3 Chemistry Tricks to Spice Up Your Halloween

By XiaoZhi Lim
BU News Service

If you stayed up last night celebrating the Red Sox win and have to throw a badass Halloween party tonight, here’s three cool chemistry tricks using common items to help you out.

1. Borax/Boric Acid

Borax and boric acid contain the element boron, which burns in a green flame. Add some borax or boric acid, found commonly in insecticides or pesticides, into your jack-o’-lantern and some rubbing alcohol before igniting it very carefully for an eerie green fire in the pumpkin. Watch a video demonstration on Youtube embedded below by Anne Helmenstine who also wrote instructions for making a green burning jack-o’-lantern on about.chemistry.com.

2. Laundry detergent

Laundry detergents commonly contain phosphors, or compounds that are able to absorb and re-emit light. Phosphors are placed in laundry detergents because they make your whites look whiter and brights look brighter in the sun due to the re-emission of light. But that also means that the detergent itself are able to do the same thing – many laundry detergents actually glow bright blue under UV or black light. For an easy house party decoration that will also clean your apartment afterwards, simply use laundry detergent to paint your walls or hang up sheets smeared with laundry detergent.

Laundry detergent glows under UV or black light. Photo obtained on Wikimedia.org


3. Tonic Water

Everyone knows that tonic water contains bitter-tasting quinine, but quinine also glows under black light. Light up your party drinks using tonic water ice cubes for punch or cocktails. You could also make jello with quinine as shown in Helmenstine’s Youtube video below or check out this article by Helmenstine on about.chemistry.com to make Glowing Hand of Doom Punch.


Happy Halloween!

The Spooktacular Sounds of Halloween

By Cassie Martin
BU News Service

The staples of any good Halloween are candy, cobwebs, skeletons and other scary creatures, and of course the eerie music of the theremin–the world’s strangest and spookiest musical instrument that has produced the signature sounds of this frightful holiday for decades. The instrument itself may as well be a ghost; you can see it, you can hear it, but you can’t touch a theremin.

The device is named after it’s creator, Russian scientist and KGB spy Leon Theremin. 
In 1919, Theremin was working in a lab on a gas density meter when one day he brought his hand close to the meter and heard a high-pitched squeal. As he moved his hand away from the meter, the pitch became lower. Intrigued, he began playing with the machine creating melodies. Based on this discovery, Theremin created a free-standing musical instrument which debuted in the U.S. in 1928. 

The theremin isn’t a gas density meter, but a circuit that uses the heterodyne principle–combining two or more frequencies to create a new frequency–to generate audio signals. The instrument has two metal antennas which sense the position of the performer’s (called a thereminist) hands relative to two oscillators: one that controls pitch and the other that controls frequency. Instead of plucking on strings, the thereminist waves his or her hands through invisible electromagnetic fields to create music.

Although the instrument didn’t catch on as it was difficult to play, it’s creepy out-of-this-world sound was perfect for the Hollywood horror genre and for psychedelic rock of the 1960’s and 70’s. Its music was featured in a range of films from sci-fi thrillers such as The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) to Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945). The legendary rock band Led Zeppelin also sampled the instrument in performances of Whole Lotta Love and No Quarter. 

Sounds of theremin can still be heard today. While it’s a hallmark of the halloween music played in haunted houses, a few dedicated thereminists have made it their profession. And even though you might not follow this niche crowd, if you listen to electronic music then you’re listening to the legacy of Leon Theremin.

But whatever happened to the man behind the machine? Well, after the successful debut of his instrument in the U.S., Theremin abruptly disappeared for 30 years only to re-emerge in 1991, a few years before his death. Some people speculate he was kidnapped by the KGB while others think he fled back behind the Iron Curtain to escape his crushing debt. His life remains a mystery.

Bobbing for Paganism

Ah the raw thrill of completely soaking one's trunk in pursuit of a crispy apple bobbing in pathogenic brine. Photo courtesy of flickr Creative Commons user Rob Swystun.
Ah the raw thrill of completely soaking one’s trunk in pursuit of a crispy apple bobbing in pathogenic brine. Photo courtesy of flickr Creative Commons user Rob Swystun.

By Poncie Rutsch
BU News Service

I’ve always wanted to bob for apples on Halloween but unfortunately, I grew up in the era of germaphobes. The first time I saw an actual bucket filled with water and apples primed for the bobbing, I was 12. Now people bob for apples on strings. Or in their own private buckets.

But why is it that people decided to stick their heads in a bucket of water in the first place?

Bobbing for apples supposedly dates back to pagan festival of Samhain, the beginning of fall. More recently, bobbing was used for fortune telling on the British Isles in the 19th century. Once a person caught the apple, they would peel it and toss the long peel over their shoulder, where it would supposedly form the letter of their true love’s first name on the floor.

What’s especially interesting is that the apples they would have bobbed for would not have tasted all that sweet. Sweet apples originated in Kazakhstan, but even there they were more likely to be pressed into hard cider than eaten.

The sweet apples we have today are the result of thousands of years of careful domestication. If you grow apples from seed, the results will be small and bitter; palatable, but not the apple of your dreams. The best apples come from grafting different species together.

After years of manipulation, many favorite apple varieties are lacking in genetic diversity. Breeders graft native crabapple species to choice trees to try and raise their diversity — to prevent the spread of disease or pests. They’ve done this so many times that apples in North America are now more closely related to crabapples than to their ancestors in Kazakhstan.

I particularly like that if you slice an apple in half at its equator, the seeds form a pentagram, classically associated with paganism.

So fortune telling, alcohol, paganism…sensing a theme yet?


When sliced across the equator, the seeds at the center of an apple forms a pentagram. Photo courtesy of flickr Creative Commons User Denise Cross.
When sliced across the equator, the seeds at the center of an apple forms a pentagram. Photo courtesy of flickr Creative Commons User Denise Cross.

Meet Monsters

By Matthew Hardcastle
BU News Service

The character of the movie monster likely has its origins in our collective psyche, but in bringing their personal visions of horror to life, filmmakers often root themselves in  the world of biological possibility. Here are three monsters whose terror derives in part from their parallels in the real animal kingdom.


CrawlersThe Descent

© Celador Films
Crawler, © Celador Films

The Descent (2005) stars a group of women alone in the dark, lost in an uncharted cave system inhabited by subterranean humanoids called Crawlers. These creatures seem to be an undiscovered branch of humans perfectly adapted to living in the pitch black. Exclusively cave-dwelling animals are called troglofauna, and although no known mammals have become troglofauna, the Crawlers share some of the commonest adaptations for a life of perpetual spelunking.

Lack of pigment – pale or translucent skin is a common adaptation for troglofauna, who require no protection from the sun’s rays.

Blindness – when it comes to evolution, it’s often “use it or lose it.” Without a speck of light to see, Crawlers are better off not wasting scarce cave resources developing eye sight.

Reduced metabolism – although the Crawlers seem to have quite an appetite for human flesh, they can probably go a long time between meals.

Acute Hearing – Sound is a lot more important than sight in a cave environment, and Crawlers have adapted bat-like external ears for increased reception.

Heightened sense of smell – This trait is a bit more problematic. Although cave dwellers tend to develop their non-visual systems, no primate or human species has ever hunted by scent.


Xenomorphs Alien series

Xenomorph warrior, © 20th Century Fox
Xenomorph warrior, © 20th Century Fox

The seminal sci-fi masterpiece Alien (1979) introduced the world to xenomorphs, and subsequent films in the franchise have expanded on their life cycle and biology. Although they are totally alien life forms, their anatomy does have some counterparts on Earth. Some eels possess a secondary set of jaws within their mouths and some insects can spray acid. Xenomorphs most resemble arthropods, which once grew to fantastic sizes back when the Earth’s atmosphere had more oxygen — not unlike the oxygenated environment of a spaceship.

Xenomorph facehugger, © 20th Century Fox
Xenomorph facehugger, © 20th Century Fox

The xenomorph lifecycle also has terrestrial parallels. Their colonies are eusocial like an ant colony, with one fertile queen and physically-differentiated castes. They have a complex life cycle, involving an endoparasitic phase. Facehuggers hatch from eggs laid by a queen and act as mobile ovipositors, traumatically inserting larvae into a host, much like a parasitic wasp laying its eggs inside of a living caterpillar. Unlike most earthly endoparasites, facehuggers don’t seem picky about their hosts, and their larvae can adopt genes from their temporary incubators. After incubation, the developed larvae fatally escapes its host and rapidly grows into a warrior, shedding its outer shell as needed, much like many arthropods.



Dren, © Dark Castle Entertainment
Dren, © Dark Castle Entertainment

Splice (2009) is a surreal film about the possibilities of genetic engineering. Because the modern day Dr. Frankensteins are working with a mystery grab bag of human and animal genes, a healthy suspension of disbelief makes any combination of traits plausible. As an adult, Dren is definitively mammalian (possessing breasts) so we’ll try to stick close to that Order as much as possible.

Young Dren, © Dark Castle Entertainment
Young Dren, © Dark Castle Entertainment

Newborn – Mammals like humans, cats, and dogs give birth to young that are altricial, meaning they still possess some fetal traits. Young Dren possesses a dramatic form of this in her cleft face and undeveloped arms. However she also is extremely mobile, like the precocial newborns of horses and cows.

Adult – As an adult, Dren’s most prominent feature is her tail and long hind limbs. Besides this, she is more or less externally human. Her tail is counterbalancing like a kangaroos and prehensile like a monkeys. It also has a stringer. Though this is perhaps meant to be insectoid, male platypuses do possess poisonous barbs on their hind limbs.

Other traits – without getting into too many spoilers, Dren develops more exotic traits through the course of the film. She eventually sprouts feathers on her arms and uses them like wings. This is largely for dramatic effect, resting on shaky biological ground. Dren’s species also exhibits sequential hermaphroditism, changing from one sex to another. Although in Splice this plays out more like a Greek tragedy, many fish and gastropod species are capable of swapping sexes during their lifetime.

Halloween Costumes for the Scientifically Minded

By Sara Knight
BU News Service

1. The Pegomastax Africanus (“thick jaw of Africa”), or the Vampire-Porcupine-Chicken-Dinosaur

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

This is an ideal costume for the archaeology aficionado. Based off paleontologist Paul Sereno’s serendipitous rediscovery of this little cat-sized terror’s fossils in a Harvard basement last year, your costume should encompass the main features of the cute little dinosaur:

– Parrot-like beak
– Giant fangs (its 3-inch skull boasted ½-inch long fangs)
– Coat of porcupine-like bristles (you can use straws cut to a point – bonus points if you can figure out a way to get them to stand-up as a reaction to threats)

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

The creature, which skittered about the Lesotho region of Africa 200 million years ago, was bi-pedal and had grasping hands; to recreate the posture I recommend the standard “raptor” stance – arms tucked in, back hunched, head tilted.

2.Genetically-modified Mosquito with Scientist, a costume for couples

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

If you come with a built-in Halloween partner like a significant other or friendly roommate, you may want to look into couple’s costumes. One possibility is to nod to the increasingly trendy method of stamping out tropical disease – that of releasing genetically modified mosquitoes into the wild. The flies are engineered by British biotech company Oxitec.

The male mosquitoes (which do not bite – you can blame all your itchy aggravations on the ladies) are engineered with a tragic flaw. They pass down an altered version of the tTA gene to their offspring that effectively prevents the larva from developing into full-grown adult mosquitoes, thereby diminishing the population density of these insidious vectors for dengue fever and malaria.

To pull off this costume, one party needs the standard “scientist” accessories – a lab coat, beaker, glasses – while the other needs a good fly costume complete with wings, bubble eyes, and probiscus. Bonus points if you incorporate some indicator of genetic modification – maybe a big red “NO” cross on your crotch?

3. The Steampunk Insect, or the Issus Bug

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

This little guy, scientific name Issus coleoptratus, was big news in September when a paper published in Science demonstrated it as the first example of a functional gear found in nature.

The nymph form of this plant-hopper insect has two interlocking gears at the top of their hind legs that serve as propulsion mechanisms, assisting the bug in its extreme jumping acrobatics. The adolescent Issus can reach jumping speeds of 8 mph and an acceleration rate of 400 g’s – a typical human can only tolerate up to 5 g’s.

Scanning electron micrograph image of gears. Photo courtesy of Malcolm Burrows.
Scanning electron micrograph image of gears. Photo courtesy of Malcolm Burrows.

To get this look, wear your best bug costume and attach cardboard gears to your hips.

4. The Higgs Boson, or the Hardest Halloween Costume EVER:

Scientists Peter Higgs and Francois Englert won the Nobel Prize for physics this week for their work developing the concept of the Higgs boson particle, which theoretically is responsible for providing all the matter in the Universe with mass.

The closest we can probably come to representing the Higgs boson in a Halloween costume would be to recreate the read-out from a simulated collision between two protons (picture below) touted as possible evidence of its existence:

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

To get this effect, attach LED light strands to a black turtleneck. Be ready to have to explain yourself constantly, understand esoteric physics, and most likely endure exasperated eye rolls from your fellow revelers.