To moonwalk like Michael Jackson, you need van der Waals forces

May 14, 2012 in Space

At the Eureka Festival, down by the Old Port of Montreal, on June 13th, 2010, Molecules of Life explored the importance of weak molecular forces for Michael Jackson’s Moonwalk propulsion. On a bright sunny day, to the vibrations of Michael Jackson’s music, hundreds of curious children and their parents visited the Molecules of Life booth and danced the moonwalk on two different surfaces. First, in their rubber-soled shoes and sneakers, they tried to glide like Jackson on vinyl and cardboard surfaces. Then, in their cotton sox, they attempted the same dance steps on the same surfaces. The smiling, enthusiastic moon walking participants were then questioned by the Molecules of Life pole-takers “on which of the two surfaces was it easier to dance the moonwalk.” 

The poles were almost unanimous: when wearing rubber-soled shoes, the vinyl surface gave the better glide; in cotton sox, dancing the moonwalk was easier on cardboard.


First, we need to consult the 1910 Nobel Prize winning theories of Dutch physical chemist Johannes Diderik van der Waals, who demonstrated the existence of weak interactions between close molecules. Two of these interactions play key roles when dancing on vinyl and cardboard, respectively, dispersion forces and hydrogen bonds.  Dispersion forces of attraction result from the rapid fluctuations of the location of electrons in molecules inducing similar fluctuations in other molecules.  Such choreographed movements between the electrons of neighboring molecules are particularly important when hydrophobic surfaces like rubber and vinyl rub together.  Hydrogen bonds are weak attractive interactions, which occur between hydrophilic molecules like cellulose, which is a major component of your cotton sox and cardboard.

Second, we need to consider the key step of the moonwalk: to slide one heel back and “into” the floor as you lean back on your other foot.  Key for this movement is the ability to anchor the toes of the back foot as the other foot glides behind it. Weak molecular interactions, van de Waals forces are essential for the back foot to gain traction with the surface, otherwise your back foot would slip forward as the other foot moves back.

Rubber-soled shoes stick better on a vinyl surface, due to dispersion forces and cellulose-cotton sox anchor better on the cellulose of cardboard, due to hydrogen bonds. Hence, the slipperiness of the surfaces makes not for a good Moonwalk; instead, it’s the weak molecular interactions, those van der Waals forces, which allow you to anchor one foot so you may appear to glide with the other. 

Dancing to music and learning about science is always fun as can be seen from the many happy faces enjoying our Molecules of Life experiment.

The impact of meteorites

May 2, 2012 in Space

Friday, April 29th, 2011, Molecules of Life made impact with Ms Paula’s 3rd grade class at FACE school, as meteors were presented by team meteorite featuring Robert Hopewell (M.Sc. University of. Montreal) and Caroline Steele (BFA, Concordia University.)

Quebec is home of Manicouagan crater, which has a 65 km diameter  produced from the impact of an asteroid hitting the Earth 200 million years ago. The students knew that the impact of another asteroid around 60 million years ago is theorized to have led to the extinction of the dinosaurs and that the craters on the moon were due to asteroid and meteoroid impacts. Meteoroids are mostly ice and may be considered as dirty snowballs, which for the most part melt when coming in contact with the Earth’s atmosphere, which leaves usually only tinier rocks that fall to the ground as meteorites. The moon has  no significant atmosphere such that the impact of a meteoroid leaves larger impact craters as well as dispersion lines from the displaced soil and rocks.

Exploring meteorite impact further with a series of experiments, the students dropped different stone-like objects into a pot containing flour covered with cocoa. Using rulers, they measured the depth of the impact and the distance of the radii of the dispersed particles. Using stones of different weights yet similar size, they gained an appreciation for the effects of mass on the force of impact. Dropping the stones from different heights, they gained an appreciation for the effect of the distance traveled by the stone on its force of impact. As the students predicted, deeper craters and longer distances of dispersed flour were measured when dropping heavier objects as well as when the same object was dropped from a greater height.

Employing what they learned of the relationship between force and dispersion distance, the students used pipettes to drop paint onto a white paper circle. Similarly, they used the force of a plastic knife scraping against a toothbrush to disperse white paint onto black paper. Combining the two, images, the students prepared pictures of planets impacted by meteorite-made craters in space.

Impressed by the power of meteorites and the impact of their forces on the depth of craters and the distances of dispersion radii, the students thanked Robert and Caroline for a project that engaged their  imaginations like a shooting star.

For more on Manicouagan Impact Crater, Quebec, Canada

Saturn Odyssey

May 2, 2012 in Space

On May 20 and June 17 2011, at events hosted by Caroline Steele (BFA, Concordia University) and Alexandra Aubé (BSc, University of Montreal) the 3rd grade students of the class of Ms.Paula Shuster at FACE School and Ms.Nathalie Ricard School-Paul Bruchési of Montreal have imagined traveling through the 1300 million kilometers that distance the Earth from Saturn.

Through a play written by Caroline with scientific facts explained by Alexandra and in which all students participated, students discovered the centrifugal and centripetal forces, the composition of Saturn and its largest moon Titan as well as the rings of this impressive planet. Indeed, wanting to go to Saturn for a picnic, the chef of the crew was very disappointed to learn that Saturn was made only of hydrogen and helium, two gases that we also find on Earth. Instead, they landed on the moon Titan, where the soil is made of rock and ice but where the temperature is -179 ° C! Meeting the wicked inhabitants of Titan, the crew had to flee. They crossed the 70,000 km of rock and ice that make up Saturn’s rings to take refuge. There, the members of the crew felt very heavy, it was because of the gravitational force, which was much greater since Saturn has nine times the size of the Earth. They also met the Queen of Saturn who offered them to dance to the Saturnian way. The characters rotated a balloon that contained a coin; by rotating the balloon, the coin was subjected to centrifugal force and rolled on the sides of the balloon creating a strange music. The crew then left the planet that Galileo Galilei sighted for the first time in 1610.

After the play, Alexandra went on to answer scientific questions that this act aroused in their minds.

It was through an adventurous and comic odyssey that the molecules of life team had students travel in the space between art and science!

You can access the play from this link: Saturn Odyssey