Toaster Sunshine channels Jack White for science and technology outreach

At the recent U2 Academic Conference, I had the opportunity to be at the local premiere of It Might Get Loud, a much-more-than documentary of the electric guitar as told through the careers of Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page, U2's The Edge, and Jack White of The White Stripes and Raconteurs. For the record, I thought that White was going to be totally out of his league - while I wouldn't call him a "legend" as billed by the producers, I left being incredibly impressed with his background and breadth of abilities.

Related to the movie trailer below, I had an exchange with Toaster Sunshine, a musician and scientist who writes the blog, Mad Scientist, Jr. (Tagline: "Sticking stuff that wasn't made to be stuck to stuff to stuff that wasn't made to have stuff stuck to it.") The trailer opens and closes with Jack White constructing a primitive electric guitar with a weathered wood plank, a bottle, and some wires and such - Toaster knew exactly what it was and told me how to do it myself.

However, as a microcosm of our respective lives (Toaster is still in the lab and I am primarily at my computer), Toaster actually made the instrument yesterday.

For the hackerspace, I send out a lot of emails. Most of them get ignored, but some of them stick. One of the ones that got a reply was a request to tour a museum collection of rare and antique musical instruments that the university's music school owns. In one of the conversations we had with the outreach director of the collection, we decided that co-hosting an educational event that melds technology and music into a workshop for kids and their parents. This is what is referred to as a Make and Take, participants register, pay a fee for parts, come and get taught how to make stuff, and then get to take it home with them afterwards.

i-0fd9dcc5d26797987ad16e5e71b6a479-Toasters slide guitar.jpg

Yup, he even provided photographic evidence that he did make it. For the kids (and for himself, I'm sure). And he gave us instructions on how to make our own, complete with things he'd do differently.

Toaster jokes about this project being more hacking than science but I argue otherwise: this IS science, all the fun, curiosity, and "hey, what if I try this?" mentality that got us all into this business that is often sadly beaten out of us by grad school and grant slogging.

Slapping together some wires and such just to see what happens and how one can then make it better? That's science and engineering, my friends. (Just like DrugMonkey's $100 Spike neuroscience colleagues, Tim Marzullo and Greg Gage. SfN 2008, SfN 2009)

So thanks, Toaster, for spreading the gospel to kids and their parents.

In honor of Toaster and his two-string slide guitar, I leave you with this classic song by The Presidents of the United States of America and another homemade tech project. One day, I also hope to be an old man on the back porch, slurpin' on a peach, playing my two-string, one-string, and no-string guitars.

Final note: You may be wondering, as I have, about where the name Toaster Sunshine is derived. Well, British chemist, Sarah Murray, (who tweets under @SarahScientist and blogs at Chemistress) chose to ask and the man tweeted back as follows:

Toaster from breakfast multitool (eggs, toast/waffles, bacon in one chassis) I once built, Sunshine is nocturnal irony.

Now that's an invention I want to see.


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I have been a White Stripes fan forever and i just caught It Might Get Loud. Jack White blew my mind. any true fan should not miss it.


I tried to wind another humbucker using an fairly strong ferrous magnet, but due to my impatience I rigged up a hand drill to wind instead of doing it by hand and in the process managed to snap the copper coil at a couple points, rendering it useless.

I'll try again before long, but in the meantime I'm working on a synthesizer suit.

Oh, also, I definitely recommend using something other than just screws as tuning pegs because the tension from the strings has bent the ones I used down to a 45degree angle.