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Getting the facts right

Oliver Knill, 9/24/2006 Besides pedagogy or psychology, it can be also relevant just to get the facts right. An illustrative example.

Experiment: Cover a burning candle with a Observations: After some time, the candle pitcher so that the candle is in an air-tight room dims and goes out. Just before the candle dies, sealed by the water at the ground. the water level rises to almost 1/10 th of pitcher height. No air bubbles are seen. The water level stays up for many few minutes more. The chemical aspect: oxygen O2 and paraffin Cn H2n+2 react. The burning produces water H 2O and carbon dioxide C O 2. For n=1 we balance the equation as follows: 2 O2 + C H 4 = C O 2 + 2 H 2 O Because twice as much oxygen is burned than carbon dioxide released, the air volume decreases. The physical aspect: the candle heats the air and expands it. This cancels the depletion of the oxygen temporarily and the water level stays down. When the oxygen is depleted, the candle goes out and the air cools. The volume of the air decreases and the water rises. The temporary temperature change delays the rise of the water. As several readers have pointed out, also the water condensation should be mentioned. While water is initially gas, it condenses and helps to delay the effect.

Summary: There are two different effects. Both a chemical and a physical reasoning are needed to explain what we can see. Both physics and chemistry matter. The initial cancellation effect can confuse the observer. Mathematics plays a role when the chemical equations are balanced.

Photos of the experiment

Photos: Oliver Knill, September 19, 2006.

An exhibit of wrong explanations


Many explanations on the web are wrong and confusing (September 2006). Actually, the primary hits in a search engine all lead to pages, which are wrong or incomprehensible. By the way, if this page should confuse you or contain errors, please mail knill@math.harvard.edu. Here are some pitfalls:
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Argument: Oxygen is replaced by Carbon dioxide. So, there is the same amount of gas added than taken away. Therefore, heat alone most be responsible for the water level change. Source of the Error: A simplified and wrong chemical equation is used, which does not take into account the quantitative changes. The chemical equation has to be balanced correctly. It is not true that each oxygen molecule is replaced by one carbon dioxide molecule during the burning process; two oxygen molecules result in one carbon dioxide molecule and two water molecules (which condense). Remember oxygen is present in the air as a diatomic molecule. [A reader clarifies the water condensation in an email to me as follows: If the experiment were done with the sealing fluid able to support a temperature greater than 212 F and the whole system held above this temperature then the water product of combustion would remain gaseous and the pressure within the vessel would increase as a result of three gaseous molecules for every two prior to combustion and the sealing fluid would be pushed out.] Argument: Carbon dioxide is absorbed by the water. Thats why the oxygen depletion has an effect. Source of the Error: This idea is triggered from the fact that water can be carbonized or that the oceans absorb much of the carbon dioxide in the air. But carbon dioxide is not absorbed so fast by water. The air would have to go through the water and pressure would need to be applied so that the carbon dioxide is absorbed during the short time span of the experiment. Argument: The experiment can be explained by physics alone. During the heating stage, air escapes. Afterwards, the air volume decreases and pulls the water up. Source of the Error: the argument could work, if indeed the heating of the air would produce enough pressure that some air could leave. In that case, some air would be lost through the water. But one can observe that the water level stays up even if everything has gone back to normal temperature (say 10 minutes). No bubbles can be seen. Argument: It can not be that the oxygen depletion is responsible for the water raising, because the water does not rise immediately. The water rises only after the candle dims. If gas would be going away, this would lead to a steady rise of the water level, not the rapid rise at the end, when the candle goes out. Source of the Error: It is not "only" the oxygen depletion which matters. There are two effects which matter: the chemical process of the burning as well as a physical process from the temperature change. These effects cancel each other initially. Since these effect hide each other partially, they are more difficult to detect.

What do we learn from that ?

An important aspect in pedagogy is to understand "how students learn" and how to produce a classroom atmosphere, in which students learn well. But teaching is complex. Already the material itself can be complex. Getting the facts straight can matter too. It is often the reason for pedagogical failures. A first step is to get the sources right. How can students learn if the sources are incorrect?

Appendix: The chemical equation for general n


We have simplified the chemical reaction and taken n=1 above. For general n, balancing the chemical equation O2 + x Cn H 2n+2 = y C O 2 + z H 2 O leads to the system of linear equations
n x = y (2n+2) x = 2 z 2 = 2 y + z ( C atom balance ) ( H atom balance ) ( O atom balance )

which has the solution x = (4/(1+6n), y = 4n/(1+6 n), z = 2( 1+2 n)/(1+6 n). This is where linear algebra kicks in. (1+3 n) O2 + 2 Cn H 2n+2 = 2 n C O 2 + (2+2n) H 2 O

For large n, it is rather 1/3 instead of 1/2 of the oxygen amount which matters. With 20 percent of oxygen in our air, we get about 8 percent of the air volume removed. This fits pretty well with our experiment shown in the photos, where about 1/11 to 1/12 of the air has been replaced by water. For paraffin (wick) used in candles, n is larger than 20.

Appendix: the ideal gas equation


We see from the balancing equation that two oxygen molecules are replaced by one carbon dioxide molecule. Since CO2 has one carbon atom more than O2, it is heavier. Will this not imply that it takes up more volume? It turns out that only the number N of molecules matters. The ideal gas law relates the gas pressure p, the volume V, the temperature T with the number of molecules N as follows pV=NkT

The letter k is a constant called the Bolzmann constant. Like any physical law, this is an

idealisation and approximation but it is accurate enough for the experiment in question. In the candle experiment, the pressure and temperatures at the beginning and the end are essentially the same. But since the number N of oxygen molecule is replaced by N/2 carbon dioxide molecules, the corresponding volume gets divided by half too. A refinement of the law, the van der Waals equation also incorporates the size of the molecules.

Added March 20, 2011


Jonathan Lavian, who writes a research paper for an education minor, writes: Many people try to explain the problem with physics alone with a different argument. They argue that less hot air is captured in the cup. In other words, the cup covers a volume of less dense air because the air is heated around the candle. When the air cools after the candle goes out, the pressure decreases almost entirely from less dense air cooling. Regardless, some may argue that the chemical aspect is very minimal because the water level sometimes rises to one third of the volume, but under perfect conditions reaction condition, the reaction chemistry can only account for a maximum ten percent water level rise. You suggest that the water level rises to one tenth of the height, however it can be much higher if more candles are used. I agree that the chemical reaction can have an effect, but how would you rank the contribution of each? Is one effect minimal or more important? How does the size of the candle or container play a factor?

I myself did not make the experiment with several candles but I can imagine that one can boost the physics part like this: if one would take a lot of candles, burn them for a while until the air around it is hot and then place the container around it, the physics portion of the argument gets a boost. I can imagine that this can be substantial and would not be surprised to see the water level rise to 30 percent without contradicting anything said above. I myself have lighted the candles and then immediately placed it and not waited until the air around it got hot. One could do the experiment with an other heat source which does not use any chemical processes. Then the chemistry part would be ruled out and the physics contribution alone can be measured. To completely rule out preheating, one could light the candle from inside the container. This would have to be done carefully however as gas lighters might contribute additional gas and heat for example. I think it is better to light the candle, place the candle down and then immediately place the pitcher around it. Excessive preheating is excluded like this. The size of the pitcher certainly will have an effect. If the pitcher is too large, then both the effect of the physics as well as the chemistry will be smaller simply because only part of the room will be affected. What I liked about the experiment is that with household

size objects, one can get directly to a situation where the balance between physics and chemistry is initially equal. The initial cancellation of different effects is what makes the experiment so interesting and puzzling.