How Everything Works Printer Friendly Version

 You can watch me drive this Lamborghini Gallardo Spyder in the first episode of the National Geographic Channel's new documentary series Known Universe. It airs on Sunday, February 15 at 8pm ET and will reappear five more times in February. Look for the episode entitled The Fastest (naturally). I hope that you'll enjoy the series and my contributions to it. If you do, please write to National Geographic and tell them that you want to see more science programs like Known Universe and more programs with me in them! Driving as fast as I could around curves while talking about the science of speed and distance was quite a challenge, but I think that the piece turned out well. Overall, the project was an amazing experience and I had the time of my life putting 100+ miles on a Lamborghini supercar along an empty road. Although it doesn't have the aerodynamic downforces that a Formula 1 car needs to corner at 5g, the Gallardo Spyder goes from 0 to 60 mph in about 4 seconds and just keeps on accelerating. I floored it dozens of times and was often well on my way to its top speed of 195 mph by the time I ran out of road. It was like operating my own personal motor-launched roller coaster. — Lou Bloomfield

1554. We flew from SeaTac to Maui last week. Because of snow on the ground and not enough deicer, many planes were unable to take off. On the return trip, the flight had a realtime listing on their t.v. screen of where we were (showing the progress we were making) and also showed altitude, flight speed and outdoor temperature. I noted that the outdoor temperature at 36,000 feet was 60 degrees below zero! So then I wondered....if planes can't take off without deicer at 32 degrees Fahrenheit, how can they "fly" at even colder temperatures? — VN, Anacortes, Washington

The problem for planes isn't the temperature, it's the humidity. When the air reaches 100% relative humidity, moisture in that air begins to condense on objects such as plane wings. The moisture can also condense into rain, snow, or sleet and then fall onto those plane wings.

If the temperature of overly moist air is 32 F or below, planes preparing for takeoff can accumulate heavy burdens of ice. When water vapor condenses as ice directly onto the wings themselves, that condensation process is called deposition and is familiar to you as frost. Deposition is a relatively slow process, so most of the trouble for planes occurs when it is actually snowing or sleeting. Removing the ice then requires either heat or chemicals.

When the plane is flying at high altitudes, however, the air is extremely dry. Even though the air temperature is far below the freezing temperature of water, the fraction of water molecules in the air is nearly zero and the relative humidity is much less than 100%. That means that an ice cube suspended in that dry air would actually evaporate away to nothing. Technically, that "evaporation" of ice directly into water vapor is call sublimation and you've seen it before. Think of all the foods that have experienced freezer burn in your frost-free (i.e., extremely dry air) refrigerator or the snow that has mysteriously disappeared from the ground during a dry spell even though the temperature has never risen above freezing. Both are cases of sublimation — where water molecules left the ice to become moisture in the air.

1553. I've read reference to "Smart" eyeglasses or contact lenses that can present more than just the visible portion of the electromagnetic spectrum. I'm wondering if you have any sources for these type of devices that are available to we civilians. — GJ, Wells, Nevada

Since our eyes are only sensitive to light that's in the visible range, any "smart" optical system would have to present whatever it detects as visible light. That means it has to either shift the frequencies/wavelengths of non-visible electromagnetic radiation into the visible range or image that non-visible radiation and present a false-color reproduction to the viewer. Let's consider both of these schemes.

The first approach, shifting the frequencies/wavelengths, is seriously difficult. There are optical techniques for adding and subtracting optical waves from one another and thereby shifting their frequencies/wavelengths, but those techniques work best with the intense waves available with lasers. For example, the green light produced by some laser pointers actually originated as invisible infrared light and was doubled in frequency via a non-linear optical process in a special crystal. The intensity and pure frequency of the original infrared laser beam makes this doubling process relatively efficient. Trying to double infrared light coming naturally from the objects around you would be extraordinarily inefficient. In general, trying to shift the frequencies/wavelengths of the various electromagnetic waves in your environment so that you can see them is pretty unlikely to ever work as a way of seeing the invisible portions of the electromagnetic spectrum.

The second approach, imaging invisible portions of the electromagnetic spectrum and then presenting a false-color reproduction to the viewer, is relatively straightforward. If it's possible to image the radiation and detect it, it's possible to present it as a false-color reproduction. I'm talking about a camera that images and detects invisible electromagnetic radiation and a computer that presents a false-color picture on a monitor. Imaging and detecting ultraviolet and x-ray radiation is quite possible, though materials issues sometimes makes the imaging tricky. Imaging and detecting infrared light is easy in some parts of the infrared spectrum, but detection becomes problematic at long wavelengths, where the detectors typically need to be cooled to extremely low temperatures. Also, the resolution becomes poor at long wavelengths.

Camera systems that image ultraviolet, x-ray, and infrared radiation exist and you can buy them from existing companies. They're typically expensive and bulky. There are exceptions such as near-infrared cameras — silicon imaging chips are quite sensitive to near infrared and ordinary digital cameras filter it out to avoid presenting odd-looking images. In other words, the camera would naturally see farther into the infrared than our eyes do and would thus present us with images that don't look normal.

In summary, techniques for visualizing many of the invisible portions of the electromagnetic spectrum exist, but making them small enough to wear as glasses... that's a challenge. That said, it's probably possible to make eyeglasses that image and detect infrared or ultraviolet light and present false-color views to you on miniature computer monitors. Such glasses may already exist, although they'd be expensive. As for making them small enough to wear as contact lenses... that's probably beyond what's possible, at least for the foreseeable future.

1552. In a wine tank we use Nitrogen (N2) to sparge both excess Oxygen (O2) and Carbon Dioxide (CO2) out of the wine solution. The sparger injects Nitrogen (N2) into the wine in very small bubbles at 20L/min to remove both Oxygen and Carbon Dioxide. Why does this work? — JT, Australia

During wine making, the amount of dissolved carbon dioxide (and possibly oxygen gas) can easily exceed its equilibrium concentration. That means that the liquid contains more dissolved gas than it would have if exposed to the atmosphere for a long period of time and had thereby reached its equilibrium concentration of the gas. Having too much dissolved gas does not, however, mean that this gas will leave quickly. For example, when you open a bottle of carbonated beverage the carbon dioxide is out of equilibrium. Although the gas was in equilibrium at the high pressure of the sealed bottle, it instantly became out of equilibrium when the bottle was opened and the density of gaseous carbon dioxide suddenly decreased. Nonetheless, it can take days for the excess carbon dioxide to come out of solution and leave. You've probably noticed that carbonated beverages take hours or days to "go flat."

Part of the reason why it takes so long for the dissolved gases to come out of solution is that the gas can only leave through the exposed surface of the liquid. In an open bottle of carbonated beverage that may be only a few square inches or a few dozen square centimeters. The dissolved gas has to find its way to that exposed surface and break free of the liquid. That's a slow process. The same thing is happening in your wine: the dissolve carbon dioxide and oxygen gases must normally find their way to the top of the tank and then break free to enter the gaseous region at the top of the tank — another slow processes. To speed the escape of dissolved gases, you can enlarge the exposed surface of the liquid by bubbling an inert gas through the liquid. Here, inert gas is any gas that doesn't dissolve significantly in the liquid and that doesn't affect the liquid if it does dissolve. Nitrogen is great for wine because it doesn't interact chemically with the wine. As you let bubbles of nitrogen float upward through the wine, you provide exposed surface within the body of the liquid wine and allow carbon dioxide and oxygen to break free of the liquid and enter those bubbles.

The spherical interface between the gas bubble and the surrounding liquid is a busy, active place — gas molecules are moving between the gas and liquid in both directions. Because carbon dioxide is over-concentrated in the liquid, it is statistically more likely for a carbon dioxide molecule to leave the liquid and enter the bubble's gas than the other way around. It takes a little energy to break those carbon dioxide molecules free of the liquid and that need for energy affects the balance between dissolved carbon dioxide and gaseous carbon dioxide at equilibrium. The harder it is for the carbon dioxide molecules to obtain the energy they need to escape from the liquid, the greater the equilibrium concentration of dissolved carbon dioxide — the saturated concentration. But your wine is supersaturated, containing more than the equilibrium concentration of dissolved carbon dioxide, so carbon dioxide molecules go from liquid to gas more often than the other way around.

When the degree of supersaturation (excess gas concentration) is high, the transfer of gas molecules from liquid to gas bubble can be fast enough to make the bubbles grow in size significantly as they float up through the wine. You can see this type of rapid bubble growth in a glass of freshly poured soda, beer, or champagne. In beer, champagne, and your wine, however, the liquid surface of the bubble contains various natural chemicals that alter the interface with the gas and affect bubble growth. The "tiny bubbles" of good champagne reflect that influence.

Another way to provide the extra exposed surface in the wine and thereby allow the supersaturated dissolved gases to come out of solution would be to agitate the wine so violently that empty cavities open up within the wine. Although that approach would provide lots of extra surface, it would probably not be good for the wine. Bubbling gas through the wine is a much more gentle.

The exact choice of gas barely matters as long as it is chemically inert in the wine. Argon or helium would be just as effective, but they're more expensive (and in the case of helium, precious). The temperature of the gas doesn't matter significantly, but the temperature of the wine does. The cooler the wine, the higher the concentration of dissolved carbon dioxide and oxygen it will contain at equilibrium so you'll remove more of those gases if you do your bubbling while the wine is relatively warm.

1551. Upon removing a cup of coffee I'd heated for one minute in a microwave oven, I noticed a small ant running about, apparently unharmed. Curious, I gave it another one minute ride and when the door was open, it was still running about. How come an ant is apparently unharmed after two minutes in a microwave? — KMB

Most likely, the ant never left the floor or walls of the microwave oven, where it was as close as possible to those metal surfaces. The six sides of the cooking chamber in a microwave oven are made from metal (or painted metal) because metal reflects microwaves and keeps them bouncing around inside the chamber.

Metals are good conductors of electricity and effectively "short out" any electric fields that are parallel to their surfaces. Microwaves reflect from the metal walls because those walls force the electric fields of the microwaves to cancel parallel to their surfaces and that necessitates a reflected wave to cancel the incident wave. Because of that cancellation at the conducting surfaces, the intensity of the microwaves at the walls is zero or very close to zero.

The ant survived by staying within a tiny fraction of the microwave wavelength (about 12.4 cm) of the metal surfaces, where there is almost zero microwave intensity. Had the ant ventured out onto your cup, it would have walked into real trouble. Once exposed to the full intensity of the microwaves, it would not have fared so well.

1550. My wife makes blueberry pancakes for my daughter daily. Twice recently she noticed and brought to my attention a curious event in the Microwave oven. Frozen Blueberries placed inside a microwave oven to thaw, caused a popping sound and a small flame to appear amidst the blueberries. The flame self extinguishes. There is no apparent damage to the blueberries or the bowl they were contained in. — HA, New Jersey

I think that you've rediscovered an experiment in which people cut a grape almost in half, open the two halves like a book and lay it flat on a plate. In the microwave, the thin bridge between the halves carbonizes and than emits flames. Basically, the fruit pieces or berries are acting as antennas for the microwaves, which drive electric currents through the narrow bridges between parts. The berries aren't great conductors, but they're not true insulators either. Those bridges overheat (like an overloaded extension cord) and burn up. The flames come from the burning bridges.

If you let the flames go on long enough and enough carbon develops, you'll probably start getting plasma balls in the oven (lots of fun, but not great for the oven... you can scorch its top surface because those plasma balls rise and skittle around the ceiling of the oven). Anyway, you can probably find the carbon areas if you look closely enough, but they're no worse than a little burnt toast.

1547. If I were to heat up a brownie and a white piece of cake, would the brownie heat up faster by radiation transfer because of its darker color? — B

In principle, the brownie would heat up faster by radiation in a hot environment and cool off faster by radiation in a cold environment. A black object is better at both absorbing thermal radiation and emitting thermal radiation, so the brownie would soak up more thermal radiation in the hot environment and give off more thermal radiation in the cold environment.

In practice, however, most of the radiation involved in baking these desserts and letting them cool on a kitchen counter is in the infrared and it's hard to tell just what color a brownie or cake is in the infrared. It's likely that both are pretty dark when viewed in infrared light. Basically, even things that look white to your eye are often gray or black in the infrared. Thus I suspect that both the brownie and cake absorb most of the thermal radiation they receive while being baked and emit thermal radiation efficienty while they're cooling on the counter.

1546. How can light "travel" through a vacuum when there were no "particles" in the vacuum on which it could "transmit" its charge? — DC

Light has no charge at all. It consists only of electric and magnetic field, each endlessly recreating the other as the pair zip off through empty space at the speed of light.

The fact that light waves can travel in vacuum, and don't need any material to carry them, was disturbing to the physicists who first studied light in detail. They expected to find a fluid-like aether, a substance that was the carrier of electromagnetic waves. Instead, they found that those waves travel through truly empty space. One thing led to another, and soon Einstein proposed that the speed of light was profoundly special and that space and time were interrelated by way of that speed of light.

1543. Can/should a microwave be disposed with the normal trash, what if any are the environmental impacts of the magnetron or other parts sitting in a landfill? — DNR

I figure that some day, we'll turn to our landfills as resources for precious elements like copper and gold. That assumes, of course, that we survive global warming. In the meantime, we'll just keep throwing stuff out.

Despite the scary title "microwave radiation," a microwave oven is basically just another household electronic device. It is an extremely close relative of a convention cathode-ray-tube television set. If you're OK with putting CRT televisions and computer monitors in the landfill, you should have no problems with putting microwave ovens there, too. Even when the microwave oven is on, all it has inside it is microwave radiation and that's just not a big deal. The instant you turn it off, it doesn't even have those microwaves in it. It's just boring inert electronic parts and they'll sit in the landfill for generations, rusting and decaying like every other abandoned electronic gadget. I'd rather see it go to a recycling center and have its precious materials returned to the resource bin, but as landfill junk goes, it's not all that bad. Given that toxic chemicals are the primary concern with landfills, microwave ovens are probably rather innocuous. They have no radioactive contents and although the high-voltage capacitor might have oil in it, that oil can no longer be the toxic PCBs that were common a few decades ago. Even when that oil leaks into the environment, it's probably not going to do much.

So there you have it, microwave ovens go to their graves no more loudly or dangerously than old televisions or computers or cell phones.

In fact, I might start calling cell phones "microwave phones" because that's exactly what they are. They communicate with the base unit by way of microwave radiation. Given the number of people who have cell phones semi-permanently installed in their ears, concerns about microwave radiation should probably be redirect from microwave ovens to "microwave phones." Think about it next time your six-year-old talks for an hour with her best friend on that "microwave phone."

1542. Why do deep water wells need a pump at the bottom rather than one at the top? — LG, Vancouver

While it's easy to push on water, it's hard to pull on water. When you drink soda through a straw, you may feel like you're pulling on the water, but you're not. What you are actually doing is removing some air from the space inside the straw and above the water, so that the air pressure in that space drops below atmospheric pressure. The water column near the bottom of the straw then experiences a pressure imbalance: the usual atmospheric pressure below it and less-than-atmospheric pressure above it. That imbalance provides a modest upward force on the water column and pushes it up into your mouth.

So far, so good. But if you make that straw longer, you'll need to suck harder. That's because as the column of water gets taller, it gets heavier. It needs a more severe pressure imbalance to push it upward and support it. By the time the straw and water column get to be about 40 feet tall, you'll need to suck every bit of air out from inside the straw because the pressure imbalance needed to support a 40-foot column of water is approximately one atmosphere of pressure. If the straw is taller than 40 feet, you're simply out of luck. Even if you remove all the air from within the straw, the atmospheric pressure of the water below the straw won't be able to push the water up the straw higher than about 40 feet.

To get the water to rise higher in the straw, you'll need to install a pump at the bottom. The pump increases the water pressure there to more than 1 atmosphere, so that there is a bigger pressure imbalance available and therefore the possibility of supporting a taller column of water.

OK, so returning to your question: once a well is more than about 40 feet deep, getting the water to the surface requires a pump at the bottom. That pump can boost the water pressure well above atmospheric and thereby push the water to the surface despite the great height and weight of the water column. Suction surface pumps are really only practical for water that's a few feet below the surface; after that, deep pressure pumps are a much better idea.

1541. My eight year old daughter asked me, "If light is the fastest thing in the universe what is the second fastest thing in the universe?" — JPW, Lancaster, PA

Your daughter's question is a cute one. I like it because it highlights the distinction between the speed of light and all other speeds. The speed of light is unimaginably special in our universe. Strange though it may sound, even if light didn't exist there would still be the speed of light and it would still have the same value. The speed of light is part of the geometry of space-time and the fact that light travels at "the speed of light" is almost a cosmic afterthought. Gravity and the so-called "strong force" also travel at that speed.

OK, so there is actually a multi-way tie for first place in the speed rankings. Your daughter's question is what comes next? The actual answer is that itâ€™s a many-way tie between everything else. With enough energy, you can get anything moving at just under the speed of light, at least in principle. For example, subatomic particles such as electrons, protons, and even atomic nuclei are routinely accelerated to just under the speed of light in sophisticated machines around the world. The universe itself has natural accelerators that whip subatomic particles up until they are traveling so close to the speed of light that it's hard to tell that they aren't quite at the speed of light. Nonetheless, I assure you that they're not. The speed of light is so special that nothing that has any mass at all can possibly travel at the speed of light. Only the ephemeral non-massive particles such as light particles (photons), gravity particles (gravitons), and strong force particles (gluons) can actually travel at the speed of light. In fact, once photons, gravitons, and gluons begin to interact with matter, they don't travel at the speed of light either. It's sort of a guilt-by-association: as soon as these massless particles leave the essential emptiness of the vacuum and begin to interact with matter, even they can't travel at the speed of light anymore.

That said, I can still offer the likely second place finisher on the speed list. I'm going to skip over light, gravity, and the strong force traveling in extremely dilute matter because that's sort of cheating &mdash if you take something that naturally travels at the speed of light and slow it down the very, very slightest bit, of course it will come ridiculously close to the speed of light. In real second place are almost certainly cosmic ray particles. These cosmic rays are actually subatomic particles that are accelerated to fantastic energies by natural processes in the cosmos. How such accelerators work is still largely a mystery but some of the cosmic ray particles that reach our atmosphere have truly astonishing energies — once in a while a single cosmic ray particle that is smaller than an atom will carry enough energy with it that it is capable of moving small ordinary objects around. Even if it carries the energy of a fly, that's a stupendous amount of energy for an atomic fragment. Those cosmic ray particles are traveling so close to the speed of light that it would be a photo-finish with light itself.

1540. I have a large commercial superconducting magnet and am looking for a high-value-added product or manufacturing process to pursue with it. Is there anything you have learned in your research that would be worth producing? — PT

As a general observation, the bottleneck in scientific research and technological innovation is almost always the ideas, not the equipment. Occasionally, a revolutionary piece of equipment comes on the scene and makes a whole raft of developments possible overnight. But a commercial superconducting magnet isn't revolutionary; you can buy one off the shelf. As a result, all the innovations that were waiting for magnets like that to become available were mopped up long ago and any new innovations will take new ideas.

Coming up with good ideas is hard work and if I had them, I'd have gotten hold of such a magnet myself. Although science is often taught as formulas and factoids, itâ€™s really about thinking and observing, and good ideas are nearly always more important than good equipment. Good ideas don't linger unstudied for long when commercial equipment is all it takes to pursue them.

1539. How do glasses work and the physics behind them? — SDM, Missouri

Like a camera, your eye collects light from the scene youâ€™re viewing and tries to form a real image of that scene on your retina. The eyeâ€™s front surface (its cornea) and its internal lens act together to bend all the light rays from some distant feature toward one another so that they illuminate one spot on your retina. Since each feature in the scene youâ€™re viewing forms its own spot, your eyeâ€™s cornea and lens are forming a real image of the scene in front of you. If that image forms as intended, you see a sharp, clear rendition of the objects in front of you. But if your eye isnâ€™t quite up to the task, the image may form either before or after your retina so that you see a blurred version of the scene.

The optical elements in your eye that are responsible for this image formation are the cornea and the lens. The cornea does most of the work of converging the light so that it focuses, while the lens provides the fine adjustment that allows that focus to occur on your retina.

If youâ€™re farsighted, the two optical elements arenâ€™t strong enough to form an image of nearby objects on your retina so you have trouble getting a clear view while reading. Your eye needs help, so you wear converging eyeglasses. Those eyeglasses boost the converging power of your eye itself and allow your eye to form sharp images of nearby objects on your retina.

If youâ€™re nearsighted, the two optical elements are too strong and need to be weakened in order to form sharp images of distant objects on your retina. Thatâ€™s why you wear diverging eyeglasses.

People are surprised when I tell them that theyâ€™re nearsighted or farsighted. They wonder how I know. My trick is simple: I look through their eyeglasses at distant objects. If those objects appear enlarged, the eyeglasses are converging (like magnifying glasses) and the wearer must be farsighted. If those objects appear shrunken, the eyeglasses are diverging (like the security peepholes in doors) and the wearer is nearsighted. Try it, youâ€™ll find that itâ€™s easy to figure out how other people see by looking through their glasses as they wear them.

1538. The new soft drink dispenser at a nearby store has touch pads that release soda as long as you are pressing on them. I noticed that if I press a pad with something other than my fingers (like a straw or car key) nothing happens, no matter how hard I press. Yet with my fingers, I sometimes don't even have to make actual contact — just very close proximity. What is happening here? — RLB

Those touch pads are sensing your presence electronically, not mechanically. More specifically, electric charge on the pad pushes or pulls on electric charge on your finger and the padâ€™s electronics can tell that you are there by how charge on the pad reacts to charge on your finger.

Because your finger and your body conduct electricity, the padâ€™s electric charge is actually interacting with the electric charge on your entire body. In contrast, a straw is insulating, so the pad can only interact with charge at its tip, and while your car keys are conducting, they are too small to have the effect that your body has on that pad.

The second way for the padâ€™s electronics to sense your presence is to let your body act as an antenna for electromagnetic influences in the environment. We are awash in electric and magnetic fields of all sorts and the electric charge on your body is in ceaseless motion as a result. Youâ€™ve probably noticed that touching certain input wires of a stereo amplifier produces lots of noise in the speakers; thatâ€™s partly a result of the electromagnetic noise in our environment showing up as moving charge on your body. The little pad on the soda dispenser picks up a little of this electromagnetic noise all by itself. When you approach or touch the pad, however, you dramatically increase the amount of electromagnetic noise in the pad. The padâ€™s electronics easily detect that new noise.

In short, soda dispenser pads are really detecting large electrically conducting objects. Their ability to sense your finger even before it makes contact is important because they need to work when people are wearing gloves. I first encountered electrical touch sensors in elevators when I was a child and I loved to experiment with them. Conveniently, theyâ€™d light up when they detected something and there was no need to clean up spilled soda. Weâ€™d try triggering them with elbows and noses, and a whole variety of inanimate objects. They were already pretty good, but modern electronics has made touch pads even better. The touch switches used by some lamps and other appliances function in essentially the same way.

1537. Why do washed clothes dry faster in open air than in a closed room? — A, Aizawl, India

What thrills me about your question is that while we've all noticed this effect, we're never taught why it happens. Let me ask your question in another way: we know that opening a window makes the clothes dry faster, but how do the clothes know that the window is open? Who tells them?

The explanation is both simple and interesting: the rate at which water molecules leave the cloths doesn't depend on whether the window is open or closed, but the rate at which water molecules return to the cloths certainly does. That return rate depends on the air's moisture content and can range from zero in dry air to extremely fast in damp air. Air's moisture content is usually characterized by its relative humidity, with 100% relative humidity meaning that air's water molecules land on surfaces exactly as fast as water molecules in liquid water leave its surface. When you expose a glass of water to air at 100% relative humidity, the glass will neither lose nor gain water molecules because the rates at which water molecules leave the water and land on the water are equal. Below 100% relative humidity, the glass will gradually empty due to evaporation because leaving will outpace landing. Above 100% relative humidity, the glass will gradually fill due to condensation because landing will outpace leaving.

The same story holds true for wet clothes. The higher the air's relative humidity, the harder it becomes for water to evaporate from the cloths. Landing is just too frequent in the humid air. At 100% relative humidity the clothes won't dry at all, and above 100% relative humidity they'll actually become damper with time.

When you dry clothes in a room with the window open and the relative humidity of the outdoor air is less than 100%, water molecules will leave the clothes more often than they'll return, so the clothes will dry. But when the window is closed, the leaving water molecules will remain trapped in the room and will gradually increase the room air's relative humidity. The drying process will slow down as the water-molecule return rate increases. When the room air's relative humidity reaches 100%, drying will cease altogether.

1536. Why does steam make ironing cotton pants so much easier? — AB, Virginia

Water "plasticizes" the cotton. A plasticizer is a chemical that dissolves into a plastic and lubricates its molecules so that they can move across one another more easily. Cotton is almost pure cellulose, a polymer consisting of sugar molecules linked together in long chains. Since sugar dissolves easily in water, water dissolves easily in cellulose. Even though cellulose scorches before it melts, it can be softened by heat and water. When you iron cotton pants, the steam dissolves into the cellulose molecules and allows the fabric to smooth out beautifully.

1535. A co-worker who is an intelligent electrical engineer said an ungrounded microwave is dangerous because microwaves can then escape through the holes in the door. Aside from the electrical dangers, I disagreed because I think it is just the size of the holes vs. the wavelength of the microwaves. Does lack of a ground allow some microwaves to escape through the holes in the microwave door? — LG, Maine

Youâ€™re right. Whether the microwave oven is grounded or not makes no difference on its screenâ€™s ability to prevent microwave leakage. In fact, the whole idea of grounding something is nearly meaningless at such high frequencies. Since electrical influences can't travel faster than the speed of light and light only travels 12.4 cm during one cycle of the ovenâ€™s microwaves, the oven can't tell if it's grounded at microwave frequencies; its power cord is just too long and there just isnâ€™t time for charge to flow all the way through that cord during a microwave cycle.

When you ground an appliance, youâ€™re are making it possible for electric charge to equilibrate between that appliance and the earth. The earth is approximately neutral, so a grounded appliance canâ€™t retain large amounts of either positive or negative charge. Thatâ€™s a nice safety feature because it means that you wonâ€™t get a shock when you touch the appliance, even if one of its power wires comes loose and touches the case. Any charge that the power wire tries to deposit on the case will quickly flow to the earth as the appliance and earth equilibrate.

But charge canâ€™t escape from the appliance through the grounding wire instantly. Light takes about 1 nanosecond to travel 1 foot and electricity takes a little longer than that. For charge to leave your appliance for the earth might well require 50 nanoseconds or more. Thatâ€™s not a problem for ordinary power distribution, so grounding is generally a great idea. Each cycle of the 60-Hz AC power in the U.S. takes 18 milliseconds to complete, so the appliance and earth have plenty of time to equilibrate with one another. But a cycle of the microwave power in the oven takes less about 0.4 nanoseconds to complete and thereâ€™s just no time for the appliance and earth to equilibrate. At microwave frequencies, the electric current flowing through a long wire is wavelike, meaning that at one instant in time the wire has both positive and negative patches, spaced half a wavelength apart along its length. Itâ€™s carrying an electromagnetic ripple.

The metal screen on the ovenâ€™s door has to reflect the microwaves all by itself. It does this without a problem because the holes are so much smaller than 12.4 centimeters that currents easily flow around them during a cycle of the microwaves. Those currents are able to compensate for the holes in the screens and cause the microwaves to reflect perfectly.

1534. A bird lands on an uninsulated 10,000 volt power line. Will it become extra crispy? — RKS, Texas

No. Birds do this all the time. What protects the bird is the fact that it doesnâ€™t complete a circuit. It touches only one wire and nothing else. Although there is a substantial charge on the power line and some of that charge flows onto the bird when it lands, the charge movement is self-limiting. Once the bird has enough charge on it to have the same voltage as the power line, charge stops flowing. And even though the power lineâ€™s voltage rises and falls 60 times a second (or 50 times a second in some parts of the world), the overall charge movement at 10,000 volts just isnâ€™t enough to bother the bird much. At 100,000 volts or more, the charge movement is uncomfortable enough to keep birds away, so you donâ€™t see them landing on the extremely high-voltage transmission lines that travel across vast stretches of countryside.

The story wouldnâ€™t be the same if the bird made the mistake of spanning the gap from one wire to another. In that case, current could flow through the bird from one wire to the other and the bird would run the serious risk of becoming a flashbulb. Squirrels occasionally do this trick when they accidentally bridge a pair of wires. Some of the unexpected power flickers that occur in places where the power lines run overhead are caused by squirrels and occasionally birds vaporizing when they let current flow between power lines.

1533. Why do I sometimes shock myself when I kiss Uncle Al? — BS

If both of you were electrically neutral before the kiss, nothing would happen. Evidently, one of you has developed a net charge and that charge is suddenly spreading itself out onto the other person during the kiss. That charge flow is an electric current and you feel currents flowing through your body as a shock.

Most likely, one of you has been in contact with a insulating surface that has exchanged charge with you. For example, if you walked across wool carpeting in rubber-soled shoes, that carpeting has probably transferred some of its electrons to your shoes and your shoes have then spread those electrons out onto you. Rubber binds electrons more tightly than wool and so your shoes tend to steal a few of electrons from wool whenever it gets a chance. If you walk around a bit or scuff your feet, you'll typically end up with quite a large number of stolen electrons on your body. When you then go and kiss Uncle Al, about half of those electrons spread suddenly onto him and that current flow is shocking!

1532. There is a video circulating on the internet which purports to show an "inventor" who has a machine that burns water. Water is broken down into hydrogen and oxygen which is then burned to produce....more water! I maintain that the net energy produced would be about zero since energy must be expended to separate water into hydrogen and oxygen. Your comments please. — ST, Arizona

You have it exactly right. Water itself is burned hydrogen, and the energy required to separate water into hydrogen and oxygen is equal to the energy released when the hydrogen subsequently burns back into water. Energy in and energy out. Just as in bicycling, if you want to roll downhill, you have to pedal uphill first.

Anyone who claims to be able to extract useful energy through a process that starts with water and ends with water is a charlatan. Either they aren't producing any useful energy or it's coming from some other source. In these sorts of frauds, there is usually some electrical component that is supposedly needed to keep a minor part of the apparatus functioning. That component isn't insignificant at all; it's what actually keeps the entire apparatus functioning!

Hydrogen has such a mythical aura to it, but in the context of energy, it's just another fuel. Actually, it's more of any energy storage medium than a basic fuel. That's because hydrogen doesn't occur naturally on earth and can only be produced by consuming another form of energy. There is so much talk about "the hydrogen economy"Âť and the notion that hydrogen will rescue us from our dependence on petroleum. Sadly, politicians who promote hydrogen as the energy panacea neither understand science nor respect those who do. Since it takes just as much energy to produce hydrogen from water as is released when that hydrogen burns back into water, hydrogen alone won't save us.

As we grow progressively more desperate for useable energy, the amount of fraud and misinformation will only increase. There are only a few true sources for useable energy: solar energy (which includes wind power, hydropower, and biomass), fossil fuels (which include petroleum and coal), geothermal energy, and nuclear fuels. Hydrogen is not among them; it can be produced only at the expense of one of the others. Even ethanol, which is touted as an environmentally sound replacement for petroleum, has its problems; producing a gallon of ethanol can all too easily consume a gallon of petroleum.

Where energy is concerned, watch out for fraud, hype, PR, and politics. If we survive the coming energy and climate crises, it will be because we've learned to conserve energy and to obtain it primarily from solar and perhaps nuclear sources. It will also be because we've learned to set politics and self-interest aside long enough to make accurate analyses and sound decisions.

1531. What does it mean if a light bulb uses 60 watts? — B, Los Angeles

The watt is a unit of power, equivalent to the joule-per-second. One joule is about the amount of energy it takes to raise a 12 ounce can of soda 1 foot. A 60 watt lightbulb uses 60 joules-per-second, so the power it consumes could raise a 24-can case of soda 2.5 feet each second. Most tables are about 2.5 feet above the floor. Next time you leave a 60-watt lightbulb burning while you're not in the room, imagine how tired you'd get lifting one case of soda onto a table every second for an hour or two. That's the mechanical effort required at the generating plant to provide the 60-watts of power you're wasting. If don't need the light, turn off lightbulb!

1530. Does space dust settle on orbiting space shuttles? — A, Troy, MT

What a great question! I love it. The answer is no, but there's much more to the story.

I'll begin to looking at how dust settles in calm air near the ground. That dust experiences its weight due to gravity, so it tends to descend. Each particle would fall like a rock except that it's so tiny that it experiences overwhelming air resistance. Instead of falling, it descends at an incredibly slow terminal velocity, typically only millimeters per second. It eventually lands on whatever is beneath it, so a room's floor gradually accumulates dust. But dust also accumulates on vertical walls and even on ceilings. That dust is held in place not by its weight but by electrostatic or chemical forces. When you go into an abandoned attic, most of the dust is on the floor, but there's a little on the walls and on the ceiling.

OK, now to the space shuttle. The shuttle is orbiting the earth, which means that although it has weight and is falling freely, it never actually reaches the earth because it's heading sideways so fast. Without gravity, its inertia would carry it horizontally out into space along a straight line path. Gravity, however, bends that straight line path into an elliptical arc that loops around the earth as an orbit.

So far no real surprises: dust near ground level settles in calm air and the shuttle orbits the earth. The surprise is that particles of space dust particles also orbit the earth! The shuttle orbits above the atmosphere, where there is virtual no air. Without air to produce air resistance, the dust particles also fall freely. Those with little horizontal speed simply drop into the atmosphere and are lost. But many dust particles have tremendous horizontal speeds and orbit the earth like tiny space shuttles or satellites.

Whether they are dropping toward atmosphere or orbiting the earth, these space dust particles are typically traveling at velocities that are quite different in speed or direction from the velocity of the space shuttle. The relative speed between a dust particle and the shuttle can easily exceed 10,000 mph. When such a fast-moving dust particle hits the space shuttle, it doesn't "settle."Âť Rather, it collides violently with the shuttle's surface. These dust-shuttle collisions erode the surfaces of the shuttle and necessitate occasional repairs or replacements of damaged windows and sensors. Astronauts on spacewalks also experience these fast collisions with space dust and rely on their suits to handle all the impacts.

Without any air to slow the relative speeds and cushion the impacts, its rare that a particle of space dust lands gracefully on the shuttle's surface. In any case, gravity won't hold a dust particle in place on the shuttle because both the shuttle and dust are falling freely and gravity doesn't press one against the other. But electrostatic and chemical attractions can hold some dust particles in place once they do land. So the shuttle probably does accumulate a very small amount of accumulated space dust during its travels.

1529. Why do scantron-type tests only read #2 pencils? Can other pencils work? — MW, Montgomery, AL

The #2-pencil requirement is mostly historical. Because modern scantron systems can use all the sophistication of image sensors and computer image analysis, they can recognize marks made with a variety of materials and they can even pick out the strongest of several marks. If they choose to ignore marks made with materials other than pencil, it's because they're trying to be certain that they're recognizing only marks made intentionally by the user. Basically, these systems can "see" most of the details that you can see with your eyes and they judge the markings almost as well as a human would.

The first scantron systems, however, were far less capable. They read the pencil marks by shining light through the paper and into Lucite light guides that conveyed the transmitted light to phototubes. Whenever something blocked the light, the scantron system recorded a mark. The marks therefore had to be opaque in the range of light wavelengths that the phototubes sensed, which is mostly blue. Pencil marks were the obvious choice because the graphite in pencil lead is highly opaque across the visible light spectrum. Graphite molecules are tiny carbon sheets that are electrically conducting along the sheets. When you write on paper with a pencil, you deposit these tiny conducting sheets in layers onto the paper and the paper develops a black sheen. It's shiny because the conducting graphite reflects some of the light waves from its surface and it's black because it absorbs whatever light waves do manage to enter it.

A thick layer of graphite on paper is not only shiny black to reflected light, it's also opaque to transmitted light. That's just what the early scantron systems needed. Blue inks don't absorb blue light (that's why they appear blue!), so those early scantron systems couldn't sense the presence of marks made with blue ink. Even black inks weren't necessarily opaque enough in the visible for the scantron system to be confident that it "saw" a mark.

In contrast, modern scantron systems used reflected light to "see" marks, a change that allows scantron forms to be double-sided. They generally do recognize marks made with black ink or black toner from copiers and laser printers. I've pre-printed scantron forms with a laser printer and it works beautifully. But modern scantron systems ignore marks made in the color of the scantron form itself so as not to confuse imperfections in the form with marks by the user. For example, a blue scantron form marked with blue ink probably won't be read properly by a scantron system.

As for why only #2 pencils, that's a mechanical issue. Harder pencil leads generally don't produce opaque marks unless you press very hard. Since the early scantron machines needed opacity, they missed too many marks made with #3 or #4 pencils. And softer pencils tend to smudge. A scantron sheet filled out using a #1 pencil on a hot, humid day under stressful circumstances will be covered with spurious blotches and the early scantron machines confused those extra blotches with real marks.

Modern scantron machines can easily recognize the faint marks made by #3 or #4 pencils and they can usually tell a deliberate mark from a #1 pencil smudge or even an imperfectly erased mark. They can also detect black ink and, when appropriate, blue ink. So the days of "be sure to use a #2 pencil" are pretty much over. The instruction lingers on nonetheless.

One final note: I had long suspected that the first scanning systems were electrical rather than optical, but I couldn't locate references. To my delight, Martin Brown informed me that there were scanning systems that identified pencil marks by looking for their electrical conductivity. Electrical feelers at each end of the markable area made contact with that area and could detect pencil via its ability to conduct electric current. To ensure enough conductivity, those forms had to be filled out with special pencils having high conductivity leads. Mr. Brown has such an IBM Electrographic pencil in his collection. This electrographic and mark sense technology was apparently developed in the 1930s and was in wide use through the 1960s.

1528. If a home looses some of its power during a power outage and the lights shine dim, will it burn up the motor in the refrigerator? Will it damage other appliances (TV, VCR. stereo. etc)? Should the main disconnect be shut off? — J, Ohio

Power outages come in a variety of types, one of which involves a substantial decrease in the voltage supplied to your home. The most obvious effect of this voltage decrease is the dimming of the incandescent lights, which is why it's called a "brownout." The filament of a lightbulb is poor conductor of electricity, so keeping an electric charge moving through it steadily requires a forward force. That forward force is provided by the voltage difference between the two wires: the one that delivers charges to the filament and the one that collects them back from the filament. As the household voltage decreases, so does the force on each charge in the filament. The current passing through the filament decreases and the filament receives less electric power. It glows dimly.

At the risk of telling you more than you ever want to know, I'll point out that the filament behaves approximately according to Ohm's law: the current that flows through it is proportional to the voltage difference between its two ends. The larger that voltage difference, the bigger the forces and the more current that flows. This ohmic behavior allows incandescent lightbulbs to survive decreases in voltage unscathed. They don't, however, do well with increases in voltage, since they'll then carry too much current and receive so much power that they'll overheat and break. Voltage surges, not voltage decreases, are what kill lightbulbs.

The other appliances you mention are not ohmic devices and the currents that flow through them are not simply proportional to the voltage supplied to your home. Motors are a particularly interesting case; the average current a motor carries is related in a complicated way to how fast and how easily it's spinning. A motor that's turning effortlessly carries little average current and receives little electric power. But a motor that is struggling to turn, either because it has a heavy burden or because it can't obtain enough electric power to overcome starting effects, will carry a great deal of average current. An overburdened or non-starting motor can become very hot because it's wiring deals inefficiently with the large average current, and it can burn out. While I've never heard of a refrigerator motor dying during a brownout, it wouldn't surprise me. I suspect that most appliance motors are protected by thermal sensors that turn them off temporarily whenever they overheat.

Modern electronic devices are also interesting with respect to voltage supply issues. Electronic devices operate on specific internal voltage differences, all of which are DC — direct current. Your home is supplied with AC — alternating current. The power adapters that transfer electric power from the home's AC power to the device's DC circuitry have evolved over the years. During a brownout, the older types of power adapters simply provide less voltage to the electronic devices, which misbehave in various ways, most of which are benign. You just want to turn them off because they're not working properly. It's just as if their batteries are worn out.

But the most modern and sophisticated adapters are nearly oblivious to the supply voltage. Many of them can tolerate brownouts without a hitch and they'll keep the electronics working anyway. The power units for laptops are a case in point: they can take a whole range of input AC voltages because they prepare their DC output voltages using switching circuitry that adjusts for input voltage. They make few assumptions about what they'll be plugged into and do their best to produce the DC power required by the laptop.

In short, the motors in your home won't like the brownout, but they're probably protected against the potential overheating problem. The electronic appliances will either misbehave benignly or ride out the brownout unperturbed. Once in a while, something will fail during a brownout. But I think that most of the damage is down during the return to normal after the brownout. The voltages bounce around wildly for a second or so as power is restored and those fluctuations can be pretty hard some devices. It's probably worth turning off sensitive electronics once the brownout is underway because you don't know what will happen on the way back to normal.

1527. My husband put a large metal bowl in our new microwave oven and tore a small hole in the oven's metal screen while trying to close the door. My husband isn't concerned, but the oven is mounted over the stove at face level and it certainly concerns me. Can we use it? — E, Ontario, Canada

That tear in the window screen presents three potential problems: microwave leakage, evanescent waves, and arcing. As long as the hole is small, less than a centimeter or so, it's not likely to allow much microwave leakage. The oven's microwaves have a wavelength of 12.4 centimeters and they'll reflect from conducting surfaces with holes much smaller than that wavelength. A foot from your oven, there probably won't be any significant microwave intensity, although the only way to be sure is with a microwave leakage meter.

The evanescent wave problem is more likely. When any electromagnetic wave reflects from a conducting surface that has small holes in it, there is what is known as an evanescent wave extending into and somewhat beyond each hole. It's as though the wave is trying to figure out whether or not it can pass through the opening and so it tries. Even when it discovers that the hole is far too small for it pass through (i.e., much smaller than its wavelength), it still offers electromagnetic intensity in the region just beyond the hole. The extent of the evanescent wave increases with the size of the hole. The microwave oven's screen has very small holes and it is located inside the glass window. The evanescent waves associated with those holes cut off so quickly that you can hold your hand against the glass and not expose your skin to significant microwaves. But once you've torn a larger hole in the screen, the evanescent waves can extend farther through that screen and perhaps out beyond the surface of the glass window. If you press your hand against the window just in front of the tear while the microwave oven is on, you may burn your hand.

Finally, there is the issue of arcing. To reflect the microwaves, the conducting screen must carry electric currents. The microwaves' electric fields push electric charge back and forth in the conducting screen and it is that moving charge (i.e., electric current) that ultimately redirects the microwaves back into the cooking chamber as a reflection. Those electric currents in the screen are real and they're not going to take kindly to that tear. It's a weak spot in the conducting surface through which they flow. Weak electrical paths can heat up like lightbulb filaments when they carry currents. Moreover, charge that should flow across the torn region can accumulate on sharp edges and leap through the air as an arc. If either of these processes happens, it may scorch the window and the screen, and cause increasing trouble.

You could be lucky: the leakage could be zero, the evanescent waves could remain far enough inside the window to never cause injury, and the tear could never heat up or arc. But the risk of operating this damaged microwave oven is not insignificant. Since it's an installed unit, I'd suggest replacing the screen or the door (assuming that such replacements are available).

1525. Is it true that the bigger the lens on a camera, the more light goes through it and the better the photo or video? My film teacher says that while this idea is logically correct, he didn't know if it was true. Your lecture slides say the answer is yes, but my teacher still doesn't believe it. We were wondering about your source for this material. — PJ

I'll assume that by "bigger lens" you mean one that is larger in diameter and that therefore collects all the light passing through a larger surface area. While a larger-diameter lens can project a brighter image onto the image sensor or film than a smaller-diameter lens, that's not the whole story. Producing a better photo or video involves more than just brightness.

Lenses are often characterized by their f-numbers, where f-number is the ratio of effective focal length to effective lens diameter. Focal length is the distance between the lens and the real image it forms of a distant object. For example, if a particular converging lens projects a real image of the moon onto a piece of paper placed 200 millimeters (200 mm) from the lens, then that lens has a focal length of 200 mm. And if the lens is 50 mm in diameter, it has an f-number of 4 because 200 mm divided by 50 mm is 4.

Based on purely geometrical arguments, it's easy to show that lenses with equal f-numbers project images of equal brightness onto their image sensors and the smaller the f-number, the brighter the image. Whether a lens is a wide-angle or telephoto, if it has an f-number of 4, then its effective focal length is four times the effective diameter of its light gathering lens. Since telephoto lenses have long focal lengths, they need large effective diameters to obtain small f-numbers.

But notice that I referred always to "effective diameter" and "effective focal length" when defining f-number. That's because there are many modern lenses that are so complicated internally that simply dividing the lens diameter by the distance between the lens and image sensor won't tell you much. Many of these lenses have zoom features that allow them to vary their effective focal lengths over wide ranges and these lenses often discard light in order to improve image quality and avoid dramatic changes in image brightness while zooming.

You might wonder why a lens would ever choose to discard light. There are at least two reasons for doing so. First, there is the issue of image quality. The smaller the f-number of a lens, the more precise its optics must be in order to form a sharp image. Low f-number lenses are bringing together light rays from a wide range of angles and getting all of those rays to overlap perfectly on the image sensor is no small feat. Making a high-performance lens with an f-number less than 2 is a challenge and making one with an f-number of less than 1.2 is extremely difficult. There are specialized lenses with f-numbers below 1 and Canon sold a remarkable f0.95 lens in the early 1960's. The lowest f-number camera lens I have ever owned is an f1.4.

Secondly, there is the issue of depth-of-focus. The smaller the f-number, the smaller the depth of focus. Again, this is a geometry issue: a low-f-number lens is bringing together light rays from a wide range of angles and those rays only meet at one point before separating again. Since objects at different distances in front of the lens form images at different distances behind the lens, it's impossible to capture sharp images of both objects at once on a single image sensor. With a high-f-number lens, this fact isn't a problem because the light rays from a particular object are rather close together even when the object's image forms before or after the image sensor. But with a low-f-number lens, the light rays from a particular object come together acceptably only at one particular distance from the lens. If the image sensor isn't at that distance, then the object will appear all blurry. If a zoom lens didn't work to keep its f-number relatively constant while zooming from telephoto to wide angle, its f-number would decrease during that zoom and its depth-of-focus would shrink. To avoid that phenomenon, the lens strategically discards light so as to keep its f-number essentially constant during zooming.

In summary, larger diameter lenses tend to be better at producing photographic and video images, but that assumes that they are high-quality and that they can shrink their effective diameters in ways that allow them to imitate high-quality lenses of smaller diameters when necessary. But flexible characteristics always come at some cost of image quality and the very best lenses are specialized to their tasks. Zoom lenses can't be quite as good as fixed focal length lenses and a large-diameter lens imitating a small-diameter lens by throwing away some light can't be quite as good as a true small-diameter lens.

As for my sources, one of the most satisfying aspects of physics is that you don't always need sources. Most of the imaging issues I've just discussed are associated with simple geometric optics, a subject that is part of the basic toolbox of an optical physicist (which I am). You can, however, look this stuff up in any book on geometrical optics.

1524. Can I warm plates in my microwave oven? — AC

Yes, but it's not a good idea. Depending on the type of plate, you can either damage your microwave oven or damage the plate.

If a plate is "microwave safe," it will barely absorb the microwaves and heat extremely slowly. In effect, the microwave oven will be operating empty and the electromagnetic fields inside it will build up to extremely high levels. Since the walls of the oven are mirrorlike and the plate is almost perfectly transparent to microwaves, the electromagnetic waves streaming out of the oven's magnetron tube bounce around endlessly inside the oven's cooking chamber. The resulting intense fields can produce various types of electric breakdown along the walls of the cooking chamber and thereby damage the surface with burns or arcs. Furthermore, the intense microwaves in the cooking chamber will reflect back into the magnetron and can upset its internal oscillations so that it doesn't function properly. Although magnetrons are astonishingly robust and long-lived, they don't appreciate having to reabsorb their own emitted microwaves. In short, your plates will heat up slowly and you'll be aging your microwave oven in the process. You could wet the plates before putting them in the microwave oven to speed the heating and decrease the wear-and-tear on the magnetron, but then you'd have to dry the plates before use.

If a plate isn't "microwave safe," then it will absorb microwaves and heat relatively quickly. If it absorbs the microwaves uniformly and well, then you can probably warm it to the desired temperature without any problems as long as you know exactly how many seconds it takes and adjust for the total number of plates you're warming. If you heat a plate too long, bad things will happen. It may only amount to burning your fingers, but some plates can't take high temperatures without melting, cracking, or popping. Unglazed ceramics that have soaked up lots of water will heat rapidly because water absorbs microwaves strongly. Water trapped in pores in such ceramics can transform into high-pressure steam, a result that doesn't seem safe to me. And if a plate absorbs microwaves nonuniformly, then you'll get hotspots or burned spots on the plate. Metalized decorations on a plate will simply burn up and blacken the plate. Cracks that contain water will overheat and the resulting thermal stresses will extend the cracks further. So this type of heating can be stressful to the plates.

1523. How deep under water can I go while breathing from a hose that rises above the surface of the water? — DF, Downers Grove, IL

You can only go a few feet under water before you'll no longer be able to draw air into your lungs through that hose. It's a pressure problem. The water pressure outside your chest increases rapidly as you go deeper, but the air pressure inside the hose and your mouth barely changes at all. Pretty soon, you'll have so much more pressure outside your lungs than inside them that you won't be able to draw in any more air. Your muscles just won't be strong enough.

The water pressure increases quickly with depth because each layer of water must support the weight of all the water layers above it. Since water is dense, heavy stuff, the weight piles on quickly and it takes only 10 meters (34 feet) of descent to increase the water pressure from atmospheric to twice atmospheric. In contrast, the air in the hose is light, fluffy stuff, so its pressure increases rather slowly with depth. Even though each layer of air has to support the weight of all the layers of air above it, the rise in pressure is extremely gradual. It takes miles of atmosphere above the earth for the air pressure to build up to atmospheric pressure near the ground. The air pressure in your hose is therefore approximately unchanged by your descent into the water.

With the water pressure outside rising quickly as you go deeper and the air pressure in your mouth rising incredibly slowly as you go deeper, you quickly find it hard to breathe. Your muscles can push your chest outward against a modest pressure imbalance between outside and inside. But by the time you're a few feet below the surface, you just can't draw air into your lungs through that hose anymore. You need pressurized air, such as that provided by a scuba outfit or a deep-sea diver's compressor system.

1522. Would ice in the freezer absorb the smell in the freezer? — ML, Auckland NZ

Despite the freezer's low temperature and the motionlessness of all the frozen foods inside it, there is still plenty of microscopic motion going on. Every surface inside the freezer is active, with individual molecules landing and leaving all the time. Whenever a molecule on the surface of a piece of food manages to gather enough thermal energy from its neighbors, it will break free of the surface and zip off into the air as a vapor molecule. And whenever a vapor molecule in the air collides with the surface of another piece of food, it may stick to that surface and remain there indefinitely.

Since the freezer has a nearly airtight seal, the air it contains remains inside it for a long time. That means that the odor molecules that occasionally break free of a pungent casserole at one end of the freezer have every opportunity to land on and stick to an ice cube at the other end. With time, the ice cube acquires the scent of the casserole and becomes unappealing.

To stop this migration of molecules, you should seal each item in the freezer in its own container. That way, any molecules that leave the food's surface will eventually return to it. Since ice cubes are normally exposed to the air in the freezer, keeping the odor molecules trapped in their own sealed containers keeps the freezer air fresh and the ice cubes odor-free.

1521. I was told the holes in the front door of a microwave oven were shaped round because the microwave beam is shaped as a square. Thus, this means that a square shape object cannot pass through a round shaped object. Is this a true statement or not? — BH, Texas

No, there is no square-peg in round-hole effect going on in microwave ovens. Microwaves reflect from conducting surfaces, just as light waves reflect from shiny metals, and they can't pass through holes in conducting surfaces if those holes are substantially smaller than their wavelengths. The holes in the conducting mesh covering the microwave oven's window are simply too small for the microwaves and the microwaves are reflected by that mesh.

Microwaves themselves have no well-defined shape but they do have firm rules governing their overall structures. Books usually draw microwaves (and all other electromagnetic waves) as wavy lines, as though something was truly going up and down in space. From that misleading representation, it's easy for people to suppose that electromagnetic waves can't get through certain openings.

In reality, electromagnetic waves consist of electric and magnetic fields (influences that push on electric charge and magnetic pole, respectively) that point up and down in a rippling fashion, but nothing actually travels up and down per say. The spatial structures of these fields are governed by Maxwell's equations, a set of four famous relationships that bind electricity and magnetism into a single, unified classical theory. Maxwell's equations dictate the structures of electromagnetic waves and predict that electromagnetic waves on one side of a conducting surface can't propagate through to the other side of that surface. Even if there are small holes in the conducting surface, holes that are much smaller that the wavelength of the waves, those waves can't propagate through the surface. More specifically, the fields die off exponentially as they try to penetrate through the holes and the waves don't propagate on the far side.

The choice of round holes in the oven mesh is simply a practical one. You can pack round holes pretty tightly in a surface while leaving their conducting boundaries relatively robust. And round holes treat all electromagnetic waves equally because they have no wide or narrow directions.

1520. What happens when sheets of paper, long rolled up into a tube, are unrolled but simply won't ever lie flat again? — PD

Paper consists mostly of cellulose, a natural polymer (i.e. plastic) built by stringing together thousands of individual sugar molecules into vast chains. Like the sugars from which it's constructed, cellulose's molecular pieces cling tightly to one another at room temperature and make it rather stiff and brittle. Moreover, cellulose's chains are so entangled with one another that it couldn't pull apart even if its molecular pieces didn't cling so tightly. These effects are why it's so hard to reshape cellulose and why wood or paper don't melt; they burn or decompose instead. In contrast, chicle — the polymer in chewing gum — can be reshaped easily at room temperature.

Even though pure cellulose can't be reshaped by melting, it can be softened with water and/or heat. Like ordinary sugar, cellulose is attracted to water and water molecules easily enter its chains. This water lubricates the chains so that the cellulose becomes somewhat pliable and heat increases that pliability. When you iron a damped cotton or linen shirt, both of which consist of cellulose fibers, you're taking advantage of that enhanced pliability to reshape the fabric.

But even when dry, fibrous materials such as paper, cotton, or linen have some pliability because thin fibers of even brittle materials can bend significantly without breaking. If you bend paper gently, its fibers will bend elastically and when you let the paper relax, it will return to its original shape.

However, if you bend the paper and keep it bent for a long time, the cellulose chains within the fibers will begin to move relative to one another and the fibers themselves will begin to move relative to other fibers. Although both of these motions can be facilitated by moisture and heat, time along can get the job done at room temperature. Over months or years in a tightly rolled shape, a sheet of paper will rearrange its cellulose fibers until it adopts the rolled shape as its own. When you then remove the paper from its constraints, it won't spontaneously flatten out. You'll have to reshape it again with time, moisture, and/or heat. If you press it in a heavy book for another long period, it'll adopt a flat shape again.

1519. Why is a car's rear window put and kept under stress, and what has this to do with polarization? — BD, Leuven, Belgium

The rear window of a car is made of tempered glass — the glass is heated approximately to its softening temperature and then cooled abruptly to put its surface under compression, leaving its inside material under tension. That tempering process makes the glass extremely strong because its compressed surface is hard to tear. But once a tear does manage to propagate through the compressed surface layer into the tense heart of the glass, the entire window shreds itself in a process called dicing fracture — it tears itself into countless little cubes.

The stresses frozen into the tempered glass affect its polarizability and give it strange characteristics when exposed to the electromagnetic fields in light. This stressed glass tends to rotate polarizations of the light passing through it. As a result, you see odd reflections of the sky (skylight is polarized to some extent). Those polarization effects become immediately apparent when you wear polarizing sunglasses.

1518. Why must you "shake down" a mercury fever thermometer? I was told by one manufacturer that mercury expands but does not contract. Also, is it true that the rounded glass acts as a magnifier because the bore is so small? — JB

Mercury does expand with temperature; moreover, it expands more rapidly with temperature than glass goes. That's why the column of mercury rises inside its glass container. While both materials expand as they get hotter, the mercury experiences a larger increase in volume and must flow up the narrow channel or "capillary" inside the glass to find room for itself. Mercury is essentially incompressible so that, as it expands, it pushes as hard as necessary on whatever contains it in order to obtain the space it needs. That's why a typical thermometer has an extra chamber at the top of its capillary. That chamber will receive the expanding mercury if it rises completely up the capillary so that the mercury won't pop the thermometer if it is overheated. In short, the force pushing mercury up the column can be enormous.

The force pushing mercury back down the column as it cools is tiny in comparison. Mercury certainly does contract when cooled, so that the manufacturer is telling you nonsense. But just because the mercury contracts as it cools doesn't mean that it will all flow back down the column. The mercury needs a push to propel it through its narrow channel.

Mercury is attracted only weakly to glass, so it doesn't really adhere to the walls of its channel. However, like all liquids, mercury has a viscosity, a syrupiness, and this viscosity slows its motion through any pipe. The narrower the pipe, the harder one has to push on a liquid to keep it flowing through that pipe. In fact, flow through a pipe typically scales as the 4th power of that pipe's radius, which is why even modest narrowing of arteries can dramatically impair blood flow in people. The capillaries used in fever thermometers are so narrow that mercury has tremendous trouble flowing through them. It takes big forces to push the mercury quickly through such a capillary.

During expansion, there is easily enough force to push the mercury up through the capillary. However, during contraction, the forces pushing the mercury back down through the capillary are too weak to keep the column together. That's because the only thing above the column of liquid mercury is a thin vapor of mercury gas and that vapor pushes on the liquid much too feebly to have a significant effect. And while gravity may also push down on the liquid if the thermometer is oriented properly, it doesn't push hard enough to help much.

The contracting column of mercury takes hours to drift downward, if it drifts downward at all. It often breaks up into sections, each of which drifts downward at its own rate. And, as two readers (Michael Hugh Knowles and Miodrag Darko Matovic) have both pointed out to me in recent days, there is a narrow constriction in the capillary near its base and the mercury column always breaks at that constriction during contraction. Since the top portion of the mercury column is left almost undisturbed when the column breaks at the constriction, it's easy to read the highest temperature reached by the thermometer.

Shaking the thermometer hard is what gets the mercury down and ultimately drives it through the constriction so that it rejoins into a single column. In effect, you are making the glass accelerate so fast that it leaves the mercury behind. The mercury isn't being pushed down to the bottom of the thermometer; instead, the glass is leaping upward and the mercury is lagging behind. The mercury drifts to the bottom of the thermometer because of its own inertia.

You're right that the glass tube acts as a magnifier for that thin column of mercury. Like a tall glass of water, it acts as a cylindrical lens that magnifies the narrow sliver of metal into a wide image.

1517. I recently bought a used microwave oven. The enamel coating under the glass turntable tray is rusted in a ring around the track that the turntable rotates on. Should I repair this or is it ok to just use it as is? — AA, Kettering, Ohio

As long as the oven's metal bottom is sound underneath the rust, there isn't a problem. The cooking chamber walls are so thick and highly conducting that they reflect the microwaves extremely well even when they have a little rust on them. However, if the metal is so rusted that it loses most of its conductivity in the rust sites, you'll get local heating across the rusty patches and eventually leakage of microwaves. If you're really concerned that there may be trouble, run the microwave oven empty for about 20 seconds and then (carefully!) touch the rusty spots. If they aren't hot, then the metal underneath is doing its job just fine.

The salesperson you spoke to was simply wrong. If you'll allow me to stand on my soapbox for a minute, I'll tell you that this is a perfect example of how important it is for everyone to truly learn basic science while they're in school and not to simply suffer through the classes as a way to obtain a degree. The salesperson is apparently oblivious to the differences between types of "radiation," to the short- and long-term effects of those radiations, and to the importance of intensity in radiation.

Let's start with the differences in types of radiation. Basically, anything that moves is radiation, from visible light, to ultraviolet, to X-rays, to microwaves, to alpha particles, to neutrons, and even to flying pigeons. These different radiations do different things when they hit you, particularly the pigeons. While "ionizing radiations" such as X-rays, ultraviolet, alpha particles, and neutrons usually have enough localized energy to do chemical damage to the molecules they hit, "non-ionizing radiation" such as microwaves and pigeons do not damage molecules. When you and your organic friend worry about toxic changes in food or precancerous changes in your tissue, what really worry you are molecular changes. Microwaves and pigeons don't cause those sorts of changes. Microwaves effectively heat food or tissue thermally, while pigeons bruise food or tissue on impact.

Wearing a lead apron while working around ionizing radiation makes sense, although a simple layer of fabric or sunscreen is enough to protect you from most ultraviolet. To protect yourself against pigeons, wear a helmet. And to protect yourself against microwaves, use metal. The cooking chamber of the microwave oven is a metal box (including the screened front window). So little microwave "radiation" escapes from this metal box that it's usually hard to detect, let alone cause a safety problem. There just isn't much microwave intensity coming from the oven and intensity matters. A little microwaves do nothing at all to you; in fact you emit them yourself!

If you want to detect some serious microwaves, put that microwave detector near your cellphone! The cellphone's job is to emit microwaves, right next to your ear! Before you give up on microwave ovens, you should probably give up on cellphones. That said, I think the worst danger about cellphones is driving into a pedestrian or a tree while you're under the influence of the conversation. Basically, non-ionizing radiation such as microwaves is only dangerous if it cooks you. At the intensities emitted by a cellphone next to your ear, it's possible that some minor cooking is taking place. However, the cancer risk is almost certainly nil.

Despite all this physics reality, salespeople and con artists are still more than happy to sell you protection against the dangers of modern life. I chuckle at the shields people sell to install on your cellphones to reduce their emissions of harmful radiation. The whole point of the cellphone is to emit microwave signals to the receiving tower, so if you shield it you spoil its operation! It would be like wrapping an X-ray machine in a lead box to protect the patient. Sure, the patient would be safe but the X-ray machine would barely work any more.

Returning to the microwave cooking issue, once the food comes out of the microwave oven, there are no lingering effects of its having been cooked with microwaves. There is no convincing evidence of any chemical changes in the food and certain no residual cooking microwaves around in the food. If you're worried about toxic changes to your food, avoid broiling or grilling. Those high-surface-temperature cooking techniques definitely do chemical damage to the food, making it both tasty and potentially a tiny bit toxic. One of the reasons why food cooked in the microwave oven is so bland is because those chemical changes don't happen. As a result, microwave ovens are better for reheating than for cooking.

1515. Is it possible to capture and keep ionized gases or air in a container of some sort? That way they could be sprayed out at any time just like room deodorant. — CW

No, you cannot store charged gases in any simple container. If you try to store a mixture of positively and negatively charge gas particles in a single container, those opposite charges will attract and neutralize one another. And if you try to store only one type of charge in a container, those like charges will repel and push one another to the walls of the container. If the container itself conducts electricity, the charges will escape to the outside of the container and from there into the outside world. And if the container is insulating, the charges will stick to its inside surface and you'll have trouble getting them to leave. Moreover, you'll have trouble putting large numbers of those like-charged gas particles into the container in the first place because the ones that enter first will repel any like charges that follow.

1514. What packing material protects best? When we drop an egg wrapped in various packaging materials, we know the force that gravity exerts on the egg but how do we know the force of the impact? — DL, Springboro, Ohio

I like to view problems like this one in terms of momentum: when it reaches the pavement, a falling egg has a large amount of downward momentum and it must get rid of that downward momentum gracefully enough that it doesn't break. The whole issue in protecting the egg is in extracting that momentum gracefully.

Momentum is a conserved physical quantity, meaning that it cannot be created or destroyed. It can only be passed from one object to the other. When you let go of the packaged egg and it begins to fall, the downward momentum that gravity transfers into the egg begins to accumulate in the egg. Before you let go, your hand was removing the egg's downward momentum as fast as gravity was adding it, but now the egg is on its own!

Because momentum is equal to an object's mass times its velocity, the accumulating downward momentum in the egg is reflected in its increasing downward speed. With each passing second, the egg receives another dose of downward momentum from the earth. By the time the egg reaches the pavement, it's moving downward fast and has a substantial amount of downward momentum to get rid of. Incidentally, the earth, which has given up this downward momentum, experiences an opposite response—it has acquired an equal amount of upward momentum. However, the earth has such a huge mass that there is no noticeable increase in its upward speed.

To stop, the egg must transfer all of its downward momentum into something else, such as the earth. It can transfer its momentum into the earth by exerting a force on the ground for a certain amount of time. A transfer of momentum, known as an impulse, is the product of a force times a time. To get rid of its momentum, the egg can exert a large force on the ground for a short time or a small force for a long time, or anything in between. If you let it hit the pavement unprotected, the egg will employ a large force for a short time and that will be bad for the egg. After all, the pavement will push back on the egg with an equally strong but oppositely directed force and punch a hole in the egg.

To make the transfer of momentum graceful enough to leave the egg intact, the protective package must prolong the momentum transfer. The longer it takes for the egg to get rid of its downward momentum, the smaller the forces between the egg and the slowing materials. That's why landing on a soft surface is a good start: it prolongs the momentum transfer and thereby reduces the peak force on the egg.

But there is also the issue of distributing the slowing forces uniformly on the egg. Even a small force can break the egg if it's exerted only on one tiny spot of the egg. So spreading out the force is important. Probably the best way of distributing the slowing force would be to float the egg in the middle of a fluid that has the same average density as the egg. But various foamy or springy materials will distribute the forces nearly as well.

In summary, (1) you want to bring the egg to a stop over as long as period of time as possible so as to prolong the transfer of momentum and reduce the slowing forces and (2) you want to involve the whole bottom surface of the egg in this transfer of momentum so that the slowing forces are exerted uniformly on the egg's bottom surface. As for the actual impact force on the egg, you can determine this by dividing the egg's momentum just before impact (its downward speed times its mass) by the time over which the egg gets rid of its momentum.

1513. Can infrared lasers, thermal cameras, digital cameras, or optical fiber cameras be used to see through walls of homes or to monitor people's conversations? — CB, Connecticut

I'm beginning to think that movies and television do a huge disservice to modern society by blurring the distinction between science and fiction. So much of what appears on the big and little screen is just fantasy.

The walls of your home are simply hard to look through. They block visible, infrared, and ultraviolet light nearly perfectly and that doesn't leave snoopers many good options. A person sitting outside your home with a thermal camera—a device that "sees" the infrared light associated with body-temperature objects—or a digital camera is going to have a nice view of your wall, not you inside. There are materials that, while opaque to visible light, are relatively transparent to infrared light, such as some plastics and fabrics. However, typical wall materials are too thick and too opaque for infrared light to penetrate. Sure, someone can put a camera inside your home and access it via an optical fiber or radio waves, but at that point, they might as well just peer through your window.

The only electromagnetic waves that penetrate walls well are radio waves, microwaves, and X rays. If someone builds an X ray machine around your home, they'll be able to see you, or at least your bones. Don't forget to wave. And, in principle, they could use the radar technique to look for you with microwaves, but you'd be a fuzzy blob at best and lost in the jumble of reflections from everything else in your home.

As for using a laser to monitor your conversations from afar, that's a real possibility. Surfaces vibrate in the presence of sound and it is possible to observe those vibrations via reflected light. But the technical work involved is substantial and it's probably easier to just put a bug inside the house or on its surface.

Since I first posted this answer, several people have pointed out to me that terahertz radiation also penetrates through some solid surfaces and could be used to see through the walls of homes. In fact, the whole low-frequency end of the electromagnetic spectrum (radio, microwaves, terahertz waves) can penetrate through electrically insulating materials in order to "observe" conducting materials inside a home and the whole high-frequency end of that spectrum (X-rays and gamma rays) can penetrate through simple atoms (low atomic number) in order to "observe" complex atoms inside a home. Still, these approaches to seeing through walls require the viewers to send electromagnetic waves through the house and those waves can be detected by the people inside. They're also not trivial to implement. I suppose that people could use ambient electromagnetic waves to see what's happening in a house, but that's not easy, either. Where there's a will, there's a way: stealth aircraft have been detected by way of the dark spot they produce in the ambient radio spectrum and the insides of the pyramids have been studied by looking at cosmic rays passing through them. Nonetheless, I don't think that many of us need worry about being studied through the walls of our homes.

1512. Why are physicists so skeptical about peoples' claims to have invented motors that provide mechanical power without consuming electric power or generators that produce electric power without consuming mechanical power from the systems that turns them? — LB (Yes, I'm asking myself this question)

While it may seem as though there is some grand conspiracy among physicists to deny validation to those inventors, nothing could be farther from the truth. Physicists generally maintain a healthy skepticism about whatever they hear and are much less susceptible to dogmatic conservativism than one might think. However, physicists think long and deep about the laws that govern the universe, especially about their simplicity and self-consistency. In particular, they learn how even the slightest disagreement between a particular law and the observed behavior of the universe indicates either a problem with that law (typically an oversimplification, but occasionally a complete misunderstanding) or a failure in the observation. The law of energy conservation is a case in point: if it actually failed to work perfect even one time, it would cease to be a meaningful law. The implications for our understanding of the universe would be enormous. Physicists have looked for over a century for a failure of energy conservation and have never found one; not a single one. (Note: relativistic energy conservation involves mass as well as energy, but that doesn't change the present story.)

The laws of both energy conservation and thermodynamics are essentially mathematical laws—they depend relatively little on the specific details of our universe. Just about the only specific detail that's important is time-translation symmetry: as far as we can tell, physics doesn't change with time—physics today is the same as it was yesterday and as it will be tomorrow. That observation leads, amazingly enough, to energy conservation: energy cannot be created or destroy; it can only change forms or be transferred between objects. Together with statistical principals, we can derive thermodynamics without any further reference to the universe itself. And having developed energy conservation and the laws of thermodynamics, the game is over for free-energy motors and generators. They just can't work. It's not a matter of looking for one special arrangement that works among millions that don't. There are exactly zero arrangements that work.

It's not a matter of my bias, unless you consider my belief that 2 plus 2 equals 4 to be some sort of bias. You can look all you like for a 2 that when added to another 2 gives you a 5, but I don't expect you to succeed.

About once every month or two, someone contacts me with a new motor that turns for free or a generator that creates power out of nowhere. The pattern always repeats: I send them the sad news that their invention will not work and they respond angrily that I am not listening, that I am biased, and that I am part of the conspiracy. Oh well. There isn't much else I can do. I suppose I could examine each proposal individually at length to find the flaw, but I just don't have the time. I'm a volunteer here and this is time away from my family.

Instead, I suggest that any inventor who believes he or she has a free-energy device build that device and demonstrate it openly for the physics community. Take it to an American Physical Society conference and present it there. Let everyone in the audience examine it closely. Since anyone can join the APS and any APS member can talk at any major APS conference, there is plenty of opportunity. If someone succeeds in convincing the physics community that they have a true free-energy machine, more power to them (no pun intended). But given the absence of any observed failure of time-translation symmetry, and therefore the steadfast endurance of energy conservation laws, I don't expect any successful devices.

1511. My 10-year old son understands that body temperature is related to the speeds/kinetic energies of the molecules inside you, but does friction play a role as well? — MR

You're both right about temperature being associated with kinetic energy in molecules: the more kinetic energy each molecule has, the hotter the substance (e.g. a person) is. But not all kinetic energy "counts" in establishing temperature. Only the disordered kinetic energy, the tiny chucks of kinetic energy that belong to individual particles in a material contributes to that material's temperature. Ordered kinetic energy, such as the energy in a whole person who's running, is not involved in temperature. Whether an ice cube is sitting still on a table or flying through the air makes no difference to its temperature. It's still quite cold.

Friction's role with respect to temperature is in raising that temperature. Friction is a great disorderer. If a person running down the track falls and skids along the ground, friction will turn that person's ordered kinetic energy into disordered kinetic energy and the person will get slightly hotter. No energy was created or destroyed in the fall and skid, but lots of formerly orderly kinetic energy became disordered kinetic energy—what I often call "thermal kinetic energy."

The overall story is naturally a bit more complicated, but the basic idea here is correct. Once energy is in the form of thermal kinetic energy, it's stuck... like a glass vase that has been dropped and shattered into countless pieces, thermal kinetic energy can't be entirely reconstituted into orderly kinetic energy. Once energy has been distributed to all the individual molecules and atoms, getting them all to return their chunks of thermal kinetic energy is hopeless. Friction, even at the molecular level, isn't important at this point because the energy has already been fragmented and the most that any type of friction can do is pass that fragmented energy about between particles. So friction creates thermal kinetic energy (out of ordered energies of various types)... in effect, it makes things hot. It doesn't keep them hot; they do that all by themselves.

1510. If you have a deck that is snow covered with a very light, fluffy snow, and no one touches it, but in the next few days, from the sun, or whatever, the snow becomes "heavier" to move, does it actually weigh more? — PP

As the snow settles and becomes denser, it may feel "heavier", but its total weight doesn't change much. The same water molecules are simply packing themselves into a smaller space. So while each shovel-full of the dense stuff really does weigh more than a shovel-full of the light stuff, the total number of water molecules present on your deck and their associated weight is still the same.

In actually, some of the water molecules have almost certainly left via a form of solid-to-gas evaporation known technically as "sublimation." You have seen this conversion of ice into gas when you have noticed that old ice cubes in your freezer are smaller than they used to be or when you see that the snow outside during a cold spell seems to vanish gradually without ever melting. Sublimation is also the cause of "freezer burn" for frozen foods left without proper wrapping.

1508. I don't want to sound like I know everything in the world or even like I know quite a lot. But you had a question regarding "If a microwave oven door were to open while it was still on, what would happen? Could it hurt you?- JP"

Well ..Having the thought process that I have, kinda how should I put it? ...Stupid? or inventive or even in-between. Well, my microwave door did happen to come off. Magic Chef 900-watt microwave. Well, I did my best to try to fix it but the hinge on one side did not attach properly, therefore having a gap between the door and the appliance. Being me (stupid) I wondered if it would burn fast or would it gradually warm up. I slid my finger between...You probably dying to hear what happened... But it didn't gradually warm up at all. It was instant heat! It didn't scar me or anything like that, but sure scared the H*** out of me to find out it got so hot so quick. I didn't get any blisters either. But it just burned like touching something hot on the tip of my finger being that is the only thing I put in. Well you know the old adage, "You learn from your mistakes", stands true. lol - Anonymous

What a remarkable story! As much as I like to think I can predict what should happen in many cases, there is just nothing like a good experiment to bring some reality to the situation. Your microwave evidently sent a significant fraction of its 900 watts of microwave radiation through that crack between cooking chamber and door and roasted your finger instantly. This is a good cautionary tale for those who are careless or curious with potentially dangerous household gadgets. While I continue to think that serious injuries are unlikely even in a leaky microwave oven, you have shown that there are cases of real danger. Fortunately, you had time to snap you finger away. It's like Class 3 lasers, which are now common in the form of laser pointers and supermarket checkout systems: they can damage your vision if you stare into them, but your blink reflex is fast enough to keep you from suffering injury. Thanks for the anecdote and I'm glad your finger recovered.

1507. Ever since someone struck and damaged the rear bumper of my SAAB 9-3, the air pressure inside the car has been unbearable to myself and passengers. It causes ear pain and nausea after around 15 minutes of driving. The only solution is to open the windows. Can you think of any structural aspect that may cause a problem like this? - TA

I suspect that the air inside the car is vibrating the way it does inside an organ pipe or in a soda bottle when you blow carefully across the bottle's lip. This resonant effect is common in cars when one rear passenger window is opened slightly. In that case, air blowing across the opening in the window is easily deflected into or out of the opening and drives the air in the passenger compartment into vigorous vibration. In short, the car is acting like a giant whistle and because of its enormous size, its pitch is too low for you to hear. Instead, you feel the vibration as a sickening pulsation in the air pressure.

For the one-open-window problem, the solution is simple: open another window. That shifts the resonant frequency of the car's air and also helps to dampen the vibrations. Alternatively, you can close the opened window. In your case, the resonance appears to involve a less visible opening into the car, perhaps near the rear bumper. If you can close that leak, you may be able to stop the airflow from driving the air in the car into resonance. If you are unable to find the leak, your best bet is to do exactly what you've done: open another window.

1506. I teach a class on safety helmets (hard hats) and had a question about one of their specifications. The manufacturer rates their crown impact energy level at 40 foot-pounds. Would this be equivalent to taking an object that weighs 20 pounds and dropping it 2 feet onto a hard hat? - AH

Assuming that the wearer doesn't let the helmet move and that the object that hits the helmet is rigid, my answer is approximately yes. If a 20-pound rigid object hits the hat from a height of 2 feet, that object will transfer just over 40 foot-pounds of energy to the helmet in the process of coming to a complete stop. The "just over" has to do with the object's continued downward motion as it dents the hat and the resulting release of additional gravitational potential energy. Also, the need for a rigid dropped object lies in a softer object's ability to absorb part of the impact energy itself; a dropped 20-pound sack of flour will cause less damage than a dropped 20-pound anvil.

However, the true meaning of the "40 foot-pound" specification is that the safety helmet is capable of absorbing 40 foot-pounds of energy during an impact on its crown. This energy is transferred to the helmet by doing work on it: by pushing its crown downward as the crown dents downward. The product of the downward force on the crown times the distance the crown moves downward gives the total work done on the helmet and this product must not exceed 40 foot-pounds or the helmet may fail to protect the wearer. Since the denting force typically changes as the helmet dents, this varying force must be accounted for in calculating the total work done on the helmet. While I'm not particularly familiar with safety helmets, I know that bicycle helmets don't promise to be useable after absorbing their rated energies. Bicycle helmets contain energy-absorbing foam that crushes permanently during severe impacts so that they can't be used again. Some safety helmets may behave similarly.

Finally, an object dropped from a certain height acquires an energy of motion (kinetic energy) equal to its weight times the height from which it was dropped. As long as that dropped object isn't too heavy and the helmet it hits dents without moving overall, the object's entire kinetic energy will be transferred to the helmet. That means that a 20-pound object dropped from 2 feet on the helmet will deposit 40 found-pounds of energy in the helmet. But if the wearer lets the helmet move downward overall, some of the falling object's energy will go into the wearer rather than the helmet and the helmet will tolerate the impact easily. On the other hand, if the dropped object is too heavy, the extra gravitational potential energy released as it dents the helmet downward will increase the energy transferred to the helmet. Thus a 4000-pound object dropped just 1/100th of a foot will transfer much more than 40 foot-pounds of energy to the helmet.

1505. I have noticed that the more I stir the milk into my coffee, the hotter it gets, even though the milk is cold. How does it work?

Stirring the coffee involves a transfer of energy from you to the coffee. That's because you are doing physical work on the coffee by pushing it around as it moves in the direction of your push. What began as chemical energy in your body becomes thermal energy in the coffee. That said, the amount of thermal energy you can transfer to the coffee with any reasonable amount of stirring is pretty small and you'd lose patience with the process long before you achieved any noticeable rise in coffee temperature. I think that the effect you notice is more one of mixing than of heating. Until you mix the milk into the coffee, you may have hot and cold spots in your cup and you may notice the cold spots most strongly.

1504. Is it possible to heat up the surface of a stealth aircraft by exposing it to strong microwaves? Also, I heard that local forces in the recent Balkans conflict used cellular phone technology to down the U.S. stealth aircraft. Is that possible? - JG

Stealth aircraft are designed to absorb most of the microwave radiation that hits them and to reflect whatever they don't absorb away from the microwave source. That way, any radar system that tries to see the aircraft by way of its microwave reflection is unlikely to detect anything returning from the aircraft. In effect, the stealth aircraft is "black" to microwaves and to the extent that it has any glossiness to its surfaces, those surfaces are tipped at angles that don't let radar units see that glossiness. Since most radar units emit bright bursts of microwaves and look for reflections, stealth aircraft are hard to detect with conventional radar. Just as you can't see a black bat against the night sky by shining a flashlight at it, you can't see a stealth aircraft against the night sky by shining microwaves at it.

Like any black object, the stealth aircraft will heat up when exposed to intense electromagnetic waves. But trying to cook a stealth aircraft with microwaves isn't worth the trouble. If someone can figure out where it is enough to focus intense microwaves on it, they can surely find something better with which to damage it.

As for detecting the stealth aircraft with the help of cell phones, that brings up the issue of what is invisibility. Like a black bat against the night sky, it's hard to see a stealth aircraft simply by shining microwaves at it. Those microwaves don't come back to you so you see no difference between the dark sky and the dark plane. But if you put the stealth aircraft against the equivalent of a white background, it will become painfully easy to see. Cell phones provide the microwave equivalent of a white background. If you look for microwave emission near the ground from high in the sky, you'll see microwaves coming at you from every cell phone and telephone tower. If you now fly a microwave absorbing aircraft across that microwave-rich background, you'll see the dark image as it blocks out all these microwave sources. Whether or not this effect was used in the Balkans, I can't say. But it does point out that invisibility is never perfect and that excellent camouflage in one situation may be terrible in another.

1503. I understand now why the sky is blue, but why are sunsets red and orange? - AB, Oak Ridge, Tennessee

As I discussed previously, the sky is blue because tiny particles in the atmosphere (dust, clumps of air molecules, microscopic water droplets) are better at deflecting shorter wavelength blue light than they are at deflecting longer wavelength red light. As sunlight passes through the atmosphere, enough blue light is deflected (or more technically Rayleigh scattered) by these particles to give the atmosphere an overall blue glow. The sun itself is slightly reddened by this process because a fraction of its blue light is deflected away before it reaches our eyes.

But at sunrise and sunset, sunlight enters our atmosphere at a shallow angle and travels a long distance before reaching our eyes. During this long passage, most of the blue light is deflected away and virtually all that we see coming to us from the sun is its red and orange wavelengths. The missing blue light illuminates the skies far to our east during sunrise and to our west during sunset. When the loss of blue light is extreme enough, as it is after a volcanic eruption, so little blue light may reach your location at times that even the sky itself appears deep red. The particles in air aren't good at deflecting red wavelengths, but if that's all the light there is they will give the sky a dim, red glow.

1502. Why is it easy to stay on a bike while moving, but impossible once it stops? - AS, Switzerland

A bicycle is my favorite example of a dynamically stable object. Although the bicycle is unstable at rest (statically unstable), it is wonderfully stable when moving forward (dynamically stable). To understand this distinction, let's start with the bicycle motionless and then start moving forward.

At rest, the bicycle is unstable because it has no base of support. A base of support is the polygon formed by an object's contact points with the ground. For example, a table has a square or rectangular base of support defined by its four legs as they touch the floor. As long as an object's center of gravity (the effective location of its weight) is above this base of support, the object is statically stable. That stability has to do with the object's increasing potential (stored) energy as it tips-tipping a statically stable object raises its center of gravity and gravitational potential energy, so that it naturally accelerates back toward its upright position. Since a bicycle has only two contact points with the ground, the base of support is a line segment and the bicycle can't have static stability.

But when the bicycle is heading forward, it automatically steers its wheels underneath its center of gravity. Just as you can balance a broom on you hand if you keep moving your hand under the broom's center of gravity, a bicycle can balance if it keeps moving its wheels under its center of gravity. This automatic steering has to do with two effects: gyroscopic precession and bending of the bicycle about its steering axis.

In the gyroscopic precession steering, the spinning wheel behaves as a gyroscope. It has angular momentum, a conserved quantity of motion associated with spinning, and this angular momentum points toward the left (a convention that you can understand by pointing the curved fingers of your right hand around in the direction of the tire's motion; your thumb will then point to the left). When the bicycle begins to lean to one side, for example to the left, the ground begins to twist the front wheel. Since the ground pushes upward on the bottom of that wheel, it tends to twist the wheel counter-clockwise according to the rider. This twist or torque points toward the rear of the bicycle (again, when the fingers of your right hand arc around counterclockwise, your thumb will point toward the rear). When a rearward torque is exerted on an object with a leftward angular momentum, that angular momentum drifts toward the left-rear. In this case, the bicycle wheel steers toward the left. While I know that this argument is difficult to follow, since angular effects like precession challenge even first-year physics graduate students, but the basic result is simple: the forward moving bicycle steers in the direction that it leans and naturally drives under its own center of gravity. You can see this effect by rolling a coin forward on a hard surface: it will automatically balance itself by driving under its center of gravity.

In the bending effect, the leaning bicycle flexes about its steering axis. If you tip a stationary bicycle to the left, you see this effect: the bicycle will steer toward the left. That steering is the result of the bicycle's natural tendency to lower its gravitational potential energy by any means possible. Bending is one such means. Again, the bicycle steers so as to drive under its own center of gravity.

These two automatic steering effects work together to make a forward moving bicycle surprisingly stable. Children's bicycles are designed to be especially stable in motion (for obvious reasons) and one consequence is that children quickly discover that they can ride without hands. Adult bicycles are made less stable because excessive stability makes it hard to steer the bicycle.

1501. I have heard that we "know" the universe is expanding because everything is moving away from everything else. My question is: if this situation is like ink dots on a balloon, then we should be able to point to the direction of the universe's center. Which way is that center? - BS

The "ink dots on a balloon" idea provides the answer to your question. In that simple analogy, the ink dots represent stars and galaxies and the balloon's surface represents the universe. Inflating the balloon is then equivalent to having the universe expand. As the balloon inflates, the stars and galaxies drift apart so that an ant walking on the surface of the balloon would have to travel farther to go from one "star" to another. A similar situation exists in our real universe: everything is drifting farther apart.

The ant lives on the surface of the balloon, a two-dimensional world. The ant is unaware of the third dimension that you and I can see when we look at the balloon. The only directions that the ant can move in are along the balloon's surface. The ant can't point toward the center of the balloon because that's not along the surface that the ant perceives. To the ant, the balloon has no center. It lives in a continuous, homogeneous world, which has the weird property that if you walk far enough in any direction, you return to where you started.

Similarly, we see our universe as a three-dimensional world. If there are spatial dimensions beyond three, we are unaware of them. The only directions that we can move in are along the three dimensions of the universe that we perceive. The overall structure of the universe is still not fully understood, but let's suppose that the universe is a simple closed structure like the surface of a higher-dimensional balloon. In that case, we wouldn't be able to point to a center either because that center would exist in a dimension that we don't perceive. To us, the universe would be a continuous, homogeneous structure with that same weird property: if you traveled far enough in one direction, you'd return to where you started.

1500. I am being assured by very reputable scientists (Professors of Physics in American and European universities) that centrifugal force is a fictitious force, even though the action of a centrifuge is defined as depending upon it. I would be very grateful if you could help me explain this apparent contradiction and perhaps outline the physical cause that underlies the separating action of a centrifuge, since it can hardly be a nonexistent force. - RGT, Portsmouth, UK

While "centrifugal force" is something we all seem to experience, it truly is a fictitious force. By a fictitious force, I mean that it is a side effect of acceleration and not a cause of acceleration.

There is no true outward force acting on an object that's revolving around a center. Instead, that object's own inertia is trying to make it travel in a straight-line path that would cause it to drift farther and farther away from the center. The one true force acting on the revolving object is an inward one-a centripetal force. The object is trying to go straight and the centripetal force is pulling it inward and bending the object's path into a circle.

To get a feel for the experiences associated with this sort of motion, let's first imagine that you are the revolving object and that you're swinging around in a circle at the end of a rope. In that case, your inertia is trying to send you in a straight-line path and the rope is pulling you inward and deflecting your motion so that you go in a circle. If you are holding the rope with your hands, you'll feel the tension in the rope as the rope pulls on you. (Note that, in accordance with Newton's third law of motion, you pull back on the rope just as hard as it pulls on you.) The rope's force makes you accelerate inward and you feel all the mass in your body resisting this inward acceleration. As the rope's force is conveyed throughout your body via your muscles and bones, you feel your body resisting this inward acceleration. There's no actual outward force on you; it's just your inertia fighting the inward acceleration. You'd feel the same experience if you were being yanked forward by a rope-there would be no real backward force acting on you yet you'd feel your inertia fighting the forward acceleration.

Now let's imagine that you are exerting the inward force on an object and that that object is a heavy bucket of water that's swinging around in a circle. The water's inertia is trying to make it travel in a straight line and you're pulling inward on it to bend its path into a circle. The force you exert on the bucket is quite real and it causes the bucket to accelerate inward, rather than traveling straight ahead. Since you're exerting an inward force on the bucket, the bucket must exert an inward force on you (Newton's third law again). It pulls outward on your arm. But there isn't anything pulling outward on the bucket, no mysterious "centrifugal force." Instead, the bucket accelerates in response to an unbalance force on it: you pull it inward and nothing pulls it outward, so it accelerates inward. In the process, the bucket exerts only one force on its surroundings: an outward force on your arm.

As for the operation of a centrifuge, it works by swinging its contents around in a circle and using their inertias to make them separate. The various items in the centrifuge have different densities and other characteristics that affect their paths as they revolve around the center of the centrifuge. Inertia tends to make each item go straight while the centrifuge makes them bend inward. The forces causing this inward bending have to be conveyed from the centrifuge through its contents and there's a tendency for the denser items in the centrifuge to travel straighter than the less dense items. As a result, the denser items are found near the outside of the circular path while the less dense ones are found near the center of that path.

1499. When you are defrosting and the magnetron is turning on and off, when it is off, are the microwaves still bouncing around or is the food just sitting there warming itself up? - LEA, PA

During the defrost cycle, the microwave oven periodically turns off its magnetron so that heat can diffuse through the food naturally, from hot spots to cold spots. These quiet periods allow frozen parts of the food to melt the same way an ice cube would melt if you threw it into hot water. While the magnetron is off, it isn't emitting any microwaves and the food is just sitting there spreading its thermal energy around.

1498. I understand how a transformer changes voltage, but how does it regulate the amperage? - DE

A transformer's current regulation involves a beautiful natural feedback process. To begin with, a transformer consists of two coils of wire that share a common magnetic core. When an alternating current flows through the primary coil (the one bringing power to the transformer), that current produces an alternating magnetic field around both coils and this alternating magnetic field is accompanied by an alternating electric field (recall that changing magnetic fields produce electric fields). This electric field pushes forward on any current passing through the secondary coil (the one taking power out of the transformer) and pushes backward on the current passing through the primary coil. The net result is that power is drawn out of the primary coil current and put into the secondary coil current.

But you are wondering what controls the currents flowing in the two coils. The circuit it is connected to determines the current in the secondary coil. If that circuit is open, then no current will flow. If it is connected to a light bulb, then the light bulb will determine the current. What is remarkable about a transformer is that once the load on the secondary coil establishes the secondary current, the primary current is also determined.

Remember that the current flowing in the secondary coil is itself magnetic and because it is an alternating current, it is accompanied by its own electric field. The more current that is allowed to flow through the secondary coil, the stronger its electric field becomes. The secondary coil's electric field opposes the primary coil's electric field, in accordance with a famous rule of electromagnetism known as Lenz's law. The primary coil's electric field was pushing backward on current passing through the primary coil, so the secondary coil's electric field must be pushing forward on that current. Since the backward push is being partially negated, more current flows through the primary coil.

The current in the primary coil increases until the two electric fields, one from the primary current and one from the secondary current, work together so that they extract all of the primary current's electrostatic energy during its trip through the coil. This natural feedback process ensures that when more current is allowed to flow through the transformer's secondary coil, more current will flow through the primary coil to match.

1497. Many of the new cordless phones operate at 2.4GHz like a microwave oven. Are we microwaving our ears when we use them, or is the wattage so small it doesn't affect us? - R

As far as anyone has been able to determine so far, the wattage is so small that this microwave radiation doesn't affect us. Not all radiations are the same, and radio or microwave radiation is particularly nondestructive at low intensities. It can't do direct chemical damage and at low wattage can't cause significant RF (radio frequency) heating. At present, there is thus no plausible physical mechanism by which these phones can cause injury. I don't think that one will ever be found, so you're probably just fine.

1496. How does a paper towel absorb water?

Paper towels are made out of finely divided fibers of cellulose, the principal structural chemical in cotton, wood, and most other plants. Cotton is actually a polymer, which like any other plastic is a giant molecule consisting of many small molecules linked together in an enormous chain or treelike structure. The small molecules or "monomers" that make up cellulose are sugar molecules. We can't get any nutritional value out of cellulose because we don't have the enzymes necessary to split the sugars apart. Cows, on the other hand, have microorganisms in their stomachs that produce the necessary enzymes and allow the cows to digest cellulose.

Despite the fact that cellulose isn't as tasty as sugar, it does have one important thing in common with sugar: both chemicals cling tightly to water molecules. The presence of many hydroxyl groups (-OH) on the sugar and cellulose molecules allow them to form relatively strong bonds with water molecules (HOH). This clinginess makes normal sugar very soluble in water and makes water very soluble in cellulose fibers. When you dip your paper towel in water, the water molecules rush into the towel to bind to the cellulose fibers and the towel absorbs water.

Incidentally, this wonderful solubility of water in cellulose is also what causes shrinkage and wrinkling in cotton clothing when you launder it. The cotton draws in water so effectively that the cotton fibers swell considerably when wet and this swelling reshapes the garment. Hot drying chases the water out of the fibers quickly and the forces between water and cellulose molecules tend to compress the fibers as they dry. The clothes shrink and wrinkle in the process.

1495. Why do things such as sneakers, T-shirts, and nailpolish change color in the sun? The only explanations I've found simple state that the molecules get excited in the sun.

Sunlight consists not only of light across the entire visible spectrum, but of invisible infrared and ultraviolet lights as well. The latter is probably what is causing the color-changing effects you mention.

Ultraviolet light is high-energy light, meaning that whenever it is emitted or absorbed, the amount of energy involved in the process is relatively large. Although light travels through space as waves, it is emitted and absorbed as particles known as photons. The energy in a photon of ultraviolet light is larger than in a photon of visible light and that leads to interesting effects.

First, some molecules can't tolerate the energy in an ultraviolet photon. When these molecules absorb such an energetic photon, their electrons rearrange so dramatically that the entire molecule changes its structure forever. Among the organic molecules that are most vulnerable to these ultraviolet-light-induced chemical rearrangements are the molecules that are responsible for colors. The same electronic structural characteristics that make these organic molecules colorful also make them fragile and susceptible to ultraviolet damage. As a result, they tend to bleach white in the sun.

Second, some molecules can tolerate high-energy photons by reemitting part of the photon's energy as new light. Such molecules absorb ultraviolet or other high-energy photons and use that energy to emit blue, green, or even red photons. The leftover energy is converted into thermal energy. These fluorescent molecules are the basis for the "neon" colors that are so popular on swimwear, in colored markers, and on poster boards. When you expose something dyed with fluorescent molecules to sunlight, the dye molecules absorbs the invisible ultraviolet light and then emit brilliant visible light.

1494. How do people measure g-forces? I have read articles about roller coasters that report specific numbers, such as 3 g's. How are these numbers obtained? - T

Whenever you accelerate, you experience a gravity-like sensation in the direction opposite that acceleration. Thus when you accelerate to the left, you feel as though gravity were pulling you not only downward, but also to the right. The rightward "pull" isn't a true force; it's just the result of your own inertia trying to prevent you from accelerating. The amount of that rightward "pull" depends on how quickly you accelerate to the left. If you accelerate to the left at 9.8 meters/second2, an acceleration equal in amount to what you would experience if you were falling freely in the earth's gravity, the rightward gravity-like sensation you feel is just as strong as the downward gravity sensation you would feel when you are standing still. You are experiencing a rightward "fictitious force" of 1 g. The g-force you experience whenever you accelerate is equal in amount to your acceleration divided by the acceleration due to gravity (9.8 meters/second2) and points in the direction opposite your acceleration. Often the true downward force of gravity is added to this figure, so that you start with 1 g in the downward direction when you're not accelerating and continue from there. If you are on a roller coaster that is accelerating you upward at 19.6 meters/second2, then your total experience is 3 g's in the downward direction (1 g from gravity itself and 2 g's from the upward acceleration). And if you are accelerating downward at 9.8 meters/second2, then your total experience is 0 g's (1 g downward for gravity and 1 g upward from the downward acceleration). In this last case, you feel weightless-the weightlessness of a freely falling object such as an astronaut, skydiver, or high jumper.

Note added: A reader pointed out that I never actually answered the question. He's right! So here is the answer: they use accelerometers. An accelerometer is essentially a test mass on a force sensor. When there is no acceleration, the test mass only needs to be supported against the pull of gravity (i.e., the test mass's weight), so the force sensor reports that it is pushing up on the test mass with a force equal to the test mass's weight. But once the accelerometer begins to accelerate, the test mass needs an additional force in order to accelerate with the accelerometer. The force sensor detects this additional force and reports it. If you carry an accelerometer with you on a roller coaster, it will report the force it exerts on the test mass at each moment during the trip. A recording device can thus follow the "g-forces" throughout the ride.

As far as how accelerometers work, modern ones are generally based on tiny mechanical systems known as MEMS (Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems). Their test masses are associated with microscopic spring systems and the complete accelerometer sensor resides on a single chip.

1493. In regards to your discussion of superheating water in a microwave oven, I've found that it occurs most often when (1) I reheat water that has been heated before and (2) I heat water that has sat in the cup overnight. Why does that seem to reduce the number of seed bubbles? - JS

Both processes allow dissolved gases to escape from the water so that they can't serve as seed bubbles for boiling. When you heat water and then let it cool, the gases that came out of solution as small bubbles on the walls of the container escape into the air and are not available when you reheat the water. When you let the water sit out overnight, those same dissolved gases have time to escape into the air and this also reduces the number and size of the gas bubbles that form when you finally heat the water. Without those dissolved gases and the bubbles they form during heating it's much harder for the steam bubbles to form when the water reaches boiling. The water can then superheat more easily.

1492. How do you calculate how much weight a helium balloon can lift? - C & S

A helium balloon experiences an upward force that is equal to the weight of the air it displaces (the buoyant force on the balloon) minus its own weight. At sea level, air weighs about 0.078 pounds per cubic foot, so the upward buoyant force on a cubic foot of helium is about 0.078 pounds. A cubic foot of helium weighs only about 0.011 pounds. The difference between the upward buoyant force on the cubic foot of helium and the weight of the helium is the amount of extra weight that the helium can lift, which is about 0.067 pounds per cubic foot. To lift a 100 pound person, you'll need about 1500 cubic feet of helium in your balloon.

1491. I am planning to do an experiment with a microwave oven and want to videotape it. I want to operate the microwave oven with the door open. Will I be safe if I'm 15 feet away? Will opening the door nullify the "chamber" effect that the oven normally has? - E

Don't operate the oven open. You're just asking for trouble. The oven will emit between 500 and 1100 watts of microwaves, depending on its rating, and you don't need to be exposed to such intense microwaves. The chamber effect is important; without the sealed chamber, the microwaves pass through the food only about once before heading off into the kitchen and you. The food won't cook well and you'll be bathed in the glow from a kilowatt source of invisible "light."

Imagine standing in front of a 10-kilowatt light bulb (which emits about 1 kilowatt of visible light and the rest is other forms of heat) and then imagine that you can't see light at all and can only feel it when it is causing potential damage. Would you feel safe? Your video camera won't enjoy the microwave exposure, either.

If you want to videotape your experiments without having to view them through the metal mesh on the door, you can consider drilling a small hole in the side of the cooking chamber. If you keep the hole's diameter to a few millimeters, the microwaves will not leak out. Then put one of the tiny inexpensive video cameras that widely available a centimeter or so away from that hole. You should get a nice unobstructed view of the cooking process without risking life and limb.

1490. I thought microwave ovens were sealed shut to keep the waves inside. Why then can you smell the food as it is being cooked? - E

The cooking chamber of a microwave oven has mesh-covered holes to permit air to enter and exit. The holes in the metal mesh are small enough that the microwaves themselves cannot pass through and are instead reflected back into the cooking chamber. However, those holes are large enough that air (or light in the case of the viewing window) can pass through easily. Sending air through the cooking chamber keeps the cooking chamber from turning into a conventional hot oven and it carries food smells out into the kitchen.

1489. Which is more economical: operating our air conditioner at 75 °F or operating it at 78 °F and putting fans in front of the vents? - T

When you put fans in front of the vents, you are probably causing the air conditioner to pump roughly the same amount of heat out of the room air as it would at 75 °F without the fans. As a result, the fans probably aren't making the air conditioner work less and aren't saving much electricity. In fact, the fans themselves consume electricity and produce heat that the air conditioner must then remove, so in principle the fans are a waste of energy.

However, if the fans are directing the cold air in a way that makes you more comfortable without having to cool all the room air or if the fans are creating fast moving air that cools you via evaporation more effectively, then you may be experiencing a real savings of electricity.

To figure out which is the case, you'd have to log the time the air conditioner cycles on during a certain period while the fans were off and the thermostat set to 75 °F and then repeat that measurement during a similar period with the fans on and the thermostat set to 78 °F. If the fans significantly reduce the units runtime while leaving you just as comfortable, then you're saving power.

1488. I'm rewiring a lamp and didn't make sure that the silver and copper wires in the cord matched the screws on the bulb socket. What will happen if I got it wrong? - L

The bulb will operate perfectly well, regardless of which way you connected the lamp's two wires. Current will still flow in through one wire, pass through the bulb's filament, and return to the power company through the other wire. The only shortcoming of reversing the connections is that you will end up with the "hot" wire connected to the outside of the socket and bulb, rather than to the central pin of the socket and bulb. That's a slight safety issue: if you touch the hot wire with one hand and a copper pipe with the other, you'll get a shock. That's because a large voltage difference generally exists between the hot wire and the earth itself.

In contrast, there should be very little voltage difference between the other wire (known as "neutral") and the earth. In a properly wired lamp, the large spade on the electric plug (the neutral wire) should connect to the outside of the bulb socket. That way, when you accidentally touch the bulb's base as you screw it in or out, you'll only be connecting your hand to the neutral wire and won't receive a shock. If you miswire the lamp and have the hot wire connected to the outside of the socket, you can get a shock if you accidentally touch the bulb base at any time.

1487. I saw the story on Primetime tonight (Superheated Water Produced in Microwave Ovens on ABC Primetime 3/15/2001), and at weird timing. Just yesterday, a co-worker and I were standing around the kitchen area talking, while she warmed up some coffee. All of a sudden, there was a loud POP, which startled both of us. Not knowing exactly what had happened, we stopped the microwave and opened the door, only to find the contents of the mug (coffee) everywhere on the inside of the cooking chamber, less a few drops at the bottom of the cup.

The story provided SOME insight into what exactly had happened, however, it was reported that the surface of the super-heated liquid had to be broken by something for an explosion to be triggered. In the explosion with the coffee, there were no other objects in the microwave other than the mug and the coffee it held. What then, caused the explosion if nothing was present to break the surface? - MM, Denver, CO

Superheated water doesn't always wait until triggered before undergoing sudden boiling. All that's needed to start an explosion is for something to introduce an initial "seed" bubble into the liquid. Sometimes the container already has everything necessary to form a seed bubble and it's just a matter of getting the water hot enough to start that process. Many seed bubbles begin as trapped air in tiny crevices. As the water gets hotter, the size of any trapped air pocket grows and eventually it may be able to break free as a real seed bubble. When water is sufficiently superheated, just a single seed bubble is enough to start an explosion and empty the container completely. In your case, the coffee flash boiled spontaneously after something inside it nucleated the first bubble.

This sort of accident happens fairly often and we rarely think much about it as we sponge up the spilled liquid inside the microwave oven. But had your friend been unlucky enough to stop heating the coffee a second or two before that POP, she might have been injured while taking the coffee out of the oven. The moral of this story is to avoid overcooking any liquid in the microwave oven. If you must drink your coffee boiling hot, pay attention to it as it heats up so that it doesn't cook too long and then let it sit for a minute after the oven turns off. If you don't like your coffee boiling hot, then don't heat it to boiling at all.

1486. You must be busy since last night's broadcast (Superheated Water Produced in Microwave Ovens on ABC Primetime 3/15/2001). Very, very scary as we have certainly done exactly what was shown. I have 3 little girls who love to "cook" their own soups, heat their dad's coffee water, etc. in the microwave. This report terrified me. I am grateful no harm has come to them. My question is if we strictly use microwaveable plastic bowls, ceramic mugs, or other heavy mixing type bowls and avoid the glass, is the potential for the explosion still there?

I'm afraid that there's no easy answer to this question. You can use a microwave oven to superheat water in any container that doesn't assist bubble formation. How a particular container behaves is hard for me to say without experimenting. I'd heat a small amount of water (1/2 cup or less) in the container and look at it through the oven's window to see if the water boils nicely, with lots of steam bubbles streaming upward from many different points on the inner surface of the container. The more easily water boils in the container, the less likely it is to superheat when you cook it too long. (If you try this experiment, leave the potentially superheated water in the closed microwave oven to cool!)

Glass containers are clearly the most likely to superheat water because their surfaces are essentially perfect. Glasses have the characteristics of frozen liquids and a glass surface is as smooth as... well, glass. When you overheat water in a clean glass measuring cup, your chances of superheating it at least mildly are surprisingly high. The spontaneous bubbling that occurs when you add sugar, coffee powder, or a teabag to microwave-heated water is the result of such mild superheating. Fortunately, severe superheating is much less common because defects, dirt, or other impurities usually help the water boil before it becomes truly dangerous. That's why most of us avoid serious injuries.

However, even non-transparent microwaveable containers often have glass surfaces. Ceramics are "glazed," which means that they are coated with glass for both sealing and decoration. Many heavy mixing bowls are glass or glass-ceramics. As you can see, it's hard to get away from trouble. I simply don't know how plastic microwaveable containers behave when heating water; they may be safe or they may be dangerous.

If you're looking for a way out of this hazard, here are my suggestions. First, learn to know how long a given amount of liquid must be heated in your microwave in order to reach boiling and don't cook it that long. If you really need to boil water, be very careful with it after microwaving or boil it on a stovetop instead. My microwave oven has a "beverage" setting that senses how hot the water is getting. If the water isn't hot enough when that setting finishes, I add another 30 seconds and then test again. I never cook the water longer than I need to. Cooking water too long on a stovetop means that some of it boils away, but doing the same in a microwave oven may mean that it becomes dangerously superheated. Your children can still "cook" soup in the microwave if they use the right amount of time. Children don't like boiling hot soup anyway, so if you figure out how long it takes to heat their soup to eating temperature and have them cook their soup only that long, they'll never encounter superheating. As for dad's coffee water, same advice. If dad wants his coffee boiling hot, then he should probably make it himself. Boiling water is a hazard for children even without superheating.

Second, handle liquids that have been heated in a microwave oven with respect. Don't remove a liquid the instant the oven stops and then hover over it with your face exposed. If the water was bubbling spasmodically or not at all despite heavy heating, it may be superheated and deserves particular respect. But even if you see no indications of superheating, it takes no real effort to be careful. If you cooked the water long enough for it to reach boiling temperature, let it rest for a minute per cup before removing it from the microwave. Never put your face or body over the container and keep the container at a safe distance when you add things to it for the first time: powdered coffee, sugar, a teabag, or a spoon.

Finally, it would be great if some entrepreneurs came up with ways to avoid superheating altogether. The makers of glass containers don't seem to recognize the dangers of superheating in microwave ovens, despite the mounting evidence for the problem. Absent any efforts on their parts to make the containers intrinsically safer, it would be nice to have some items to help the water boil: reusable or disposable inserts that you could leave in the water as it cooked or an edible powder that you could add to the water before cooking. Chemists have used boiling chips to prevent superheating for decades and making sanitary, nontoxic boiling sticks for microwaves shouldn't be difficult. Similarly, it should be easy to find edible particles that would help the water boil. Activated carbon is one possibility.

Last night's report wasn't meant to scare you away from using your microwave oven or keep you from heating water in it. It was intended to show you that there is a potential hazard that you can avoid if you're informed about it. Microwave ovens are wonderful devices and they prepare food safely and efficiently as long as you use them properly. "Using them properly" means not heating liquids too long in smooth-walled containers.

1484. I left a spoon in my food and I put it in the microwave by accident. Is it dangerous to eat the food after it was put into the microwave with a metal object. Does it have any radiation? Could it cause cancer? - SK, Santa Monica, California

The spoon will have essentially no effect at all on the food. Metal left in the microwave oven during cooking will only cause trouble if (a) it is very thin or (b) it has sharp edges or points. The microwaves push electric charges back and forth in metal, so if the metal is too thin, it will heat up like the filament of a light bulb and may cause a fire. And if the metal has sharp edges or points, charges may accumulate on those sharp spots and then leap into space as a spark. But because your spoon was thick and had rounded edges, the charges that flowed through it during cooking didn't have any bad effects on the spoon: no heating and no sparks.

As far as the food is concerned, the presence of the spoon redirected the microwaves somewhat, but probably without causing any noticeable changes in how the food cooked. There is certainly no residual radiation of any sort and the food is no more likely to cause cancer after being cooked with metal around than had there been no spoon with it. In general, leaving a spoon in a cup of coffee or bowl of oatmeal isn't going to cause any trouble at all. I do it all the time. In fact, having a metal spoon in the liquid may reduce the likelihood of superheating the liquid, a dangerous phenomenon that occurs frequently in microwave cooking. Superheated liquids boil violently when you disturb them and can cause serious injuries as a result.

1483. My mother-in-law feels that by shaking a partially consumed bottle of carbonated beverage after re-sealing it, it will re-pressurize keeping the carbonation better than just resealing it. I believe that, since the amount of CO2 in the beverage and the container will stay constant, that either re-sealing or re-sealing and shaking will have the same net effect when it comes to maintaining carbonation. Is she right? - JK, New Mexico

No, you are right. In the long run, the number of CO2 molecules left in the bottle when you close it is all that matters. Those molecules will drift in and out of the liquid and gas phases until they reach equilibrium. At the equilibrium point, there will be enough molecules in the gas phase to pressurize the bottle and enough in the liquid phase to give the beverage a reasonable amount of bite.

By giving the sealed bottle a shake, your mother-in-law is simply speeding up the approach to equilibrium. She is helping the CO2 molecules leave the beverage and enter the gas phase. The bottle then pressurizes faster, but at the expense of dissolved molecules in the beverage itself. If there is any chance that you'll drink more before equilibrium has been reached, you do best not to shake the bottle. That way, the equilibration process will be delayed as much as possible and you may still be able to drink a few more of those CO2 molecules rather than breathing them.

Incidentally, shaking a new bottle of soda just before you open it also speeds up the equilibration process. For an open bottle, equilibrium is reached when essentially all the CO2 molecules have left and are in the gas phase (since the gas phase extends over the whole atmosphere). That's not what you want at all. Instead, you try not to shake the beverage so that it stays away from equilibrium (and flatness) as long as possible. For most opened beverages, equilibrium is not a tasty situation.

1482. My roommate and I heard that it's possible to project the picture from our TV set onto the wall. We'd love to sit on our porch and watch TV while drinking a beer. Any ideas? - JK

The simple answer to your question is yes, you can do it. But you'll encounter two significant problems with trying to turn your ordinary TV into a projection system. First, the lens you'll need to do the projection will be extremely large and expensive. Second, the image you'll see will be flipped horizontally and vertically. You'll have to hang upside-down from your porch railing, which will make drinking a beer rather difficult.

About the lens: in principle, all you need is one convex lens. A giant magnifying glass will do. But it has a couple of constraints. Because your television screen is pretty large, the lens diameter must also be pretty large. If it is significantly smaller than the TV screen, it won't project enough light onto your wall. And to control the size of the image it projects on the wall, you'll need to pick just the right focal length (curvature) of the lens. You'll be projecting a real image on the wall, a pattern of light that exactly matches the pattern of light appearing on the TV screen. The size and location of that real image depends on the lens's focal length and on its distance from the TV screen. You'll have to get these right or you'll see only a blur. Unfortunately, single lenses tend to have color problems and edge distortions. Projection lenses need to be multi-element carefully designed systems. Getting a good quality, large lens with the right focal length is going to cost you.

The other big problem is more humorous. Real images are flipped horizontally and vertically relative to the light source from which they originate. Unless you turn your TV set upside-down, your wall image will be inverted. And, without a mirror, you can't solve the left-right reversal problem. All the writing will appear backward. Projection television systems flip their screen image to start with so that the projected image has the right orientation. Unless you want to rewire your TV set, that's not going to happen for you. Good luck.

1481. Is it true that the buoyancy of an incompressible bathysphere doesn't change when it plunges to great depths in the ocean, even though the pressure exerted on it increases enormously? - AM

A submerged object's buoyancy (the upward force exerted on it by a fluid) is exactly equal to the weight of the fluid it displaces. In this case, the upward buoyant force on the bathysphere is equal in amount to the weight of the water it displaces. Since the bathysphere is essentially incompressible, it always displaces the same volume of water. And since water is essentially incompressible, that fixed volume of water always weighs the same amount. That's why the bathysphere experiences a constant upward force on it due to the surrounding water. To sink the bathysphere, they weight it down with heavy metal particles. And to allow the bathysphere to float back up, they release those particles and reduce the bathysphere's total weight.

1480. If a microwave oven door were to open while it was still on, what would happen? Could it hurt you? - JP

The microwaves would flow out of the oven's cooking chamber like light streaming out of a brightly illuminated mirrored box. If you were nearby, some of those microwaves would pass through you and your body would absorb some of them during their passage. This absorption would heat your tissue so that you would feel the warmth. In parts of your body that have rapid blood circulation, that heat would be distributed quickly to the rest of your body and you probably wouldn't suffer any rapid injuries. But in parts of your body that don't have good blood flow, such as the corneas of your eyes, tissue could heat quickly enough to be permanently damaged. In any case, you'd probably feel the warmth and realize that something was wrong before you suffered any substantial permanent injuries.

1479. My teacher said that if you lift a 5 pound sack, you are doing work but if you carry the sack, you aren't doing any work. Why is that?

When you lift the sack, you are pushing it upward (to support its weight) and it is moving upward. Since the force you exert on the sack and the distance it is traveling are in the same direction, you are doing work on the sack. As a result, the sack's energy is increasing, as evidenced by the fact that it is becoming more and more dangerous to a dog sitting beneath it.

But when you carry the sack horizontally at a steady pace, the upward force you exert on the sack and the horizontal distance it travels are at right angles to one another. You don't do any work on the sack in that case. The evidence here is that the sack doesn't become any more dangerous; its speed doesn't increase and neither does its altitude. It just shifts from one place to an equivalent one to its side.

1478. I am currently working on a physics project, the magnetic levitation train. How can I make this train move on the track without it crashing? I only have a few days to make it work so I can present it in the science fair. - VC

I'm afraid that you're facing a difficult problem. Magnetic levitation involving permanent magnets is inherently and unavoidably unstable for fundamental reasons. One permanent magnet suspended above another permanent magnet will always crash. That's why all practical maglev trains use either electromagnets with feedback circuitry (magnets that can be changed electronically to correct for their tendencies to crash) or magnetoelectrodynamic levitation (induced magnetism in a conducting track, created by a very fast moving (>100 mph) magnetized train). There are no simple fixes if what you have built so far is based on permanent magnets alone. Unfortunately, you have chosen a very challenging science fair project.

1477. I am in 4th grade, and working on a science fair project using a basketball and have it pumped with 0 psi, 3 psi, 6 psi, 9 psi and 12 psi of air. Why is it that the 9psi ball bounces the highest when dropped from 6ft? - T

The more pressure a basketball has inside it, the less its surface dents during a bounce and the more of its original energy it stores in the compressed air. Air stores and returns energy relatively efficiently during a rapid bounce, so the pressurized ball bounces high. But an underinflated ball dents deeply and its skin flexes inefficiently. Much of the ball's original energy is wasted in heating the bending skin and it doesn't bounce very high. In general, the higher the internal pressure in the ball, the better it will bounce.

However, the ball doesn't bounce all by itself when you drop it on a flexible surface. In that case, the surface also dents and is responsible for part of the ball's rebound. If that surface handles energy inefficiently, it may weaken the ball's bounce. For example, if you drop the ball on carpeting, the carpeting will do much of the denting, will receive much of the ball's original energy, and will waste its share as heat. The ball won't rebound well. My guess is that you dropped the ball on a reasonably hard surface, but one that began to dent significantly when the ball's pressure reached 12psi. At that point, the ball was extremely bouncy, but it was also so hard that it dented the surface and let the surface participate strongly in the bouncing. The surface probably wasn't as bouncy as the ball, so it threw the ball relatively weakly into the air.

I'd suggest repeating your experiment on the hardest, most massive surface you can find. A smooth cement or thick metal surface would be best. The ball will then do virtually all of the denting and will be responsible for virtually all of the rebounding. In that case, I'll bet that the 12psi ball will bounce highest.

1476. What everyday household chemicals (cleaners, paints, detergents, etc.) contain large enough amounts of phosphor to glow under black light?

Fluorescent paints and many laundry detergents contain fluorescent chemicals-chemicals that absorb ultraviolet light and use its energy to produce visible light. Fluorescent paints are designed to do exactly that, so they certainly contain enough "phosphor" for that purpose. Detergents have fluorescent dyes or "brighteners" added because it helps to make fabrics appear whiter. Aging fabric appears yellowish because it absorbs some blue light. To replace the missing blue light, the brighteners absorb invisible ultraviolet and use its energy to emit blue light.

1475. Is it better to use warm or cold air to defrost your windshield?

If you can't alter the air's humidity, warm air will definitely heat up your window faster and defrost it faster than cold air. The only problem with using hot air is that rapid heating can cause stresses on the window and its frame because the temperature will rise somewhat unevenly and lead to uneven thermal expansion. Such thermal stress can actually break the window, as a reader informed me recently: "On one of the coldest days of this Boston winter, I turned up the heat full blast to defrost the windshield. The outside of the window was still covered with ice, which I figured would melt from the heat. After about 10 minutes of heating, the windshield "popped" and a fracture about 8 inches long developed. The windshield replacement company said I would have to wait a day for service, since this happened to so many people over the cold evening that they were completely booked." If you're nervous about breaking the windshield, use cooler air.

About the humidity caveat: if you can blow dry air across your windshield, that will defrost it faster than just about anything else, even if that air is cold. The water molecules on your windshield are constantly shifting back and forth between the solid phase (ice) and the gaseous phase (steam or water vapor). Heating the ice will help more water molecules leave the ice for the water vapor, but dropping the density of the water vapor will reduce the number of water molecules leaving the water vapor for the ice. Either way, the ice decreases and the water vapor increases. Since you car's air condition begins drying the air much soon after you start the car than its heater begins warming the air, many modern cars concentrate first on drying the air rather than on heating it.

1474. When a device uses two batteries, why do they have to be place positive to negative? Are there any exceptions? - MS

Batteries are "pumps" for electric charge. A battery takes an electric current (moving charge) entering its negative terminal and pumps that current to its positive terminal. In the process, the battery adds energy to the current and raises its voltage (voltage is the measure of energy per unit of electric charge). A typical battery adds 1.5 volts to the current passing through it. As it pumps current, the battery consumes its store of chemical potential energy so that it eventually runs out and "dies."

If you send a current backward through a battery, the battery extracts energy from the current and lowers its voltage. As it takes energy from the current, the battery adds to its store of chemical potential energy so that it recharges. Battery charges do exactly that: they push current backward through the batteries to recharge them. This recharging only works well on batteries that are designed to be recharged since many common batteries undergo structural damage as their energy is consumed and this damage can't be undone during recharging.

When you use a chain of batteries to power an electric device, you must arrange them so that each one pumps charge the same direction. Otherwise, one will pump and add energy to the current while the other extracts energy from the current. If all the batteries are aligned positive terminal to negative terminal, then they all pump the same direction and the current experiences a 1.5 volt (typically) voltage rise in passing through each battery. After passing through 2 batteries, its voltage is up by 3 volts, after passing through 3 batteries, its voltage is up by 4.5 volts, and so on.

1473. How does a parabolic sound collecting dish work? - C

A parabolic dish microphone is essentially a mirror telescope for sound. A parabolic surface has the interesting property that all sound waves that propagate parallel its central axis travel the same distance to get to its focus. That means that when you aim the dish at a distant sound source, all of the sound from that object bounces off the dish and converges toward the focus in phase—with its pressure peaks and troughs synchronized so that they work together to make the loudest possible sound vibrations. The sound is thus enhanced at the focus, but only if it originated from the source you're aiming at. Sound from other sources misses the focus. If you put a sensitive microphone in the parabolic dish's focus, you'll hear the sound from the distant object loud and clear.

1472. Are microwaves attenuated in air?

Not significantly. Air doesn't absorb them well, which is why the air in a microwave oven doesn't get hot and why satellite and cellular communication systems work so well. The molecules in air are poor antennas for this long-wavelength electromagnetic radiation. They mostly just ignore it.

1471. How do the automatic doors at a supermarket know when to open and close? How do they work? — KL

Devices that sense your presence are either bouncing some wave off you or they are passively detecting waves that you emit or reflect. The wave-bouncing detectors emit high frequency (ultrasonic) sound waves or radio waves and then look for reflections. If they detect changes in the intensity or frequency pattern of the reflected waves, they know that something has moved nearby and open the door. The passive detectors look for changes in the infrared or visible light patterns reaching a detector and open the door when they detect such changes.

1470. I have a digital camera and when I put an IR remote control in front of the lens and press a button, a bluish white light is visible on the camera's monitor. Why is that? — MC

What a neat observation! Digital cameras based on CCD imaging chips are sensitive to infrared light. Even though you can't see the infrared light streaming out of the remote control when you push its buttons, the camera's chip can. This behavior is typical of semiconductor light sensors such as photodiodes and phototransistors: they often detect near infrared light even better than visible light. In fact, a semiconductor infrared sensor is exactly what your television set uses to collect instructions from the remote control.

The color filters that the camera employs to obtain color information misbehave when they're dealing with infrared light and so the camera is fooled into thinking that it's viewing white light. That's why your camera shows a white spot where the remote's infrared source is located.

I just tried taking some pictures through infrared filters, glass plates that block visible light completely, and my digital camera worked just fine. The images were as sharp and clear as usual, although the colors were odd. I had to use incandescent illumination because fluorescent light doesn't contain enough infrared. It would be easy to take pictures in complete darkness if you just illuminated a scene with bright infrared sources. No doubt there are "spy" cameras that do exactly that.

1469. Is there sound in space? If so, what is the speed of sound there? — MH

No, there is no sound in space. That's because sound has to travel as a vibration in some material such as air or water or even stone. Since space is essentially empty, it cannot carry sound, at least not the sorts of sound that we are used to.

1468. Does ice melt faster in air or in water? — BP

Ice will melt fastest in whatever delivers heat to it fastest. In general that will be water because water conducts heat and carries heat better than air. But extremely hot air, such as that from a torch, will beat out very cold water, such as ice water, in melting the ice.

1467. I work in a company shop that uses a 600-watt laser with a wavelength of 1064 nm. How safe is this machine? What is the radiation hazard, if any? I've noticed that my eyes feel strange after working with it for 4-5 hours. It also has an uncomfortable smell. — EC

The laser you're using is a neodymium-YAG laser. It uses a crystal of YAG (yttrium aluminum garnet), a synthetic gem that was once sold as an imitation diamond, that has been treated with neodymium atoms to give it a purple color. When placed in a laser cavity and exposed to intense visible light, this crystal gives off the infrared light you describe. You can't see this light but, at up to 600 watts, it is actually incredibly bright. You don't want to look at it or even at its reflection from a surface that you're machining. That's because the lens of your eye focuses it onto your retina and even though your retina won't see any light, it will experience the heat. It's possible to injure your eyes by looking at this light, particularly if you catch a direct reflection of the laser beam in your eye.

In all likelihood, the manufacturer of this unit has shielded all the light so that none of it reaches your eyes. If that's not the case, you should wear laser safety glasses that block 1064 nm light. But it's also possible that the irritation you're experiencing is coming from the burned material that you are machining. Better ventilation should help. High voltage power supplies, which may be present in the laser, could also produce ozone. Ozone has a spicy fresh smell, like the smell after a lightning storm, and it is quite irritating to eyes and nose.

1466. How come planets are spherical, albeit with somewhat flattened poles? — DB

The answer is gravity. Gravity smashes the planets into spheres. To understand this, imagine trying to build a huge mountain on the earth's surface. As you begin to heap up the material for your mountain, the weight of the material at the top begins to crush the material at the bottom. Eventually the weight and pressure become so great that the material at the bottom squeezes out and you can't build any taller. Every time you put new stuff on top, the stuff below simply sinks downward and spreads out. You can't build bumps bigger than a few dozen miles high on earth because there aren't any materials that can tolerate the pressure. In fact, the earth's liquid core won't support mountains much higher than the Himalayas—taller mountains would just sink into the liquid. So even if a planet starts out non-spherical, the weight of its bumps will smash them downward until the planet is essentially spherical.

The flattened poles are the result of rotation—as the planet spins, the need for centripetal (centrally directed) acceleration at its equator causes its equatorial surface to shift outward slightly, away from the planet's axis of rotation. The planet is therefore wider at its equator than it is at its poles.

1464. I always thought that pure water cannot exceed 100° Celsius at atmospheric pressure without first turning into its gaseous state. How is it that the water heated in the microwave oven can superheat and exceed 100° Celsius? — AC

The relative stabilities of liquid and gaseous water depend on both temperature and pressure. To understand this, consider what is going on at the surface of a glass of water. Water molecules in the liquid water are leaving the water's surface to become gas above it and water molecules in the gas are landing and joining the liquid water below. It's like a busy airport, with lots of take-offs and landings. If the glass of water is sitting in an enclosed space, the arrangement will eventually reach equilibrium—the point at which there is no net transfer of molecules between the liquid in the glass and the gas above it. In that case, there will be enough water molecules in the gas to ensure that they land as often as they leave.

The leaving rate (the rate at which molecules break free from the liquid water) depends on the temperature. The hotter the water is, the more frequently water molecules will be able to break away from their buddies and float off into the gas. The landing rate (the rate at which molecules land on the water's surface and stick) depends on the density of molecules in the gas. The more dense the water vapor, the more frequently water molecules will bump into the liquid's surface and land.

As you raise the temperature of the water in your glass, the leaving rate increases and the equilibrium shifts toward higher vapor density and less liquid water. By the time you reach 100° Celsius, the equilibrium vapor pressure is atmospheric pressure, which is why water tends to boil at this temperature (it can form and sustain steam bubbles). Above this temperature the equilibrium vapor pressure exceeds atmospheric pressure. The liquid water and the gas above it can reach equilibrium, but only if you allow the pressure in your enclosed system to exceed atmospheric pressure. However, if you open up your enclosed system, the water vapor will spread out into the atmosphere as a whole and there will be a never-ending stream of gaseous water molecules leaving the glass. Above 100° C, liquid water can't exist in equilibrium with atmospheric pressure gas, even if that gas is pure water vapor.

So how can you superheat water? Don't wait for equilibrium! The road to equilibrium may be slow; it may take minutes or hours for the liquid water to evaporate away to nothing. In the meantime, the system will be out of equilibrium, but that's ok. It happens all the time: a snowman can't exist in equilibrium on a hot summer day, but that doesn't mean that you can't have a snowman at the beach... for a while. Superheated water isn't in equilibrium and, if you're patient, something will change. But in the short run, you can have strange arrangements like this without any problem.

1463. I am twelve years old and weigh 85 pounds. How much helium would it take to lift me off the ground?

While helium itself doesn't actually defy gravity, it is lighter than air and floats upward as descending air pushes it out of the way. Like a bubble in water, the helium goes up to make room for the air going down. The buoyant force that acts on the helium is equal to the weight of air that the helium displaces.

A cubic foot of air weighs about 0.078 pounds so the upward buoyant force on a cubic foot of helium is about 0.078 pounds. A cubic foot of helium weighs only about 0.011 pounds. The difference between the upward buoyant force on the cubic foot of helium and the weight of the helium is the amount of extra weight that the helium can lift; about 0.067 pounds. Since you weigh 85 pounds, it would take about 1300 cubic feet of helium to lift you and a thin balloon up into the air. That's a balloon about 13.5 feet in diameter.

1462. Why does a shave that looks great under incandescent light look terrible under fluorescent light? And, for a woman, what light is best for putting on makeup? — JE

Illumination matters because your skin only reflects light to which it's exposed. When you step into a room illuminated only by red light your skin appears red, not because it's truly red but because there is only red light to reflect.

Ordinary incandescent bulbs produce a thermal spectrum of light with a "color temperature" of about 2800° C. A thermal light spectrum is a broad, featureless mixture of colors that peaks at a particular wavelength that's determined only by the temperature of the object emitting it. Since the bulb's color temperature is much cooler than that of the sun's (5800° C), the bulb appears much redder than the sun and emits relatively little blue light. A fluorescent lamp, however, synthesizes its light spectrum from the emissions of various fluorescent phosphors. Its light spectrum is broad but structured and depends on the lamp's phosphor mixture. The four most important phosphor mixtures are cool white, deluxe cool white, warm white, and deluxe warm white. These mixtures all produce more blue than an incandescent bulb, but the warm white and particularly the deluxe warm white tone down the blue emission to give a richer, warmer glow at the expense of a little energy efficiency. Cool white fluorescents are closer to natural sunlight than either warm white fluorescents or incandescent bulbs.

To answer your question about shaves: without blue light in the illumination, it's not that easy to distinguish beard from skin. Since incandescent illumination is lacking in blue light, a shave looks good even when it isn't. But in bright fluorescent lighting, beard and skin appear sharply different and it's easy to see spots shaving has missed. As for makeup illumination, it's important to apply makeup in the light in which it will be worn. Blue-poor incandescent lighting downplays blue colors so it's easy to overapply them. When the lighting then shifts to blue-rich fluorescents, the blue makeup will look heavy handed. Some makeup mirrors provide both kinds of illumination so that these kinds of mistakes can be avoided.

1461. What is terminal velocity? — EW, Fisher, Australia

After falling for a long time, an object will descend at a steady speed known as its "terminal velocity." This terminal velocity exists because an object moving through air experiences drag forces (air resistance). These drag forces become stronger with speed so that as a falling object picks up speed, the upward air resistance it experiences gradually becomes stronger. Eventually the object reaches a speed at which the upward drag forces exactly balance its downward weight and the object stops accelerating. It is then at "terminal velocity" and descends at a steady pace.

The terminal velocity of an object depends on the object's size, shape, and density. A fluffy object (a feather, a parachute, or a sheet of paper) has a small terminal velocity while a compact, large, heavy object (a cannonball, a rock, or a bowling ball) has a large terminal velocity. An aerodynamic object such as an arrow also has a very large terminal velocity. A person has a terminal velocity of about 200 mph when balled up and about 125 mph with arms and feet fully extended to catch the wind.

1460. How does a Tesla coil work? — EK

Popular in movies as a source of long glowing sparks, a Tesla coil is basically a high-frequency, very high-voltage transformer. Like most transformers, the Tesla coil has two circuits: a primary circuit and a secondary circuit. The primary circuit consists of a capacitor and an inductor, fashioned together to form a system known as a "tank circuit". A capacitor stores energy in its electric field while an inductor stores energy in its magnetic field. When the two are wired together in parallel, their combined energy sloshes back and forth from capacitor to inductor to capacitor at a rate that's determined by various characteristics of the two devices. Powering the primary of the Tesla coil is a charge delivery system that keeps energy sloshing back and forth in the tank circuit. This delivery system has both a source of moderately high voltage electric current and a pulsed transfer system to periodically move charge and energy to the tank. The delivery system may consist of a high voltage transformer and a spark gap, or it may use vacuum tubes or transistors.

The secondary circuit consists of little more than a huge coil of wire and some electrodes. This coil of wire is located around the same region of space occupied by the inductor of the primary circuit. As the magnetic field inside that inductor fluctuates up and down in strength, it induces current in the secondary coil. That's because a changing magnetic field produces an electric field and the electric field surrounding the inductor pushes charges around and around the secondary coil. By the time the charges in the secondary coil emerge from the coil, they have enormous amounts of energy; making them very high voltage charges. They accumulate in vast numbers on the electrodes of the secondary circuit and push one another off into the air as sparks.

While most circuits must form complete loops, the Tesla coil's secondary circuit doesn't. Its end electrodes just spit charges off into space and let those charges fend for themselves. Many of them eventually work their ways from one electrode to the other by flowing through the air or through objects. But even when they don't, there is little net build up of charge anywhere. That's because the direction of current flow through the secondary coil reverses frequently and the sign of the charge on each electrode reverses, too. The Tesla coil is a high-frequency device and its top electrode goes from positively charged to negatively charge to positively charged millions of times a second. This rapid reversal of charge, together with reversing electric and magnetic fields means that a Tesla coil radiates strong electromagnetic waves. It therefore interferes with nearby radio reception.

Finally, it has been pointed out to me by readers that a properly built Tesla coil is resonant—that the high-voltage coil has a natural resonance at the same frequency that it is being excited by the lower voltage circuit. The high-voltage coil's resonance is determined by its wire length, shape, and natural capacitance.

1459. If a microwave oven with painted inside walls has some of the paint removed due to a very small fire caused by arcing, is it still safe to use?

Yes. The paint is simply decoration on the metal walls. The cooking chamber of the microwave has metal walls so that the microwaves will reflect around inside the chamber. Thick metal surfaces are mirrors for microwaves and they work perfectly well with or without thin, non-conducting coatings of paint.

1458. What is the difference between spark ignition engines and diesel engines? — JC

Just before burning their fuels, both engines compress air inside a sealed cylinder. This compression process adds energy to the air and causes its temperature to skyrocket. In a spark ignition engine, the air that's being compressed already contains fuel so this rising temperature is a potential problem. If the fuel and air ignite spontaneously, the engine will "knock" and won't operate at maximum efficiency. The fuel and air mixture is expected to wait until it's ignited at the proper instant by the spark plug. That's why gasoline is formulated to resist ignition below a certain temperature. The higher the "octane" of the gasoline, the higher its certified ignition temperature. Virtually all modern cars operate properly with regular gasoline. Nonetheless, people frequently put high-octane (high-test or premium) gasoline in their cars under the mistaken impression that their cars will be better for it. If your car doesn't knock significantly with regular gasoline, use regular gasoline.

A diesel engine doesn't have spark ignition. Instead, it uses the high temperature caused by extreme compression to ignite its fuel. It compresses pure air to high temperature and pressure, and then injects fuel into this air. Timed to arrive at the proper instant, the fuel bursts into flames and burns quickly in the superheated compressed air. In contrast to gasoline, diesel fuel is formulated to ignite easily as soon as it enters hot air.

1457. What is the function of a magnet in an audio speaker? — EB

An audio speaker generates sound by moving a surface back and forth through the air. Each time the surface moves toward you, it compresses the air in front of it and each time the surface moves away from you, it rarefies that air. By doing this repetitively, the speaker forms patterns of compressions and rarefactions in the air that propagate forward as sound.

The magnet is part of the system that makes the surface move. Attached to the surface itself is a cylindrical coil of wire and this coil fits into a cylindrical channel cut into the speaker's permanent magnet. That magnet is carefully designed so that its magnetic field lines radiate outward from the inside of the channel to the outside of the channel and thus pass through the cylindrical coil the way bicycle spokes pass through the rim of the wheel.

When an electric current is present in the wire, the moving electric charges circulate around this cylinder and cut across the magnetic field lines. But whenever a charge moves across a magnetic field line, it experiences a force known as the Lorenz force. In this case, the charges are pushed either into or out of the channel slot, depending on which way they are circulating around the coil. The charges drag the coil and surface with them, so that as current flows back and forth through the coil, the coil and surface pop in and out of the magnet channel. This motion produces sound.

1456. My science book said that a microwave oven uses a laser resonating at the natural frequency of water. Does such a laser exist or was that a major typo?

It's a common misconception that the microwaves in a microwave oven excite a natural resonance in water. The frequency of a microwave oven is well below any natural resonance in an isolated water molecule, and in liquid water those resonances are so smeared out that they're barely noticeable anyway. It's kind of like playing a violin under water—the strings won't emit well-defined tones in water because the water impedes their vibrations. Similarly, water molecules don't emit (or absorb) well-defined tones in liquid water because their clinging neighbors impede their vibrations.

Instead of trying to interact through a natural resonance in water, a microwave oven just exposes the water molecules to the intense electromagnetic fields in strong, non-resonant microwaves. The frequency used in microwave ovens (2,450,000,000 cycles per second or 2.45 GHz) is a sensible but not unique choice. Waves of that frequency penetrate well into foods of reasonable size so that the heating is relatively uniform throughout the foods. Since leakage from these ovens makes the radio spectrum near 2.45 GHz unusable for communications, the frequency was chosen in part because it would not interfere with existing communication systems.

As for there being a laser in a microwave oven, there isn't. Lasers are not the answer to all problems and so the source for microwaves in a microwave oven is a magnetron. This high-powered vacuum tube emits a beam of coherent microwaves while a laser emits a beam of coherent light waves. While microwaves and light waves are both electromagnetic waves, they have quite different frequencies. A laser produces much higher frequency waves than the magnetron. And the techniques these devices use to create their electromagnetic waves are entirely different. Both are wonderful inventions, but they work in very different ways.

The fact that this misleading information appears in a science book, presumably used in schools, is a bit discouraging. It just goes to show you that you shouldn't believe everything read in books or on the web (even this web site, because I make mistakes, too).

1455. My four-year-old son was fooling around with a magnet, and when I was turned away, put it right on our TV screen. I then saw him doing this, and before I could bring myself to think consequences, we were both mollified by the amazing and colorful patterns it created on the screen. He sort of moved it around the screen, like you would an eraser on a black board. Well, when he removed the magnet, the screen had been drained of its normally saturated colors, and what we now have left is a color TV with only three colors, basically green, blue, and red. And they are not solid and deep like they were before. They are rather faded, and arranged in three distinct blotches, if you will. Are we stuck with this situation forever, or will this aberration fade with time, back to normal? And, why did this happen? — E-S.B.

Your son has magnetized the shadow mask that's located just inside the screen of your color television. It's a common problem and one that can easily be fixed by "degaussing" the mask (It'll take years or longer to fade on its own, so you're going to have to actively demagnetize the mask). You can have it done professionally or you can buy a degaussing coil yourself and give it a try (Try a local electronics store or contact MCM Electronics, (800) 543-4330, 6" coil is item #72-785 for \$19.95 and 12" coil is item #72-790 for \$32.95).

Color sets create the impression of full color by mixing the three primary colors of light—blue, green, and red—right there on the inside surface of the picture tube. A set does the mixing by turning on and off three separate electron beams to control the relative brightnesses of the three primary colors at each location on the screen. The shadow mask is a metal grillwork that allows the three electrons beams to hit only specific phosphor dots on the inside of the tube's front surface. That way, electrons in the "blue" electron beam can only hit blue-glowing phosphors, while those in the "green" beam hit green-glowing phosphors and those in the "red" beam hit red-glowing phosphors. The three beams originate at slightly different locations in the back of the picture tube and reach the screen at slightly different angles. After passing through the holes in the shadow mask, these three beams can only hit the phosphors of their color.

To demagnetize the shadow mask, you should expose it to a rapidly fluctuating magnetic field that gradually decreases in strength until it vanishes altogether. The degaussing coils I mentioned above plug directly into the AC power line and act as large, alternating-field electromagnets. As you wave one of these coils around in front of the screen, you flip the magnetization of the Invar shadow mask back and forth rapidly. By slowly moving this coil farther and farther away from the screen, you gradually scramble the magnetizations of the mask's microscopic magnetic domains. The mask still has magnetic structures at the microscopic level (this is unavoidable and a basic characteristic of all ferromagnetic metals such as steel and Invar). But those domains will all point randomly and ultimately cancel each other out once you have demagnetized the mask. By the time you have the coil a couple of feet away from the television, the mask will have no significant magnetization left at the macroscopic scale and the colors of the set will be back to normal.

Incidentally, I did exactly this trick to my family's brand new color television set in 1965. I had enjoyed watching baseball games and deflecting the pitches wildly on our old black-and-white set. With only one electron beam, a black-and-white set needs no shadow mask and has nothing inside the screen to magnetize. My giant super alnico magnet left no lingering effect on it. But when the new set arrived, I promptly magnetized its shadow mask and when my parent watched the "African Queen" that night, the colors were not what you'd call "natural." The service person came out to degauss the picture tube the next day and I remember denying any knowledge of what might have caused such an intense magnetization. He and I agreed that someone must have started a vacuum cleaner very close to the set and thus magnetized its surface. I was only 8, so what did I know anyway.

Finally, as many readers have pointed out, many modern televisions and computer monitors have built-in degaussing coils. Each time you turn on one of these units, the degaussing circuitry exposes the shadow mask to a fluctuating magnetic field in order to demagnetize it. If your television set or monitor has such a system, then turning it on and off a couple of times should clear up most or all of the magnetization problems. However, you may have to wait about 15 minutes between power on/off cycles because the built-in degaussing units have thermal protection that makes sure they cool down properly between uses.

1454. I was recently riding as a passenger in a van and there was a housefly buzzing around in the van. While trying to squash the fly, I was wondering why was the fly traveling the same speed as the van at 70 mph as it was hovering in mid air. Shouldn't it have smashed into the rear window of the van just like so many bugs would have been, on the grill of the vehicle?? — DS

Flies travel at modest speeds relative to the air that surrounds them. Since the outside air is nearly motionless relative to the ground (usually), a fly outside the van is also nearly motionless. When the fast-moving van collides with the nearly motionless fly, the fly's inertia holds it in place while the van squashes it.

But when the fly is inside the van, the fly travels about in air that is moving with the van. If the van is moving at 70 mph, then so is the air inside it and so is the fly. In fact, everything inside the van moves more or less together and from the perspective of the van and its contents, the whole world outside is what is doing the moving—the van itself can be considered stationary and the van's contents are then also stationary.

As long as the fly and the air it is in are protected inside the van, the movement of the outside world doesn't matter. The fly buzzes around in its little protected world. But if the van's window is open and the fly ventures outside just as a signpost passes the car, the fly may get creamed by a collision with the "moving" sign. Everything is relative and if you consider the van as stationary, then it is undesirable for the van's contents to get hit by the moving items in the world outside (passing trees, bridge abutments, or oncoming vehicles.

1453. If I knew the initial (exact) conditions of the throw of a die, could I throw a 6 with certainty? How does the Heisenberg principle affect my ability to control the outcome? — TW

In the classical view of the world, the view before the advent of quantum theory, nature seemed entirely deterministic and mechanical. If you knew exactly where every molecule and atom was and how fast it was moving, you could perfectly predict where it would be later on. In principle, this classical world would allow you to throw a 6 every time. Of course, you'd have to know everything about the air's motion, the thermal energy in the die, and even the pattern of light in the room. But the need for enormous amounts of information just means that controlling the dice will be incredibly hard, not that it will be impossible. For simple throws, you could probably get by without knowing all that much about the initial conditions. As the throws became more complicated and more sensitive to initial conditions, you'd have to know more and more.

However, quantum mechanics makes controlling the die truly impossible. The problem stems from the fact that position and velocity information are not fully defined at the same time in our quantum mechanical universe. In short, you can't know exactly where a die is and how fast it is moving at the same time. And that doesn't mean that you can't perform these measurements well. It means that the precise values don't exist together; they are limited by Heisenberg uncertainty. So quantum physics imposes a fundamental limit on how well you can know the initial conditions before your throw and it thus limits your ability to control the outcome of that throw. How much quantum physics affects your ability to throw a 6 depends on the complexity of the throw. If you just drop a die a few inches onto a table, you can probably get a 6 most of the time, despite quantum mechanics and without even knowing much classical information. But as you begin throwing the die farther, you'll begin to lose control of it because of quantum mechanics and uncertainty. In reality, you'll find classical physics so limiting that you'll probably never observe the quantum physics problem. Knowing everything about a system is already unrealistic, even in a classical universe. The problems arising from quantum mechanics are really just icing on the cake for this situation.

1451. How can I make an electric generator from scratch? — OD

Generators and motors are very closely related and many motors that contain permanent magnets can also act as generators. If you move a permanent magnet past a coil of wire that is part of an electric circuit, you will cause current to flow through that coil and circuit. That's because a changing magnetic field, such as that near a moving magnet, is always accompanied in nature by an electric field. While magnetic fields push on magnetic poles, electric fields push on electric charges. With a coil of wire near the moving magnet, the moving magnet's electric field pushes charges through the coil and eventually through the entire circuit.

A convenient arrangement for generating electricity endlessly is to mount a permanent magnet on a spindle and to place a coil of wire nearby. Then as the magnet spins, it will turn past the coil of wire and propel currents through that coil. With a little more engineering, you'll have a system that looks remarkably like the guts of a typical permanent magnet based motor. In fact, if you take a common DC motor out of a toy and connect its two electrical terminals to a 1.5 V light bulb or a light emitting diode (try both directions with an LED because it can only carry current in one direction), you'll probably be able to light that bulb or LED by spinning the motor's shaft rapidly. A DC motor has a special switching system that converts the AC produced in the motor's coils into DC for delivery to the motor's terminals, but it's still a generator. So the easiest answer to your question is: "find a nice DC motor and turn its shaft".

1450. If I wanted to magnetize a screwdriver, what would be the best way of doing this? I know it can be done by rubbing magnets across the screwdriver's tip, but I would like to know a way of doing it with a piece of coiled wire and a battery. I have heard that this can be done with a car battery. — MS, West Virginia

Iron and most steels are intrinsically magnetic. By that, I mean that they contain intensely magnetic microscopic domains that are randomly oriented in the unmagnetized metal but that can be aligned by exposure to an external magnetic field. In pure iron, this alignment vanishes quickly after the external field is removed, but in the medium carbon steel of a typical screwdriver, the alignment persists days, weeks, years, or even centuries after the external field is gone.

To magnetize a screwdriver permanently, you should expose it briefly to a very strong magnetic field. Touching the screwdriver's tip to one pole of a strong magnet will cause some permanent magnetization. Rubbing or tapping the screwdriver also helps to free up its domains so that they can align with this external field. But the better approach is to put the screwdriver in a coil of wire that carries a very large DC electric current.

The current only needs to flow for a fraction of a second—just long enough for the domains to align. A car battery is a possibility, but it has safety problems: it can deliver an incredible current (400 amperes or more) for a long time (minutes) and can overheat or even explode your coil of wire. Moreover, it may leak hydrogen gas, which can be ignited by the sparks that will inevitably occur while you are magnetizing your screwdriver.

A safer choice for the current source is a charged electrolytic capacitor—a device that stores large quantities of separated electric charge. A charged capacitor can deliver an even larger current than a battery can, but only for a fraction of a second—only until the capacitor's store of separated charge is exhausted. Looking at one of my hobbyist electronics catalogs, Marlin P. Jones, 800-652-6733, I'd pick a filter capacitor with a capacity of 10,000 microfarads and a maximum voltage of 35 volts (Item 12104-CR, cost: \$1.50). Charging this device with three little 9V batteries clipped together in a series (27 volts overall) will leave it with about 0.25 coulombs of separated charge and just over 3.5 joules (3.5 watt-seconds or 3.5 newton-meters) of energy.

Make sure that you get the polarity right—electrolytic filter capacitors store separated electric charge nicely but you have to put the positive charges and negative charges on the proper sides. [To be safe, work with rubber gloves and, as a general rule, never touch anything electrical with more than one hand at a time. Remember that a shock across your heart is much more dangerous than a shock across you hand. And while 27 volts is not a lot and is unlikely to give you a shock under any reasonable circumstances, I can't accept responsibility for any injuries. If you're not willing to accept responsibility yourself, don't try any of this.]

If you wrap about 100 turns of reasonably thick insulated wire (at least 18 gauge, but 12 gauge solid-copper home wiring would be better) around the screwdriver and then connect one end of the coil to the positively charged side of the capacitor and the other end of the coil to the negatively charged side, you'll get a small spark (wear gloves and safety glasses) and a huge current will flow through the coil. The screwdriver should become magnetized. If the magnetization isn't enough, repeat the charging-discharging procedure a couple of times, always with the same connections so that the magnetization is in the same direction.

1449. How fast do the electrons in copper flow when that copper is carrying electricity? — LH, North Hollywood

It turns out that the electrons in copper travel quite slowly even though "electricity" travels at almost the speed of light. That's because there are so many mobile electrons in copper (and other conductors) that even if those electrons move only an inch per second, they comprise a large electric current. Picture the electrons as water flowing through a pipe or river and now consider the Mississippi River. Even if the Mississippi is flowing only inches per second, it sure carries lots of water past St. Louis each second.

The fact that electricity itself travels at almost the speed of light just means that when you start the electrons moving at one end of a long wire, the electrons at the other end of the wire also begin moving almost immediately. But that doesn't mean that an electron from your end of the wire actually reaches the far end any time soon. Instead, the electrons behave somewhat like water in a long hose. When you start the water moving at one end, it pushes on water in front of it, which pushes on water in front of it, and so on so that water at the far end of the hose begins to leave the hose almost immediately. In the case of water, the motion proceeds forward at the speed of sound. In a wire, the motion proceeds forward at the speed of light in the wire (actually the speed at which electromagnetic waves propagate along the wire), which is only slightly less than the speed of light in vacuum.

Note for the experts: as one of my readers (KT) points out, the water-in-a-hose analogy for current-in-a-wire is far from perfect. Current in a wire flows throughout the wire, including at its surface, and the wire's resistance to steady current flow scales as the cross-sectional area of the wire. In contrast, water in a hose only flows through the open channel inside the hose and the hose's resistance to flow scales approximately as the fourth power of that channel's diameter.

1448. Why do faster moving fluids have lower pressure? — JH

Actually, faster moving fluids don't necessarily have lower pressure. For example, a bottle of compressed air in the back of a pickup truck is still high-pressure air, even though it's moving fast. The real issue here is that when fluid speeds up in passing through stationary obstacles, its pressure drops. For example, when air rushes into the open but stationary mouth of a vacuum cleaner, that air experiences not only a rise in speed, it also experiences a drop in pressure. Similarly, when water rushes out of the nozzle of a hose, its speed increases and its pressure drops. This is simply conservation of energy: as the fluid gains kinetic energy, it must lose pressure energy. However, if there are sources of energy around—fans, pumps, or moving surfaces—then these exchanges of pressure for speed may no longer be present. That's why I put in the qualifier of there being only stationary obstacles.

1447. When you open your eyes underwater everything is blurry, but when you wear a mask, you can see clearly. Why can't the eye focus underwater unless it has an air space, provided by the mask, in front of it? — DW, Cork City, Ireland

Just as most good camera lenses have more than one optical element inside them, so your eye has more than one optical element inside it. The outside surface of your eye is curved and actually acts as a lens itself. Without this surface lens, your eye can't bring the light passing through it to a focus on your retina. The component in your eye that is called "the lens" is actually the fine adjustment rather than the whole optical system.

When you put your eye in water, the eye's curved outer surface stops acting as a lens. That's because light travels at roughly the same speed in water as it does in your eye and that light no longer bends as it enters your eye. Everything looks blurry because the light doesn't focus on your retina anymore. But by inserting an air space between your eye and a flat plate of glass or plastic, you recover the bending at your eye's surface and everything appears sharp again.

1446. I will be teaching first graders how to use simple magnifiers. What are the basic safety rules for magnifiers that I should share with them with regard to sunlight, heat, etc. — JR

The only source of common light source that presents any real danger to a child with a magnifying glass is the sun. If you let sunlight pass through an ordinary magnifying glass, the convex lens of the magnifier will cause the rays of sunlight to converge and they will form a real image of the sun a short distance after the magnifying glass. This focused image will appear as a small, circular light spot of enormous brilliance when you let it fall onto a sheet of white paper. It's truly an image—it's round because the sun is round and it has all the spatial features that the sun does. If the image weren't so bright and the sun had visible marks on its surface, you'd see those marks nicely in the real image.

The problem with this real image of the sun is simply that it's dazzlingly bright and that it delivers lots of thermal power in a small area. The real image is there in space, whether or not you put any object into that space. If you put paper or some other flammable substance in this focused region, it may catch on fire. Putting your skin in the focus would also be a bad idea. And if you put your eye there, you're in serious trouble.

So my suggestion with first graders is to stay in the shade when you're working with magnifying glasses. As soon as you go out in direct sunlight, that brilliant real image will begin hovering in space just beyond the magnifying glass, waiting for someone to put something into it. And many first graders just can't resist the opportunity to do just that.

1445. How do you convert a measurement in liters per second into one in gallons per minute? — MG

Converting units is always a matter of multiplying by 1. But you must use very fancy versions of 1, such as 60 seconds/1 minute and 1 gallon/3.7854 liters. Since 60 seconds and 1 minute are the same amount of time, 60 seconds/1 minute is 1. Similarly, since 1 gallon (U.S. liquid) and 3.7854 liters are the same amount of volume, 1 gallon/3.7854 liters is 1. So suppose that you have measured the flow of water through a pipe as 283 liters/second. You can convert to gallons/minute by multiplying 283 liters/second by 1 twice: (283 liters/second)(60 seconds/1 minute)(1 gallon/3.7854 liters). When you complete this multiplication, the liter units cancel, the second units cancel, and you're left with 4,486 gallons/minute.

1443. Is it possible to construct a capacitor capable of storing the energy in lightning, then allowing that energy to flow gradually into the power grid?

Actually, the system of cloud and ground that produces lightning is itself a giant capacitor and the lightning is a failure of that capacitor. Like all capacitors, the system consists of two charged surfaces separated by an insulating material. In this case, the charged surfaces are the cloud bottom and the ground, and the insulating material is the air. During charging, vast amounts of separated electric charge accumulate on the two surfaces—the cloud bottom usually becomes negatively charged and the ground below it becomes positively charge. These opposite charges produce an intense electric field in the region between the cloud and the ground, and eventually the rising field causes charge to begin flowing through the air: a stroke of lightning.

In principle, you could tap into a cloud and the ground beneath and extract the capacitor's charge directly with wires. But this would be a heroic engineering project and unlikely to be worth the trouble. And catching a lightning strike in order to charge a second capacitor is not likely to be very efficient: most of the energy released during the strike would have to dissipate in the air and relatively little of it could be allowed to enter the capacitor. That's because no realistic capacitor can handle the voltage in lightning.

Here's the detailed analysis. The power released during the strike is equal to the strike's voltage times its current: the voltage between clouds and ground and the current flowing between the two during the strike. Voltage is the measure of how much energy each unit of electric charge has and current is the measure of how many units of electric charge are flowing each second. Their product is energy per second, which is power. Added up over time, this power gives you the total energy in the strike. If you want to capture all this energy in your equipment, it must handle all the current and all the voltage. If it can only handle 1% of the voltage, it can only capture 1% of the strike's total energy.

While the current flowing in a lightning strike is pretty large, the voltage involved is astonishing: millions and millions of volts. Devices that can handle the currents associated with lightning are common in the electric power industry but there's nothing reasonable that can handle lightning's voltage. Your equipment would have to let the air handle most of that voltage. The air would extract power from the flowing current in the lightning bolt and turning it into light, heat, and sound. Your equipment would then extract only a token fraction of the stroke's total energy. Finally, your equipment would have to prepare the energy properly for delivery on the AC power grid—its voltage would have to be lowered dramatically and a switching system would have to convert the static charge on the capacitors to an alternating flow of current in the power lines.

1442. If I mix water and crushed ice, and allow them to sit in an insulated container for about 3 minutes, will their temperature be 32 degrees Fahrenheit? — MP, San Francisco

When he established his temperature scale, Daniel Gabriel Fahrenheit defined 32 degrees "Fahrenheit" (32 F) as the melting temperature of ice—the temperature at which ice and water can coexist. When you assemble a mixture of ice and water and allow them to reach equilibrium (by waiting, say, 3 minutes) in a reasonably insulated container (something that does not allow much heat to flow either into or out of the ice bath), the mixture will reach and maintain a temperature of 32 F. At that temperature and at atmospheric pressure, ice and water are both stable and can coexist indefinitely.

To see why this arrangement is stable, consider what would happen if something tried to upset it. For example, what would happen if this mixture were to begin losing heat to its surroundings? Its temperature would begin to drop but then the water would begin to freeze and release thermal energy: when water molecules stick together, they release chemical potential energy as thermal energy. This thermal energy release would raise the temperature back to 32 F. The bath thus resists attempts at lowering its temperature.

Similarly, what would happen if the mixture were to begin gaining heat from its surroundings? Its temperature would begin to rise but then the ice would begin to melt and absorb thermal energy: separating water molecules increases their chemical potential energy and requires an input of thermal energy. This lost thermal energy would lower the temperature back to 32 F. The bath thus resists attempts at raising its temperature.

So an ice/water bath self-regulates its temperature at 32 F. The only other quantities affecting this temperature are the air pressure (the bath temperature could shift upward by about 0.003 degrees F during the low pressure of a hurricane) and dissolved chemicals (half an ounce of table salt per liter of bath water will shift the bath temperature downward by about 1 degree F).

1441. The force of gravity decreases as we go down toward the center of the earth and becomes equalized at the center. So why does pressure increase with depth, for example in the ocean? — HN, Vancouver, British Columbia

It's true that the force of gravity decreases with depth, so that if you were to find yourself in a cave at the center of the earth, you would be completely weightless. However, pressure depends on more than local gravity: it depends on the weight of everything being supported overhead. So while you might be weightless, you would still be under enormous pressure. Your body would be pushing outward on everything around you, trying to prevent those things from squeezing inward and filling the space you occupy. In fact, your body would not succeed in keeping those things away and you would be crushed by their inward pressure.

More manageable pressures surround us everyday. Our bodies do their part in supporting the weight of the atmosphere overhead when we're on land or the weight of the atmosphere and a small part of the ocean when we're swimming at sea. The deeper you go in the ocean, the more weight there is overhead and the harder your body must push upward. Thus the pressure you exert on the water above you and the pressure that that water exerts back on you increases with depth. Even though gravity is decreasing as you go deeper and deeper, the pressure continues to increase. However, it increases a little less rapidly as a result of the decrease in local gravity.

1440. When you create lather from a piece of colored soap, why does it produce a white foam? — CLV, Brasil

The foam consists of tiny air bubbles surrounded by very thin films of soap and water. When light enters the foam, it experiences partial reflections from every film surface it enters or exits. That is because light undergoes a partial reflection whenever it changes speed (hence the reflections from windows) and the speed of light in soapy water is about 30% less than the speed of light in air. Although only about 4% of the light reflects at each entry or exit surface, the foam contains so many films that very little light makes it through unscathed. Instead, virtually all of the light reflects from film surfaces and often does so repeatedly. Since the surfaces are curved, there is no one special direction for the reflections and the reflected light is scattered everywhere. And while an individual soap film may exhibit colors because of interference between reflections from its two surfaces, these interference effects average away to nothing in the dense foam. Overall, the foam appears white—it scatters light evenly, without any preference for a particular color or direction. White reflections appear whenever light encounters a dense collection of unoriented transparent particles (e.g. sugar, salt, clouds, sand, and the white pigment particles in paint).

As for the fact that even colored soaps create only white foam, that's related to the amount of dye in the soaps. It doesn't take much dye to give bulk soap its color. Since light often travels deep into a solid or liquid soap before reflecting back to our eyes, even a modest amount of dye will selectively absorb enough light to color the reflection. But the foam reflects light so effectively with so little soap that the light doesn't encounter much dye before leaving the lather. The reflection remains white. To produce a colored foam, you would have to add so much dye to the soap that you'd probably end up with colored hands as well.

1439. How certain can I be that modern physics applies to distant places? Shouldn't I wait until reputable scientists have performed experiments way off in outer space? — JS

Fortunately, you don't have to wait that long. From astronomical observations, we are fairly certain that the laws of physics as we know them apply throughout the visible universe. It wouldn't take large changes in the physical laws to radically change the structures of atoms, molecules, stars, and galaxies. So the fact that the light and other particles we see coming from distant places is so similar to what we see coming from nearby sources is pretty strong evidence that the laws of physics don't change with distance. Also, the fact that the light we see from distant sources has been traveling for a long time means that the laws of physics don't seem to have changed much (if at all) with time, either. While there are theories that predict subtle but orderly changes in the laws of physics with time and location, effectively making those laws more complicated, no one seriously thinks that the laws of physics change radically and randomly from place to place in the Universe.

1438. How can a spring "remember" its position? When I stretch a spring or compress a spring it returns to basically the same size. What is it about the atoms/molecules that make up a spring that allows it to return to its original state? — JH

Nearly all metals are crystalline, meaning that their atoms are arranged in neat and orderly stacks, like the piles of oranges or soup cans at the grocery store or the cannonballs at the courthouse square. When you bend a metal, its crystals can deform either by changing the spacings between atoms or by letting those atoms slide past one another as great moving sheets of atoms. When the atoms keep their relative orientations but change their relative spacings, the deformation is called elastic. When the atom sheets slide about and move, the deformation is called plastic.

Metals that bend permanently are experiencing plastic deformation. Their atoms change their relative orientations during the bend and they lose track of where they were. Once plastic deformation has occurred, the metal can't remember how to get back to its original shape and stays bent.

Metals that bend only temporarily and return to their original shape when freed from stress are experiencing elastic deformation. Their sheets of atoms aren't sliding about and they can easily spring back to normal when the stresses go away. Naturally, springs are made from materials that experience only elastic deformation in normal circumstances. Hardened metals such as spring steel are designed and heat-treated so that the atomic sliding processes, known technically as "slip," are inhibited. When you bend them and let go, they bounce back to their original shapes. But if you bend them too far, they either experience plastic deformation or they break.

Non-crystalline materials such as glass also make good springs. But since these amorphous materials have no orderly rows of atoms, they can't experience plastic deformation at all. They behave as wonderful springs right up until you bend them too far. Then, instead of experience plastic deformation and bending permanently, they simply crack in two.

One last detail: there are a few exotic materials that undergo complicated deformations that are neither temporary nor permanent. With changes in temperature, these shape memory materials can recover from plastic deformation and spring back to their original shapes.

1437. What is a superconductor? — PG

A superconductor is a material that carries electric current without any loss of energy. Currents lose energy as they flow through normal wires. This energy loss appears as a voltage drop across the material—the voltage of the current as it enters the material is higher than the voltage of the current when it leaves the material. But in a superconductor, the current doesn't lose any voltage at all. As a result, currents can even flow around loops without stopping. Currents are magnetic and superconducting magnets are based on the fact that once you get a current flowing around a loop of superconductor, it keeps going forever and so does its magnetism.

1436. If light has no mass, then how can it be affected by gravity? What property of light is gravitational force acting on? — DM

At low speeds, mass and energy appear to be separate quantities. Mass is the measure of inertia and can be determined by shaking an object. Energy is the measure of how much work an object can do and can be determined by letting it do that work. Conveniently enough, the object's weight—the force gravity exerts on it—is exactly proportional to its mass, which is why people carelessly interchange the words "mass" and "weight," even though they mean different things.

But when something is moving at speeds approaching the speed of light, mass and kinetic energy no longer separate so easily. In fact, the relativistic equations of motion are more complicated than those describing slow objects and the way in which gravity affects fast objects is more complicated than simply giving them "weight."

Overall, you can view the bending of light by gravity in one of two ways. First, you can view it approximately as gravity affecting not on mass, but also energy so that light falls because its energy gives it something equivalent to a "weight." Second, you can view it more accurately as the bending of light as caused by a change in the shape of space and time around a gravitating object. Space is curved, so that light doesn't travel straight as it moves past gravitating objects—it follows the curves of space itself. The second or Einsteinian view, which correctly predicts twice as much bending of light as the first or Newtonian view, is a little disconcerting. That's why it took some time for the theory of general relativity to be widely accepted. (Thanks to DP for pointing out the factor of two.)

1435. After a party at work, a friend tied a helium balloon to his car's gearshift lever and drove off. As he started driving forward, the balloon first went forward and then backward. That's not what happens to everything else. Why does it happen for the helium balloon? — S

The helium balloon is the least dense thing in the car and is responding to forces exerted on it by the air in the car. To understand this, consider what happens to you, the air, and finally the helium balloon as the car first starts to accelerate forward.

When the car starts forward, inertia tries to keep all of the objects in the car from moving forward. An object at rest tends to remain at rest. So the car must push you forward in order to accelerate you forward and keep you moving with the car. As the car seat pushes forward on you, you push back on the car seat (Newton's third law) and dent its surface. Your perception is that you are moving backward, but you're not really. You're actually moving forward; just not quite as quickly as the car itself.

The air in the car undergoes the same forward acceleration process. Its inertia tends to keep it in place, so the car must push forward on it to make it accelerate forward. Air near the front of the car has nothing to push it forward except the air near the back of the car, so the air in the front of the car tends to "dent" the air in the back of the car. In effect, the air shifts slightly toward the rear of the car. Again, you might think that this air is going backward, but it's not. It's actually moving forward; just not quite as quickly as the car itself.

Now we're ready for the helium balloon. Since helium is so light, the helium balloon is almost a hollow, weightless shell that displaces the surrounding air. As the car accelerates forward, the air in the car tends to pile up near the rear of the car because of its inertia. If the air can push something out of its way to get more room near the rear of the car, it will. The helium balloon is that something. As inertia causes the air to drift toward the rear of the accelerating car, the nearly massless and inertialess helium balloon is squirted toward the front of the car to make more room for the air. There is actually a horizontal pressure gradient in the car's air during forward acceleration, with a higher pressure at the rear of the car than at the front of the car. This pressure gradient is ultimately what accelerates the air forward with the car and it's also what propels the helium balloon to the front of the car.

Finally, when the car is up to speed and stops accelerating forward, the pressure gradient vanishes and the air returns to its normal distribution. The helium balloon is no longer squeezed toward the front of the car and it floats once again directly above the gear shift.

One last note: OGT from Lystrup, Denmark points out that when you accelerate a glass of beer, the rising bubbles behave in the same manner. They move toward the front of the glass as you accelerate it forward and toward the back of the glass as you bring it to rest.

1434. My third grade art class was wondering what color things would be if there was no sunlight? — Mrs. P's class

Most objects make no light of their own and are visible only because they reflect some of the light that strikes them. Without sunlight (or any other light source), these passive objects would appear black. Black is what we "see" when there is no light reaching our eyes from a particular direction. The only objects we would see would be those that made their own light and sent it toward our eyes.

The fact that we see mostly reflected light makes for some interesting experiments. A red object selectively reflects only red light; a blue object reflects only blue light; a green object reflects only green light. But what happens if you illuminate a red object with only blue light? The answer is that the object appears black! Since it is only able to reflect red light, the blue light that illuminates it is absorbed and nothing comes out for us to see. That's why lighting is so important to art. As you change the illumination in an art gallery, you change the variety of lighting colors that are available for reflection. Even the change from incandescent lighting to fluorescent lighting can dramatically change the look of a painting or a person's face. That's why some makeup mirrors have dual illumination: incandescent and fluorescent.

The one exception to this rule that objects only reflect the light that strikes them is fluorescent objects. These objects absorb the light that strikes them and then emit new light at new colors. For example, most fluorescent cards or pens will absorb blue light and then emit green, orange, or red light. Try exposing a mixture of artwork and fluorescent objects to blue light. The artwork will appear blue and black: blue wherever the art is blue and black wherever the art is either red, green, or black. But the fluorescent objects will display a richer variety of colors because those objects can synthesize their own light colors.

1433. Please explain the forces that allow one team to win a Tug-O-War contest. — ES

If we neglect the mass of the rope, the two teams always exert equal forces on one another. That's simply an example of Newton's third law—for every force team A exerts on team B, there is an equal but oppositely directed force exerted by team B on team A. While it might seem that these two forces on the two teams should always balance in some way so that the teams never move, that isn't the case. Each team remains still or accelerates in response to the total forces on that team alone, and not on the teams as a pair. When you consider the acceleration of team A, you must ignore all the forces on team B, even though one of those forces on team B is caused by team A. There are two important forces on team A: (1) the pull from team B and (2) a force of friction from the ground. That force of friction approximately cancels the pull from the team B because the two forces are in opposite horizontal directions. As long as the two forces truly cancel, team A won't accelerate. But if team A doesn't obtain enough friction from the ground, it will begin to accelerate toward team B. The winning team is the one that obtains more friction from the ground than it needs and accelerates away from the other team. The losing team is the one that obtains too little friction from the ground and accelerates toward the other team.

1432. How is a diode different from a piece of ordinary wire? — R

An ordinary wire will carry electric current in either direction, while a diode will only carry current in one direction. That's because the electric charges in a wire are free to drift in either direction in response to electric forces but the charges in a diode pass through a one-way structure known as a p-n junction. Charges can only approach the junction from one side and leave from the other. If they try to approach from the wrong side, they discover that there are no easily accessible quantum mechanical pathways or "states" in which they can travel. Sending the charges toward the p-n junction from the wrong side can only occur if something provides the extra energy needed to reach a class of less accessible quantum mechanical states. Light can provide that extra energy, which is why many diodes are light sensitive—they will conduct current in the wrong direction when exposed to light. That is the basis for many light sensitive electronic devices and for most photoelectric or "solar" cells.

1431. Can you please tell me why two different amounts of heated water cool at the same rate? My second grade daughter and I took boiling water from the same pot and placed it in two different size Pyrex bowls. We measured the temperature of the water in each bowl every five minutes. The temperature drop was the same for each amount of water. — JT

The amount of hot water that's cooling doesn't necessarily determine which bowl of water will cool fastest. That depends on how quickly each gram of the hot water loses heat, a rate that depends both on how much hotter the water is than its surroundings and on how that water is exposed to those surroundings. In general, hot water loses heat through its surface so the more surface that's exposed, the faster it will lose heat. But surface that's exposed to air will lose heat via evaporation and will be particularly important in cooling the water.

In answer to your question, my guess is that the larger bowl of water also exposes much more of that water to the air. Although the larger bowl had more water in it, it allowed that water to exchange heat faster with its environment. If the larger bowl contained twice as much water but let that water lose heat twice as fast, the two bowls would maintain equal temperatures. If you want to see the effect of thermal mass in slowing the loss of temperature, you'll need to control heat loss. Try letting equal amounts of hot water cool in two identical containers—one wrapped in insulation and covered with clear plastic wrap (to prevent evaporation) and one open to the air. You'll see a dramatic change in cooling rate. And if you want to compare unequal amounts of water, use two indentical containers that are only exposed to the cooler environment through a controlled amount of surface area. For example, try two identical insulated cups, one full of water and one only half full. If both lose heat only through their open tops, the full cup should cool more slowly than the half full cup.

1430. My 5 year old wants to do his kindergarten science project on "why do balls bounce?" His hypothesis is that "balls bounce because of the stuff inside." Can you advise how best to test this hypothesis and explain this concept on a level that a bright, but still only 5 year old, can truly understand? — MS, Bayside, New York

I'd suggest finding a hollow rubber ball with a relatively thin, flexible skin and putting different things inside it. You can just cut a small hole and tape it over after you put in "the stuff." Compare the ball's bounciness when it contains air, water, shaving cream, beans, rice, and so on. Just drop it from a consistent height and see how high it rebounds. The ratio of its rebound height to its drop height is a good measure of how well the ball stores energy when it hits the ground and how well it uses that energy to rebound. A ball that bounces to full height is perfect at storing energy while a ball that doesn't bounce at all is completely terrible at storing energy. You'll get something in between for most of your attempts—indicating that "the stuff" is OK but not perfect at storing energy during the bounce. The missing energy isn't destroyed, it's just turned into thermal energy. The ball gets a tiny bit hotter with every bounce.

You won't get any important quantitative results from this sort of experiment, but it'll be fun anyway. I wonder what fillings will make the ball bounce best or worst?

1429. I saw a magic show where they put a needle through a balloon. I tried this and it worked, but only with latex material balloons. I want to do my science project on this but my teacher said it was not a good idea. I think that it is because it is science, not magic. What do you think? — J, 6th Grade

It is science. The needle is able to enter latex without tearing it because the latex molecules are stretching out of the way of the needle without breaking. Like all polymers (plastics), latex consists of very large molecules. In latex, these molecules are basically long chains of atoms that are permanently linked to one another at various points along their lengths. You can picture a huge pile of spaghetti with each pasta strand representing one latex molecule. Now picture little links connecting pairs of these strands at random, so that when you try to pick up one strand, all the other strands come with it. That's the way latex looks microscopically. You can't pull the strands of latex apart because they are all linked together. But you can push a spoon between the strands.

That is what happens when you carefully weave a needle into a latex balloon—the needle separates the polymer strands locally, but doesn't actually pull them apart or break them. Since breaking the latex molecules will probably cause the balloon to tear and burst, you have to be very patient and use a very sharp needle. I usually oil the needle before I do this and I don't try to insert the needle in the most highly stressed parts of the balloon. The regions near the tip of the balloon and near where it is filled are the least stressed and thus the easiest to pierce successfully with a needle. A reader has informed me that coating the needle with Vasoline is particularly helpful.

One final note: a reader pointed out that it is also possible to put a needle through a balloon with the help of a small piece of adhesive tape. If you put the tape on a patch of the inflated balloon, it will prevent the balloon from ripping when you pierce the balloon right through the tape. This "cheaters" approach is more reliable than trying to thread the needle between the latex molecules, but it's less satisfying as well. But it does point out the fact that a balloon bursts because of tearing and that if you prevent the balloon from tearing, you can pierce it as much as you like.

1428. How does a dehumidifier work? - S, Hong Kong

A dehumidifier makes use of the fact that water tends to be individual gas molecules in the air at higher temperatures but condensed liquid molecules on surfaces at lower temperatures. At its heart, a dehumidifier is basically a heat pump, one that transfers heat from one surface to another. Its components are almost identical to those in an air conditioner or refrigerator: a compressor, a condenser, and an evaporator. The evaporator acts as the cold surface, the source of heat, and the condenser acts as the hot surface, the destination for that heat.

When the unit is operating and pumping heat, the evaporator becomes cold and the condenser becomes hot. A fan blows warm, moist air from the room through the evaporator coils and that air's temperature drops. This temperature drop changes the behavior of water molecules in the air. When the air and its surroundings were warm, any water molecule that accidentally bumped into a surface could easily return to the air. Thus while water molecules were always landing on surfaces or taking off, the balance was in favor of being in the air. But once the air and its surroundings become cold, any water molecules that bump into a surface tend to stay there. Water molecules are still landing on surfaces and taking off, but the balance is in favor of staying on the surface as either liquid water or solid ice. That's why dew or frost form when warm moist air encounters cold ground. In the dehumidifier, much of the air's water ends up dripping down the coils of the evaporator into a collection basin.

All that remains is for the dehumidifier to rewarm the air. It does this by passing the air through the condenser coils. The thermal energy that was removed from the air by the evaporator is returned to it by the condenser. In fact, the air emerges slightly hotter than before, in part because it now contains all of the energy used to operate the dehumidifier and in part because condensing moisture into water releases energy. So the dehumidifier is using temperature changes to separate water and air.

1427. As part of Math and Science night at her school, my 4th grade daughter recently made ice cream. How did the milk, ice, salt, and mechanical motion work together to make ice cream? — DH

To make good ice cream, you want to freeze the cream in such a way that the water in the cream forms only very tiny ice crystals. That way the ice cream will taste smooth and creamy. The simplest way to achieve this goal is to stir the cream hard while lowering its temperature far enough to freeze the water in it and to make the fat solidify as well. That's where the ice and salt figure in.

By itself, melting ice has a temperature of 0° C (32° F). When heat flows into ice at that temperature, the ice doesn't get hotter, it just transforms into water at that same temperature. Separating the water molecules in ice to form liquid water takes energy and so heat must flow into the ice to make it melt.

But if you add salt to the ice, you encourage the melting process so much that the ice begins to use its own internal thermal energy to transform into water. The temperature of the ice drops well below 0° C (32° F) and yet it keeps melting. Eventually, the drop in temperature stops and the ice and salt water reach an equilibrium, but the mixture is then quite cold—perhaps -10° C (14° F) or so. To melt more ice, heat must flow into the mixture. When you place liquid cream nearby, heat begins to flow out of the cream and into the ice and salt water. More ice melts and the liquid cream get colder. Eventually, ice cream starts to form. Stirring keeps the ice crystals small and also ensures that the whole creamy liquid freezes uniformly.

1426. What properties of rubber change in order to make one ball bounce better than another? — JM

During a bounce from a rigid surface, the ball's surface dents. Denting a surface takes energy and virtually all of the ball's energy of motion (kinetic energy) goes into denting its own surface. For a moment the ball is motionless and then it begins to rebound. As the ball undents, it releases energy and this energy becomes the ball's new energy of motion.

The issue is in how well the ball's surface stores and then releases this energy. The ideal ball experiences only elastic deformation—the molecules within the ball do not reorganize at all, but only change their relative spacings during the dent. If the molecules reorganize—sliding across one another or pulling apart in places—then some of the denting energy will be lost due to internal friction-like effects. Even if the molecules slide back to their original positions, they won't recover all the energy and the ball won't bounce to its original height.

In general, harder rubber bounces more efficiently than softer rubber. That's because the molecules in hard rubber are too constrained to be able to slide much. A superball is very hard and bounces well. But there are also sophisticated thermal effects that occur in some seemingly hard rubbers that cause them to lose their stored energy.

1425. We know that ozone can be depleted in the atmosphere as a result of various man-made factors. What would happen if nitrogen were depleted? What man-made influences, if any, would deplete nitrogen? — BS, Los Angeles

Ozone is an unstable molecule that consists of three oxygen atoms rather than then usual two. Because of its added complexity, an ozone molecule can interact with a broader range of light wavelengths and has the wonderful ability to absorb harmful ultraviolet light. The presence of ozone molecules in our upper atmosphere makes life on earth possible.

However, because ozone molecules are chemically unstable, they can be depleted by contaminants in the air. Ozone molecules react with many other molecules or molecular fragments, making ozone useful as a bleach and a disinfectant. Molecules containing chlorine atoms are particularly destructive of ozone because a single chlorine atom can facilitate the destruction of many ozone molecules through a chlorine recycling process.

In contrast, nitrogen molecules are extremely stable. They are so stable that there are only a few biological systems that are capable of separating the two nitrogen atoms in a nitrogen molecule in order to create organic nitrogen compounds. Without these nitrogen-fixing organisms, life wouldn't exist here. Because nitrogen molecules are nearly unbreakable, they survive virtually any amount or type of chemical contamination.

1424. Is the total energy savings still significant for long tube fluorescent lights, as compared to incandescent lights, when you consider the energy involved in manufacturing all the components of the lights? — AB, San Antonio, TX

Yes, fluorescents are more energy efficient overall. To begin with, fluorescent lights have a much longer life than incandescent lights—the fluorescent tube lasts many thousands of hours and its fixture lasts tens of thousands of hours. So the small amount of energy spent building an incandescent bulb is deceptive—you have to build a lot of those bulbs to equal the value of one fluorescent system.

Second, although there is considerable energy consumed in manufacturing the complicated components of a fluorescent lamp, it's unlikely to more than a few kilowatt-hours—the equivalent of the extra energy a 100 watt incandescent light uses up in a week or so of typical operation. So it may take a week or two to recover the energy cost of building the fluorescent light, but after that the energy savings continue to accrue for years and years.

1423. If you were at the back of a bus going the speed of light, and you were to run toward the front, would you be moving faster than the speed of light or turn into energy? — TM, Ft. Bragg, NC

First, your bus can't be going at the speed of light because massive objects are strictly forbidden from traveling at that speed. Even to being traveling near the speed of light would require a fantastic expenditure of energy.

But suppose that the bus were traveling at 99.999999% of the speed of light and you were to run toward its front at 0.000002% of the speed of light (about 13 mph or just under a 5 minute mile). Now what would happen?

First, the bus speed I quoted is in reference to some outside observer because the seated passengers on the bus can't determine its speed. After all, if the shades are pulled down on the bus and it's moving at a steady velocity, no one can tell that it's moving at all. So let's assume that the bus speed I gave is according to a stationary friend who is watching the bus zoom by from outside.

While you are running toward the front of the bus at 0.000002% of the speed of light, your speed is in reference to the other passengers in the bus, who see you moving forward. The big question is what does you stationary friend see? Actually, your friend sees you running toward the front of the bus, but determines that your personal speed is only barely over 99.999999%. The two speeds haven't added the way you'd expect. Even though you and the bus passengers determine that you are moving quickly toward the front of the bus, your stationary friend determines that you are moving just the tiniest bit faster than the bus. How can that be?

The answer lies in the details of special relativity, but here is a simple, albeit bizarre picture. Your stationary friend sees a deformed bus pass by. Ignoring some peculiar optical effects due to the fact that it takes time for light to travel from the bus to your friend's eyes so that your friend can see the bus, your friend sees a foreshortened bus—a bus that is smashed almost into a pancake as it travels by. While you are in that pancake, running toward the front of the bus, the front is so close to the rear that your speed within the bus is miniscule. Why the bus becomes so short is another issue of special relativity.

1422. How does a heat pipe work? — SG, Sugar Land TX

Heat pipes use evaporation and condensation to move heat quickly from one place to another. A typical heat pipe is a sealed tube containing a liquid and a wick. The wick extends from one end of the tube to the other and is made of a material that attracts the liquid—the liquid "wets" the wick. The liquid is called the "working fluid" and is chosen so that it tends to be a liquid the temperature of the colder end of the pipe and tends to be a gas at the temperature of the hotter end of the pipe. Air is removed from the pipe so the only gas it contains is the gaseous form of the working fluid.

The pipe functions by evaporating the liquid working fluid into gas at its hotter end and allowing that gaseous working fluid to condense back into a liquid at its colder end. Since it takes thermal energy to convert a liquid to a gas, heat is absorbed at the hotter end. And because a gas gives up thermal energy when it converts from a gas to a liquid, heat is released at the colder end.

After a brief start-up period, the heat pipe functions smoothly as a rapid conveyor of heat. The working fluid cycles around the pipe, evaporating from the wick at the hot end of the pipe, traveling as a gas to the cold end of the pipe, condensing on the wick, and then traveling as a liquid to the hot end of the pipe.

Near room temperature, heat pipes use working fluids such as HFCs (hydrofluorocarbons, the replacements for Freons), ammonia, or even water. At elevated temperatures, heat pipes often use liquid metals such as sodium.

1421. How is sound picked up on a microphone? — PB, Marion, MA

Sound consists of small fluctuations in air pressure. We hear sound because these changes in air pressure produce fluctuating forces on various structures in our ears. Similarly, microphones respond to the changing forces on their components and produce electric currents that are effectively proportional to those forces.

Two of the most common types of microphones are capacitance microphones and electromagnetic microphones. In a capacitance microphone, opposite electric charges are placed on two closely spaced surfaces. One of those surfaces is extremely thin and moves easily in response to changes in air pressure. The other surface is rigid and fixed. As a sound enters the microphone, the thin surface vibrates with the pressure fluctuations. The electric charges on the two surfaces pull on one another with forces that depend on the spacing of the surfaces. Thus as the thin surface vibrates, the charges experience fluctuating forces that cause them to move. Since both surfaces are connected by wires to audio equipment, charges move back and forth between the surfaces and the audio equipment. The sound has caused electric currents to flow and the audio equipment uses these currents to record or process the sound information.

In an electromagnetic microphone, the fluctuating air pressure causes a coil of wire to move back and forth near a magnet. Since changing or moving magnetic fields produce electric fields, electric charges in the coil of wire begin to move as a current. This coil is connected to audio equipment and again uses these currents to represent sound.

1420. Why does air speed up as it flows over an airplane wing? — MS

When air flows past an airplane wing, it breaks into two airstreams. The one that goes under the wing encounters the wing's surface, which acts as a ramp and pushes the air downward and forward. The air slows somewhat and its pressure increases. Forces between this lower airstream and the wing's undersurface provide some of the lift that supports the wing.

But the airstream that goes over the wing has a complicated trip. First it encounters the leading edge of the wing and is pushed upward and forward. This air slows somewhat and its pressure increases. So far, this upper airstream isn't helpful to the plane because it pushes the plane backward. But the airstream then follows the curving upper surface of the wing because of a phenomenon known as the Coanda effect. The Coanda effect is a common behavior in fluids—viscosity and friction keep them flowing along surfaces as long as they don't have to turn too quickly. (The next time your coffee dribbles down the side of the pitcher when you poured too slowly, blame it on the Coanda effect.)

Because of the Coanda effect, the upper airstream now has to bend inward to follow the wing's upper surface. This inward bending involves an inward acceleration that requires an inward force. That force appears as the result of a pressure imbalance between the ambient pressure far above the wing and a reduced pressure at the top surface of the wing. The Coanda effect is the result (i.e. air follows the wing's top surface) but air pressure is the means to achieve that result (i.e. a low pressure region must form above the wing in order for the airstream to arc inward and follow the plane's top surface).

The low pressure region above the wing helps to support the plane because it allows air pressure below the wing to be more effective at lifting the wing. But this low pressure also causes the upper airstream to accelerate. With more pressure behind it than in front of it, the airstream accelerates—it's pushed forward by the pressure imbalance. Of course, the low pressure region doesn't last forever and the upper airstream has to decelerate as it approaches the wing's trailing edge—a complicated process that produces a small amount of turbulence on even the most carefully designed wing.

In short, the curvature of the upper airstream gives rise to a drop in air pressure above the wing and the drop in air pressure above the wing causes a temporary increase in the speed of the upper airstream as it passes over much of the wing.

1419. I tried freezing two cups of water, one with salt added and one with sugar added, to see which would freeze first. I conducted my experiment three times and each time the sugar water froze first. Why? — AM

Dissolving solids in water always lowers the water's freezing temperature by an amount that's proportional to the density of dissolved particles. If you double the density of particles in water, you double the amount by which the freezing temperature is lowered.

While salt and sugar both dissolve in water and thus both lower its freezing temperature, salt is much more effective than sugar. That's because salt produces far more dissolved particles per pound or per cup than sugar. First, table salt (sodium chloride) is almost 40% more dense than cane sugar (sucrose), so that a cup of salt weighs much more than a cup of cane sugar. Second, a salt molecule (NaCl) weighs only about 8.5% as much as a sucrose molecule (C12H22O11), so there are far more salt molecules in a pound of salt than sugar molecules in a pound of sugar. Finally, when salt dissolves in water, it decomposes into ions: Na+ and Cl-. That decomposition doubles the density of dissolved particles produced when salt dissolves. Sugar molecules remain intact when they dissolve, so there is no doubling effect. Thus salt produces a much higher density of dissolved particles than sugar, whether you compare them cup for cup or pound for pound, and thus lowers water's freezing temperature more effectively. That's why the salt water is so slow to freeze.

1418. How do the automatic soda dispensers at fast food joints know when the cup is full? — MB

They measure the volume of liquid they deliver and shut off when they have dispensed enough soda to fill the cup. Accurate volumetric flowmeters, such as those used in the dispensers, typically have a sophisticated paddlewheel assembly inside that turns as the liquid goes through a channel. When the paddlewheel has gone around the right number of times, an electronic valve closes to stop the flow of liquid.

1417. Is there any mathematical relevance to the period of motion of a pendulum? For example, if I made a scale model of a pendulum and then squared it or cubed it, would there be any mathematical correlation between the results?

Yes, there would be a simple relationship between the periods of the three pendulums. That's because the period of a pendulum depends only on its length and on the strength of gravity. Since a pendulum's period is proportional to the square root of its length, you would have to make your model four times as long to double the time it takes to complete a swing. A typical grandfather's clock has a 0.996-meter pendulum that takes 2 seconds to swing, while a common wall clock has a 0.248-meter pendulum that takes 1 second to swing. Note that the effective length of the pendulum is from its pivot to its center of mass or center of gravity. A precision pendulum has special temperature compensating components that make sure that this effective length doesn't change when the room's temperature changes.

1416. Since a typical commercial jetliner cruises at around 30,000 feet (higher than Mt. Everest), where the air is very rarified, is there a mechanism to concentrate the air around the engine intake? — P

There certainly is such a mechanism. The air at a jetliner's cruising altitude is much too thin to support life so it must be compressed before introducing it into the airplane's passenger cabin. The compressed air is actually extracted from an intermediate segment of the airplane's jet engines. In the course of their normal operations, these engines collect air entering their intake ducts, compress that air with rotary fans, inject fuel into the compressed air, burn the mixture, and allow the hot, burned gases to stream out the exhaust duct through a series of rotary turbines. The turbines provide the power to operate the compressor fans. Producing the stream of exhaust gas is what pushes the airplane forward.

But before fuel is injected into the engine's compressed air, there is a side duct that allows some of that compressed air to flow toward the passenger cabin. So the engine is providing the air you breathe during a flight.

There is one last interesting point about this compressed air: It is initially too hot to breathe. Even though air at 30,000 feet is extremely cold, the act of compressing it causes its temperature to rise substantially. This happens because compressing air takes energy and that energy must go somewhere in the end. It goes into the thermal energy of the air and raises the air's temperature. Thus the compressed air from the engines must be cooled by air conditioners before it goes into the passenger cabin.

1415. I noticed that in your discussions of salted water in cooking, you never mentioned the main reason why people add salt to water: it raises the boiling temperature of the water so that foods cook faster — L

You are right that adding salt to water raises the water's boiling temperature. Contrary to one's intuition, adding salt to water doesn't make it easier for the water to boil, it makes it harder. As a result, the water must reach a higher temperature before it begins to boil. Any foods you place in this boiling salt water (e.g. eggs or pasta) find themselves in contact with somewhat hotter water and should cook faster as a result. That's because most cooking is limited by the boiling temperature of water in or around food and anything that lowers this boiling temperature, such as high altitude, slows most cooking while anything that raises the boiling temperature of water, such as salt or the use of a pressure cooker, speeds most cooking. However, it takes so much salt to raise the boiling temperature of water enough to affect cooking times that this can't be the main motivation for cooking in salted water. By the time you've salted the water enough to raise its boiling temperature more than a few degrees, you've made the water too salty for cooking. It's pretty clear that salting your cooking water is basically a matter of taste, not temperature.

1414. If two planets were really close together and you were between them, how would the gravitational force affect you? — MB & Class

If you were directly between the two planets, their gravitational forces on you would oppose one another and at least partially cancel. Which planet would exert the stronger force on you would depend on their relative masses and on your distances from each of them. If one planet pulled on you more strongly than the other, you would find yourself falling toward that planet even though the other planet's gravity would oppose your descent and prolong the fall. However, there would also be a special location between the planets at which their gravitational forces would exactly cancel. If you were to begin motionless at that point in space, you wouldn't begin to fall at all. While the planets themselves would move and take the special location with them, there would be a brief moment when you would be able to hover in one place.

But there is something I've neglected: you aren't really at one location in space. Because your body has a finite size, the forces of gravity on different parts of your body would vary subtly according to their exact locations in space. Such variations in the strength of gravity are normally insignificant but would become important if you were extremely big (e.g. the size of the moon) or if the two planets you had in mind were extremely small but extraordinarily massive (e.g. black holes or neutron stars). In those cases, spatial variations in gravity would tend to pull unevenly on your body parts and might cause trouble. Such uneven forces are known as tidal forces and are indeed responsible for the earth's tides. While the tidal forces on a spaceship traveling between the earth and the moon would be difficult to detect, they would be easy to find if the spaceship were traveling between two small and nearby black holes. In that case, the tidal forces could become so severe that they could rip apart not only the spaceship and its occupants, but also their constituent molecules, atoms, and even subatomic particles.

1413. I have been trying to get information on what causes strange gravity areas to exist...Walking on walls, water rolling uphill, etc. There are a number of such places advertised in the United States and elsewhere but are they optical illusions or for real? — MW

These purported gravitational anomalies are just illusions. Because gravity is a relatively weak force, enormous concentrations of mass are required to create significant gravitational fields. Since it takes the entire earth to give you your normal weight, the mass concentration needed to cancel or oppose the earth's gravitation field in only one location would have to be extraordinary. While objects capable of causing such bizarre effects do exist elsewhere in our universe (e.g. black holes and neutron stars), there fortunately aren't any around here. As a result, the strength of the gravitational field at the earth's surface varies less than 1% over the earth's surface and always points almost exactly toward the center of the earth. Any tourist attraction that claims to have gravity pointing in some other direction with some other strength is claiming the impossible.

1412. Would it be possible to put a thermometer inside a microwave oven? Would the microwaves have an effect on an electronic thermometer? Would they have an effect on a mercury thermometer? — R

This is an interesting question because it brings up the tricky issue of what is the temperature in a microwave oven. In fact, there is no specific temperature in the oven because the microwaves that do the cooking are not thermal. Rather than emerging from a hot object with a well-defined temperature, these microwaves are produced in a coherent fashion by a vacuum tube. Like the light emerging from a laser, these microwaves can heat objects they encounter as hot as you like, or at least until heat begins to escape from those objects as fast as it's being added.

So instead of measuring the "temperature of the microwave oven," people normally put thermometers in the food to measure the food's temperature. This works well as long as the thermometers don't interact with the microwaves in ways that make them either hotter or inaccurate. Electronic thermometers are common in high-end microwaves. There is nothing special about these electronic thermometers except that they are carefully shielded so that the microwaves don't heat them or affect their readings. By "shielded," I mean that each of these thermometers has a continuous metallic sheath that reflects the microwaves. This sheath extends from the wall of the oven's cooking chamber all the way to the thermometer probe's tip so that the microwaves themselves can't enter the measurement electronics. Since the sheath reflects microwaves, the thermometer isn't heated by the microwaves and only measures the temperature of the food it contacts.

On the other hand, putting a mercury thermometer in a microwave oven isn't a good idea. While mercury is a metal and will reflect most of the microwaves that strike it, the microwaves will push a great many electric charges up and down the narrow column of mercury. This current flow will cause heating of the mercury because the column is too thin to tolerate the substantial current without becoming warm. The mercury can easily overheat, turn to gas, and explode the thermometer. (A reader of this web site reported having blown up a mercury thermometer just this way as a child.) Moreover, as charges slosh up and down the mercury column, they will periodically accumulate at the upper end. Since there is only a thin vapor of mercury gas above this upper surface, the accumulated charges will probably ionize this vapor and create a luminous mercury discharge. The thermometer would then turn into a mercury lamp, emitting ultraviolet light. I used microwave-powered mercury lamps similar to this in my thesis research fifteen years ago and they work very nicely.

1411. I wear glasses for distance vision, but my near vision is good. Why is it that when I use a nearby mirror to view distant objects, I must wear my glasses to see them clearly? I should be able to see the nearby mirror well without glasses. — JFJ

When you view something in a flat mirror, you are looking at a virtual image of the object and this virtual image isn't located on the surface of the mirror. Instead, it's located on the far side of the mirror at a distance exactly equal to the distance from the mirror to the actual object. In effect, you are looking through a window into a "looking glass world" and seeing a distant object on the other side of that window. The reflected light reaching your eyes has all the optical characteristics of having come the full distance from that virtual image, through the mirror, to your eyes. The total distance between what you are seeing and your eyes is the sum of the distance from your eyes to the mirror plus the distance from the mirror to the object. That's why you must use your distance glasses to see most reflected objects clearly. Even when you observe your own face, you are seeing it as though it were located twice as far from you as the distance from your face to the mirror.

1410. I understand that to calculate the heat released or absorbed during a nuclear reaction you find the difference between the product mass and reactant mass and use the formula (E=mc2). But what about heat released or absorbed during a chemical reaction? The book I have says that mass is conserved during a chemical reaction, so where does the heat energy come from? — TC

While your book's claim is well intended, it's actually incorrect. The author is trying to point out that atoms aren't created or destroyed during the reaction and that all the reactant atoms are still present in the products. But equating the conservation of atoms with the conservation of mass overlooks any mass loss associated with changes in the chemical bonds between atoms. While bond masses are extremely small compared to the masses of atoms, they do change as the results of chemical reactions. However even the most energy-releasing or "exothermic" reactions only produce overall mass losses of about one part in a billion and no one has yet succeeded in weighing matter precisely enough to detect such tiny changes.

1409. How do propane or kerosene refrigerators work—ones that require no electricity at all and are called "ice from fire" units? — KN

Heater-based refrigerators make use of an absorption cycle in which a refrigerant is driven out of solution as a gas in a boiler, condenses into a liquid in a condenser, evaporates back into a gas in an evaporator, and finally goes back into solution in an absorption unit. The cooling effect comes during the evaporation in the evaporator because converting a liquid to a gas requires energy and thus extracts heat from everything around the evaporating liquid.

The most effective modern absorption cycle refrigerators use a solution of lithium bromide (LiBr) in water. What enters the boiler is a relatively dilute solution of LiBr (57.5%) and what leaves is dense, pure water vapor and a relatively concentrated solution of LiBr (64%). The pure water vapor enters a condenser, where it gives up heat to its surroundings and turns into liquid water. To convert this liquid water back into gas, all that has to happen is for its pressure to drop. That pressure drop occurs when the water enters a low-pressure evaporator through a narrow orifice. As the water evaporates, it draws heat from its surroundings and refrigerates them.

Finally, something must collect this low pressure water vapor and carry it back to the boiler. That "something" is the concentrated LiBr solution. When the low-pressure water vapor encounters the concentrated LiBr solution in the absorption unit, it quickly goes back into solution. The solution becomes less concentrated as it draws water vapor out of the gas above it. This diluted solution then returns to the boiler to begin the process all over again.

Overall, the pure water follows one path and the LiBr solution follows another. The pure water first appears as a high-pressure gas in the boiler (out of the boiling LiBr solution), converts to a liquid in the condenser, evaporates back into a low-pressure gas in the evaporator, and finally disappears in the absorption unit (into the cool LiBr solution). Meanwhile, the LiBr solution shuttles back and forth between the boiler (where it gives up water vapor) and the absorption unit (where it picks up water vapor). The remarkable thing about this whole cycle is that its only moving parts are in the pump that moves LiBr solution from the absorption unit to the boiler. Its only significant power source is the heater that operates the boiler. That heater can use propane, kerosene, electricity, waste heat from a conventional power plant, and so on.

1408. If one metric ton of antimatter comes into contact with one metric ton of matter, how much energy would be released? — TC

Since the discovery of relativity, people have recognized that there is energy associated with rest mass and that the amount of that energy is given by Einstein's famous equation: E=mc2. However, the energy associated with rest mass is hard to release and only tiny fractions of it can be obtained through conventional means. Chemical reactions free only parts per billion of a material's rest mass as energy and even nuclear fission and fusion can release only about 1% of it. But when equal quantities of matter and antimatter collide, it's possible for 100% of their combined rest mass to become energy. Since two metric tons is 2000 kilograms and the speed of light is 300,000,000 meters/second, the energy in Einstein's formula is 1.8x1020 kilogram-meters2/second2 or 1.8x1020 joules. To give you an idea of how much energy that is, it could keep a 100-watt light bulb lit for 57 billion years.

1407. You said that microwaves heat food by twisting water molecules back and forth and having those water molecules rub against one another to experience a molecular form of "friction." Since vibrating molecules are the fundamental manifestation of heat, why is the friction necessary at all? — GS, Kanata, Canada

While it's true that microwaves twist water molecules back and forth, this twisting alone doesn't make the water molecules hot. To understand why, consider the water molecules in gaseous steam: microwaves twist those water molecules back and forth but they don't get hot. That's because the water molecules beginning twisting back and forth as the microwaves arrive and then stop twisting back and forth as the microwaves leave. In effect, the microwaves are only absorbed temporarily and are reemitted without doing anything permanent to the water molecules. Only by having the water molecules rub against something while they're twisting, as occurs in liquid water, can they be prevented from remitting the microwaves. That way the microwaves are absorbed and never remitted—the microwave energy becomes thermal energy and remains behind in the water.

Visualize a boat riding on a passing wave—the boat begins bobbing up and down as the wave arrives but it stops bobbing as the wave departs. Overall, the boat doesn't absorb any energy from the wave. However, if the boat rubs against a dock as it bobs up and down, it will converts some of the wave's energy into thermal energy and the wave will have permanently transferred some of its energy to the boat and dock.

1406. Do VCR's work on the same principle as audio tape players? If so, how does a VCR generate a signal while it's on pause?

Yes, VCR's work on the same principle as an audio tape player: as a magnetized tape moves past the playback head, that tape's changing magnetic field produces a fluctuating electric field. This electric field pushes current back and forth through a coil of wire and this current is used to generate audio signals (in a tape player) or video and audio signals (in a VCR).

However, there is one big difference between an audio player and a VCR. In an audio player, the tape moves past a stationary playback head. In a VCR, the tape moves past a spinning playback head. When you pause an audio tape player, the tape stops moving and there is no audio signal. But when you pause a VCR, the playback head continues to spin. As the playback head (actually 2 or even 4 heads that trade off from one another) sweeps across a few inches of the tape, it experiences the changing magnetic fields and fluctuating electric fields needed to produce the video and audio signals. That's why you can still see the image from a paused VCR. To prevent the spinning playback heads from wearing away the tape, most VCRs limit the pause time to about 5 minutes.

1405. What does a transformer do?

A transformer transfers power between two or more electrical circuits when each of those circuits is carrying an alternating electric current. Transfers of this sort are important because many electric power systems have incompatible circuits—one circuit may use large currents of low voltage electricity while another circuit may use small currents of high voltage electricity. A transformer can move power from one circuit of the electric power system to another without any direct connections between those circuits.

Now for the technical details: a transformer is able to make such transfers of power because (1) electric currents are magnetic, (2) the magnetic fields from an alternating electric current changes with time, (3) a time-varying magnetic field creates an electric field, and (4) an electric fields pushes on electric charges and electric currents. Overall, one of the alternating currents flowing through a transformer creates a time-varying magnetic field and thus an electric field in the transformer. This electric field does work on (transfers power to) another alternating current flowing through the transformer. At the same time, this electric field does negative work on (saps power from) the original alternating current. When all is said and done, the first current has lost some of its power and the second current has gained that missing power.

1404. In your discussion of event horizons, you stated that light falls just like everything else. I thought that light does not speed up when falling but just gains energy—that it is blue-shifted. Conversely, when it rises in a gravitational field, it does not slow down but just loses energy—that it is red-shifted. Is that correct? — B

Yes. For very fundamental reasons, light can't change its speed in vacuum; it always travels at the so-called "speed of light." So light that is traveling straight downward toward a celestial object doesn't speed up; only its frequency and energy increase. But light that is traveling horizontally past a celestial object will bend in flight, just as a satellite will bend in flight as it passes the celestial object. This trajectory bending is a consequence of free fall. While the falling of light as it passes through a gravitational field is a little more complicated than for a normal satellite—the light's trajectory must be studied with fully relativistic equations of motion—both objects fall nonetheless.

1403. How does a light-detecting diode create voltage when light hits it? — T

Diodes are one-way devices for electric current and are thus capable of separating positive charges from negative charges and keeping them apart. Those charges can separate by moving away from one another in the diode's allowed direction and then can't get back together because doing so would require them to move through the diode in the forbidden direction. Given a diode's ability to keep separated charges apart, all that's needed to start collecting separated charges is a source of energy. This energy is required to drive the positive and negative charges apart in the first place. One such energy source is a particle of light—a photon. When a photon with the right amount of energy is absorbed near the one-way junction of the diode, it can produce an electron-hole pair (a hole is a positively charged quasiparticle that is actually nothing more than a missing electron). The junction will allow only one of these charged particles to cross it and, having crossed, that particle cannot return. Thus when the diode is exposed to light, separated charge begins to accumulate on its two ends and a voltage difference appears between those ends.

1402. In the movie "Back to the Future," Doc Brown completes an electrical circuit with a bolt of lightning as the source and the "flux capacitor" as the load. In the process, he receives a shock. Would the "flux capacitor" still experience a flow of electrons if Doc Brown had provided a path to the earth? — BM, Akron, Ohio

While most of the "science" in that movie is actually nonsense, the use of lightning as a source of power has some basis in reality. The current in a lightning bolt is enormous, peaking at many thousands of amperes, and the voltages available are fantastically high. With so much current and voltage available, the flow of current during a lightning strike can be very complicated. Even though Doc Brown provided one path through which the lightning current could flow into the ground, he only conducted a fraction of the overall current. The remaining current flowed through the wire and into the "flux capacitor." This branching of the current is common during a lightning strike and makes lightning particularly dangerous. You don't have to be struck directly by lightning or to be in contact with the main conducting pathway between the strike and the earth for you to be injured. Current from the strike can branch out in complicated ways and follow a variety of unexpected paths to ground. You don't want to be on any one of them. Doc Brown wasn't seriously hurt because it was only a movie. In real life, people don't recover so quickly.

1401. What is the cause of the power "drop" in my house, that will intermittently (every 5 to 10 minutes) cause my lights to dim? — JF

Your lights are dimming because something is reducing the voltage of the electricity in your house. The lights expect the electric current passing through them to experience a specific voltage drop—that is, they expect each electric charge to leave behind a certain amount of energy as the result of its passage through the lights. If the voltage of electricity in your house is less than the expected amount, the lights won't receive enough energy and will glow dimly.

The most probable cause for this problem is some power-hungry device in or near your house that cycles on every 5 or 10 minutes. In all likelihood, this device contains a large motor—motors have a tendency to draw enormous currents while they are first starting to turn, particularly if they are old and in need of maintenance. The wiring and power transformer systems that deliver electricity to your neighborhood and house have limited capacities and cannot transfer infinite amounts of power without wasting some of it. In general, wires waste power in proportion to the square of the current they are carrying. While the amount of power wasted in your home's wiring is insignificant in normal situations, it can become sizeable when the circuits are overloaded. This wasted power in the wiring appears as a loss of voltage—a loss of energy per charge—at your lights and appliances. When the heavy equipment turns on and begins to consume huge amounts of power, the wiring and other electric supply systems begin to waste much more power than normal and the voltage reaching your lights is significantly reduced. Your lights dim until the machinery stops using so much power.

To find what device that's making your lights dim, listen carefully the next time your lights fade. You'll probably hear an air conditioner, a fan, or even an elevator starting up somewhere, either in your house or in your neighborhood. There may be nothing you can do to fix the problem, but it's possible that replacing a motor or its bearings will reduce the problem. Another possible culprit is an electric heating system—a hot water heater, a radiant heater, an oven, a toaster, or even a hair-dryer. These devices also consume large amounts of power and, in an older house with limited electric services, may dim the lights.

1400. To keep soda carbonated, is it best to keep it cold in the refrigerator or outside in the room? Also, why does soda fizz more when you pour it over ice than when you drop ice into already-poured soda—is that just because the falling liquid has more kinetic energy? — DG

To keep soda carbonated, you should minimize the rate at which carbon dioxide molecules leave the soda and maximize the rate at which those molecules return to it. That way, the net flow of molecules out of the soda will be small. To reduce the leaving rate, you should cool the soda—as long as ice crystals don't begin to form, cooling the soda will make it more difficult for carbon dioxide molecules to obtain the energy they need to leave the soda and will slow the rate at which they're lost. To increase the return rate, you should increase the density of gaseous carbon dioxide molecules above the soda—sealing the soda container or pressurizing it with extra carbon dioxide will speed the return of carbon dioxide molecules to the soda. Also, minimizing the volume of empty bottle above the soda will make it easier for the soda to pressurize that volume itself. The soda will lose some of its carbon dioxide while filling that volume, but the loss will quickly cease.

One final issue to consider is surface area: the more surface area there is between the liquid soda and the gas above it, the faster molecules are exchanged between the two phases. Even if you don't keep carbon dioxide gas trapped above soda, you can slow the loss of carbonation by keeping the soda in a narrow-necked bottle with little surface between liquid and gas. But you must also be careful not to introduce liquid-gas surface area inside the liquid. That's what happens when you shake soda or pour it into a glass—you create tiny bubbles inside the soda and these bubbles grow rapidly as carbon dioxide molecules move from the liquid into the bubbles. Cool temperatures, minimal surface area, and plenty of carbon dioxide in the gas phases will keep soda from going flat.

As for pouring the soda over ice causing it to bubble particularly hard, that is partly the result of air stirred into the soda as it tumbles over the ice cubes and partly the result of adding impurities to the soda as the soda washes over the rough and impure surfaces of the ice. The air and impurities both nucleate carbon dioxide bubbles—providing the initial impetus for those bubbles to form and grow. Washing the ice to smooth its surfaces and remove impurities apparently reduces the bubbling when you then pour soda of it.

1399. Is terminal velocity the same for every object of the same mass or can the terminal velocity of two parachutists (same weight and height) be different? -CV

Terminal velocity is the result of a delicate balance between two forces—an object's downward weight and the upward drag force that object experiences as it moves downward through the air. Terminal velocity is reached when those two forces exactly balance one another and the object experiences a net force of zero, stops accelerating, and simply coasts downward at a constant velocity. Since the upward drag force increases with downward speed, there is generally a velocity at which this balance occurs—the terminal velocity.

But while a parachutist can't change her weight, she can change the relationship between her downward speed and the upward drag force she experiences. If she rolls herself into a compact ball, she weakens the drag force and ultimately increases her terminal velocity. On the other hand, if she spreads her arms and legs wide so as to catch more air, she strengthens the drag force and decreases her terminal velocity. Popping open her parachute strengthens the drag force so much that her terminal velocity diminishes almost to zero and she coasts slowly downward to a comfortable landing. So to answer your question—two twin parachutists will descend at very different terminal velocities if they adopt different profiles or if only one opens a parachute.

1398. I am intrigued by your assertion that the speed of light is the fastest speed in the universe. It seems to me that we wouldn't be able to determine the fastest speed achievable in the universe, just as we can't find the final number in math. When we're counting, there will always be x+1 so why would calculating the speed of objects in our universe be any different? — GL

Your comparison between the limitless counting numbers and the limited speeds in the universe is an interesting one because it points out a fundamental difference between the older Galilean/Newtonian understanding of the universe and the newer Einsteinian understanding. The older understanding claims that velocities can be added in the same way that counting numbers can be added and that there is thus no limit to the speeds that can exist in our universe. For example, if you are jogging eastward at 5 mph and a second runner passes you traveling eastward 5 mph faster, then a person watching the two of you from a stationary vantage point sees the second runner traveling eastward at 10 mph. The velocities add, so that 5 mph + 5 mph = 10 mph. If the second runner is now passed by a third runner, who is traveling eastward 5 mph faster than the second runner, then the stationary observer sees that third runner traveling eastward at 15 mph. And so it goes. As long as velocities add in this manner, objects can reach any speed they like.

At this point, you might assert that velocities do add and that objects should be able to reach any speed. But that's not the case. The modern, relativistic understanding of the universe says that even at these small speeds, velocities don't quite add. To the stationary observer, the second runner travels at only 9.9999999999999994 mph and the third runner at only 14.9999999999999988 mph. As you can see, when two or more velocities are combined, the final velocity isn't quite as large as the simple sum. What that means is that the velocity you observe in another object is inextricably related to your own motion. This interrelatedness is part of the theory of relativity—that observers who are moving relative to one another will see space and time somewhat differently.

For objects traveling close to the speed of light, the failure of velocity addition becomes quite severe. For example, if one spaceship travels past the earth at half the speed of light and the people in that spaceship watch a second spaceship pass them at half the speed of light in the same direction, then a person on earth will see the second spaceship traveling only four-fifths of the speed of light. As you can see, relativity is making it difficult to reach the speed of light. In fact, it's impossible to reach the speed of light! No matter how you combine velocities, no observer will ever see a massive object reach or exceed the speed of light. The only objects that can reach the speed of light are objects without mass and they can only travel at the speed of light.

So while the counting numbers obey simple addition and go on forever, velocities do not obey simple addition and have a firm limit—the speed of light. The additive counting numbers are an example of a mathematical group that extends infinitely in both directions, but there are many examples of groups that do not extend to infinity. The group that describes relativistic, real-world velocities is one such group. You can visualize another simple limited group—the one associated with walking around the surface of the earth. No matter how much you try, you can't walk more than a certain distance northward. While it seems as though steps northward add, so that 5 steps north plus 5 steps north equals 10 steps north, things aren't quite that simple. Eventually you reach the north pole and start walking south!

1397. How do geysers work? — SP, Morgantown, WV

While I'm not an expert on geysers and would need to visit the library to verify my ideas, I believe that they operate the same way a coffee percolator does. Both objects involve a narrow water-filled channel that's heated from below. As the temperature at the bottom of the water column increases, the water's stability as a liquid decreases and its tendency to become gaseous steam increases. What prevents this heated water from converting into gas is the weight of the water and air above it, or more accurately the pressure caused by that weight. But when the water's temperature reaches a certain elevated level, it begins to turn into steam despite the pressure. Since steam is less dense than liquid water, the hot water expands as it turns into steam and it lifts the column of water above it. Water begins to spray out of the top of the channel, decreasing the weight of water in the channel and the pressure at the bottom of the channel. With less pressure keeping the water liquid, the steam forming process accelerates and the column of water rushes up the channel and into the air. Once the steam itself reaches the top of the channel, it escapes freely into the air and the pressure in the channel plummets. Water begins to reenter the channel and the whole process repeats.

1396. If I pinch a sheet of aluminized Mylar between two concentric circular rings and weight the middle of the sheet with water so that it sags into a curved shape, like a parabola, is there an adhesive such as fiberglass which I can adhere to the back surface to stiffen it so that I can make a giant reflective surface to serve as a solar collector? — AM, Weldon, CA

What a great idea! Mylar is DuPont's brand of PET film, where "PET" is Poly(ethylene terephthalate)—the same plastic used in most plastic beverage containers (look for "PET" or "PETE" in the recycling triangle on the bottom). PET isn't a particularly inert plastic and you shouldn't have any trouble gluing to it. To form a rigid structure, you need either a glassy plastic backing (one that is stiff and brittle at room temperature) or a stiff composite backing. I'd go with fiberglass—mount the Mylar in a large quilting or needlepoint frame, coat the back of the Mylar with the glass and epoxy mixture, invert it, weight it with water, and let it harden. Mylar doesn't stretch easily, so you'll get a very shallow curve and a very long focal length mirror. While the mirror will probably have some imperfections and a non-parabolic shape, it should still do a decent job of concentrating sunlight.

1395. You insist over and over again that it is impossible to go faster than the speed of light. This is completely and entirely untrue. Tachyons travel faster than light. They also go faster as they exert less and less energy. — K

I'm afraid that you confuse the hypothetical with the actual. While people have hypothesized about superluminal particles called tachyons, they have never been observed and probably don't exist. This speculation is based on an interesting but apparently non-physical class of solutions to the relativistic equations of motion. Although tachyons make for fun science fiction stories, they don't seem to have a place in the real world.

1394. I would like to make high frequency and ultrasonic whistles with tubes. I know the formula for the relationship between wavelength, speed, and frequency but what is the relationship of these quantities with tube length and diameter? — AH, Richmond, British Columbia

If a whistle's tube is relatively narrow, its pitch is determined primarily by its length and by how many of its ends are open to the air. That's because as you blow the whistle, a "standing" sound wave forms inside it—the same sound wave that you hear as it "leaks" out of the whistle. If the whistle is open at both ends, almost half a wavelength of this standing sound wave will fit inside the tube. Since a sound's wavelength times its frequency must equal the speed of sound (331 meters per second or 1086 feet per second), a double-open whistle's pitch is approximately the speed of sound divided by twice its length. For example, a whistle that's 0.85 centimeters long can hold one wavelength of a sound with a frequency near 19,500 cycles per second—at the upper threshold of hearing for a young person. If the whistle is closed at one end, the air inside it vibrates somewhat different; only a quarter of a wavelength of the standing sound wave will fit inside the tube. In that case, its pitch is approximately the speed of sound divided by four times its length. However, if you blow a whistle hard enough, you can cause more wavelengths of a standing sound wave to fit inside it. A strongly blown double-open whistle can house any half-integer number of wavelengths (1/2, 1, 3/2, or more), emitting higher pitched tones as it does so. A strongly blown single-open whistle can house any odd quarter-integer number of wavelengths (1/4, 3/4, 5/4, or more).

1393. In one of your answers, you said that the "water on the earth's surface swells up into two bulges: one on the side of the earth nearest the moon and one on the side farthest from the moon." Can you explain why the water bulges up on the side farthest from the moon? — ST

To understand the two bulges, imagine three objects: the earth, a ball of water on the side of the earth nearest the moon, and a ball of water on the side of the earth farthest from the moon. Now picture those three objects orbiting the moon. In orbit, those three objects are falling freely toward the moon but are perpetually missing it because of their enormous sideways speeds. But the ball of water nearest the moon experiences a somewhat stronger moon-gravity than the other objects and it falls faster toward the moon. As a result, this ball of water pulls away from the earth—it bulges outward. Similarly, the ball of water farthest from the moon experiences a somewhat weaker moon-gravity than the other objects and it falls more slowly toward the moon. As a result, the earth and the other ball of water pull away from this outer ball so that this ball bulges outward, away from the earth.

It's interesting to note that the earth itself bulges slightly in response to these tidal forces. However, because the earth is more rigid than the water, its bulges are rather small compared to those of the water.

1392. I want to support a group of bird feeders on a horizontal cable, one end of which will be fastened to my house and the other end of which will run over an 8 inch pulley attached to a large tree. That end of the cable will be attached to some concrete blocks which must be heavy enough to keep the horizontal cable taut at all times. The idea is to prevent the cable from snapping when the tree moves in high winds. It's already done so twice, even though I left what I thought was adequate slack in the line. I guess this sounds like a Rube Goldberg solution, but I can't think of any other solution. How much should the concrete blocks weigh? — HS, Burk's Falls, Ontario

Your solution should work nicely—the pulley and weight system should protect your cable from breaking because the weights should maintain a constant tension in the line. As the tree swings back and forth, the weights should rise and fall while the tension in the cord remains almost steady. Obviously, if the rising weights reach the pulley the cord will pull taut and break, so you must leave enough hanging slack.

However, if the tree's motion is too violent, even this weight and pulley system may not save the cable. As long as everything moves slowly, the tension in the cord should be equal to the weight of the weights. But if the tree moves away from the house very suddenly, then the tension in the cord will increase suddenly because the cord must not only support the weights, it must accelerate them upward as well. Part of the cord's tension acts to overcome the weights' inertia. Just as a sudden yank on a paper towel will rip it free from the roll, so a sudden yank on your cable will rip it free from the weights. If sudden yanks of this type cause trouble for you, you can fix the problem by coupling the cord to the weights via a strong spring. On long timescales, the spring will have no effect on the tension in the cord—it will still be equal to the weight of the weights. But the spring will stretch or contract during sudden yanks on the cord and will prevent the tension in the cord from changing abruptly either up or down. The spring shouldn't be too stiff—the less stiff and the more it stretches while supporting the weights, the more effectively it will smooth out changes in tension.

As far as the weight of the weights, that depends on how much curvature you want in the cable supporting the feeders. The more weight you use, the less the cable will sag but the more stress it will experience. You can determine how much weight you need by pulling on the far end of the cable with your hands and judging how hard you must pull to get a satisfactory amount of sag.

1391. I am interested in experimenting with colored flames, maybe by adding a substance to the flame. Please tell me how to do it and with what kind of substances. — M

You can produce colored flames by adding various metal salts to the burning materials. That's what's done in fireworks. These metal salts decompose when heated so that individual metal atoms are present in the hot flame. Thermal energy in the flame then excites those atoms so that their electrons shift among the allowed orbits or "orbitals" and this shifting can lead to the emission of particles of light or "photons". Since the orbitals themselves vary according to which chemical element is involved, the emitted photons have specific wavelengths and colors that are characteristic of that element.

To obtain a wide variety of colors, you'll need a wide variety of metal salts. Sodium salts, including common table salt, will give you yellow light—the same light that's produced by sodium vapor lamps. Potassium salts yield purple, copper and barium salts yield green, strontium salts yield red, and so on. The classic way to produce a colored flame is to dip a platinum wire into a metal salt solution and to hold the wire in the flame. Since platinum is expensive, you can do the same trick with a piece of steel wire. The only problem is that the steel wire will burn eventually.

1390. Why do only certain orbitals exist in an atom?

Because the electrons in an atom move about as waves, they can follow only certain allowed orbits that we call orbitals. This limitation is equivalent to the case of a violin string—it can only vibrate at certain frequencies. If you try to make a violin string vibrate at the wrong frequency, it won't do it. That's because the string vibrates in a wave-like manner and only certain waves fit properly along the strong. Similarly, the electron in an atom "vibrates" in a wave-like manner and only certain waves fit properly around the nucleus.

1389. When an electron hits a neon atom, does it transfer its energy to the atom and lose its own forever?

Most of the collisions between an electron and a neon atom are completely elastic—the electron bounces perfectly from the neon atom and retains essentially all of its kinetic energy. But occasionally the electron induces a structural change in the neon atom and transfers some of its energy to the neon atom. In such a case, the electron rebounds weakly and retains only a fraction of its original kinetic energy. The missing energy is left in the neon atom, which usually releases that energy as light.

1388. You said that some rooms in the physics building are made with metal to specifically keep electromagnetic waves out. How does that work?

Some experiments are so sensitive to electromagnetic waves that they must be performed inside "Faraday cages". A Faraday cage is a metal or metal screen box. Its walls conduct electricity and act as mirrors for electromagnetic waves. As long as a wave has a wavelength significantly longer than the largest hole in the walls, that wave will be reflected and will not enter the box. This reflection occurs because the wave's electric field pushes charges inside the metal walls and causes those charges to accelerate. These accelerating charges redirect (absorb and reemit) the wave in a new direction—a mirror reflection. Just as a box made of metal mirrors will keep light out, a box made with metal walls will keep electromagnetic waves out.

1387. Can microwave ovens leak microwaves? Is my mother's warning not to stand in front of the microwave while it's on valid?

A properly built and maintained microwave oven leaks so little microwave power that you needn't worry about it. There are also inexpensive leakage testers available that you can use at home for a basic check, or for a more reliable and accurate check—as recommended by both the International Microwave Power Institute (IMPI) and the FDA—you can take your microwave oven to a service shop and have it checked with an FDA certified meter. It's only if you have dropped the oven or injured its door in some way that you might have cause to worry about standing near it. If it were to leak microwaves, their main effect would be to heat your tissue, so you would feel the leakage.

CB or citizens band radio refers to some parts of the electromagnetic spectrum that have been set aside for public use. You can operate a CB radio without training and without serious legal constraints, although the power of your transmitted wave is strictly limited. The principal band for CB radio is around 27 MHz and I think that the transmissions use the AM audio encoding scheme. As you talk, the power of your transmission increases and decreases to represent the pressure fluctuations in your voice. The receiving CB radio detects the power fluctuations in the radio wave and moves its speaker accordingly.

1385. What kinds of things get stored in read-only memory, as opposed to storing them on the hard drive?

When you first turn on a typical computer, it must run an initial program that sets up the operating system. This initial program has to run even before the computer is able to interact with its hard drive, so the program must be available at the very instant the computer's power becomes available. Read-only memory is used for this initial bootup operation. Unlike normal random access memory, which is usually "volatile" and loses its stored information when power is removed, read-only memory retains its information without power. When you turn on the computer, this read-only memory provides the instructions the computer uses to begin loading the operating system from the hard drive.

1384. Why can you force the current from the n-type semiconductor to the p-type after a p-n junction has been created but you can't force current from the p-type to the n-type?

Actually, you are asking about a current of electrons, which carry a negative charge. It's true that electrons can't be sent across the p-n junction from the p-type side to the n-type side. There are several things that prevent this reverse flow of electrons. First, there is an accumulation of negative charge on the p-type side of the p-n junction and this negative charge repels any electrons that approach the junction from the p-type end. Second, any electron you add to the p-type material will enter an empty valence level. As it approaches the p-n junction, it will find itself with no empty valence levels in which to travel the last distance to the junction. It will end up widening the depletion region—the region of effectively pure semiconductor around the p-n junction; a region that doesn't conduct electricity.

1383. Is it true that you shouldn't put a speaker near a microwave oven?

A microwave oven that's built properly and not damaged emits so little electromagnetic radiation that the speaker should never notice. The speaker might have some magnetic field leakage outside its cabinet, and that might have some effect on a microwave oven. However, most microwaves have steel cases and the steel will shield the inner workings of the microwave oven from any magnetic fields leaking from the speaker. The two devices should be independent.

1382. How does a phonograph work? — MS

A phonograph record represents the air pressure fluctuations associated with sound as surface fluctuations in long, spiral groove. This groove is V-shaped, with two walls cut at right angles to one another—hence the "V". Silence, the absence of pressure fluctuations in the air, is represented by a smooth portion of the V groove, while moments of sound are represented by a V-groove with ripples on its two walls. The depths and spacings of the ripples determine the volume and pitch of the sounds and the two walls represent the two stereo channels on which sound is recorded and reproduced.

To sense the ripples in the V-groove, a phonograph places a hard stylus in the groove and spins the record. As the stylus rides along the walls of the moving groove, it vibrates back and forth with each ripple in a wall. Two transducers attached to this stylus sense its motions and produce electric currents that are related to those motions. The two most common transduction techniques are electromagnetic (a coil of wire and a magnet move relative to one another as the stylus moves and this causes current to flow through the coil) and piezoelectric (an asymmetric crystal is squeezed or unsqueezed as the stylus moves and this causes charge to be transferred between its surfaces). The transducer current is amplified and used to reproduce the recorded sound.

1381. Before you speak into the tape recorder, is the tape non-magnetic because half of the magnets face one way and half the other way?

Exactly. When you switch your tape recorder to the record mode, it has a special erase head that becomes active. This erase head deliberately scrambles the magnetic orientations of the tape's magnetic particles. The erase head does this by flipping the magnetizations back and forth very rapidly as the particles pass by the head, so that they are left in unpredictable orientations. There are, however, some inexpensive recorders that use permanent magnets to erase the tapes. This process magnetizes all the magnetic particles in one direction, effectively erasing a tape. Because it leaves the tape highly magnetized, this second technique isn't as good as the first one. It tends to leave some noise on the recorded tape.

1380. I am a mentor to a 7th grader who is doing a report on Einstein. How do I explain his theory in a way that will be relevant to her? — MG

The basis for Einstein's theory of relativity is the idea that everyone sees light moving at the same speed. In fact, the speed of light is so special that it doesn't really depend on light at all. Even if light didn't exist, the speed of light would still be a universal standard—the fastest possible speed for anything in our universe.

Once we recognize that the speed of light is special and that everyone sees light traveling at that speed, our views of space and time have to change. One of the classic "thought experiments" necessitating that change is the flashbulb in the boxcar experiment. Suppose that you are in a railroad boxcar with a flashbulb in its exact center. The flashbulb goes off and its light spreads outward rapidly in all directions. Since the bulb is in the center of the boxcar, its light naturally hits the front and back walls of the boxcar at the same instant and everything seems simple.

But your boxcar is actually hurtling forward on a track at an enormous speed and your friend is sitting in a station as the train rushes by. She looks into the boxcar through its window and sees the flashbulb go off. She watches light from the flashbulb spread out in all directions but it doesn't hit the front and back walls of the boxcar simultaneously. Because the boxcar is moving forward, the front wall of the boxcar is moving away from the approaching light while the back wall of the boxcar is moving toward that light. Remarkably, light from the flashbulb strikes the back wall of the boxcar first, as seen by your stationary friend.

Something is odd here: you see the light strike both walls simultaneously while your stationary friend sees light strike the back wall first. Who is right? The answer, strangely enough, is that you're both right. However, because you are moving at different velocities, the two of you perceive time and space somewhat differently. Because of these differences, you and your friend will not always agree about the distances between points in space or the intervals between moments in time. Most importantly, the two of you will not always agree about the distance or time separating two specific events and, in certain cases, may not even agree about which event happened first!

The remainder of the special theory of relativity builds on this groundwork, always treating the speed of light as a fundamental constant of nature. Einstein's famous formula, E=mc2, is an unavoidable consequence of this line of reasoning.

1379. What is the difference between a magnet and an electromagnet? Why are some metals automatically magnetic?

Some metals are composed of microscopic permanent magnets, all lumped together. Such metals include iron, nickel, and cobalt. This magnetism is often masked by the fact that the tiny magnets in these metals are randomly oriented and cancel one another on a large scale. But the magnetism is revealed whenever you put one of these magnetic metals in an external magnetic field. The tiny magnets inside these metals then line up with the external field and the metal develops large scale magnetism.

However, most metals don't have any internal magnetic order at all and there is nothing to line up with an external field. Metals such as copper and aluminum have no magnetic order in them—they don't have any tiny magnets present. The only way to make aluminum or copper magnetic is to run a current through it.

1378. How does electric current create magnetic poles in metal? When the current goes through the metal, what makes it positive and negative?

An electric current is itself magnetic—it creates a structure in the space around it that exerts forces on any magnetic poles in that space. The magnetic field around a single straight wire forms loops around the wire—the current's magnetic field would push a magnetic pole near it around in a circle about the wire. But if you wrap the wire up into a coil, the magnetic field takes on a more familiar shape. The current-carrying coil effectively develops a north pole at one end of the coil and a south pole at the other. Which end is north depends on the direction of current flow around the loop. If current flows around the loop in the direction of the fingers of your right hand, then your thumb points to the north pole that develops at one end of the coil.

1377. How do the sizes of two magnets determine how much paper can be held between them? — D

While the full answer to this question is complicated, the most important issues are the strengths and locations of the magnetic poles in each magnet. Since each magnet has north poles and south poles of equal strengths, there are always attractive and repulsive forces at work between a pair of magnets—their opposite poles always attract and their like poles always repel. You can make two magnets attract one another by turning them so that their opposite poles are closer together than their like poles (e.g. by turning a north pole toward a south pole).

To maximize the attraction between the magnets, opposite magnetic poles should be as near together as possible while like magnetic poles are as far apart as possible. With long bar magnets, you align the magnets head to toe so that you have the north pole of one magnet opposite the south pole of the other magnet and vice versa. But long magnets also tend to have weaker poles than short stubby magnets because it takes energy to separate a magnet's north pole from its south pole. With short stubby magnets, the best you can do is to bring the north pole of one magnet close to the south pole of the other magnet while leaving their other poles pointing away from one another. Horseshoe magnets combine some of the best of both magnets—they can have the strong poles of short stubby magnets with more distance separating those poles.

Returning to the paper question, size is less important than pole strength and separation. The stronger the magnets and the farther apart their poles, the more paper you can hold between them.

1376. I live under the flight path that leads into Sydney's International/Domestic Airport. As planes fly over, a sound follows them (3-4 seconds) like air folding in on itself. A slurping sound similar to sucking air in through your cheeks. This phenomenon does not happen all the time, but seems to happen when overcast. Any clues as to what is happening? — TA, Sydney, Australia

The sound you hear may be related to the vortices that swirl behind a plane's wingtips as it moves through the air. These vortices form as a consequence of the wing's lift-generating processes. Because the air pressure above a wing is lower than the air pressure below the wing, air is sucked around the wingtip and creates a swirling vortex. The two vortices, one at each wingtip, trail behind the plane for miles and gradually descend. You may be hearing them reach the ground after the airplane has passed low over your home. If someone reading this has another explanation, please let me know.

1375. How do the automatic soda dispensers at fast food joints know when the cup is full? — MB, San Diego, CA

Those dispensers measure the volume of liquid they dispense and shut off when they've delivered enough liquid to fill the cup. They don't monitor where that liquid is going, so if you put the wrong sized cup below them or press the button twice, you're in trouble.

1374. I've heard that there are only four basic forces in nature: gravitational, electromagnetic, strong nuclear, and weak nuclear. Is this true, and if so, what are the basic differences? — SH, Purdue, Indiana

The number of "basic forces" has changed over the years, increasing as new forces are discovered and decreasing as seemingly separate forces are joined together under a more sophisticated umbrella. A good example of this evolution of understanding is electromagnetism—electric and magnetic forces were once thought separate but gradually became unified, particularly as our understanding of time and space improved. More recently, weak interactions have joined electromagnetic interactions to become electroweak interactions. In all likelihood, strong and gravitational interactions will eventually join electroweak to give us one grand system of interactions between objects in our universe.

But regardless of counting scheme, I can still answer your question about how the four basic forces differ. Gravitational forces are attractive interactions between concentrations of mass/energy. Everything with mass/energy attracts everything else with mass/energy. Because this gravitational attraction is exceedingly weak, we only notice it when there are huge objects around to enhance its effects.

Electromagnetic forces are strong interactions between objects carrying electric charge or magnetic pole. While most of these interactions can be characterized as attractive or repulsive, that's something of an oversimplification whenever motion is involved.

Weak interactions are too complicated to call "forces" because they almost always do more than simply pull two objects together or push them apart. Weak interactions often change the very natures of the particles that experience them. But the weak interactions are rare because they involve the exchange of exotic particles that are difficult to form and live for exceedingly short times. Weak interactions are responsible for much of natural radioactivity.

Strong forces are also very complicated, primarily because the particles that convey the strong force themselves experience the strong force. Strong forces are what hold quarks together to form familiar particles like protons and neutrons.

1373. Is it true that a person in space doesn't get as old as if he was on the earth? — ASB, Chiapas, Mexico

The effects you are referring to are extremely subtle, so no one will ever notice them in an astronaut. But with ultraprecise clocks, it's not hard to see strange effects altering the passage of time in space. There are actually two competing effects that alter the passage of time on a spaceship—one that slows the passage of time as a consequence of special relativity and the other that speeds the passage of time as a consequence of general relativity.

The time slowing effect is acceleration—a person or clock that takes a fast trip around the earth and then returns to the starting point will experience slightly less time than a person or clock that remained at the starting point. This effect is a consequence of acceleration and the changing relationships between space and time that come with different velocities.

The time speeding effect is gravitational redshift—a person or clock that is farther from the earth's center experiences slightly more time than a person or clock that remains at the earth's surface. This effect is a consequence of the decreased potential energy that comes with being deeper in the earth's gravitational potential well.

1372. How does an astronaut get prepared for the long period of antigravity that he is going to be put on? — ASB, Chiapas, Mexico

When an astronaut is orbiting the earth, he isn't really weightless. The earth's gravity is still pulling him toward the center of the earth and his weight is almost as large as it would be on the earth's surface. What makes him feel weightless is the fact that he is in free fall all the time! He is falling just as he would be if he had jumped off a diving board or a cliff. If it weren't for the astronaut's enormous sideways velocity, he would plunge toward the earth faster and faster and soon crash into the earth's surface. But his sideways velocity carries him past the horizon so fast that he keeps missing the earth as he falls. Instead of crashing into the earth, he orbits it.

During his orbit, the astronaut feels weightless because all of his "pieces" are falling together. Those pieces don't need to push on one another to keep their relative positions as they fall, so he feels none of the internal forces that he interprets as weight when he stands on the ground. A falling astronaut can't feel his weight.

To prepare for this weightless feeling, the astronaut needs to fall. Jumping off a diving board or riding a roller coaster will help, but the classic training technique is a ride on the "Vomit Comet"—an airplane that follows a parabolic arc through the air that allows everything inside it to fall freely. The airplane's arc is just that of a freely falling object and everything inside it floats around in free fall, too—including the astronaut trainee. The plane starts the arc heading upward. It slows its rise until it reaches a peak height and then continues arcing downward faster and faster. The whole trip lasts at most 20 seconds, during which everyone inside the plane feels weightless.

1371. Is not the current used in Europe direct current? If so, do they use transformers or do their lines get very hot? Why do our appliances not work there?

Europe uses alternating current, just as we do, however some of the characteristics of that current are slightly different. First, Europe uses 50 cycle-per-second current, meaning that current there reverses directions 100 times per second. That's somewhat slower than in the U.S., where current reverses 120 times per second (60 full cycles of reversal each second or 60 Hz). Second, their standard voltage is 230 volts, rather than the 120 volts used in the U.S.

While some of our appliances won't work in Europe because of the change in cycles-per-second, the biggest problem is with the increase in voltage. The charges entering a U.S. appliance in Europe carry about twice the energy per change (i.e. twice the voltage) and this increased "pressure" causes about twice the number of charges per second (i.e. twice the current) to flow through the appliance. With twice the current flowing through the appliance and twice as much voltage being lost by this current as it flows through the appliance, the appliance is receiving about four times its intended power. It will probably burn up.

1370. Why are batteries so expensive?

They contain highly purified and refined chemicals and are actually marvels of engineering. It's more surprising to me that they are so cheap, given how complicated they are to make.

1369. If only electrons move around, why do you keep using positive charges in the demos?

It's useful to describe moving electric charges as a current and for that current to flow in the direction that the charges are moving. Suppose that we define current as flowing in the direction that electrons take and look at the result of letting this current of electrons flow into a charge storage device. We would find that as this current flowed into the storage device, the amount of charge (i.e. positive) charge in that device would decrease! How awkward! You're "pouring" something into a container and the contents of that container are decreasing! So we define current as pointing in the direction of positive charge movement or in the direction opposite negative charge movement. That way, as current flows into a storage device, the charge in that device increases!

1368. How come the flashlight works when you switch the batteries but my walkman or gameboy doesn't?

The bulb in a battery doesn't care which way current flows through it. The metal has no asymmetry that would treat left-moving charges differently from right-moving charges. That's not true of the transistors in a walkman or gameboy. They contain specialized pieces of semiconductor that will only allow positive charges to move in one direction, not the other. When you put the batteries in backward and try to propel current backward through its parts, the current won't flow and nothing happens.

1367. How are you "shocked"?

Your body is similar to salt water and is thus a reasonably good conductor of electricity. Once current penetrates your skin (which is insulating), it flows easily through you. At high currents, this electricity can deposit enough energy in you to cause heating and thermal damage. But at lower currents, it can interfere with normal electrochemical and neural process so that your muscles and nerves don't work right. It takes about 0.030 amperes of current to cause serious problems for your heart, so that currents of that size can be fatal.

1366. If the battery separates charges even while it's off, how come it doesn't light up when it's off?

The battery stops separating charges once enough have accumulated on its terminals. If the flashlight is off, so that charges build up, then the battery soon stops separating charge and the light bulb doesn't light.

1365. How do rechargeable batteries get recharged?

You can recharge any battery by pushing charge through it backward (pushing positive charge from its positive terminal to its negative terminal). However, some batteries don't take this charge well or heat up. The ones that recharge most effectively are those that can rebuild their chemical structures most effectively as they operate backward.

1364. What keeps the earth stable so that it doesn't get pulled up into the "magnet"?

If you are asking why doesn't the earth itself get pulled up toward a large magnet or electromagnet that I'm holding in my hand, the answer is that the magnetic forces just aren't strong enough to pull the magnet and earth together. I'm holding the two apart with other forces and preventing them from pulling together. The forces between poles diminish with distance. Those forces are proportional to the inverse square of the distance between poles, so they fall off very quickly as the poles move apart. Moreover, each north pole is connected to a south pole on the same magnet, so the attraction between opposite poles on two separate magnets is mitigated by the repulsions of the other poles on those same magnets. As a result, the forces between two bar magnets fall over even faster than the simple inverse square law predicts. It would take an incredible magnet, something like a spinning neutron star, to exert magnet forces strong enough to damage the earth. But then a neutron star would exert gravitational forces that would damage the earth, too, so you'd hardly notice the magnetic effects.

1363. Is the earth a huge magnet? If so, how does it do this without being made out of metal?

The earth is a huge magnet and it is made out of metal. The earth's core is mostly iron and nickel, both of which can be magnetic metals. However, the earth's magnetism doesn't appear to come from the metal itself. Current theories attribute the earth's magnetism to movements in and around the core. There are either electric currents associated with this movement or some effects that orient the local magnetization of the metal. I don't think that there is any general consensus on the matter.

1362. Is it physically possible for a baseball player to hit a baseball that has been pitched 60 ft away at 90-95 mph? If so, why are the highest baseball records between 3 and 4 out of ten?

If the ball was pitched straight and true, the same way every pitch, good batters could hit every one. There is enough time in the wind-up and pitch for the batter to determine where and when to swing and to hit the ball just right. But the pitches vary and the balls curve. That limits the batter's ability to predict where the ball is going. There aren't any physical laws that limit a batter's ability to hit every ball well, but there are physiological and mental limits that lower everyone's batting average.

1361. If the train track gets bumpier in effect with increasing speed, why is it that your car bumps less when you go over a speed bump fast instead of slow?

Actually, if you drive fast over a real speed bump, it's not good for your wheels and suspension. The springs in your car do protect the car from some of the effects of the bump, but not all of them. However, imagine driving over a speed bump on a traditional bicycle—one that has no spring suspension. The faster you drive over that bump, the more it will throw you into the air.

1360. Are all metals magnetically charged?

First, magnets don't involve charges, they involve poles. So the question should probably be "are all metals magnetically poled?" The answer to this question is that they are never poled—they never have a net pole. They always have an even balance of north and south pole. However, there are some metals that have their north and south poles separated from one another. A magnetized piece of steel is that way. Only a few metals can support such separated poles and we will study those metals in a few weeks.

1359. Would placing a blue filter on a Xerox machine prevent it from making copies, since blue light has more energy than red?

No. Blue light causes the photoconductor to conduct. When you use white light in a xerographic copier, it's the blue and green portions of the light that usually do the copying. The red is wasted.

1358. Why do poles have to come in pairs?

There don't appear to be any isolated poles in our universe, or at least none have been found. That's just the way it is. As a result of this situation, the only way to create magnetism is through its relationship with electricity. When you use electricity to create magnetic fields, you effectively create equal pairs of poles—as much north pole as south pole.

1357. Is the red light effect in xerographic copiers the same concept behind red lights in a darkroom? Does film have the same sort of properties?

Yes. The light sensitive particles in black-and-white photographic paper don't respond to red light because the energy in a photon of red light doesn't have enough energy to cause the required chemical change. In effect, electrons are being asked to shift between levels when the light hits them and red light can't make that happen in the photographic paper. However, most modern black-and-white films are sensitive to red light because that makes roses and other red objects appear less dark and more realistic in the photographs.

1356. How do color copiers work?

They assemble 4 colors, yellow, cyan, magenta, and black together to form the final image. The photoconductor creates charge images using blue, red, green, and white illumination successively and uses those images to form patterns of yellow, cyan, magenta, and black toner particles. These particles are then superimposed to form the final image, which appears full color. Naturally, the photoconductor used in such a complicated machine must be sensitive to the whole visible spectrum of light.

As one of my readers (Tom O.) points out, most modern color copiers are essentially scanners plus color printers. They use infrared lasers to write the images optically onto four light-sensitive drums, one drum for each of the four colors (some systems reuse the same drum four times).

1355. Does this photoconductor stuff have to do with why you can only develop film in the dark?

Yes. Particles of light, photons, cause chemical changes in the film. You can work with some black-and-white films in red light because red light photons don't have enough energy to cause changes in those films. However, color film and most modern black-and-white films require complete darkness during processing. If you expose them to any visible light, you'll cause chemistry to occur.

1354. Are black lights less or more conducive to charging the particles in film?

They are generally more conducive. Black light is actually ultraviolet light and its photons carry more energy than any visible photon. They can cause chemical changes in many materials, including skin.

1353. How do shampoo and conditioners in one work if shampoos have negative charges on one side and conditioners have positive charges on one side?

I don't know. That question has puzzled me for years. The mixture should find its molecules clinging together. They must contain something that keeps the oppositely charged systems separate from one another so that they don't aggregate.

1352. If electrons can't change levels, how can a photoconductor help them change one level to another?

In a metal, electrons can easily shift from one level to another empty level because the levels are close together in energy. In a full insulator, it's very difficult for the electrons to shift from one level to an empty level because all of the empty levels are far above the filled levels in energy. In a photoconductor, the empty levels are modestly above the filled levels in energy, so a modest amount of energy is all that's needed to shift an electron. This energy can be supplied by a particle or "photon" of light. An illuminated photoconductor conducts electricity.

1351. How does one create an electric or magnetic field?

The simplest way to make these fields is with electric charges (for an electric field) or with magnets (for a magnetic field). Charges are naturally surrounded by electric fields and magnets are naturally surrounded by magnetic fields. But fields themselves can create other fields by changing with time. That's how the fields in a light wave work—the electric field in the light wave changes with time and creates the magnetic field and the magnetic field changes with time and creates the electric field. This team of fields can travel through space without any charge or magnets nearby.

1350. How do you get static out of hair?

If you put a conditioner on your hair, it will attract enough moisture to allow static charge to dissipate.

1349. How do dryer sheets diminish the clothes' static?

They leave a layer of conditioning soap on the clothes and this soap attracts moisture. The moisture conducts electricity just enough to allow static charge to dissipate.

1348. Does an MRI work in the same way as a copier (or puts you in a magnetic field and copies an image of your body)?

No, an MRI uses a very different technique for imaging your body. A copier uses light to examine the original document while an MRI machine uses the magnetic responses of hydrogen atoms to map your body.

1347. Can the electric current be taken out of the metal where the charge will not carry?

While charges can move freely through a metal, allowing the metal to carry electric current, it's much harder for charges to travel outside of a conductor. Charges can move through the air or through plastic or glass, but not very easily. It takes energy to pull the charges out of a metal and allow them to move through a non-metal. Most of the time, this energy requirement prevents charges from moving through insulators such as plastic, glass, air, and even empty space.

1346. How does one "pull up their legs"? Wouldn't you have to jump in some way or another?

It is possible to simply pull up your legs. When you do that, you reduce the downward force your feet exert on the ground and the ground responds by pushing upward on your feet less strongly. With less upward force to support you, you begin to fall.

1345. In alternating current, current reverses directions rapidly between the two wires, white and black. Why is it that only the black wire is "hot"?

When you complete a circuit by plugging an appliance into an electrical outlet, current flows out one wire to the appliance and returns to the electric company through the other wire. With alternating current, the roles of the two wires reverse rapidly, so that at one moment current flows out the black wire to the appliance and moments later current flows out the white wire to the appliance. But the power company drives this current through the wires by treating the black wire specially—it alternately raises and lowers the electrostatic potential or voltage of the black wire while leaving the voltage of the white wire unchanged with respect to ground. When the voltage of the black wire is high, current is pushed through the black wire toward the appliance and returns through the white wire. When the voltage of the black wire is low, current is pulled through the black wire from the appliance and is replaced by current flowing out through the white wire.

The white wire is rather passive in this process because its voltage is always essentially zero. It never has a net charge on it. But the black wire is alternately positively charged and then negatively charged. That's what makes its voltage rise and fall. Since the black wire is capable of pushing or pulling charge from the ground instead of from the white wire, you don't want to touch the black wire while you're grounded. You'll get a shock.

1344. What is heat? What actually flows from a hot body to a cold body? — AW, Pakistan

Heat is thermal energy that is flowing from one object to another. While several centuries ago, people thought heat was a fluid, which they named "caloric," we now know that it is simply energy that is being transferred. Heat moves via several mechanisms, including conduction, convection, and radiation. Conduction is the easiest to visualize—the more rapidly jittering atoms and molecules in a hotter object will transfer some of their energy to the more slowly jittering atoms in molecules in a colder object when you touch the two objects together. Even though no atoms or molecules are exchanged, their energy is. In convection, moving fluid carries thermal energy along with it from one object to another. In this case, there is material exchanged although usually only temporarily. In radiation, the atoms and molecules exchange energy by sending thermal radiation back and forth. Thermal radiation is electromagnetic waves and includes infrared light. A hotter object sends more infrared light toward a colder object than vice versa, so the hotter object gives up thermal energy to the colder object.

1343. Is it possible to create a magnet with more north poles than south poles? — GS

Yes, but only if some of the poles are weaker than other so that when you sum up the total north pole strength and the total south pole strength, those two sums are equal. For example, you can make a magnet that has two north poles and one south pole if the north poles are each half as strong as the south pole. All magnets that we know of have exactly equal amounts of north and south pole. That's because we have never observed a pure north or a pure south pole in nature and you'd need such a pure north or south pole to unbalance the poles of a magnet. A

The absence of such "monopoles" is an interesting puzzle and scientists haven't given up hope of finding them. Some theories predict that they should exist, but be very difficult to form artificially. There may be magnetic monopoles left over from the big bang, but we haven't found any yet.

1342. Is hydroplaning a form of sliding friction?

Not exactly. Sliding friction refers to the situation in which two surfaces slide across one another while touching. In hydroplaning, the two surfaces are sliding across one another, but they aren't touching. Instead, they're separated by a thin layer of trapped water. While hydroplaning still converts mechanical energy into thermal energy, just as sliding friction does, the lubricating effect of the water dramatically reduces the energy conversion. That's why you can hydroplane for such a long distance on the highway; there is almost no slowing force at all.

Dan Barker, one of my readers, informed me of a NASA study showing that there is a minimum speed at which a tire will begin to hydroplane and that that speed depends on the square root of the tire pressure. Higher tire pressure tends to expel the water layer and prevent hydroplaning, while lower tire pressure allows the water layer to remain in place when the vehicle is traveling fast enough. As Dan notes, a large truck tire is typically inflated to 100 PSI and resists hydroplaning at speed of up to about 100 mph. But a passanger car tire has a much lower pressure of about 32 PSI and can hydroplane at speeds somewhat under 60 mph. That's why you have to be careful driving on waterlogged pavement at highway speeds and why highway builders carefully slope their surfaces to shed rain water quickly.

1341. If you walk up 10 steps, one by one, do you exert the same amount of energy if you walk up the same set of 10 steps two by two? How are energy and effort related, or are they?

Ideally, it doesn't matter how many steps you take with each step—the work you do in lifting yourself up a staircase depends only on your starting height and your ending height (assuming that you don't accelerate or decelerate in the overall process and thus change your kinetic energy, too). But there are inefficiencies in your walking process that lead you to waste energy as heat in your own body. So the energy you convert from food energy to gravitational potential energy in climbing the stairs is fixed, but the energy you use in carrying out this procedure depends on how you do it. The extra energy you use mostly ends up as thermal energy, but some may end up as sound or chemical changes in the staircase, etc.

1340. If ball bearings create no friction, why do bearings have bearing grease as an essential ingredient?

Actually, some bearings are dry (no grease or oil) and still last a very long time. The problem is that the idea touch-and-release behavior is hard to achieve in a bearing. The balls or rollers actually slip a tiny bit as they rotate and they may rub against the sides or retainers in the bearing. This rubbing produces wear as well as wasting energy. To reduce this wear and sliding friction, most bearings are lubricated.

1339. How do anti-lock brake systems work?

If you brake your car too rapidly, the force of static friction between the wheels and the ground will become so large that it will exceed its limit and the wheels will begin to skid across the ground. Once skidding occurs, the stopping force becomes sliding friction instead of static friction. The sliding friction force is generally weaker than the maximum static friction force, so the stopping rate drops. But more importantly, you lose steering when the wheels skid. An anti-lock braking system senses when the wheels suddenly stop turning during braking and briefly release the brakes. The wheel can then turn again and static friction can reappear between the wheel and the ground.

1338. How can a ball create thermal energy or "get hotter"?

When a ball bounces, some of its molecules slide across one another rather than simply stretching or bending. This sliding leads to a form of internal sliding friction and sliding friction converts useful energy into thermal energy. The more sliding friction that occurs within the ball, the less the ball stores energy for the rebound and the worse the ball's bounce. The missing energy becomes thermal energy in the ball and the ball's temperature increases.

1337. You discussed how an egg doesn't bounce because it doesn't have time and instead it breaks. Why, then, does a mouse ball (in a computer mouse) or a bowling ball not bounce? It doesn't break, so why doesn't the support force make it bounce back upward. Does this relate to elasticity?

Actually, both a mouse ball and a bowling ball will bounce somewhat if you drop them on a suitably hard surface. It does have to do with elasticity. During the impact, the ball's surface dents and the force that dents the ball does work on the ball—the force on the ball's surface is inward and the ball's surface moves inward. Energy is thus being invested in the ball's surface. What the ball does with this energy depends on the ball. If the ball is an egg, the denting shatters the egg and the energy is wasted in the process of scrambling the egg's innards. But in virtually any normal ball, some or most of the work done on the ball's surface is stored in the elastic forces within the ball—this elastic potential energy, like all potential energies, is stored in forces. This stored energy allows the surface to undent and do work on other things in the process. During the rebound, the ball's surface undents. Although it's a little tricky to follow the exact flow of energy during the rebound, the elastic potential energy in the dented ball becomes kinetic energy in the rebounding ball. But even the best balls waste some of the energy involved in denting their surfaces. That's why balls never bounce perfectly and never return to their original heights when dropped on a hard, stationary surface. Some balls are better than others at storing and returning this energy, so they bounce better than others.

1336. When an egg falls and hits the table, the table pushes up on it, doesn't it? The same with a bouncing ball?

Yes, when a falling object hits a table, the table pushes up on the falling object. What happens from then on depends on the object's characteristics. The egg shatters as the table pushes on it and the ball bounces back upward.

1335. When a rubber ball bounces or rebounds, does the weight of the ball determine how many times it bounces?

Each time the ball bounces, it rises to a height that is a certain fraction of its height before that bounce. The ratio of these two heights is the fraction of the ball's energy that is stored and returned during the bounce. A very elastic ball will return about 90% of its energy after a bounce, returning to 90% of its original height after a bounce. A relatively non-elastic ball may only return about 20% of its energy and bounce to only 20% of its original height. It is this energy efficiency that determines how many times a ball bounces. The missing energy is usually converted into thermal energy within the ball's internal structure.

1334. What is thermal energy?

While we ordinarily associate energy with an object's overall movement or position or shape, the individual atoms and molecules within the object can also have their own separate portions of energy. Thermal energy is the energy associated with the motions and positions of the individual atoms within the object. While an object may be sitting still, its atoms and molecules are always jittering about, so they have kinetic energies. When they push against one another during a bounce, they also have potential energies. These internal energies, while hard to see, are thermal energy.

1333. I don't understand work done without any acceleration. Since F=ma and a=0, F=0 and thus W=0.

You are merging two equations out of context. The force you exert on an object can be non-zero without causing that object to accelerate. For example, if someone else is pushing back on the object, the object may not accelerate. If the object moves away from you as you push on it, then you'll be doing work on the object even though it's not accelerating. The only context in which you can merge those two equations (Force=mass x acceleration and Work=Force x distance) is when you are exerting the only force on the object. In that case, your force is the one that determines the object's acceleration and your force is the one involved in doing work. In that special case, if the object doesn't accelerate, then you do no work because you exert no force on the object! If someone else is pushing the object, then the force causing it to accelerate is the net force and not just your force on the object. As you can see, there are many forces around and you have to be careful tacking formulae together without thinking carefully about the context in which they exist.

1332. What effects do forces acting on an object which are not from the same pair have on one another? i.e. the force pulling the egg downward and the potential force of the table? Are they equal upon impact and there a pair?

Different forces acting on a single object are not official pairs; not the pairs associated with Newton's third law of action-reaction. While it is possible for an object to experience two different forces that happen to be exactly equal in magnitude (amount) but opposite in direction, that doesn't have to be the case. When an egg falls and hits a table, the egg's downward weight and the table's upward support force on the egg are equal in magnitude only for a fleeting instant during the collision. That's because the table's support force starts at zero while the egg is falling and then increases rapidly as the egg begins to push against the table's surface. For just an instant the table pushes upward on the egg with a force equal in magnitude to the egg's weight. But the upward support force continues to increase in strength and eventually pushes a hole in the egg's bottom.

1331. If there is an upward force on the egg when it hits the table, why doesn't it bounce upward?

The enormous upward force on the egg when it hits the table does cause the egg to accelerate upward briefly. The egg loses all of its downward velocity during this upward acceleration. But the egg breaks before it has a chance to acquire any upward velocity and, having broken, it wastes all of its energy ripping itself apart into a mess. If the egg had survived the impact and stored its energy, it probably would have bounced, at least a little. But the upward force from the table diminished abruptly when the egg broke and the egg never began to head upward for a real bounce.

1330. How does the egg (sitting on a table) hold up the table? If the "weight vs. support force of table" is not always an equal pair then how is the "support force of the egg vs. the table" an equal pair?

When an egg is sitting on a table, each object is exerting a support force on the other object. Those two support forces are equal in magnitude (amount) but opposite in direction. To be specific, the table is pushing upward on the egg with a support force and the egg is pushing downward on the table with a support force. Both forces have the same magnitude—both are equal in magnitude to the egg's weight. The fact that the egg is pushing downward on the table with a "support" force shows that not all support forces actually "support" the object they are exert on. The egg isn't supporting the table at all. But a name is a name and on many occasions, support forces do support the objects they're exerted on.

1329. When people are able to bend spoons or move tables with their minds (if this is actually possible and not just a hoax), what sort of force is being exerted on the object? Is it possible to create forces with the mind?

I'm afraid that spoon bending is simply a hoax. While there are electrochemical processes going on in the mind that exert detectable forces on special probes located outside the head, these forces are so small that they are incapable of doing anything as demanding as bending a spoon. Spoon bending and all other forms of telekinesis are simply tricks played on gullible audiences.

1328. Why is there more gravity acting on larger, more massive objects?

The fact that more massive objects also weigh more is just an observation of how the universe works. However, any other behavior would lead to some weird consequences. Suppose, for example, that an object's weight didn't depend on its mass, that all objects had the same weight. Then two separate balls would each weigh this standard amount. But now suppose that you glued the two balls together. If you think of them as two separate balls that are now attached, they should weigh twice the standard amount. But if you think of them as one oddly shaped object, they should weigh just the standard amount. Something wouldn't be right. So the fact that weight is proportional to mass is a sensible situation and also the way the universe actually works.

1327. Why is it that when people jump, they don't bounce up?

A ball bounces because its surface is elastic and it stores energy during the brief period of collision when the ball and floor are pushing very hard against one another. Much of this stored energy is released in a rebound that tosses the ball back upward for another bounce. But people don't store energy well during a collision and they don't rebound much. The energy that we should store is instead converted into thermal energy—we get hot rather than bouncing back upward.

1326. Why does the bigger ball have more gravity pulling on it? Because it weighs more? Which causes which?

The force that gravity exerts on an object is that object's weight. An object that has more gravity pulling on it weighs more and vice versa.

1325. When you throw a ball upward and claim that there is no upward force on it as it rises, why don't you count your hand? The ball was thrown up, so there was an upward force on it! I'm confused.

While you are throwing the ball upward, you are pushing it upward and there is an upward force on the ball. But as soon as the ball leaves your hand, that upward force vanishes and the ball travels upward due to its inertia alone. In the discussion of that upward flight, I always said "after the ball leaves your hand," to exclude the time when you are pushing upward on the ball. Starting and stopping demonstrations are often tricky and I meant you to pay attention only to the period when the ball was in free fall.

1324. When you drop a small rubber ball and a large rubber ball simultaneously, why do they both hit the floor at the same time?

The fact that both balls fall together is the result of a remarkable balancing effect. Although the larger ball is more massive than the smaller ball, making the larger ball harder to start or stop, the larger ball is also heavier than the smaller ball, meaning that gravity pulls downward more on the larger ball. The larger ball's greater weight exactly compensates for its greater mass, so that it is able to keep up with the smaller ball as the two objects fall to the ground. In the absence of air resistance, the two balls will move exactly together-the larger ball with its greater mass and greater weight will keep up with the smaller ball.

1323. When you drop a baseball and a bowling ball, you say that its velocity acts faster and faster as it falls. How can you say that the acceleration is constant at 9.8 m/s2? If it is falling faster and faster wouldn't the acceleration change also until the object reaches terminal velocity and then it would be accelerating at 9.8 m/s2?

It's very important to distinguish velocity from acceleration. Acceleration is caused only by forces, so while a ball is falling freely it is accelerating according to gravity alone. In that case it accelerates downward at 9.8 m/s2 throughout its fall (neglecting air resistance). But while the ball's acceleration is constant, its velocity isn't. Instead, the ball's velocity gradually increases in the downward direction, which is to say that the ball accelerates in the downward direction. Velocity doesn't "act"—only forces "act." Instead, a ball's velocity shifts more and more toward the downward direction as it falls.

About terminal velocity: when an object descends very rapidly through the air, it experiences a large upward force of air resistance. This new upward force becomes stronger as the downward speed of the object becomes greater. Eventually this upward air resistance force balances the object's downward weight and the object stops accelerating downward. It then descends at a constant velocity—obeying its inertia alone. This special downward speed is known as "terminal velocity." An object's terminal velocity depends on the strength of gravity, the shape and other characteristics of the object, and the density and other characteristics of the air.

1322. How is there inertia on earth? I though that inertia was just in space.

Inertia is everywhere. Left to itself, an object will obey inertia and travel at constant velocity. In deep space, far from any planet or star that exerts significant gravity, an object will exhibit this inertial motion. But on earth, the earth's gravity introduces complications that make it harder to observe inertial motion. A ball that's thrown up in the air still exhibits inertial effects, but its downward weight prevents the ball from following its inertia alone. Instead, the ball gradually loses its upward speed and eventually begins to descend instead. So inertia is the basic underlying principle of motion while gravity is a complicating factor.

1321. How does the floor exert a force?

When you stand on the floor, the floor exerts two different kinds of forces on you—an upward support force that balances your downward weight and horizontal frictional forces that prevent you from sliding across the floor. Ultimately, both forces involve electromagnetic forces between the charged particles in the floor and the charged particles in your feet. The support force develops as the atoms in the floor act to prevent the atoms in your feet from overlapping with them. The frictional forces have a similar origin, although they involve microscopic structure in the surfaces.

Last Updated on Thursday, February 12, 2009 at 9:02:17 EST