How You—and the Science Club—Broke It Down

17:10 minutes

Over the past month, Science Friday listeners have taken apart various things as part of the Science Club’s “Break It Down” project. You’ve broken up old phones, stripped down clicky pens, and separated a chemical mixture through chromatography, to name a few experiments. Now, Ira meets with Science Club co-founders Ariel Zych and Charles Bergquist and project participants to talk about what they’ve discovered through disassembly.

Check out some of the submissions we got over the past couple of months.

#scienceclub #sciencefriday #ibrokeitdown

A photo posted by Debra Spangler (@debratsehi) on

Old phone #ibrokeitdown #scifri #npr @scifri

A photo posted by Legacy School MD (@legacyscience) on

free time. #ibrokeitdown #knowledgeispower

A photo posted by Jeremy Fisher (@wylieandthemightyki) on


Segment Guests

Ariel Zych

Ariel Zych is Science Friday’s director of audience. She is a former teacher and scientist who spends her free time making food, watching arthropods, and being outside.

Charles Bergquist

As Science Friday’s director and senior producer, Charles Bergquist channels the chaos of a live production studio into something sounding like a radio program. Favorite topics include planetary sciences, chemistry, materials, and shiny things with blinking lights.

Will Link

Will Link is an engineer and project manager for the stationery category of BIC International.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow.


IRA FLATOW: There it is. That sound means that Science Friday Science Club is back in session, here to wind up another unique project. This one is called Break It Down. And the point of the project was to find stuff, break it to see what’s inside, and let us know what you found.

AMY: Breaking apart my mother’s old garage door opener, which is already partially broken.

SPEAKER 1: Just use your fingers and pry it apart right here. All right, so, we’ve got the circuit board–

AMY: The circuit board.

SPEAKER 1: –with some wiring–

AMY: We have old batteries.

SPEAKER 1: Oh, look at that!

AMY: Oh–

SPEAKER 1: We got the whole thing.

AMY: –we have a plastic case.

SPEAKER 1: So it’s all module. All in itself. And voila.

IRA FLATOW: There you have it. That’s Amy from Plainfield, Illinois, and her son-in-law. Two people participating in our break it down challenge, taking things apart to try to get a better understanding of how they work. Did you break something down? Tell us about it! Our number, 844-724-8255, 844-SCI-TALK, or Tweet us at SciFri.

Joining me now are the founders of the Science Club, Science Friday’s education manager Ariel Zych, and director Charles Bergquist. Welcome to the program.



IRA FLATOW: Well, so Ariel, the project was, break it down take it apart.

ARIEL ZYCH: Absolutely.

IRA FLATOW: Hit it with a sledgehammer.

ARIEL ZYCH: Get in there any way you can. We wanted those objects in your life, or those things around you that are just too complex to understand up front, right? So that stuff that you really have to simplify and pull apart and look inside to understand how they work. That was the invitation. So everybody out there who broke something down, I bet you figured out something super cool.

IRA FLATOW: Charles, did you break something down? Did you have a favorite thing that you worked on?

CHARLES BERGQUIST: Yeah, my son and I, we have an old mixer–


CHARLES BERGQUIST: –that you know, a bread mixer for the kitchen. And we opened it up, and the arrangement of interlocking gears that translate the motion of the motor, into the circular going around part of the beater, it’s so complicated. I mean, it makes sense when you look at it, but you never really guess how it all fits into that housing together.

IRA FLATOW: Wow, That is fun. How many participants did we get, Ariel? A lot of reaction on this?

ARIEL ZYCH: Tons. Tons of participation, and actually, people are really into devices, so as is Charles implied, these simple things that you think, oh, yeah, I totally know how a mixer works, or I absolutely have some idea what’s inside of a telephone. Like, they don’t. And when you open it up, you get these beautiful technological wonders that just kind of splay out all over people’s dining room tables. Everything including– and not just devices, including a bunch of other stuff, too.

IRA FLATOW: And one of the most surprising things about this project was the number of people who chose to take their pens apart.

ARIEL ZYCH: Yes, the pen!

IRA FLATOW: Especially the– let me click mine, my retractable ball pen! [CLICKING] Yes, kind of springy and clicky thing. So joining me now to walk us through the magic of the clicky pen is Will Link. He’s an engineer and product manager in the stationery division of Bic. Bic Pen, you know, Bic International. You probably have one in their pens, like this one, right near you. He joins me by phone from South Carolina, welcome to the program!

WILL LINK: Hey guys.

IRA FLATOW: Hey. Tell us how, when you take it apart, there are so many little parts in it there. The spring, for example, that comes sort of comes out first. Are they the same springs in every kind of pen?

WILL LINK: No. For Bic pens, we make many, many different springs, depending on the requirement of the pen. It goes from maybe the lift, to the force needed to retract the mechanism, or retract the point back into the pen.

IRA FLATOW: And what is the most important part? Everybody take your pens apart. Take your Bic pen apart if you got one.

ARIEL ZYCH: Yeah, if you’ve got a pen at home, go for it. That’s what we’re all about here. So start taking your pen apart.

IRA FLATOW: What is the most important part of the pen?

WILL LINK: Well, that could– I don’t want to short change any of my colleagues at Bic. But one of the more important components is the ball that’s in the point. The sphere that’s made of tungsten carbide, very hard and dense material.

CHARLES BERGQUIST: So this is right at the very tip of the point. Not the sort of cone shape, but a tiny little sphere, right in the tip.

ARIEL ZYCH: Right. You have to look really close at it.

WILL LINK: It’s like one millimeter in diameter, so–

IRA FLATOW: How hard is–

WILL LINK: –very small.

IRA FLATOW: How hard is it to make that point?

WILL LINK: Well, Bic has been making pens since 1950, and very vertically integrated. We make our own balls. And there’s a lot that goes into it, but one of the most important parts is having a very– a surface that doesn’t have any imperfections. If you have an imperfection, you’re going to feel that when you write. It’s going to be less smooth, it’s going to not give you a clean line in a ballpoint pen.

CHARLES BERGQUIST: So you have to make it very smooth, so that it works. Do you make your own springs?

WILL LINK: Yeah. Yes. This is old technology, but it’s done on the spring machine, and they’re fascinating to watch them make springs.

ARIEL ZYCH: Now I have to ask you a question, because we saw these Bic pens get submitted by our participants. There’s this weird little like, white plastic thing that has a bunch of ridges on it. It’s like a circular thing, it’s kind of at the top, near the part that you actually click. What is that?

WILL LINK: So that’s part of the mechanism. That allows the– when you press the button that the pen goes down, and you press it again and it retracts back up. So it’s sort of like a teeth– acts like a sewing machine, if you press it very quickly. So that it rotates around, and it matches with usually one or two other components.

CHARLES BERGQUIST: So we all know the people that just sit there all day, and click. How many clicks do you build a pen for? I mean–

WILL LINK: So we– that’s a good question. So we design our pens, we test– put them through a series of maybe 25, 30 different torture test. And one of them is 50,000 cycles. So we designed for one of our pens to last up to 50,000 cycles.

CHARLES BERGQUIST: And is the click something that you’re actually going for? I mean are there–

ARIEL ZYCH: Yeah, I’m loving it.

CHARLES BERGQUIST: –people that are, I want a silent pen, or– is that something that you’re building into the pen deliberately?

WILL LINK: Well, what we found, when we did not have– when we design a pen sometimes without that sound, we got some feedback that maybe that’s not good. Because for a retractable pen, the reason you retract it is so you can put in your shirt pocket or pocket book, and you don’t get ink on anything around it. So we find that users, end users, want that re-affirming click when you press the actuator– press the button.

IRA FLATOW: Thank you. That’s– one last question. Can you make a ballpoint pen any better? Is there pen technology research that goes on, to make the best one?

WILL LINK: Ira, it’s unbelievable how much the team puts into pens every year, trying to refine just a little bit better., smoother, smoother writing pens. If we go back to our crystal pen that we launched in 1950, it’s had many, many advances over the years.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, I remember seeing it in electric drill, to show how tough those points were. Will Link is an engineer and product manager in the stationery division of Bic International, thank you, Will, for being with us today.

WILL LINK: Been my pleasure, guys.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s talk about some other things that people broke down.

CHARLES BERGQUIST: All kinds of stuff, all over the spectrum. One person has an old Jeep that they’ve got in their garage, and they are extensively documenting the nuts and bolts and gears and everything. I mean, it’s really almost a work of art, just the number of pieces laid out all over the place. There were people with DVD players, that was a popular one, because you’ve got all the little lasers and lenses and the motor that turns the thing around.

ARIEL ZYCH: Lots of obsolete technology. So I mean, this is where you’re like, that electronics recyclables container that you’ve been meaning to go through? It’s like a treasure trove in there. You get in there and you find a whole bunch of old phones, like the handsets for the ones, you know, when they were wireless, but you still had the phone hard line into the wall. We have– there were some smartphones that were taken apart, including like really cool peely touchpads.

And there also were some things that weren’t technological in nature. But I want to go to this one that sounded particularly cool.

IRA FLATOW: That’s what we had at the beginning of the show.

ARIEL ZYCH: Yes. See if you can tell what this is. Anybody?


ARIEL ZYCH: Yeah. It’s a special sound. You might recognize it around breakfast. That’s a toaster. That’s that wire cassette that kind of closes up over your toast and sucks it into the hot spot, that is what that sound is. And we had some students take this apart from Legacy school out in Sykesville, Maryland. They did a whole bunch of these things. Here’s another really great one.

SPEAKER 2: Can I get this one here?

SPEAKER 3: Yeah.


SPEAKER 2: It shakes your body.

CHARLES BERGQUIST: So Ira, can you name that sound?

IRA FLATOW: I can, because I know what it is, but it is a sound you will never hardly hear–


IRA FLATOW: –today.

CHARLES BERGQUIST: –and the joy of those young students discovering the magic of the rotary phone dial spinning around with that chchchchch.

ARIEL ZYCH: Fleeting technology. Get your hands on one while you still can.

IRA FLATOW: Never wanted to dial zero because it took forever to come back.

CHARLES BERGQUIST: That’s right, but they wouldn’t have had an experience with that technology. But it’s also a way that they can kind of get an insight into the mysterious black box of how more modern things work. If you look at that rotary phone dial, and you figure out, oh there’s all these little switches in there, and it goes tick, tick, tick when I– well, gee, maybe my smartphone has some kind of switch equivalent thing going on in there. It’s not magic, it’s technology.

ARIEL ZYCH: Absolutely. I think we lose that a lot, especially the technology that kids are interacting with now, it’s just, it’s small, right? Everything gets smaller. On those smartphones, there’s a motor in there that makes your phone vibrate, but finding the motor in a smartphone, versus finding the motor in an old giant killer phone? I mean, that’s something. So I’d like to hear a little bit more about what people have submitted. I know that we have some–

IRA FLATOW: Go for it.

ARIEL ZYCH: Yeah, some folks calling in.

IRA FLATOW: Kathleen in Oregon, who sent us something she did.

KATHLEEN: Hi. Hello.

IRA FLATOW: Hi there. Hi Kathleen. You did this with your son Wyatt, it is that right?

KATHLEEN: Yes, I did. Yeah, he’s two years old, and we decided to take apart a V-tech car.

CHARLES BERGQUIST: What’s a V-tech car?

KATHLEEN: So, a V-tech car is a toy that little kids play with, and there’s a track, it’s called a smart track. And it has bumps on the track, so that when that car drives over these certain bumps, the car makes different noises.

CHARLES BERGQUIST: So you took it apart with your son?

KATHLEEN: Yes, yeah.

CHARLES BERGQUIST: Did you find anything surprising in there?

KATHLEEN: Yeah. I found a circuit board in there, which I hadn’t really– I think I hadn’t really formed a thought of what I might find in there beforehand. But I also figured out why it was making those sounds as it was driving over that track. So, there’s teeth on the bottom that get pushed up into the car when it drives over the different bumps that are there along the road. And so when we took it apart, I could see that there were these little metal strips that were bent at like a 45 degree angle, underneath– or just above the teeth, so when the teeth were pushing up, then that metal spring, almost, was making a connection with the circuit board that was in there. And that’s how the sound was being created. And I hadn’t really thought about how it was getting there, and–



IRA FLATOW: You broke it down. Thank you, Kathleen. That was–


IRA FLATOW: That was really interesting, and I hope you guys had fun. This is Science Friday from PRI, Public Radio International. Wrapping up our Science Club break it down, with folks who did break it down, let’s go to our next caller, Michael in Los Angeles. Hi Michael.


IRA FLATOW: Hi. You took apart a weather instrument?

MICHAEL: Yeah, it’s a thermometer and a hydrometer. And it’s something that was hanging on my wall. It’s got two dials on the front, one for temperature and one for humidity. And so I opened it up, and there are two little coils on the back. These are pretty cool. So the one for the temperature is called a bimetallic strip. It’s made of two metals that are fused together into a coil. And when it warms up, one of the metals expands more quickly than the other, causing the coil to change shape. And that turns the dial on the front, which tells you the temperature. And like if you have a thermostat or a meat thermometer, it might have one of these bimetallic strips in it.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Right. Right, I know what you’re talking about. Thank you Michael, that was a learning experience. Let’s go to Claudia in Atlanta. Hi Claudia, welcome to Science Friday.

CLAUDIA: Hi Science Club!



IRA FLATOW: Tell us about what you did.

CLAUDIA: So I am a facilitator at a home school co-op class, and so as a group we participated in the project and kids just brought various things from around their house. The big hit was a DVD player, as well as a laptop and computer monitor. So those were the things I think that they found most interesting to break down.

CHARLES BERGQUIST: How was that, doing it with a whole bunch of kids? was there a lot of destruction and mayhem involved there?

CLAUDIA: So, yeah they were super into the whole destruction and mayhem aspect of it. But yeah, they’re– home school kids tend to be pretty independent, usually, so I just kind of supervise and gave them some tools and let them go. And we did not have any injuries or anything, thank goodness. So yeah, it was great. They were really, really into it. We spent the whole two hours of our class on it, and they were not ready to finish, but it was time to go.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, thank you. Thanks for calling us. Let’s see if I can get one quick call in before we have to go. Josh in Berkeley, hi, Josh.

JOSH: Oh, hi. I’m a composing and performing musician, and I disassembled the Fugue Number Two of Bach in C minor, from The Well Tempered Clavier, and put it back together using steps that I derived from my analysis of it to try to create a fugue of similar quality and purport.

ARIEL ZYCH: Whoa. That is incredibly cool.

CHARLES BERGQUIST: Yeah, it doesn’t have to be a big mechanical thing.

JOSH: Actually, yeah, if you think of music as having all the coordinates of some of the other machines you’re talking about, there’s time, there’s melody, harmony, rhythm and form. And those are all quantifiable. We often think of the procedure of composers as being subject to inspiration, but in fact, there’s quite a lot of rational thinking that goes along in it, even if it’s only at the development stage which eventually may subside into inspiration eventually, where you can do it instinctually. But as a student of music, you’re constantly taking apart things that– I play jazz as well, and I’m constantly analyzing solos of Charlie Parker and Bill Evans.

ARIEL ZYCH: Oh, man that’s so neat.

IRA FLATOW: That’s great. Thank you for sharing that with us as well. That was very successful. Looked like you had a great project.

ARIEL ZYCH: I would say so, and like Charles point, not just things, right? Anything. Molecules, plants, we had a gall dissection, we had someone who did a silica gel chromatography experiment as part of their work as a scientist, right? Breaking things down is a great way to figure out what’s going on in the universe.

CHARLES BERGQUIST: And you may not need to have Band Aids when you’re done.

ARIEL ZYCH: Right, Band Aids are optional.

CHARLES BERGQUIST: So don’t stop. You can keep doing this– we’re done with this project, but you can keep on going, and you can see some of the ones that other people have sent in at sciencefriday.com/scienceclub.

IRA FLATOW: Thank you, Charles. Charles Bergquist, our director, and education manager Ariel Zych. We’ll look forward to the next club.

ARIEL ZYCH: Sounds good.


IRA FLATOW: And one last thing before we go, speaking of education. Calling all teachers. Applications for our 2017 Science Friday Educator Collaborative, it’s now live. We’ll work with you to develop free classroom resources. Educators nationwide apply now at sciencefriday.com/educator.

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Meet the Producer

About Charles Bergquist

As Science Friday’s director and senior producer, Charles Bergquist channels the chaos of a live production studio into something sounding like a radio program. Favorite topics include planetary sciences, chemistry, materials, and shiny things with blinking lights.