Learning With: ‘When Plasma Becomes Another Fruit of the Vine’

Learning With: ‘When Plasma Becomes Another Fruit of the Vine’

Before reading the article:

Have you ever seen an online video of grapes exploding in a microwave oven? In these popular videos, people microwave two grape halves connected by a bridge of skin to see the explosive results.

Watch the first 20 seconds in the above ScienceTake video, “Why Microwaved Grapes Explode.”

• What did you notice when the grapes were microwaved? Describe what you observed in as much detail as you can.

• What’s your explanation of what happened?

Spend several minutes developing your hypothesis — feel free to pause or replay the video as needed.

Now watch the rest of the video and answer the following questions:

• What is the common amateur explanation for these explosions?

• What did scientists discover is the real explanation?

Please, do not try this experiment at home! (Or school either.)

Now, read the article, “When Plasma Becomes Another Fruit of the Vine,” and answer the following questions:

1. The article begins: “If you haven’t seen what happens to grapes in a microwave oven, you haven’t spent enough time in the richly nerdy corner of the internet that specializes in strange, everyday phenomena with fascinating, plausible scientific explanations.” How would you describe the writer’s tone in this opening sentence? Why does James Gorman, the author, use the words “richly” and “nerdy” together? And why does he say “plausible” scientific explanations? What do you think is Mr. Gorman’s view on the veracity of the scientific explanations one can find on YouTube videos?

2. What is plasma? How is plasma relevant to the grape experiment?

3. Why did Aaron D. Slepkov, a physicist, decide to study the phenomenon of exploding grapes?

4. In your own words, explain why grapes explode. Be sure to include the role of electrons, radiation wavelengths and resonance.

5. What makes grapes a particularly good subject for the microwave experiment? Although Dr. Slepkov discovered that grapes do not need to be cut in half, why do they need to be touching each other for the experiment to work?

6. What is the most exciting finding for Dr. Slepkov? What are the implications of this discovery for future scientific research?

Finally, tell us more about what you think:

— Return to your hypothesis from above. How did it compare to the scientific explanation discovered by Dr. Slepkov?

— What was the most surprising or intriguing thing you learned from the article? What questions about the nature of scientific inquiry does the article raise for you?

— The article concludes: “For party goers, the message is clear: Never underestimate a parlor trick, particularly if a microwave is involved.” What do you think is the message of this research? How useful or important is the research on exploding grapes?

— Have you watched other homemade science experiments online? Which is your favorite and why? Are there any videos you would you like to see explained by scientists?