Tuesday, July 22, 2014
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A hovercraft all your own: Duo aim to make science fun with new DIY guide

"How to Build a Hovercraft," by Stephen Voltz and Fritz Grobe, contains more than 24 amazing DIY projects, such as the self-crushing can, the bar of soap that becomes a mound of foam in seconds and the multiple paper plane launcher and the well-explained science behind them. (MCT)
"How to Build a Hovercraft," by Stephen Voltz and Fritz Grobe, contains more than 24 amazing DIY projects, such as the self-crushing can, the bar of soap that becomes a mound of foam in seconds and the multiple paper plane launcher and the well-explained science behind them. (MCT)

(MCT) Stephen Voltz and Fritz Grobe have built an empire on Diet Coke and Mentos.

Voltz, a lawyer and former stage performer, and Grobe, a world-class juggler and a former mathematics student at Yale, latched onto the Coke-and-Mentos-geyser phenomenon a few years ago. They got all science-y and turned a backyard “Hey, watch this” trick into a spectacular, frothy show (for proof, go to eepybird.com, and take a spin through the video library).

They did not stop there. They create Internet-ready experiments in their lab in Maine; they give corporate presentations about creativity and innovation; they post wonderfully strange videos. Now they have added a book to their resume, “How to Build a Hovercraft” (Chronicle). It contains more than 24 amazing DIY projects — such as the self-crushing can, the bar of soap that becomes a mound of foam in seconds and the multiple paper plane launcher — and the well-explained science behind them.

“We were looking for that combination of fun and science,” Grobe says. “This is the kind of book I wanted in college. It’s what I want now.”

The two self-proclaimed mad scientists took time out from their latest projects to talk about the book. This is an edited transcript of the interview.

Q: Is all you do — eepybird.com, the book, the speaking engagements — an offshoot of the Mentos phenomenon?

Grobe: Yeah, absolutely. … When we first started experimenting with Coke and Mentos, we were getting really small geysers. It took us an embarrassingly long time to realize we were in Maine, and the temperature affects the size of your geysers. So that got us thinking about the science of Coke and Mentos. No one was looking at the science part.

Q: Where do ideas come from? Suggestions from people, things you stumbled upon?

Voltz: A mix of those and a fair amount of great stuff on the Internet, once we learned to find cool stuff.

Grobe: We’re always looking for ideas where ordinary objects can do extraordinary things.

Q: Do you have a favorite experiment?

Grobe: Right now my favorite is the paper airplane squadron. That’s the one we’ve been pushing further and further. Just this week we launched 48 planes simultaneously.

Q: Which one has gotten the most attention?

Grobe: The hovercraft certainly attracts attention. There’s nothing like building your own hovercraft.

Voltz: If you can cut plywood you can do it in an hour. And anyone can ride. I’m over 6 feet, 200 pounds, and I can use it.

Grobe: For Thanksgiving, I gave my father a ride in the hovercraft. He’s in a wheelchair now, but we strapped him in, and he went for a ride.

Q: Who is the audience for these experiments, kids or adults?

Voltz: We aim all our stuff at adults. But everything is made so it’s completely kid-friendly. We do stuff we love or stuff that makes us crack up or makes us say, “That’s cool.” Then we try to explain it.

Q: What’s the progression on the experiments, first researching and figuring out the science, then building it?

Voltz: We build it first and see if it works, see if it’s as promised. Some fall apart at that point. Then we try to figure out what’s the science, research it and write it up.

Grobe: Since our quest is always, “How far can we take it?” we do it over and over and see what are the different twists we can put on this and look for an opportunity to make it even bigger. The paper airplane squadron, you can build an individual launcher, and very quickly. But if you want to, there are also the plans to launch 10 at once. (That) kind of thing: Here’s step 1, but if you’re still curious, here’s step 2 and step 3 and beyond.

Q: You’ve been doing these things for a while now. Do you still experience a sense of wonder?

Voltz: Absolutely.

Grobe: Every day I get to go into the lab and try something I’ve never tried before and sometimes try things I never thought possible. We just launched more paper airplanes than I ever thought I’d see in the air at once. I live for those moments.

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©2014 Chicago Tribune

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William Hageman Chicago Tribune
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