Six Things You Can Break Down Today

7:55 minutes

A floppy disc, deconstructed. Credit: Charles Bergquist
A floppy disc, deconstructed. Credit: Charles Bergquist
A keyboard, deconstructed. Credit: Charles Bergquist
A keyboard, deconstructed. Credit: Charles Bergquist

Last week in St Louis, Science Friday’s Science Club launched their latest project, “Break It Down.” The project encourages people to look inside complex items, take them apart into smaller pieces, and try to use what they discover inside to learn something about how they work. Science Club founding members Ariel Zych and Charles Bergquist join Ira to share some of the things that people have broken down so far, and to offer some do-it-yourself suggestions to get your creative juices flowing.

Be safe! Read and heed all warnings on the outside of electronics, never break apart batteries, microwaves, television sets, amplifiers, or other high-power appliances—they are unsafe even when not plugged in!

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.

Segment Transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING] IRA FLATOW: That sound means it’s time for a meeting of The Science Club. And here to check in on our latest project, break it down, here to talk about it are the founding members of The Science Club, our Education Manager, Ariel Zych, joining us via Skype, and Science Friday’s Director Charles Bergquist here at our QNE studios.

Welcome back. I’m going to begin with you, Charles.


IRA FLATOW: How’s it going?

CHARLES BERGQUIST: It’s going great. We’ve been working on this for about a week. We started it last week when we were actually out in St. Louis. And the project this time is we’re challenging people to learn something about how something works, what’s inside something, by looking, breaking it apart, and looking at the parts that are inside.

IRA FLATOW: And Ariel, last week we were in St. Louis. And we broke down floppy disks and keyboards. And boy, did the crowd love that.

ARIEL ZYCH: It was incredible. It was awesome. And you could hear all the pieces.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s take a listen.

ARIEL ZYCH: I highly recommend taking your little metallic thing off, right? Oh, listen to that. I can hear everybody’s shutters getting popped off.

IRA FLATOW: The sounds of things breaking, isn’t that joy to some ears?

ARIEL ZYCH: And you might, if you’re lucky, you might catch the spring that flies out of there– if you don’t have a spring.

IRA FLATOW: So, Ariel, who should be doing this? What sorts of stuff have you received so far that’s been breaking down?

ARIEL ZYCH: Well, so everybody, you should try this. That satisfaction you get when you open something up to see how it works on the inside. That’s the feeling we want you to have.

Everybody does that. Scientists do it. Geologists do it. Biologists do it. So please, everybody participate.

I think we’ve already gotten a ton of submissions of people breaking down their pens, because the clicky pen thing is this like very easy thing to break down. I think we can go way beyond that. So break down your vegetables. Break down your cereal.

We actually have a bunch of ideas on our website right now at sciencefriday.com. You can find a whole bunch of things that you can break down in less than 10 minutes. But also, be ambitious. Go through that old junk drawer you have and find something to break down. I think really there’s no– there aren’t many limits? Am I right, Charles?

CHARLES BERGQUIST: Yeah, well, I mean use common sense, use safety. Please don’t take apart anything that’s plugged in. Don’t take apart anything that’s still alive or that you or somebody you love cares deeply about.

IRA FLATOW: Wear safety glasses.

CHARLES BERGQUIST: Safety glasses if you have them. Be aware that some things might have stuff in them that you don’t want to get on your hands. But yeah, probably everybody’s got that old VCR sitting around in the garage or that thing that your uncle left you that you don’t know what it is. Take a look inside.

IRA FLATOW: Do we want them to send it to us?

CHARLES BERGQUIST: We certainly do.

IRA FLATOW: We want all those VCRs?

CHARLES BERGQUIST: Well, no, we don’t want the physical VCR. There’s electronics recycling firms that take care of that.

IRA FLATOW: Glad we got that out of the way.

CHARLES BERGQUIST: Yeah. You can send that to Ira’s house. But at sciencefriday.com/scienceclub, we’ve got a nice form where you can tell us about what you’re breaking down, what’s inside. Or if you’re doing these things on the social web, you can share it with us. Hashtag is– I broke it down.

IRA FLATOW: And I won’t be home for the next few weeks, so don’t send it to me. Let me just let everybody know, this is Science Friday from PRI, Public Radio International. And I am Ira Flatow talking with Ariel Zych and Charles Bergquist about our Break It Down. And so you would say then, Charles, it’s been successful? We’ve had a very successful time so far.

CHARLES BERGQUIST: So far. I mean we’re only a week in. We’re going to be doing this through December 9th. So if you’ve got some down time this weekend, next weekend, over the Thanksgiving break, we’ve got plenty of time for you to explore and share your discoveries with us.

IRA FLATOW: And Ariel, have you gone through some of the stuff that’s been coming in?

ARIEL ZYCH: So I have. And I love what I’ve seen so far. Which is even scientists are participating. So we had some folks from the University of Minnesota. They showed us an exploded diagram of their microreactor, where they use to study chemical reactions. Exploded diagrams are a great way of breaking something down, but so are those chemical reactions.

IRA FLATOW: So they didn’t physically explode anything. It’s just a diagram–

ARIEL ZYCH: But most explosions are actually decomposition reactions. So that totally counts these days, kids. But really explosions are great chemistry and are an example of breaking something down. So there’s really no kind of subject balance to this challenge. I think what’s so exciting about it is, yeah, you can break down technology.

You can also break down your juice or break down your shoes or try to break down some concept that they’ve always struggled with, by like taking something complex apart. That’s the whole point of this. So really go to town.

CHARLES BERGQUIST: Yeah, and if you’re looking for some ideas, Ariel’s put together a great collection of six easy things that you can break down yourself right now within 10, 15 minutes after getting off the air. You can start this. But don’t limit it to that. Use that as a jumping off point to get your destructive, explanatory juices flowing.

ARIEL ZYCH: Inspiration, exactly, and bring a friend along for the ride. I think one of the things that we found when we did this in St. Louis was people who like got a keyboard to break down. We’re looking at the person with the floppy disk like, oh, my gosh, I didn’t know that was in a floppy disk. Then the person with the floppy disk was like, I’ve never seen the inside of a keyboard before.

So part of the fun of this challenge is sharing it with other people. And that’s one of the reasons why we have that hashtag, the I broke it down hashtag. So that people can really get into that social sphere of exploring things with other people.

IRA FLATOW: Kudos to you and Charles for finding enough old floppy disks still in existence. Are you having trouble getting or finding– How do you find floppy disks these days?

ARIEL ZYCH: Well, electronics recyclers do this kind of thing all the time. And actually our video producer Luke made that great video about commingled recycling and how it’s separated. That’s a great example of how like an applicable break it down, right? So if you take the challenge of recycling, which is there’s a whole bunch of stuff all commingled together and you’ve got to get it separated, you can break those down by density, by weight, by plastic, by all of that.

IRA FLATOW: All right. So our education manager Ariel Zych and Science Friday’s Director Charles Bergquist, founding members of the Science Friday Science Club. And that hashtag again is #Ibrokeitdown.

One last thing before we go, I’d like to take a moment to remember the molecular biologist Susan Lindquist. She was a pioneer in the study of protein folding and how it related to human disease, too. And she was here in 2006 talking about it on Science Friday.

SUSAN LINDQUIST: Many really dreadful human diseases are due to proteins not taking their right shapes, to them folding into the wrong kind of a shape, and then doing something bad. But these are really complicated, difficult diseases to study. And it’s a difficult process to study. And I’ve been working on protein folding for a good many years now. And we’ve worked with lots of different organisms. And it turns out that the fungus, the yeast saccharomyces cerevisiae, which is well-known to you because it’s the organism that produces the leavened bread and beer and wine.

IRA FLATOW: Common yeast.

SUSAN LINDQUIST: Yep, common yeast. It’s a wonderful workhorse in the laboratory.

IRA FLATOW: Biologist Susan Linguist of MIT. Her studies on that laboratory workhorse yeast went on to provide important insights into diseases like Parkinson’s and many, many others. She passed away in Boston last week at the age of 67.

That’s all the time we have this hour. Charles Bergquist is our Director. Our Senior Producer Christopher Intagliata. Our Producers are Alexa Lim, Annie Minhoff, Christie Taylor, Katie Hiler, Luke Groskin is our Video Producer. Rich Kim, our technical director. Sara Fishman and Jack Horowitz are our engineers at the controls here at the studios of our production partners, the City University of New York. I’m Ira Flatow in New York.

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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.

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