Sunday, August 27, 2017

Captain's Log, Day 181: Siege of the Basketballs

          Radar wasn't really paying attention to what he was doing (which wasn't really unusual for him, per se). It was just another day at college--planning what homework to do next, bantering with his lab partners, unloading a siege engine from the back of a truck, dropping an electric motor--
          Radar noticed the motor slipping off the tailgate at the last second, but lunged forward too late to stop it. In desperation, he did the next best thing; throwing his leg forward to try to catch it with his foot. Now, he was decently strong, but still not strong enough to stop a thirty-pound motor falling at (what seemed to be) a significant fraction of the speed of light.
          "What happened?" Liz asked, rounding the corner.
          Radar carefully removed the motor from his foot before beginning his traditional just-broke-his-foot dance. "Motor slipped! Ah, blast blast blast--"
          "You can swear. We don't mind," Phil offered generously.
          "Why didn't you move your foot?" Kaci asked.
          Radar paused his dance to look quizzically at her. "I did. Right under the motor."
          "I think she meant out of the way," Liz clarified
          "Why would I do that? This motor is a rental," Radar pointed out. "My foot will heal. The motor won't."
          Phil snickered and went back to unloading. "Good point."
          The girls were looking a little concerned. "Did you break it?" Kaci asked.
          Radar made a face at his foot. "Probably."
          "Do you need to go to the hospital?" Liz clarified as Radar picked up the motor and limped off with it.
          "Do I look crazy?" he shot back over his shoulder.
          "Yes," everyone said in unison.
          The point was fair. The three of them had known Radar for almost two years now--ever since he'd started taking college classes the year before, at sixteen. He quickly became known for two things: the fact that he ran everywhere, and his interesting additions to all laboratory experiments. Also, for sticking his hand in a beaker of hydrochloric acid when he mistook it for water, to the amazement of Liz (who was his lab partner at the time). By this point, though, everyone just accepted the fact that he was indestructible and let him take lead on all potentially hazardous experiments.
          The project they were working on was their spring design project for physics: building a siege engine. The project originally started with three constraints--be able to launch a basketball two hundred and fifty feet, fire five times in twenty minutes, and be constructed for less than one hundred dollars--but after an overenthusiastic Radar had showed up to a meeting with twenty designs utilizing everything from gunpowder to compressed air to massive springs, their prudent professor had outlawed all chemical, compression, and torsion methods. He clearly hoped to steer them towards some form of gravity as their propulsion system (as in a traditional trebuchet type of thing), but Radar had other ideas.
          Liz, Phil, and Kaci were less enthusiastic about his brainstorm, but they admitted the coolness factor and the uniqueness of the project were definitely pluses. Besides, Radar's prototype had almost put out a lightbulb with a ping-pong ball, so they were pretty confident it would work in some fashion.
          Once they got their siege engine assembled, Radar ran a quick systems check and declared it functional. The others decided to run their own checks, just in case. Radar mock-indignantly demanded to know why he wasn't trusted; Phil pointed out that Radar's prototype had almost taken his head off and burned out all the electronics within it. Radar promptly informed him that a) Phil should have ducked and b) the electronics were Radar's anyway and he'd been curious to see what would happen if he hooked them up to a car battery (and the results had been totally worth it). Kaci agreed on that last point, and Liz suggested that--since this was Radar's brainchild anyway and he was the one most likely to survive any incidents--he should be the one to fire it first. He agreed enthusiastically, and the lab team stored the project in a nearby building and disbanded for the night.
          The next day dawned bright and early for all of them. Well, earlier for the other teams, who had to put together their massive trebuchets, while Team Radar ("We are NOT calling ourselves that," Liz informed the self-dubbed "mascot" between giggle fits) just had to drag their machine out onto the field. Their professor, who was overseeing everything, raised an eyebrow at the contraption.
          "You built that for a hundred bucks?" he asked, a little incredulously.
          "Eighty," Radar said proudly. "The motors were lent to us for free."
          "Plus, Radar has the entire Menards store at his house, apparently," Liz added parenthetically (and a little jealously).
          He shook his head. "I think we'll have you guys go last. That looks like it might destroy the basketballs after a few shots."
          "Hey, keeping them in one piece was never part of the design specs," Phil pointed out hastily.
          Professor burst out laughing. "That's true!"
          They had to wait forty minutes for their turn. Team One's engine could really hurl the ball, but their accuracy was a bit lacking--they got off six shots in twenty minutes, and landed them in a 100-foot diameter area. Team Two did a bit better; they got off seven shots, and landed them in a comparatively tighter fifty-foot circle. Then, it was the third team's turn.
          "So, explain to us how this works," Professor invited them.
          Radar took a step back, trying to get behind his teammates (he hated public speaking). Kaci noticed and caught his arm. "Nuh uh. This is your idea."
          "Yeah, go for it!" Phil said mischievously.
          "I hate you," Radar muttered before taking a breath. "Okay, this is our siege engine--emphasis on engine. It's powered by two electric motors, which spin in opposite directions. The wheels on top, which I stole from Dad's old broken snowblower, grip the basketball and use their rotational inertia, plus the motor power, to fire the ball."
          "Like a massive pitching machine," Liz added helpfully.
          Radar paused, mouth open. "Why didn't I think of that?"
          "I thought that was your idea in the first place," Kaci said, confused.
          He shook his head. "No, but it should have been."
          "So how do you keep the motors from being ripped off the mountings?" Professor asked curiously.
          "Ah. That's the brilliant part," Liz said. "Radar came up with this system--"
          "--with some help from my dad," Radar interjected honestly.
          "--to have the motors on hinges," Liz continued, ignoring him. "The motors are on springs, holding the wheels as close as possible. When the ball is fed through, it forces the wheels apart. The springs help the wheels grip the ball, and pull the motors back together after the ball is fired."
          Professor still looked dubious. "Well..give it a shot."
          "Pun intended?" Radar asked, snatching up the power cords. "Alrighty, stand back!"
          The motors fired up, spinning the wheels insanely fast. Radar caught the ball Kaci tossed him, crossed his fingers, and rolled it up the ramp.
          The ball went hurtling off towards the target, landing about twenty feet in front of it. Radar rolled ball #2. ZWIPTHUD. The ball zipped through the wheels, the motors thudded back together, and the second shot landed almost directly on top of the same spot at the first one.
          "Okay, I so wanna try this," Phil said, grinning.
          "One more?" Radar pleaded, having already launched three and four.
          Phil ignored him and took a ball. "Shot five away!"
          The team continued an almost constant stream of fire, with short breaks to adjust angles and discuss distance to target. They managed to get within ten feet, but couldn't get any further forward, since they had a pretty limited adjustment angle to work with. Radar made a note of that for their report.
          The team totally nailed the five times in twenty minutes part, though--they fired over a hundred times in total. "Plus," Kaci noted, "we're technically the most accurate. All our shots are right on top of each other."
          "Except for that pop fly I did," Radar giggled. "That almost hit me."
          "How did you do that?" Liz asked.
          Radar demonstrated. "Just bounce the ball off the track so the wheels pop it up, and not forward."
          Phil burst out laughing. "I want to try!"
          The basketballs were definitely worn out by the time their twenty minutes was up. Professor ordered a general teardown and cleanup, and the teams set to work. Radar, curious about his grade, approached his professor. "How did we do?"
          Liz, Kaci, and Phil joined him, equally curious. Professor took a breath. "Well...I'm going to give you guys an automatic A. I would have bet money that it wouldn't have worked! Very well done!"
          "I still think the cannon would have been cooler," Radar said amidst the general jubilation.
          Professor chuckled. "I don't think we could get away with setting off explosions on a college campus," he said dryly.
          "Touché," Radar admitted and limped back to help with disassembly.
          "So, Radar, what would you have done if we'd gotten the concrete canoe project they had last year?" Liz asked mischievously as they were finishing up.
          Radar cocked an eyebrow at her. "Are you kidding? Weaponize the sucker. Water cannon turret! Hey, what's so funny?"
          His three teammates were laughing too hard to respond.

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