Although I’ve never heard of such a device myself, I can guess what it means. A coulomb is a standard unit of electric charge. Since a battery is a pump for electric charge, measuring the number of coulombs that have flowed through a battery is a way to determine what fraction of that battery’s storage capacity has been used. (It’s analogous to measuring how many grams of sand have flowed through the neck of an egg timer or how many liters of water have flowed out of a water tower.) When a battery is being recharged, measuring the number of coulombs that have flowed in the reverse direction through the battery is a way to determine how much recharging has occurred. Thus, I suspect that a “reverse coulomb counter” is a device that monitors the flow of charge backward through a battery as it is being recharged. This backward flow of charge should be almost exactly proportional to the extent of recharging.

In high school, we said that an object on the ground has zero gravitational ener…

In high school, we said that an object on the ground has zero gravitational energy, while an object above the ground has some. But if a hole opened up in the floor, the object on the ground would fall – so it must have SOME potential energy, right? At the center of the earth, would you have no gravitational potential energy? If not, why – doesn’t the sun still pull on you?

You’ve brought up an interesting subject. Many quantities in physics are only well defined relative to some reference point. For example, your velocity is only defined relative to some reference frame; typically the earth’s rest frame. Viewed from a different reference frame, your velocity will be different. The same holds for gravitational potential energy. When you choose to define the object’s gravitational potential energy on the floor as zero, you are setting the scale with which to work. For altitudes above the floor, the object’s gravitational potential energy is positive, but for altitudes below the floor, that energy is negative. As the ball falls into the hole, its gravitational energy becomes more and more negative and its kinetic energy increases. To avoid working with these annoying negative potential energies, you should choose to set the gravitational potential energy to zero at the lowest point you’ll ever have to deal with; for example, the center of the earth. But the center of the earth isn’t really the limit of gravitational potential energy. The object could release even more gravitational potential energy by falling into the center of the sun. It could release still more by falling into the center of a giant star. Fortunately, there is a genuine limit. If you were to lower the object slowly into a black hole, the object would release absolutely all of its gravitational potential energy. In fact, it would release energy equal to its mass times the speed of light squared (the famous E=mc2 equation of Einstein). The object would actually cease to exist, having been converted entirely into energy (the work done on you as you lower the object, presumably at the end of a very sturdy rope). This effect sets a real value of zero for the gravitational potential energy of an object: the point at which the object ceases to exist altogether. Final note: if you drop something into a black hole, it doesn’t vanish the same way, because its gravitational potential energy becomes kinetic energy as it enters the black hole. The black hole retains that energy and grows slightly larger as a result. When you lower the object on a rope, you retain its energy and it doesn’t remain with the black hole. The black hole doesn’t change as it “consumes” the object.

Is there a relationship between the black hole and the point of origin of the un…

Is there a relationship between the black hole and the point of origin of the universe?

Yes and no. Both involve lots of mass in a very small space. A black hole is a very strange region of space-time, where time runs slowly and the gravity is extraordinarily intense. Around the black hole, everything is swept inward through the hole’s surface. But (as best I understand it) the early universe didn’t necessarily have strong gravity. With mass uniformly distributed in the tiny, compact universe, an object felt gravity pulling it equally in all directions. There was as much mass to the left of the object as to its right. Thus the object would have been roughly weightless. With no gravity to make things lump together into galaxies, stars, and planets, there was no reason for those celestial objects to form. Why they did form is one of the great questions of modern cosmology. As for the universe’s character at the very moment of creation, I don’t think that anyone has a clear picture of what was happening. The very nature of space-time was probably all messed up and the theories needed to understand it don’t yet exist.

What is DTMF and how can I measure the pulses on a rotary phone?

What is DTMF and how can I measure the pulses on a rotary phone?

DTMF is short for “Dual Tone MultiFrequency” and refers to the pair of tones that a telephone uses to send dialing information to the telephone switching system. Each time you press one of the buttons on the telephone, it emits two tones simultaneously. A decoder at the other end recognizes these two tones and determines what button you pushed. One tone is associated with the button’s row and one tone with the button’s column. Since there are four rows of buttons, there are 4 possible row tones and since there are three columns of buttons, there are 3 possible column tones. A fourth column of buttons, A through D, and a fourth column tone are part of the specifications for DTMF but do not appear in normal telephones. Naturally, all 8 tones are different and the web has countless pages that discuss these tones (touch here for an example)

As for measuring the pulses on a rotary phone, you can do this if you can study the telephone’s electric impedance (or resistance). As the dial switch turns, it briefly hangs up the telephone repeatedly. The number of hangups is equal to the number you are dialing (although dialing “0” causes it to hang up 10 times). You can actually dial by hanging up the telephone rhythmically and rapidly several times. If you click the hang-up button 5 times rapidly, you will dial a “5”. To detect that this hanging up is happening electronically, measure the telephone’s impedance—the impedance rises dramatically during each hang-up. If there is a constant current passing through the telephone, the voltage across its two wires will rise. If there is a constant voltage reaching the telephone, the current passing through it will drop. The telephone company detects this repeated change in impedance and determines what number you dialed.

When astronomers study sunspots they occasionally notice that there only seems t…

When astronomers study sunspots they occasionally notice that there only seems to be one magnetic pole. But I thought that monopoles didn’t exist that we know of. What’s going on?

While a sunspot may have only one magnetic pole associated with it, there is sure to be an equal but opposite pole somewhere else in the sun. Probably it’s located deep inside the sun or somewhere else on the sun’s surface. Like one end of a long bar magnet, the sunspot looks like a single pole, but it’s really connected to an equal but opposite pole.

I have a thermometer made of a column of fluid containing seven spheres of fluid…

I have a thermometer made of a column of fluid containing seven spheres of fluid that rise and fall according to the temperature (commonly known as a Galileo thermometer). How does this work? — LS, Conroe, TX

A Galileo thermometer combines Archimedes’ principle with the fact that liquids generally expand faster with increasing temperature than solids do. Each sphere in the thermometer has an average density (a mass divided by volume) that is very close to that of the fluid in the thermometer. As stated in Archimedes’ principle, if the sphere’s average density is less than that of the fluid, the sphere floats and if the sphere’s average density is more than that of the fluid, it sinks. But the fluid’s density changes relatively quickly with temperature, becoming less with each additional degree. Thus as the temperature of the thermometer rises, the spheres have more and more trouble floating. Each sphere’s density is carefully adjusted so that it begins to sink as soon as the thermometer’s temperature exceeds a certain value. At that value, the expanding fluid’s density becomes less than the average density of the sphere and the sphere no longer floats. The spheres also expand with increasing temperature, but not as much as the fluid.

Here is a picture of a combined Galileo thermometer and simple barometer. In addition to measuring the temperature with floating spheres, this device measures the outside air pressure with a column of dark liquid. It has a trapped volume of air that pushes the liquid (visible at the bottom of the unit) up a vertical pipe when the outside air pressure drops. The owner of this unit would like to know its history and origin, so if you have any information about it, please let me know.

Why does water react in a violent and dangerous way when overheated in a microwa…

Why does water react in a violent and dangerous way when overheated in a microwave oven? CA

Water doesn’t always boil when it is heated above its normal boiling temperature (100 °C or 212 °F). The only thing that is certain is that above that temperature, a steam bubble that forms inside the body of the liquid will be able to withstand the crushing effects of atmospheric pressure. If no bubbles form, then boiling will simply remain a possibility, not a reality. Something has to trigger the formation of steam bubbles, a process known as “nucleation.” If there is no nucleation of steam bubbles, there will be no boiling and therefore no effective limit to how hot the water can become.

Nucleation usually occurs at hot spots during stovetop cooking or at defects in the surfaces of cooking vessels. Glass containers have few or no such defects. When you cook water in a smooth glass container, using a microwave oven, it is quite possible that there will be no nucleation on the walls of the container and the water will superheat. This situation becomes even worse if the top surface of the water is “sealed” by a thin layer of oil or fat so that evaporation can’t occur, either. Superheated water is extremely dangerous and people have been severely injured by such water. All it takes is some trigger to create the first bubble-a fork or spoon opening up the inner surface of the water or striking the bottom of the container-and an explosion follows. I recently filmed such explosions in my own microwave (low-quality movie (749KB), medium-quality movie (5.5MB)), or high-quality movie (16.2MB)). As you’ll hear in my flustered remarks after “Experiment 13,” I was a bit shaken up by the ferocity of the explosion I had triggered, despite every expectation that it would occur. After that surprise, you’ll notice that I became much more concerned about yanking my hand out of the oven before the fork reached the water. I recommend against trying this dangerous experiment, but if you must, be extremely careful and don’t superheat more than a few ounces of water. You can easily get burned or worse. For a reader’s story about a burn he received from superheated water in a microwave, touch here.

Here is a sequence of images from the movie of my experiment, taken 1/30th of a second apart:

Does the moon orbit the earth or is it more complicated than that?

Your answer to question #1393 is fine for the hypothetical case of the earth orbiting around the moon, but I don’t see how it works for the real case where the moon orbits the earth. What is the real reason for the tides? — DM

There is nothing hypothetical about the earth orbiting the moon; it’s as real as the moon orbiting the earth. The earth and the moon are simply two huge balls in otherwise empty space and though the mass of one is 81 times the mass of the other, they’re both in motion. More specifically, they’re in orbit around their combined center of mass — the effective location of the earth-moon system.

Since the earth is so much more massive than the moon, their combined center of mass is 81 times closer to the middle of the earth than it is to the middle of the moon. In fact, it’s inside the earth, though not at the middle of the earth. As a result, the earth’s orbital motion takes the form of a wobble rather than a more obvious looping path. Nonetheless, the earth is orbiting.

I hope that you can see that there is no reason why the earth should be fixed in space while the moon orbits about it. You’ve been sold a bill of goods. The mistaken notion that the moon orbits a fixed earth is a wonderful example of the “factoid science” that often passes for real science in our society.

Because thinking and understanding involve hard work, people are more comfortable when the thought and understanding have been distilled out of scientific issues and they’ve been turned into memorizable sound bites. Those sound bites are easy to teach and easy to test, but they’re mostly mental junk food. A good teacher, like a good scientist, will urge you to question such factoids until you understand the science behind them and why they might or might not be true.

When my children were young, I often visited their schools to help teach science. In third grade, the required curriculum had them categorizing things into solutions or mixtures. Naturally, I showed them a variety of things that are neither solutions nor mixtures. It was a blast. Science is so much more interesting than a collection of 15-second sound bites.