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Olivia and the Experiments's video poster

Subvert scientist stereotypes by supporting stories of Olivia the Inventor as she recreates some of the grand experiments of science. Read more

Somerville, MA Fiction
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pledged of $900 goal
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This project was successfully funded on July 11, 2012.

Subvert scientist stereotypes by supporting stories of Olivia the Inventor as she recreates some of the grand experiments of science.

Somerville, MA Fiction
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About this project


Olivia, Bot, and an Optimistic WhiteBoard
Olivia, Bot, and an Optimistic WhiteBoard


Want to add another story to the book?  Olivia does and she's interested in the equation that begins with the terms on the whiteboard.  Everyone funding (any amount) to get us to $1200, and a correct guess of the equation, will get entered into a raffle to influence one of Olivia's adventures. 


Subvert stereotypes about scientists by supporting a chapbook of linked stories about Olivia's adventures building and running some of the famous experiments of science. 

Olivia fixing her robot
Olivia fixing her robot


Olivia's out of school for the summer.  What better way to fill the days than to build a cyclotron or run DNA through a blender to study its hereditary nature?  Doing it with your friends!

I will write three stories showing Olivia and her friends adventuring with science, technology, engineering, and math.  The stories will emphasize Olivia's motto that STEM subjects can always be figured out, if not immediately understood. Additionally, the stories will incorporate under-emphasized aspects of science:  collaboration, creativity, and its application for improvement of the human condition.  Each story will include a picture of a LEGO model of the apparatus used by Olivia during the story.


As a backer of Olivia and the Experiments, you'll receive a copy of all three new stories plus the introductory story "Olivia and the Oil Drop".  You can choose an ebook or hardcopy.

Higher pledge values allow you to choose which experiments I write into Olivia's stories as well as which friends accompany her.

For every $300 raised above my goal, I'll write an additional story.


I've worked in planetary science, computer science, astronomy, and physics.  I've written my whole life: extensive journaling, bad teenage poetry, good adult poetry, professional technical documentation.  Although I have a lot of experience writing in other genres, this is my first foray into publishing prose.

For samples of my take on women in science, try "Ebb" and "After Math", or my book The Scientific Method reviewed in American Scientist.

I must confess that I pressured Olivia to begin with this experiment because it was one of my favorite in college.  It may just have been one of the few that worked out in Advanced Lab but I can still feel the very real thrill of opening up my shoulders, after hours hunched in front of the apparatus, taking measurements, and sitting down to crunch the numbers, only to find that they worked out to 1.592E−19 C just like they were supposed to.


Curious what Olivia's stories are like?  Here's a sample.

Olivia and the Oil Drop

Olivia rubs her hands together gleefully, inspecting the air-bearing table and spare components neatly stored in her workshop.  Today is the first day of summer break and the first day in her challenge to replicate some of the key experiments in science!  She's looking forward to building a cyclotron, and perhaps a fancy blender to sort out DNA like Martha Chase, but today's she's going to build the apparatus for Millikan's Oil Drop experiment, then run it.

In chemistry class, Olivia learned that the charge of an electron is one of the fundamental physical constants in the universe.  Millikan's Oil Drop experiment and other research showed that the charge of an electron is constant and quantized, meaning that all measurements of charge will be multiples of the same value:  1.6E-19 Coulombs.  Without this understanding of the charge of an electron, silicon-based computers wouldn't yet be possible.  Olivia doesn't want to give up her Android tablet and smartphone!

As she begins to lay out components and plugs in her soldering gun, Olivia thinks about the history and theory behind the Oil Drop experiment.  It was first performed by Robert Millikan and Harvey Mitchell in 1909.  It breaks down into three steps.  First, measure the terminal velocity of the oil drops in free fall to calculate their mass.  Second, measure the electric field required to keep the oil drop stationary in a gravitational field.  Third, calculate the charge of an electron using the mass from the first step, the electric field from the second step, and a force diagram.

On her blackboard, Olivia sketches out the two force diagrams she'll use in the calculation step, so she's clear on what information she needs to gather in the two measurement steps.  Inside her apparatus, the oil drop will be in one of two situations:

When the oil drop is free-falling, the force due to friction is equal (and opposite) to the gravitational force.
[Olivia's force diagram for free fall]

When the oil drop is held in stasis by the electric field, the sum of the gravitational force and the frictive force (both pulling the drop "down") equals the force of the applied electric field (which includes the charge of the electron).
[Olivia's force diagram for stasis]

Now that she's clear on what's going on inside the chamber, she builds an apparatus similar to that of Millikan:  two plates to produce an electric field, enclosed in a chamber to which she's affixed an oil atomizer. 

Olivia at the Oil Drop apparatus
Olivia at the Oil Drop apparatus

Olivia will use the atomizer to regulate the amount of oil she adds to the chamber.  She'll change the intensity of the electric field to catch the oil drop in stasis, offsetting the gravitational pull on it and any friction that results from the oil drop moving through air.  The enclosure chamber will keep outside contaminants from affecting her results, including the action figures her little brother keeps leaving in her workshop.

First, Olivia turns off the lights in the room and flips on the red-light lamp near her fluke, lab notebook, and stopwatch.  She makes certain that her apparatus will ionize the oil drop when it leaves the atomizer and enters the chamber between the electric plates; she gives the atomizer a few squeezes to make the oil drops flow.  She double-checks that the plates are grounded and charged correctly.  She records the temperature within the chamber and the voltage of the two electric plates.

She steps back, takes a deep breath, and begins!  Olivia peers through the viewing scope and concentrates to the see the oil drops.  They are translucent circles slowly tumbling down a translucent rectangle and she has to stare and wait to make sure she's actually found on a drop.  She focuses the apparatus to magnify the drop and its path.  The drop turns into a bright point of light and Olivia blinks.

Once she is certain she's watching a drop, she counts under her breath to see how fast it's falling.  Close enough to what she needs.  She reaches for her stopwatch and her lab notebook.  She begins to time each oil drop she sees as it passes between the two thick lines marking 0.5 mm distance, recording the time required for each.  These values will allow her to calculate the mass of the oil drop, using the free-fall force diagram.

After she's recorded times for 12 drops, she picks out one more oil drop.  As it begins to reach the bottom plate, Olivia charges the plates and squeezes her stopwatch.  The electric field acts on the charged oil drop, stopping its fall due to gravity.  As the electric field moves the oil drop upwards, Olivia times its ascent.  As it nears the top line, she turns off the electric field and times the oil drop falling. 

When the drop nears the bottom line, she reaches for the switch to turn on the electric field and misses.  The oil drop slides out of the viewer.  Olivia steps back, and hops up and down in frustration.  On the far wall, her motto, painted to glow in the dark, shines, reminding her that she can figure out what's going on if it isn't easy to begin with.

She looks at her apparatus.  She looks at the wall.  She takes a deep breath.  She hops up and down for fun, smiling.  Olivia turns back to the oil drop experiment, focusing the viewer and picks out another drop.  She rests her hand gently on the switch for the electric field.  She starts the stopwatch as the drop passes the upper line.  She turns on the electric field as it hits the bottom line and records the time.  She switches off the field when the drop reaches the top and records the time.  Soon, Olivia has enough data to calculate the charge on the oil drop.

Olivia turns off the electric field and turns on the lights.  She powers down the rest of the apparatus.  She checks that the atomizer hasn't clogged while she was working.  She shakes out her neck and shoulders, smiling when she remembers her glow-in-the-dark motto.

She looks through her lab notebook, making sure all her figures and comments are readable.  Olivia sighs.  Experimentation is fun--and she wants to know that her measurements reduce to the right value for the fundamental constant--but a grown-up scientist would have a collaborator to help with calculations.  She thinks a minute, then pulls out her phone and texts Andrea.  Andrea's a musician and always willing to help count a beat or crunch a number.  When Olivia's phone chirps that Andrea's on her way over, she turns on the radio and powers up her dancing robot to pass the time.

[Author's Note: 

My sources include the following; any errors are my own:

*Instruction Manual and Experiment Guide for the PASCO scientific Model AP-8210


While the stories will contain personal photographs of LEGO bricks, the LEGO Group is in no way associated with this Kickstarter campaign.


Readable version of the video credits is available here


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  • You selected
    Pledge $1 or more

    5 backers

    Thank you! Your name will be included in the list of acknowledgments collected in the ebook.

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    Pledge $15 or more

    13 backers

    You'll receive an ebook with four stories about Olivia's adventures in science and engineering. Your name will appear in the acknowledgements of the ebook.

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    Pledge $30 or more

    5 backers

    You'll receive an original clerihew written about the scientist of your choice, as well as a copy of the ebook and inclusion in the acknowledgement list.

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    Pledge $50 or more

    9 backers

    You'll receive a hardcopy chapbook with stories of all of Olivia's adventures. You'll also receive: acknowledgement in the ebook and an ebook in format of your choice.

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    Pledge $75 or more

    3 backers All gone!

    Be Tuckerized in one of the stories! Select yourself or another person to be a character in one of Olivia's stories. Alternatively, you can choose one of Olivia's friends to appear prominently in one of the stories. You'll also receive: acknowledgement in the ebook, ebook in format of your choice, hardcopy chapbook with the stories.

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    Pledge $100 or more

    3 backers All gone!

    Select an apparatus or experiment for Olivia to run! Your choice will dictate one of the stories I write. You'll also receive: acknowledgement in the ebook, ebook in format of your choice, hardcopy chapbook with the stories.

    Estimated delivery:

Funding period

- (30 days)