The Space Station provides a long term micro gravity environment. Don Petit recently spent a morning off playing around with a piece of wire, a little bit of water and some food coloring. He had intended to make soap bubbles but got curious and wondered how pure water bubbles would behave in micro-gravity.
He recorded two videos that document the surprising effects. The first video documents the setup and the second documents the results.
About a third of the way through the second reel, he uses his wire hoop to capture a water sphere. He then starts drawing off water from the sphere with a towel. As the towel captures some of the water, the remaining water experiences three dimensional oscillations that vividly illustrate Lise Meitner's water bubble model.
In 1939, Lise Meitner was trying to decipher Otto Hahn's letter that told her he had bombarded Uranium with neutrons and found Boron as a product. Hahn didn't understand where the Boron came from and so wrote Meitner to see if she had any insights. Meitner had, until she fled the Nazis, collaborated with Hahn providing theory to explain Hahn's chemistry lab work.
While on a walk in the woods, she brainstormed with her nephew, Otto Frisch, to try to figure out Hahn's results. During that session, she suggested to Frisch that perhaps the Uranium nucleus, instead of being a rigid body, was similar to a water drop and that the impinging neutrons had caused the atom to rupture into smaller pieces. Watch the video to see water as Meitner imagined it over 60 years ago. The footage is about 1/3 of the way into the video. Or just watch the whole video to see images that would have fit right in at the Fillmore 35 years ago - a time when NASA was just a few years old.
Watching the video reminded me of the value of just screwing around. Sometimes you uncover something that is just plain neat. Sometimes you discover something that might be important. The sooner we can get into space cheaply - cheaply enough that people can afford to screw around up there for long stretches at a time without having to attend to a crammed schedule - the sooner we'll have a completely different perspective on the nature of things.
I for one, hope that Rutan, Carmack, Musk, the Chinese and NASA all figure out how to make it happen. The more paths to space the better.