The event had drawn curiosity-seekers and teachers and artists and a newspaper reporter and a retired chemist and a naturalist who lives near Mt. St. Helens. It was being photographed in 3-D. Our Volcano Night eruption on the deck of The Naturalist's Notebook was more eagerly anticipated than I had expected. Only as I approached the soon-to-be cauldron of fire did a worrisome thought enter my mind:
What if this doesn't work?
Eli the volcanologist had primed the audience by reading aloud a list of fascinating facts about volcanoes. ("The largest known volcano is perhaps Mount Olympus on the planet Mars. It is 17 miles tall and 320 miles wide.") Now came the science of creating a volcanic reaction inside a molded plastic mountain we had acquired in a kit made by the Smithsonian Institution.
And now things started going wrong. Had we read the instructions earlier, we would have known that we were supposed to combine 11 ounces of room-temperature club soda with five of the volcano tablets that came with the kit. Unfortunately for us (but perhaps fortunately for the village of Seal Harbor, which was in danger of being buried in lava if this eruption got too big), all we had was a bottle of ice-cold sparkling water from Poland Springs, Maine.
"Club soda has sodium in it," one of my volcano-making associates noted as we stared at the empty plastic mountain. "I don't think there's sodium in sparkling water. The reaction might not work."
"Let's add salt," suggested another team member.
And so this is what happened: We poured in an unmeasured volume of sparkling water. We opened a jar of the Maine sea salt that we sell and I pushed some big crystals of it down the volcano hole atop the mountain. Since the kit had suggested adding five volcano tablets, I added...11. I put my ear to the top of the mountain and heard rumbling. Or was it just fizzing?
To the shrieks of disapproval from more cautious members of the crowd—"Don't do it!"—I leaned over the mountain and stared down the hole. Scientist have died this way. But the moment demanded courage. I looked into the Hole of Destruction and saw bubbling reddish water. It was not rising. It was not erupting.
"Add more water!" I was advised. I did. It only diluted the magma, which was looking more and more like a Shirley Temple being served in a Polynesian restaurant.
"Do you have vinegar and baking soda?" asked a crowd member. I turned to Pamelia and said, "Do we have any of that nice balsamic vinegar in the fridge upstairs?"
"That won't work!" came a voice from the crowd.
One of our associate volcanologists, moving as if molten lava were chasing her down a mountain, dashed to Dennis's Coffee House next door. She emerged with two boxes of baking soda and a plastic cup of cider vinegar.
Meanwhile, someone had looked more closely at the packet of volcano tablets from which I had pulled the 11 eruption-inducing pills. "These are from 1998," she said.
I grabbed the volcano, took it beneath the deck and dumped out the Shirley Temple. A moment later, back up on the deck, I poured baking soda down the hole. Someone said I needed to shoot for a two-to-one ratio of baking soda to vinegar. Or was it a two-to-one ratio of vinegar to baking soda? No matter. Lacking any measuring device, I simply dumped things down the hole.
And then, at last, came the moment. I put a funnel in the top of the mountain, poured in the vinegar and—WHOA! Instantly a frothy mess foamed up into the funnel for about three seconds, then subsided. It was perhaps the lamest volcanic eruption ever witnessed.
"At least Seal Harbor is still standing," I said.
And so a science experiment became an adventure and a comedy act. And the result was that we all started talking about the science of volcanoes (tabletop and otherwise) and vowing to create a truly massive eruption next year. And we all had fun. And the event was, in its own strange way, a great success.
Answer to the Last Puzzler:
Which is heavier, gold or lead?
Answer: Gold is almost twice as heavy.
Who has more teeth, a shark or a crocodile?