You need to weigh some water. All you have is a paperclip

Let’s say you You need to measure the mass of some water, and you want to create a scale to do that. But you are in an ordinary house full of ordinary things. There are no fancy scientific equipment. Can you do this with a common household item?

I think this is already possible, and I will try to do it – with a paperclip.

OK but why? This started with my work as a technical advisor to CBS MacGyver. My job was to check the scientific plausibility of various hacks and sometimes suggest ways MacGyver could get out of a difficult situation. One of MacGyver’s favorite things to use was a paperclip – so I thought I’d see how many things I could make of it.

So far I’ve made some pretty cool paperclip-based tools.

It’s fun to make complex things out of basic parts – it’s the MacGyver way.

Now for the scale. This may sound simple, but there will be some infographics included so this may be more appropriate as a blog post rather than a video. Let’s do it.

Remember that the goal here is to measure the mass of some water. Since we are on Earth’s surface, there is a constant relationship between mass and weight – so we will technically measure the weight of water. What is the difference between mass and weight? Here is my full explanation, but the short answer is that mass is the amount of matter (protons, neutrons, and electrons) that makes up an object and weight is the gravitational force that the Earth exerts on that object.

So, how do you measure weight? It turns out that most of our measuring tools are actually for measuring distance. (it’s the truth-check it out.) In this case, we can determine the weight (and thus mass) of an object by measuring the deflection of a paper clip, or how much it bends. If you iron a paperclip into a long wire, the more you squeeze one end, the more it will bend. However, when it is folded into the shape of a regular paperclip, it is difficult to fold. This is very similar to the force required to extend the spring, which is much more difficult to deform than straight wire. However, for an ideal spring, the stretching distance is linearly proportional to the stretching force, and this may not be true with a curved paperclip.

So the idea is that if we flatten our paperclip, we can turn it into a lever arm that helps us weigh the water.

Let’s build this thing. This is what I have.

Photo: Rhett Allen

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