inkwell.vue.172 : Mark Frauenfelder, Mad Professor
permalink #0 of 41: Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Thu 16 Jan 03 07:22
Be the first kid on your block to become a Mad Professor! Mark Frauenfelder
will tell you how!  Inkwell is pleased as punch to welcome Mark, whose new
book, _Mad Professor_, is described below.  Our discussion with Mark will
be led by Mark Harms, co-host of the WELL's science conference.

Mark Frauenfelder is a writer and illustrator from Los Angeles. He is the
founder of bOING bOING, a nerd lifestyle magazine that was published from
1988-1995. (It's now a weblog at He was an editor at
Wired magazine from 1993-1997, and was the founding editor-in-chief of
Wired Online. He was also an editor at Wired books, and launched a line of
science fiction books featuring the work of Rudy Rucker, Bruce Sterling,
and John Shirley.

Mark was also the co-editor of The Happy Mutant Handbook: Mischievous Fun
for Higher Primates (Riverhead Books, 1995), and a contributor to a number
of science and culture books. For the past three years, he has been
Playboy's "Living Online" columnist. You can see his writing clips at

Mark's Illustrations and cartoons have appeared Wired, The Industry
Standard, and numerous other magazines and websites. You can see his
illustration work at

Mark's latest book, Mad Professor (Chronicle, 2002), has a bunch of bizarre
science experiments, such as Goon Goo, Portal Paper, Crystal Gardens, and
Tasty Rocks. These experiments were inspired by the old chemistry books
Mark read as a child.

Mark's favorite hobby is playing the ukulele. He is married to Carla
Sinclair, an author with a new book coming out called Braid Crazy
(Chronicle, 2003), and has a five-year-old daughter, Sarina. They are
expecting their second daughter in March.

Mark Harms worked eight years as a reporter for a daily newspaper in
Hastings, Nebraska. He took a year off during that period to travel,
including a tour of Egypt and a two-month train trek around Western Europe.  
He moved to Minneapolis in 2000 and took a job with a major financial
corporation, but his goal is to write fiction. To that end he joined The
Loft Literary Center and has been active in a writer's group that spun out
of a workshop. He's still unpublished but plugging away!

Mark says of himself: "Mostly I'm an armchair philosopher but I've always
had and interest in science which has blossomed over the last ten years or
so and my primary interest is evolution. I joined the Well in July 2001 and
found a place to air my philosophical musings, engage in informed
discussions about science and otherwise pursue one of my favorite hobbies:  
arguing. Probably based more on my enthusiasm than expertise, I became a
co-host of the science conference last August." He's also into golf,
playing frisbee with his dog, jazz, playing the drums, chess, and visiting
art museums.

Welcome, Mark and Mark!
inkwell.vue.172 : Mark Frauenfelder, Mad Professor
permalink #1 of 41: Mark Frauenfelder (mark) Thu 16 Jan 03 09:23
Hi everyone! Thanks for setting this up, Jon, and thanks for hosting this,
Mark. I'm ready to answer questions!
inkwell.vue.172 : Mark Frauenfelder, Mad Professor
permalink #2 of 41: Mark Harms (murffy) Thu 16 Jan 03 18:24
Hey Mark, thanks for joining us. I read the book last weekend and it
was a tremendous amount of fun. I did a few of the experiments and
discovered my mechanical ineptitude is bettered only by my ham-fisted
cooking skills. The Mini Glideabout was perhaps my most successful
effort, particularly from my dog's pont of view. He barked and observed
intensely as the makeshift hovercraft floated around the kitchen

One great feature of the Mad Professor is its hardiness: spiral bound
laminated pages with pretty rugged hard cover, perfect for surviving
little mishaps. The retro-cartoon-SiFi artwork is lively and fun the
layout clear and easy to read.

Although, it must be said that, according to the introduction, Mark
acted in more of an editorial capacity than as author. The book was
written mostly by the staff of Zoober Science Laboratories which
includes Professor Zoober himself, a sort of head-in-a-helmet from
another solar system; Tambuzi, a genetically modified gorilla with a
200 IQ; Helena Capek, a young genius roboticist and great, great
grandaughter of Czech playwrite, Karel Capek; and Philo T. Funsworth, a
bald, transparent polymers expert. (The expert is transparent, not the

But Mark certainly did a fine job of marshaling this talent.  Which
brings me to my opening question. You mention, Mark, in the book's
acknowledgements that your father was a "garage scientist." So I'm
wondering how your childhood experiences with a home tinkerer
influenced you in writing this book. We're you a tinkerer too? What
ultimately made you decide to do the book?

It also seems, from reading your bio, looking at your website and
perusing some of the articles you've written, that you have embraced
Internet culture in a big way. Is this book something of an antidote,
something to show kids that there is more to experience than sitting in
front of a computer or playing with ready-made technologies? That
there's fun and interesting hands-on stuff they can do with ordinary
inkwell.vue.172 : Mark Frauenfelder, Mad Professor
permalink #3 of 41: Mark Frauenfelder (mark) Fri 17 Jan 03 09:58
Hi Mark! Thanks again for being the host of this topic. I'm glad you've had
fun with the book so far. The hovercraft project seems ot be a favorite with
a lot of people because it is easy to do and it works really well.

You ask if I was a tinkerer in my younger days. The answer is yes, but not
in the way that some of my friends were. I was always after the quick
effect. For instance, when all the kids in the neighborhood started building
Estes rockets, I built them too, but I always bought the smallest, easiest-
to-assemble rockets. I usually didn't bother to paint them. I just send them
up in their raw form -- as brown cardboard tubes with a plastic nose cone
and the fins glued on.

Some of my other friends would spend days and days making the larger more
complex rockets with multiple boosters and playloads and cameras. They'd
paint them and meticulously apply the decals. Then, when we'd get together,
we'd launch the rockets. I really enjoyed watching the big rockets go off,
tasting the fruits of their labor.

Today, I think I have a little more patience. I enjoy taking my time working
on something, such as learning a new song on my ukulele. I've been
practicing "My Little Grass Shack in Kealakekua Hawaii" for about a year-
and-a-half and my interest in the song seems to grow every time I attempt to
play it.

You also ask if Mad Professor was written as a hands-on antidote to the
hands-off world of the Internet. Not consciously, but when I think about it,
I guess it was. About five years ago I wrote an article about the origins of
Silly Putty, and I discovered that people have been trying to make homebrew
silly putty. That sounded like fun, so I tried several different recipes I
found on the Internet. I loved playing with the stuff, and I often kept wads
of the putty next to my computer to knead. (I also like to keep a blob of
artist's eraser on my desk for the same reason). It's nice to do something
with you hands besides tap keys all day long and putty works your fingers in
a great way.

One day I thought it would be fun to share the putty recipes I found with
other poeple in the form of a book. I wanted to book to have a little
backstory, so I created four little scientist characters to show people how
to make the projects. And that's how it happened!
inkwell.vue.172 : Mark Frauenfelder, Mad Professor
permalink #4 of 41: Life in the big (doctorow) Fri 17 Jan 03 17:52
(mark), can you tell us how you researched and wrote this book? Serina was a
big part of that, right?
inkwell.vue.172 : Mark Frauenfelder, Mad Professor
permalink #5 of 41: Mark Harms (murffy) Fri 17 Jan 03 18:22
The four little scientist characters, by the way, live on a tiny
island in the South Pacific called Kia Ora. Apparently, their chief
export is rock candy (recipe included in the book with explanations of
crystalization and super-saturated solutions).

Each section of the book begins with an introduction to some of the
principles behind what make the projects work.  The Slimes, Putties and
Doughs, for example, offers an explanation of polymers are and how
they form stretchy, rubbery substances sprinkled with a little history
on how these properties were discovered. I'm wondering, Mark, how you
gauged whether or not the language and terms would be understandable to
the 9-12 year-old range. It seems like you succeeded quite well. What
kind of feedback did you receive while working on the project? Was it
"kid tested?"

There also was an interesting bit on fringe science and the scientific
method, like how perpetual motion machines are probably not a
worthwhile pursuit because the universe tends not to give anybody a
"free lunch." Yet you also explain that the fringes of science are
where breakthroughs can occur. Why did you think it was important to
include this section?
inkwell.vue.172 : Mark Frauenfelder, Mad Professor
permalink #6 of 41: Mark Harms (murffy) Fri 17 Jan 03 18:25
(doctorow) slipped in.
inkwell.vue.172 : Mark Frauenfelder, Mad Professor
permalink #7 of 41: Audrey Marsh (aud) Fri 17 Jan 03 18:53
I'm going to slip in, too, and say Hi.  We (me & my 11-year old son,
Stephen) received the book in the mail yesterday.  He poured through it
quickly, and we were making Robot Food right away.

Tomorrow my task is to make sure I buy white vinegar and borax, and "better"

I believe we have some experimenting ahead of us.  And some fun!
inkwell.vue.172 : Mark Frauenfelder, Mad Professor
permalink #8 of 41: Mark Harms (murffy) Sat 18 Jan 03 11:35
All right! A parent and kid. I hope we can get updates on your

>"better" balloons.

Yeah, I was glad I bought three bags of different varieties and sizes.
One thing I had fun with was the Living Room Laser Show although it
took some tweaking. I had a small mirror but it turned out to be too
heavy to register much vibration. I managed to get interesting results
with a piece of aluminum foil taped to the balloon, however.  I also
discovered it worked better if I set the balloon a little off center
from my speaker and fixed the laser pointer in place.
inkwell.vue.172 : Mark Frauenfelder, Mad Professor
permalink #9 of 41: beneath the blue suburban skies (aud) Sat 18 Jan 03 11:55
i was wondering if my little mirror was too heavy, guess i was probably
right about that.  we'll try the foil tonight.
inkwell.vue.172 : Mark Frauenfelder, Mad Professor
permalink #10 of 41: Mark Frauenfelder (mark) Mon 20 Jan 03 09:17
Foil is a great idea. I didn't think of that. Maybe a little piece of mylar
(cut from a mylar balloon) would be good, too.

Sarina was a great product tester. She loved making the slimes and playing
with them after. It kept her busy for at least 1/2 hour. Much better than
sticking her in front of the TV. I'm thinking of doing a book titled "How to
keep your kids out of your hair without sticking them in front of the TV or

Mark, you asked about how I chose the maturity level for the language I
used in Mad Professor. Well, after reading lots of books to Sarina (who is
now 5.5 years old), I have a good idea of what kind of writing a kid can
understand and enjoy.
inkwell.vue.172 : Mark Frauenfelder, Mad Professor
permalink #11 of 41: Life in the big (doctorow) Mon 20 Jan 03 09:46
Keeping your kids away from the computer? I knew there was a reason I
shouldn't be allowed to reproduce.
inkwell.vue.172 : Mark Frauenfelder, Mad Professor
permalink #12 of 41: Betsy Schwartz (betsys) Mon 20 Jan 03 10:07
Boing boing! I am impressed!

About science, do you have any suggestions for which experiments would
work with a 6-year-old? She's just starting to get interested in how
things work but doesn't have the patience of a 10-year-old...
inkwell.vue.172 : Mark Frauenfelder, Mad Professor
permalink #13 of 41: Mark Harms (murffy) Mon 20 Jan 03 11:55
It seems like a lot of the projects lend themselves to variations.
Have you heard of some interesting ones, Mark, since the book came out?
inkwell.vue.172 : Mark Frauenfelder, Mad Professor
permalink #14 of 41: Mark Frauenfelder (mark) Mon 20 Jan 03 13:36
I haven't really heard of any new ones yet. I'm going to start looking for
more ideas soon, for a follow up book, though. I wnat to do a Mad Professor
Magic Book, that will have magic tricks that are based on science.
inkwell.vue.172 : Mark Frauenfelder, Mad Professor
permalink #15 of 41: Adam Powell (rocket) Mon 20 Jan 03 15:14
That sounds great!

inkwell.vue.172 : Mark Frauenfelder, Mad Professor
permalink #16 of 41: Mark Harms (murffy) Mon 20 Jan 03 15:51

Another interesting thing in the book is the "Introduction to
Robotics" where, Mark, you list Isaac Asimov's three laws of robotics
and talk about the growing potential of robots. You say, "... it
wouldn't hurt to start thinking about what kind of relationship we
should have with robots as they become smarter and more lifelike in the
years to come."

Can you address your thinking here a little bit? I would think kids
would be pretty open-minded about the possibilities of robots.
inkwell.vue.172 : Mark Frauenfelder, Mad Professor
permalink #17 of 41: Mark Frauenfelder (mark) Tue 21 Jan 03 12:48
I agree, Mark. Kids are very open minded about the role of robots. I'm
hoping that kids (and grownups) think about how much control they want to
give robots. As Kevin Kelly pointed out in his book, if you want to have a
robot that can surprise you with what it can do, you have to give it a
certain degree of autonomy. The question you need to ask yourself is, "how
much autonomy should a robot have in this particular circumstance." Like, do
you want a vacuuming robot to have the ability to open doors and look for
new rooms to vacuum? That might be a good idea, until it vacuums up your
daughter's bead set.
inkwell.vue.172 : Mark Frauenfelder, Mad Professor
permalink #18 of 41: Mark Harms (murffy) Tue 21 Jan 03 18:38
I can see where problems, seemingly mundane, could occur. I could
imagine a vacuuming robot poking its head into my room as I was busy
typing away at something -- "Hey! Get out of here. Go vacuum somewhere
else." Autonomous behavior in a robot is great in Sci Fi but
encountering it in real life might be awfully strange, I would think.

I assume you mean Kevin Kelly's "Out of Control: The New Biology of
Machines, Social Systems and the Economic World." I haven't read it but
it looks interesting. Were Kelly and you colleagues at Wired?

All right. I can hold out no longer. If I'm not mistaken, you were in
a Mac commercial. Can you tell us something about how you managed to
get that gig and what it was like? (I understand you were a convert
from the PC world, not that I'm trying to start a thrash or anything.)
inkwell.vue.172 : Mark Frauenfelder, Mad Professor
permalink #19 of 41: Mark Frauenfelder (mark) Thu 23 Jan 03 17:58
The MAc commercial was a lot of fun. Here's how it happened. I have a
friend named Alberta Chu. She makes science documentaries. When we first met
she came over to my place and nearly barfed when she saw that I had a
windows machine. She said she was surprised. So when I told her I switched,
she must have stored that away, because when Apple started asking for
switchers, she recommended me.
inkwell.vue.172 : Mark Frauenfelder, Mad Professor
permalink #20 of 41: a little bit (rockyshoe) Fri 24 Jan 03 21:10
Thank you for this book. It is really great! I have a 10 yr old who is
*extremely* interested in science. Most recently he really wanted to
know how lasers work, so we did a bunch of research on that subject. 

We got the book in the mail and have paged through it, but haven't yet
had a chance to PLAY because he gets so much dang homework. 

Tomorrow, though, tomorrow is the day! We are going to do at least two
spearaments from your book. Anyone have suggestions of the best to
try? I want to do the hoverthing.

Right off the bat, I have one comment for you- I like the mix of fun
and science. Some kids really want to know more, and you do provide
some "more" for them, but it doesn't get in the way of the fun. 

We have a chemistry set, which he was really psyched about, but turns
out to be deadly dull. The booklet that came with it is written in
about 6 point font, and is so hard to look at that it makes you sleepy.
inkwell.vue.172 : Mark Frauenfelder, Mad Professor
permalink #21 of 41: Mark Harms (murffy) Sat 25 Jan 03 12:58
Thanks for chiming in, (rockyshoe).

Yeah, I remember a having a chemistry set as a kid with a largely
unintelligible instruction book. So I ended up mainly just randomly
mixing things together without much result. It got boring pretty quick.

The hoverthing is pretty cool. I recommend a vinyl record over a CD.
It can handle a bigger balloon and hover longer. I also like the Vortex
Canon (i.e. smoke-ring blower). Mark recommends a stick of incense to
make smoke; I used it as an excuse to buy a cigar.

Have fun. Let us know what happens.

So, Mark, are you now a Mac evangelist? Do you find it better for your
illustration work?
inkwell.vue.172 : Mark Frauenfelder, Mad Professor
permalink #22 of 41: Mark Frauenfelder (mark) Sat 25 Jan 03 15:07
For a long time, I used a Windows laptop to do all my illustrations. Adobe
Illustrator and photoshop are both terrific on Windows. I just prefer the
Mac OS to Windows. My experience with Windows XP is pretty good though. It
seems nice.

I had the same problem with chemistry sets. The experiments were pretty bad.
I had better luck with library books. Anybody remember the Golden Book of
Chemistry? That was great. So was another book that I can't remember the
title of. It had all sorts of amazing stuff in it. The cover illustration
was a picture of a guys upturned hand, which was on fire. That was one of
the experiments in the book -- cool fire. There were experiments for colored
fire, exploding paper, and all sorts of other dangerous things. A bunch of
the experiments called for carbon tetrachloride, which isn't the healthiest
stuff to handle, I later learned.

My dad loved chemistry when he was younger. He grew up in Golden, Colorado
which is the home of the School of Mines. He had access to explosives. He
made nitroglycerin. Unfortunately, he and some friends were blowing holes in
a mineshaft and his friend blew his hand right off. My dad still has carbon
scars in his own hand. So he was pretty good about making sure that we were
safe experimenters.
inkwell.vue.172 : Mark Frauenfelder, Mad Professor
permalink #23 of 41: Bill Burrows (gjk) Sat 25 Jan 03 16:40

Mark, did you ever Watch Mr. Wizard?
inkwell.vue.172 : Mark Frauenfelder, Mad Professor
permalink #24 of 41: a little bit (rockyshoe) Sat 25 Jan 03 21:40
What is Mr. Wizard?

I want to do the cool fire thing! 

So, we had SUCH a good time today with the book! First we tried the
film can rocket, which was pretty cool, but it only popped up a few
inches. Is that normal? 

Then, we did some goo. This turned into an hour and a half long
expedition into goo land. 
First, we misread the directions, and used borax instead of borax
solution. This made a really interesting substance- stiff, kind of
rough, somewhat bouncy. Felt very light. 

Next, we made the correct recipe. and also added glitter. He really
enjoyed comparing the error and the correct goo. Seeing which was
bouncier, that the regular goo felt even lighter. 

Next, he made the goo with clear gel glue instead of white glue. He
liked that this goo was so completely different.

We talked about how cheap and easy it was to make this stuff, and how
much you pay for store bought versions of goo in cute packages. 

Next, he smushed together regular goo and clear gel goo to see if they
would combine. they didn't and he made a very cool goo oreo cookie.
(not edible). 

Next, he tried the book's suggestion of mixing clear glue and white
glue together to make goo, which created a long slimy mixture that
stretched out and looked uncannily like an umbilical cord. 

The comparing/contrasting went on in great detail. He started talking
about all the different kinds of goo he would make with different
substances (Peanut butter- "Might not work, probably wouldn't, but I
won't know until I try!"). 

We read the section on polymer, which was well illustrated and

As we wound down the experiment, my son said "This is a good book."
and then later "I *like* polymers." and then "This is why I want to be
a scientist!"

It was really good for me to take the time, put aside all my
"responsibilities" and do something with him, like I did when he was a
tot. Lately, we just kind of both orbit around each other, and don't do
much TOGETHER stuff. 

We will definitely do more experiments soon. 
inkwell.vue.172 : Mark Frauenfelder, Mad Professor
permalink #25 of 41: Mark Harms (murffy) Sun 26 Jan 03 20:11
That's great. One couldn't hope for a better plug.

>Adobe Illustrator and photoshop are both terrific on Windows. I
>just prefer the Mac OS to Windows.

That's like reasonable and stuff. No thrash here. Dang.

So, Mark, do you do all your drawing and illustrating on computer? Did
you have to go through a lot of prototype characters before coming up
with the four in the book.? Any rejects of note, something you might be
saving for later material?


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