of which goes through your system undigested…and some of which can be extracted from the cereal with a magnet.
Anyhow, after some magnet-waving, I initially saw nothing. Then my kitchen lab associates lifted the Ziploc bag toward an overhead light for better viewing. Voila! There it was—a small clot of iron threads, right near the magnet.
So perhaps you should stay away from the iron-fortified cereal the next time you’re going to be passing through an airport metal detector. And after this, I probably will have to show you the speed-of-light-with-a-chocolate-bar trick. That, and how to use Alka Seltzer to make a 1970s lava lamp.
…very much to all of you who sent comments or emails with condolences and memories about Wooster. I sure miss her lying asleep by my chair as I write this.
Stray Dog Completes Race Across China
I posted this on the Notebook’s Facebook page, but I know a lot of you aren’t on Facebook. If you like dogs, it’s worth a click:
Look to the Sky
The newly arrived edition of the Mount Desert Island-based Sorrento Scientific Society newsletter, called Guillemot, has some helpful stargazing tips. All winter and spring we got used to seeing Venus as the brightest light in the early evening sky, but on June 5 (between 6:04 p.m. and 8:15 p.m., to be exact, at least in this part of coastal Maine) our neighboring planet will pass between the Earth and the Sun, an event that won’t happen again until the year 2117. You’ll be able to watch this transit as you would a solar eclipse—very carefully, by projecting the image through a pinhole in a cardboard box or using some other such device. (You’ll have to look really closely, because Venus is only 3 percent as wide as the Sun.) For the rest of the summer and fall you’ll be able see Venus before sunrise, back in its alternate role as the Morning Star.
Meanwhile, you can look into the southwestern sky after sunset and see another planet, Saturn, filling the evening void left by Venus. Guillemot calls Saturn “the only bright object [now] out there” in that part of the sky at that hour.
Answer to the Last Puzzler
The tiny egg shown in our last blog came from the official state bird of Maine—a black capped chickadee. (Thanks to Notebook contributor LJ for the photograph and the identification!) The extra-credit answer: The whiptail lizard is the state reptile of New Mexico.
What type of bird is shown in the picture below, settled in its nest? The photo was taken this weekend in Maine:
a) a blue-headed vireo
b) a cerulean warbler
c) an indigo bunting