Density and Alchohol

Density is an important concept to understand when you are trying to figure out if something will float or sink, but it can also affect the gas in our atmosphere and even liquids in mixed drinks!

Layered drinks look very impressive, but it’s really simple science that makes it all possible. The layers are able to float on one another because of specific gravity. Specific gravity is the ratio between the density of a substance and a reference standard. Usually we use water as a standard for liquid, which has a specific gravity of 1.00. If oil has a specific gravity of 0.914 and we add it to water, it will float on the water because its specific gravity is less than that of water.


Photo courtesy of Pete:

The same concept can be applied to mixed drinks. In general, liquids with a higher sugar content like grenadine, liqueurs and brandies have a higher specific gravity, which means that they would sink in water. Liquids with higher alcohol content like vodka, absinthe and Everclear™ tend to have a lower specific gravity, which means they would float on water. In actuality, alcohol and water have the tendency to mix together, but alcohol can float on water if poured very carefully over the back of a spoon onto the water. Bartenders use the concept of density and specific gravity to create layered mixed drinks!

A simple layered drink to make is a Dark ‘n Stormy. There are only two ingredients, so it’s an easy one for a beginner.

1. Start with an old fashioned glass filled with ice.
2. Pour in about 4 fluid ounces of ginger beer.
3. Carefully pour in about 2 fluid ounces of dark rum. It may be easier to slowly pour it over the back of a spoon.
4. Done!
It is easier to make layered drinks containing alcohol because alcohol has a lower specific gravity than most liquids. If you are interested in non-alcoholic layered drink, consider making this fruity beverage!
1. Choose any glass you’d like. The narrower the better because you can see the layers better.
2. Start with a splash (or 2) of grenadine at the bottom.
3. Mix 1 part orange juice and 1 part pineapple juice together in a separate glass.
4. Carefully pour the orange-pineapple juice mixture over the back of a spoon onto the grenadine.
5. Then, enjoy!

These drinks look great without a lot of work. Just science! To see density in action, visit OKRA Charity Saloon on Cocktail Chemistry Mondays (September 19th) and vote for HMNS while you are there!


Science Starts with density and distance

A rousing game of “Will it Float?” occasionally played on The Late Show with David Letterman was really just an impressively popular density guessing game. In our recently added Science Start Outreach Program, Discovering Density, we play a similar game, predicting and testing to see what happens when you toss things into a tank of water. The Science Start program is for grades K-2 and travels to schools, daycares, scout groups, and more to educate students with hands-on learning experiences. 


Sahil tests the hypothesis that a tiny metal car is denser than water and will sink.

The most fun results are the ones that surprise the young students, like a whiffle ball that will not sink even though it is full of holes, a Lego brick (you’ll have to test that one out for yourself), or liquids that can float on or sink through other liquids in a density column.


Carolyn points out to a class at Passmore Elementary that an object that is floating must be touching the surface of the water in a presentation of the new Discovering Density program.

Making the distinction that density isn’t just about weight or mass or size but instead the comparison between the two can be a tricky concept at first. Similarly, very small and very large numbers, distances, and time scales can be difficult to grasp, so to make it a little easier, you could try holding a planet like Jupiter or maybe Neptune, if you prefer, as we model the vast distances of our solar system and think about scale in Space: Going the Distance.


Carolyn points out the different types of liquids forming four distinct layers in the density column that she made during the presentation. The density column was given to the group’s teacher after the show so that students could watch it change over time.

Volunteers spread out with their planets to see the relative spaces between their orbits and explore what a model is, why it’s helpful, and what about the model isn’t quite as it is in real life. For our model to be to scale for both the sizes of the planets and for the distances between them is tricky—in a classroom-sized solar system, it’s going to be almost impossible to see most of the planets from most seats, and even the sun seems petite!


Carolyn holds up a three-foot board that models the planet Jupiter. If Jupiter was just three feet across, the Sun would have to have a diameter of 23 feet!

Book Science Start for your school or scout group today by contacting Greta Brannan at (713) 639-4758 or For more information on HMNS outreach programs, click here.

Chemistry Demonstrations: This Eureka Moment is brought to you by HMNS Volunteers

Editor’s note: Today’s post was written by Tom Szlucha, a volunteer docent here at the Museum.

“EUREKA!” In his excitement, Archimedes runs down the street, naked and dripping wet from his bath. In this legend, he makes a discovery as he immerses himself in the bathtub and notices the water rise. 

It is this observation that leads to the solution to a problem that had been bothering him for some time.The king needs to know if the crown recently delivered by the goldsmith is pure gold or some cheap alloy — and Archimedes has found a way to determine what the crown’s made of!

This example of scientific discovery is based on the very simple observation of the water being displaced as a mass is lowered into it. Archimedes is obviously very excited by his discovery (maybe a bit too excited).

The ConocoPhillips “Hands-On” Demonstration Lab in the new Welch Hall of Chemistry stimulates this same sense of scientific discovery in visitors to HMNS (no bathtub for us though). Chemistry docents conduct hands-on experiments in this lab — experiments that teach, inspire and, most of all, are fun.


Now, back to Archimedes…According to the legend, he has to determine if the density of the metal in the crown is pure gold or a cheap alloy of gold.

He develops a very simple experiment to see if a density difference exists between the crown and gold. He places the crown on one side of a balance beam. On the opposite side, he places gold until the scale is balanced.

Then, he lowers the apparatus into a tub of water. If the balance tips to one side because the materials exhibit different buoyancy, then there is a difference in density — which would mean that a gold alloy was used to make the crown.

The principles of density and buoyancy involved in the Archimedes experiment are included in many of our chemistry demonstrations. The demonstrations are given by a group of dedicated HMNS chemistry docents. They come from a variety of backgrounds: chemists, engineers, educators, college students, and others. They have the enjoyment of making these fun, simple, and safe demonstrations that teach and instill an interest in physical science. In return, they are rewarded for their time and effort by seeing children smile with excitement as they make their own “Eureka!” discoveries.

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Tom Szlucha using the “pass-through” to set up

The theater area for these demonstrations is new and improved, a literal “step up” from the work cart that used to be parked in the old Chemistry Hall on the first floor. Downstairs, the new theater has a raised stage with large worktables in front and behind the presenter, allowing for multiple experimental setups. There are pass-through cabinets behind the rear table that facilitate the movement of materials from the preparation and a storage room located behind the stage.

Tom Szlucha in the prep room

Tom Szlucha in the prep room

The audience is seated on rows of black, rubber-coated cubes under the illumination of air molecules hanging from the ceiling. These molecules are different colors, proportionally representing the mixture of nitrogen, oxygen, and trace gases in the Earth’s atmosphere. The suspended molecules make a perfect transition into experiments associated with gases. The demonstration area is enhanced with a well-tuned wireless sound system, making the presenter easily heard by the seated audience.

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There are a variety of experiments performed here, most using simple household materials. Almost every school kid knows how to make a “volcanic eruption” by mixing baking soda with vinegar. But did you know that this acid/base reaction is endothermic, meaning that it absorbs energy, thus creating a cooling effect? A product of this chemical reaction is carbon dioxide gas. Since carbon dioxide is denser (i.e., heavier) than air, it can be poured to extinguish a flame. This stunt can come off as a magic trick—there is no liquid involved as you pour the invisible gas and extinguish the candle flame. Other practical lessons are taught through simple experiments, answering questions such as why do we wash our hands with soap; how do scientists measure the strength of acids and bases; and what does a baby diaper have in common with Jell-O?

Chemistry docents have plenty of opportunities to interact with the audience by soliciting help with these experiments. Participants learn about material density when they make hard-boiled eggs float on salt water and sink in plain water. They help show that Diet Coke is less dense than regular Coke. But why? The explanation is somewhat shocking. The average twelve-ounce can of sugar-sweetened soda contains about forty grams of refined sugar. That’s about three heaping tablespoons of sugar!

Participants also make a rubber “Superball” out of white glue and a simple ingredient found in the laundry isle of the grocery store. This polymerization process utilizes the boron atom in Twenty Mule Team Borax to cross-link the chains of polymers found in casein-based white glue. This experiment helps to teach visitors about some of the characteristics of polymers.

Chemistry Superball

Audiences entertained at the ConocoPhillips Hands-On Chemistry Demonstration Lab range from large school groups to families and individuals spending the day at the museum. The demonstrator has to be somewhat flexible, modifying their routine for the audience that is present. Having multiple tables with large surfaces allows for a number of different experiments to be set up and ready to go. Some experiments may be more suited to a particular age group, so the presenter can pick and choose, thus customizing each show to the specific audience.

If you are interested in joining in the fun by becoming an HMNS volunteer, please visit the HMNS web site to learn more or fill out the short registration form by clicking here.

The Volunteer Office will invite you to come to the museum for a short “get-acquainted” interview and will provide information about upcoming orientation programs. You don’t need to be an expert already, just interested in science! Our fun and comprehensive program will teach you everything you need to know to feel confident working with visitors and students in the HMNS exhibition halls. You’ll get to meet smart and interesting people, learn about a variety of scientific subjects, and become an integral part of one of the nation’s most-visited museums! We look forward to meeting you soon!

Get your hands on science!

Terrence McGovern, a volunteer here at HMNS, does several chemistry shows a week to help teach the basics to our visitors. His show, geared towards both kids and adults, is a great way to see science in action.

Terrence explains the principles of density, acids and bases, and polymers in a way that makes it easy to understand no matter what your age is or your background in chemistry. A simple experiment with an egg, saltwater and freshwater helps to show how density affects whether or not items will float.

 Terrence McGovern demonstrates how density works
with the help of a member of the audience.

Terrence also shows how acid and bases can react with one another. Filling a bottle with vinegar (an acid) and placing a little baking soda (a base) in a balloon, he shows how the two react to form a gas that inflates the balloon.

 Chemical Reaction!

So come on down to HMNS and see one of Terrence’s many shows and learn all about chemistry.

This show is free for patrons with a ticket for our exhibition halls. For more information and show times, call the box office at 713-639-4629.