What’s the deal with a storm glass? Hammacher Schlemmer sells one and says, “Although its operation remains a mystery, the ability of Stormglass to predict atmospheric change is well documented. ” Does it work? If so, how? Or is it just a crappy lava lamp? —Dan

Hey, don’t hit the lava lamps. For $ 179.95, a storm glass from Hammacher Schlemmer gives you a weather forecast of questionable accuracy. Whereas a $ 25 lava lamp, aided by the right combination of airs and substances, will allow you to see God.

A storm glass, also called a weather glass or camphor glass, is a glass tube containing a mixture of ammonium chloride, potassium nitrate, camphor, water, and alcohol, making it a normal liquid. clear in which different kinds of white crystals periodically grow and dissolve. . The idea is that the mixture is so finely balanced that minor fluctuations in atmospheric conditions will alter the solubility of the chemicals and produce a wide variety of crystal shapes, from tiny floating flakes to large masses of feathery fans. Each is supposed to predict a certain type of weather.

The inventor of storm glass is unknown, but the descriptions date from the late 18th century. Early theories held that the chemical mixture inside was sensitive to light, heat, wind, atmospheric pressure, or even electric charge. In some glasses, the contents were exposed to atmospheric pressure via a soft rubber cap, but other models were hermetically sealed. (The sealed version is standard these days, mainly because a puff of the contents can knock you over.)

Interest in storm glasses peaked in the 1860s, when scientists such as Michael Faraday, Robert Fitzroy, and Charles Tomlinson studied their properties. Fitzroy, meteorologist and captain of HMS Beagle (by Charles Darwin), praised the accuracy of the glasses in his Weather Book of 1863. Tomlinson, on the other hand, tested a glass for several months and discovered that it was sensitive only to heat, calling it a “coarse thermoscope”. Japanese research from 2008 confirms this, indicating that temperature change is the sole cause of crystal growth.

I decided we should check this out. However, I had no way to shell out $ 179.95. No problem, said my assistants Una and Fierra. We will be making our own storm glasses.

They researched storm glass recipes and ordered the appropriate chemicals and lab equipment. A catch: Initially, no science supply house would ship the goods to a private residence, no doubt seeing the disturbingly sounding chemicals as the ingredients of a terrorist plot. Una eventually convinced a supplier to send in the chemicals after he produced his engineering license.

Working late one night at Straight Dope Labs, Una and Fierra made six storm glasses. Each consisted of a large test tube filled with the precisely measured chemical mixture, then capped. At first, the experience looked like a bust – the storm glasses turned opaque with massed crystals. But after a few days, the initial crystal growth settled to the bottom of the tubes, leaving the liquid above clear. Subsequently, new crystals would grow or shrink in response to … well, that’s what we wanted to find out.

Every day for 12 weeks, Una and Fierra recorded local weather conditions as well as their observations of the crystals in each glass. Problems arose. First of all, how do you read crystals? Descriptions by previous researchers were vague, but it seemed clear: clear liquid meant clear sky, while crystals or cloudiness meant precipitation, which we define as rain. This gave us some simple tests: the storm glass was clear or it was not; the rain has fallen or not.

In the end, the precision of the individual glasses varied from 45 to 54%, for an average of 49%. I have a dime that can do that well.

Storm glass advocates may blame this on our simplistic scoring method. Suppose a storm glass develops crystals, indicating rain, and subsequently the weather is overcast and threatening, but no rain actually falls. Was the storm glass fake?

To avoid such ambiguities, I asked Una to look strictly on rainy days: did the storm glasses show crystals or not? Result: 53% accuracy, with a range of 38 to 62%.

Personally, I stick with the lava lamp.


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