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If you enjoy reading these questions and answers, please look for my new book How
Everything Works: Making Physics out of the Ordinary at your favorite bookstore
(and encourage them to stock it if they haven't already). After fifteen years of work,
I'm naturally eager to see it succeed, to have it convey real physics to real people. I'd
also appreciate it if you'd post reviews of the book on Amazon and elsewhere, and I'd
be happy to discuss the book and its contents with the media. Thanks — Lou
1548. When you travelling in a jet plane, why do objects on the ground look as though
they are still or moving slowly? — K, India
When you watch something move, what you really notice is the change in the angle at
which see you it. Nearby objects don't have to be traveling fast to make you turn your
head quickly to watch them go by so you perceive them as moving rapidly. An object
that is heading directly toward you or away from you doesn't appear to be moving
nearly as quickly because its change in angle is much smaller.

When you watch a distant object move, you don't see it change angles quickly so you
perceive it as moving relatively slowly. Take the moon for example: it is moving
thousands of miles an hour yet you can't see it move at all. It's just so far away that
you see no angular change. And when you look down from a high-flying jet, the
distant ground is changing angles slowly and therefore looks like it's not moving fast.

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

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.

1545. For my industrial design project, I am redesigning the microwave oven and
adding some extra functions. Is it possible for microwaves to somehow measure food
properties such as calories, sugar, salt, vitamins, and fat content? How can I translate
those readings onto an LCD display so that the user can see them, and can they also be
transferred to a computer via Bluetooth? — IB
What you propose to do is far more difficult than you imagine. Determining the
chemical contents of food is hard, even with a well-equipped laboratory and
permission to destroy the food in order to study it. The idea of analyzing a casserole in
detail simply by beaming microwaves at it is science fiction. Think how much easier
airport security would be if they could chemically analyze everything that came in the
front door just by beaming microwaves at it.

That said, however, let me make two comments. First, the question quickly turns to
computer interface issues, as though the chemical analysis part is trivial in comparison
to computer presentation part. Physical science and computer science are truly
different fields and not everything in the scientific domain can be reduced to a
software package. Physics and chemistry haven't disappeared with the advent of
computers and there will never be a firmware upgrade for your microwave oven that
will turn it into a nutritional analysis laboratory. As a society, we've gone a bit too far
in replacing science education with technology education, particularly computer

Second, while remote chemical analysis isn't easy, it can be done in certain cases with
the clever use of physics and chemistry. One of my friends here at Virginia, Gaby
Laufer, has developed an instrument that studies the infrared light transmitted by the
air and can determine whether that air contains any of a broad variety of toxic or
dangerous gases in a matter of seconds. Air's relative transparency makes it easier to
analyze than an opaque casserole, but even when you can see through something it's
not trivial to see what it contains. Gaby's instrument does a phenomenal job of
fingerprinting the gas's absorption features and identifying trouble.

Note added: a reader informed me that there are now microwave ovens that can read
bar codes and adjust their cooking to match the associated food. A scale in the base of
the oven can determine the food's weight and cook it properly. Another reader
suggested that a microwave oven might be able to measure the food's microwave
absorption and weight in order to adjust cooking power and time. While that's also a
good possibility, ovens that sense food temperature or the humidity inside the oven
can achieve roughly the same result by turning themselves off at the appropriate time.

1544. If something is coasting or moving at a steady pace, is it experiencing a net

force of zero? — NP
That's exactly right! Coasting and zero net force go hand-in-hand: when an object is
experiencing zero net force, it doesn't accelerate and thus it coasts. A coasting object is
an inertial object, meaning that it moves at a steady pace along a straightline path. And
if the coasting object is at rest, it stays at rest.

To clarify the term "net force," note that when an object is experiencing several
separate forces, it doesn't accelerate in response to each one individually. Instead, it
accelerates in response to the sum of all the forces acting on it: the net force.
Remember that forces have directions associated with them (forces are vector
quantities), so when you sum them you must consider their directions carefully. The
proper force to consider in Newton's second law is actually the net force on the object.
If you know both the net force on the object and the object's mass, you can predict the
object's acceleration. And if the net force is zero, then the object doesn't accelerate at
all — it coasts.

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 it’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, it’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 you’re viewing and tries to form
a real image of that scene on your retina. The eye’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 you’re viewing forms its own spot, your eye’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 isn’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 you’re farsighted, the two optical elements aren’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 you’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. That’s why you wear
diverging eyeglasses.

People are surprised when I tell them that they’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, you’ll find that it’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 pad’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 pad’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.

There are at least two ways for a pad and its electronics to sense your body and its
electric charges. The first way is for the electronics to apply a rapidly alternating
electric charge to the pad and to watch for the pad’s charge to interact with charge
outside the pad (i.e., on your body). When the pad is by itself, the electronics can
easily reverse the pad’s electric charge because that charge doesn’t interact with
anything. But when your hand is near the pad or touching it, it’s much harder for the
electronics to reverse the pad’s electric charge. If you’re touch the pad, the electronics
has to reverse your charge, too, so the electronics sense a new sluggishness in the
pad’s response to charge changes. Even when you’re not quite touching the pad, the
electronics has some add difficulty reversing the pad’s charge. That’s because the
pad’s charge causes your finger and body to become electrically polarized: charges
opposite to those on the pad are attracted onto your finger from your body so that your
finger becomes electrically charged opposite to the charge of the pad. When the
electronics then tries to withdraw the charge from the pad in order to reverse the pad’s
charge, your finger’s charge acts to make that withdrawal difficult. The electronics
finds that it must struggle to reverse the pad’s charge even though you’re not in direct
contact with the pad. Overall, your finger complicates the charge reversals whenever
it’s near or touching the pad.

The second way for the pad’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. You’ve probably noticed that touching certain input wires
of a stereo amplifier produces lots of noise in the speakers; that’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 pad’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, they’d light up when they detected something and there was no need to
clean up spilled soda. We’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
You’re right. Whether the microwave oven is grounded or not makes no difference on
its screen’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 oven’s microwaves, the oven can't tell if it's grounded at microwave
frequencies; its power cord is just too long and there just isn’t time for charge to flow
all the way through that cord during a microwave cycle.

When you ground an appliance, you’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 can’t retain large amounts of either positive or negative charge.
That’s a nice safety feature because it means that you won’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 can’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. That’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 there’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. It’s carrying an
electromagnetic ripple.

The metal screen on the oven’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 doesn’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 line’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 isn’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 don’t see them landing on the
extremely high-voltage transmission lines that travel across vast stretches of

The story wouldn’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"ン 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), 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."ン 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).

1526. 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.

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, but I've never seen a camera lens with an
f-number below 1.2.

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

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

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.
1516. While shopping for a new microwave I was asking the salesperson at a local
store some questions regarding microwaves. He proceeded to tell me how dangerous
they were and that they used to sell some sort of testers to see if the new microwaves
they were selling "leaked radiation". He told me that they all did and that microwaves
give off "harmful" radiation. He said that it affects the food that we cook in it and can
cause cancer. He said "Think about it, when you get an x-ray the tech covers himself
with a lead shield and here we are putting our food into this and there is no lead shield.
Needless to say I did not purchase a microwave yesterday, and was wondering if you
could please give me some insight on this and tell me is what this salesperson told me
is true. Are microwave ovens really harmful? Do they cause cancer? What about the
food, does it become toxic. A friend of mine is totally into all organic food and she
"unplugged" her microwave years ago and never used it since. She swears it is
harmful. Please help. Heating food in a pot is so inconvenient!! -- KO
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,
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.

1509. About 18 months ago, I saw an episode on "Current Affairs," in Australia, in

which this dude made a "free electricity" machine, using magnets, fixed and non
fixed-on a spinning wheel. While I know that I should be skeptical, I can't help
thinking "what if?" Have scientists carefully tested this stuff to see for sure that it does
or does work? - P, Australia
Not surprisingly, no "free electricity" machines are ever released to real scientists for
testing. That's because the results of such testing are certain: those machines simply
can't work for very fundamental and incontrovertible reasons.

Like so many "scientific" conmen, the purveyors of this particular scam claim to be
victims of a hostile scientific establishment, which refuses to accept their brilliant
discoveries. They typically attack the deepest and most central tenets of science and
claim that a conspiracy is perpetuating belief on those tenets. Their refusal to submit
their work to scientific peer review is supposedly based on a fear that such review will
be biased and subjective, controlled by the conspiracy.

The sad reality is that the "scientific establishment" is more than willing to examine
the claims, but those claims won't survive the process of inspection. In some cases, the
authors of the claims are truly self-deluded and are guilty only of pride and ignorance.
But in other cases, the authors are real conmen who are out to make a buck at public
expense. They should be run out of town on a rail. >

Click here for more information about the "free electricity" hoax, sent in by readers of
this site.

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? -
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

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

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

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

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

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.

1485. 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:
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

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

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.

1465. There is a story circulating by email about a 26 year old man who heated a cup
of water in a microwave oven and had it "explode in his face" when he took it out. He
suffered serious burns as a result. Is this possible and, if so, how did it happen? -- JJ,
Kirksville, Missouri
Yes, this sort of accident can and does happen. The water superheated and then boiled
violently when disturbed. Here's how it works:

Water can always evaporate into dry air, but it normally only does so at its surface.
When water molecules leave the surface faster than they return, the quantity of liquid
water gradually diminishes. That's ordinary evaporation. However, when water is
heated to its boiling temperature, it can begin to evaporate not only from its surface,
but also from within. If a steam bubble forms inside the hot water, water molecules
can evaporate into that steam bubble and make it grow larger and larger. The high
temperature is necessary because the pressure inside the bubble depends on the
temperature. At low temperature, the bubble pressure is too low and the surrounding
atmospheric pressure smashes it. That's why boiling only occurs at or above water's
boiling temperature. Since pressure is involved, boiling temperature depends on air
pressure. At high altitude, boiling occurs at lower temperature than at sea level.

But pay attention to the phrase "If a steam bubble forms" in the previous paragraph.
That's easier said than done. Forming the initial steam bubble into which water
molecules can evaporate is a process known as "nucleation." It requires a good
number of water molecules to spontaneously and simultaneously break apart from one
another to form a gas. That's an extraordinarily rare event. Even in a cup of water
many degrees above the boiling temperature, it might never happen. In reality,
nucleation usually occurs at a defect in the cup or an impurity in the water--anything
that can help those first few water molecules form the seed bubble. When you heat
water on the stove, the hot spots at the bottom of the pot or defects in the pot bottom
usually assist nucleation so that boiling occurs soon after the boiling temperature is
reached. But when you heat pure water in a smooth cup using a microwave oven, there
may be nothing present to help nucleation occur. The water can heat right past its
boiling temperature without boiling. The water then superheats--its temperature rising
above its boiling temperature. When you shake the cup or sprinkle something like
sugar or salt into it, you initiate nucleation and the water then boils violently.

Fortunately, serious microwave superheating accidents are fairly unusual. However,

they occur regularly and some of the worst victims require hospital treatment. I have
heard of extreme cases in which people received serious eye injuries and third degree
burns that required skin grafts and plastic surgery.

You can minimize the chance of this sort of problem by not overcooking water or any
other liquid in the microwave oven, by waiting about 1 minute per cup for that liquid
to cool before removing it from the microwave if there is any possibility that you have
superheated it, and by being cautious when you first introduce utensils, powders,
teabags, or otherwise disturb very hot liquid that has been cooked in a microwave
oven. Keep the water away from your face and body until you're sure it's safe and
don't ever hover over the top of the container. Finally, it's better to have the liquid boil
violently while it's inside the microwave oven than when it's outside on your counter
and can splatter all over you. Once you're pretty certain that the water is no longer
superheated, you can ensure that it's safe by deliberately nucleating boiling before
removing the cup from the microwave. Inserting a metal spoon or almost any food
into the water should trigger boiling in superheated water. A pinch of sugar will do the
trick, something I've often noticed when I heat tea in the microwave. However, don't
mess around with large quantities of superheated water. If you have more than 1 cup
of potentially superheated water, don't try to nucleate boiling until you've waited quite
a while for it to cool down. I've been scalded by the stuff several times even when I
was prepared for an explosion. It's really dangerous.

For a reader's story about a burn he received from superheated water in a microwave,
touch here.

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,

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.

Since the shadow mask's grillwork and the phosphor dots must stay perfectly aligned
relative to one another, the shadow mask must be made of a metal that has the same
thermal expansion characteristics as glass. The only reasonable choice for the shadow
mask is Invar metal, an alloy that unfortunately is easily magnetized. Your son has
magnetized the mask inside your set and because moving charged particles are
deflected by magnetic fields, the electron beams in your television are being steered
by the magnetized shadow mask so that they hit the wrong phosphors. That's why the
colors are all washed out and rearranged.

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.

1452. I recently read a full-page ad for FREE ELECTRICITY from a company called
United Services Company of America. Their Website is at I walked through their site and viewed
some of their videos "demonstrating" clear violations of the well-known and well-
founded Laws of Thermodynamics, and listened to the description of the new Fourth
Law of Motion (following Newton's other well known three). Are these people the
same who were denied patent approval for a Perpetual Motion Machine? Have any
reputable independent test labs reviewed their products under controlled conditions?
Do they publish, even at a price, the fundamental mathematical and physical processes
that allow for the claims that seem to be shown? I realize you're not a "debunker", but
maybe you can shed some light on this. They have scheduled dozens of seminars
across the country at considerable cost (and most likely considerable profit to them),
and taken out full-page ads in national newspapers. The speakers do not comment on
their academic training or experience, but tend to speak of hidden conspiracies from
the power industry to stop their proliferation of free power. -- DH
What a great find! This site is filled with pseudo-science at its best. I don't know the
history or training of these people, but it's pure garbage. They use the words of science
but without any meaningful content. Just as putting on a crown doesn't make you a
king, using phrases like "action and reaction" and "Newton's third law" doesn't mean
that you are discussing real science.

I watched the video on the "Counter Rotation Device" and found the discussion of
"Newton's Fourth Law of Motion" quite amusing. The speaker claims that this fourth
law was discovered about 30 years ago by a person now at their research lab. It is
based on Newton's third law, which the speaker simplifies to "for every action there is
an equal and opposite reaction." In a nutshell, his fourth law claims that you can take
the reaction caused by a particular action and apply it to the action in the same
direction--action causes reaction which causes more action which causes more
reaction and so on. Pretty soon you have so much action and reaction that anything
becomes possible. The video goes on to show devices that yield more power than they
consume and that can easily become net sources of energy--by using part of the output
energy from one of these energy multiplying devices to power that device, you can
create endless energy from nothing at all.

Sadly enough, it's all just nonsense. Newton's third law is not as flexible as the speaker
supposes and this endless feedback process in which reaction is used as action to
produce more reaction is ridiculous. A more accurate version of Newton's third law is:
"Whenever one object pushes on a second object, the second object pushes back on
the first object equally hard but in the opposite direction". Thus when you push on the
handle of a water pump, that handle pushes back on you with an equal but oppositely
directed force. The speaker's claim is that there is a way to use the handle's push on
you as part of your push on the handle so that, with your help, the handle essentially
pushes itself through action and reaction. You can then pump water almost without
effort. Sorry, this is just nonsense. It's mostly just playing with the words action and
reaction in their common language form: if you scare me, I react by jumping. That
action and reaction has nothing to do with physics.

The speaker uses at least three clever techniques to make his claims more compelling
and palatable. First, he refers frequently to a power-company conspiracy that is out to
destroy his company and its products. Conspiracy theories are so popular these days
that having a conspiracy against you makes you more believable. Second, he describes
the fellow who discovered the fourth law of motion as a basement inventor who has
taken on the rigid scientific establishment. Ordinary people love to see pompous,
highly educated academics brought low by other ordinary people; it's kind of a team
spirit issue. And third, he makes casual use of technical looking equipment and jargon,
as though he is completely at ease in the world of advanced technology. Movies have
made it easier to trust characters like Doc Brown from "Back to the Future" than to
trust real scientists.

In fact, there is no power-company conspiracy because there is no free electricity. The

proof is in the pudding: if these guys really could make energy from nothing, they'd be
doing it every day and making a fortune. They would be the power companies. If they
were interested in public welfare rather than money, they'd have given their techniques
away already. If they were interested in proving the scientific establishment wrong,
they'd have accepted challenges by scientific organization and demonstrated their
devices in controlled situations (where they can't cheat). The fact is, they're just frauds
and of no more interest to the power companies than snake oil salespeople are to
doctors. No decent people want to see others defrauded of money, property, or health,
but the free electricity people present no real threat to the power companies.

The popular notion that an ordinary person is likely to upset established science is an
unfortunate product of the anti-intellectual climate of our present world. Becoming a
competent scientist is generally hard work and requires dedication, time, and an
enormous amount of serious thinking. Physics is hard, even for most physicists. The
laws governing the universe are slowly being exposed but it has taken very smart, very
hardworking people almost half a millennium to get to the current state of
understanding. Each new step requires enormous effort and a detailed understanding
of a good part of the physics that is already known. Still, there is a common myth that
some clever and lucky individual with essentially no training or knowledge of what
has been discovered before will make some monumental breakthrough. The movies
are filled with such events. Unfortunately, it won't happen. In new or immature fields
or subfields, it is possible for an essentially untrained or self-trained genius to jump in
and discover something important. Galileo and Newton probably fit this category in
physics and Galois and Ramanujan probably fit it in mathematics. But most of physics
is now so mature that broad new discoveries are rare, and accessible only to those with
extremely good understandings of what is already known. A basement tinkerer hasn't
got a prayer.

Finally, real scientists don't always walk around in white lab coats looking serious,
ridiculing the less educated, and trying to figure out how to trick the government into
funding yet another silly, fraudulent, or unethical research project. In fact, most
scientists wear practical clothes, have considerable humor, enjoy speaking with
ordinary folk about their science, and conduct that science because they love and
believe in it rather than as a means to some diabolic end. These scientists use the
words of science in their conversations because it is the appropriate language for their
work and there is meaning in each word and each sentence. The gibberish spoken by
"scientists" in movies is often offensive to scientists in the same way that immigrant
groups find it offensive when people mock their native languages.

I don't know about any patent history for the free electricity organization but everyone
should be aware that not all patented items actually do what they're supposed to. In
principle, the U.S. Patent Office only awards a patent when it determines that a
concept has not been patented previously, is not already known, is not obvious, and is
useful. The utility requirement should eliminate items that don't actually work. One of
my readers, a patent attorney, reports that he regularly invokes the utility regulation
while escorting the "inventors" of impossible devices such as "free electricity" to the
door. They consider him part of the conspiracy against them, but he is doing us all a
service by keeping foolishness out of the patent system. However, proving that
something doesn't work often takes time and money, so sometimes nonfunctional
items get patented. Thus a patent isn't always a guarantee of efficacy. Patented
nonsense is exactly that: nonsense.

Finally, how do I know that Free Electricity is really not possible? Couldn't I have
missed something somewhere in the details? No. The impossibility of this scheme is
rooted in the very groundwork of physics; at the deepest level where there is no
possibility of mistake. For the counter rotation device to generate 15 kilowatts of
electricity out of nothing, it would have to be a net source of energy--the device would
be creating energy from nothing. That process would violate the conservation of
energy, whereby energy cannot be created or destroyed but can only be transferred
from one object to another or converted from one form to another. Recognizing that
our universe is relativistic (it obeys the laws of special relativity), the actual conserved
quantity is mass/energy, but the concept is the same: you can't make mass/energy from

The origin of this conservation law lies in a mathematical theorem noted first by C. G.
J. Jacobi and fully developed by Emmy Noether, that each symmetry in the laws of
physics gives rise to a conserved quantity. The fact that a translation in space--shifting
yourself from one place to another--does not change the laws of physics gives rise to a
conserved quantity: momentum. The fact that a rotation--changing the direction in
which you are facing--does not change the laws of physics gives rise to another
conserved quantity: angular momentum. And the fact that waiting a few minutes--
changing the time at which you are--does not change the laws of physics gives rise to
a third conserved quantity: energy. The conservation of energy is thus intimately
connected with the fact that the laws of physics are the same today as they were
yesterday and as they will be tomorrow.

Scientists have been looking for over a century for any changes in the laws of physics
with translations and rotations in space and with movement through time, and have
never found any evidence for such changes. Thus momentum, angular momentum,
and energy are strictly conserved in our universe. For the counter rotation device to
create energy from nothing, all of physics would have to be thrown in the trashcan.
The upset would be almost as severe as discovering that 1+1 = 3. Furthermore, a
universe in which physics was time-dependent and energy was not conserved would
be a dangerous place. Free electricity devices would become the weapons of the
future--bombs and missiles that released energy from nothing. Moreover, as the free
electricity devices produced energy from nothing, the mass/energy of the earth would
increase and thus its gravitational field would also increase. Eventually, the gravity
would become strong enough to cause gravitational collapse and the earth would
become a black hole. Fortunately, this is all just science fiction because free electricity
isn't real.

For more information about the "free electricity" hoax, sent in by readers of this site,
touch here.

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

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

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 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.

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

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
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

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.
1444. What is the device called in some watches that transforms the kinetic energy
created by the watch's motion into energy to help power the watch's battery? And how
does such a device work? -- KW, Washington, DC
As a number of readers have informed me, the watches you're referring to generate
electricity that then powers a conventional electronic watch. These electromechanical
watches use mechanical work done by wrist motions on small weights inside the
watches to generate electricity. Seiko's watch spins a tiny generator--a coil of wire
moves relative to a magnetic field and electric charges are pushed through the coil as a
result. I have been told that other watches exist that use piezoelectricity--the electricity
that flows when certain mechanical objects are deformed or strained--to generate their
electricity. In any case, your wrist motion is providing the energy that becomes
electric power.

These electromechanical watches are the modern descendants of the automatic

mechanical watches. An automatic watch had a main spring that was wound by the
motion of the wearer's hand. A small mass inside the watch swung back and forth on
the end of a lever. Because of its inertia, this mass resisted changes in velocity and it
moved relative to the watch body whenever the watch accelerated. If you like, you can
picture the mass as a ball that rolls about inside a wagon as you roll the wagon around
an obstacle course. When the lever turned back and forth relative to the watch body,
the watch was able to extract energy from it. Gears attached to the lever allowed the
watch to use the mass's energy to wind its mainspring. The energy extracted from the
mass with each swing was very small, but it was enough to keep the mainspring fully
wound. Ultimately, this energy came from your hand--you did work on the watch in
shaking it about and some of this energy eventually wound up in the mainspring.

These same sorts of motions are what power the electromechanical watches of today.
Instead of winding a spring, your wrist motions swing weights about inside the
watches and these moving weights spin generators to produce electric power.

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

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
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

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

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? --
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

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

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

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. --
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

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
1386. Is a CB radio also an AM radio?
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-
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

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

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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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,
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
No. 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.

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
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 Monday, November 27, 2006 at 3:00:01 EST
Copyright 1997-2006 © Louis A. Bloomfield, All Rights Reserved