Smell Amazing Dan's Finger!
My family and I went to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City yesterday. We visited the Hayden Planetarium (Neil deGrasse Tyson’s stomping grounds.) Currently, the feature event playing in the planetarium is called Dark Universe, and it is 25 minutes of awesomeness. We were all very impressed and entertained by the show. Let’s face it, planetariums are a very cool way to learn things about outer space! However it would not have been a complete museum trip without a visit to the gift shop for some educational purchases. My daughter, Rachel, desired a plasma globe, so we got it (along with a neat little chemistry set.)
Rachel plugged in the plasma ball last night and began experimenting with it. Later in the evening, Rachel came to me to tell me she heard on the internet that by touching the plasma globe, your finger will smell like metal due to the heating of the metal in your blood. I told her that was quite a claim, and I asked her where she heard it? She showed to me a video produced by “Amazing Phil” with his sometimes co-host, “Amazing Dan”. Who?
Wikipedia to the rescue! They are roommates, they live in London, and they are vloggers. They are each educated (in their own right), and they are young and “hip” with Justin Bieber-ish circa 2010 hairstyles. They have millions of subscribers to their various YouTube projects. And, clearly, kids are listening to things they are saying. Here is the link to the video, and their plasma globe repartee begins at the 2:50 mark.
So as the father of an 11 year old, I guess I’m now infinitesimally cooler now that I know who these people are. That aside, I figured this was the perfect time for Rachel and I to investigate the claim.
Specifically, we went to look for any reference to health risks involving plasma globes. We found a section under the Wiki entry for plasma globes called “hazards”. While there are some hazards having to deal with the conduction of heat, it makes no reference to effecting your blood. Our search continued. We Googled various phrases, such as “plasma globe blood” and “plasma globe metal smell”, which yielded some interesting anecdotes. For example …
“The redness in your finger when touching the globe is actually due to the hemoglobin in your blood! Sure touching the globe induces the current to flow to the point where you are touching the globe. The current passing through the gas results in the emission of light which then passes through your finger where the hemoglobin works as a color filter.”
“You might just be smelling ozone from the ionization discharge that you saw between the foil (aluminum foil) and your finger.”
While we were able to find stories from some people making claims about the interaction with the blood, and others about the smells they experienced, we could not find a plausible explanation as to how the interaction could result in an odor due to “metal in the blood.” So we kept looking around for some kind of scientific discussion about Amazing Dan’s smelly finger claim, but there was none to be had. We ended the search by reading a pdf produced by The Stanford Solar Center. This website has tons of information for teachers, students, and science enthusiasts about all things having to do with the sun. Including, yes, plasma globes! And they do a nice job of explaining exactly how the plasma globe works.
What did they have to say about the finger? Here is the takeaway from the piece:
“The electric field is also making electrons and atoms come and go in your finger, which is why your finger gets hot when you touch the globe.”
No mention of blood or hemoglobin or iron in the blood or metallic odors. I asked Rachel what she thought, and she came to the conclusion that the Amazings were wrong about the blood claim. And about the smell? Well, maybe Dan’s finger did smell after heating it up. But who knows what might have been on his finger at the time. After all, he was seen in the previous scene handling popcorn, as Rachel astutely observed.
So we are each a little wiser tonight. Rachel showed proper skepticism about the claim, and I learned who Amazing Phil and Amazing Dan are.