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652. Where is all the matter "sucked" into a black hole thought to go? — KH, St. Johns, Newfoundland
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From our perspective outside a black hole, the matter never quite passes through the black hole's event horizon—the surface from which not even light can escape. That's because time slows down near the event horizon and it takes an infinite amount of our time for the matter to pass through the event horizon. But from the perspective of the matter falling through the event horizon, the passage is uneventful—the matter experiences no sudden changes as it passes through that surface of no return. Instead, the matter continues to accelerate toward the singularity at the center of the black hole—a point of infinite density and infinitely small size. Its approach to the singularity completely destroys the matter's structure. The gravitational tidal forces caused by the differences in gravity at different locations in space tear the matter apart so that it contributes only mass, charge, momentum, and angular momentum to the singularity. The black hole is usual identified with the event horizon rather than the singularity contained inside it. Passage through that event horizon erases any memory of the structure of the matter, leaving only its mass, charge, momentum, and angular momentum observable in the properties of the black hole.

656. How can one measure the vapor pressure of mercury? If it is amalgamated, what is the relationship of vapor pressure with respect to temperature, material content in the amalgam, and free mercury? — BS, Erwin, TN
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The vapor pressure of mercury is quite low at room temperature so you'd need a very sensitive pressure gauge and a vacuum system in order to measure it. You'd have to evacuate all of the air from the gauge and expose the empty gauge to a saturated vapor of mercury (mercury vapor that's in contact with liquid mercury) alone. While the pressure will only be a few thousandths of a millimeter of mercury, there are a number of pressure gauges that are capable of measuring pressures in this range.

Once the mercury is amalgamated with other metals, its vapor pressure drops substantially. The mercury atoms bind so strongly into the amalgam that they can remain in it for years, centuries, or even millennia. Mercury's vapor pressure in this bound form is exceedingly low. To measure it, you'd need a mass spectrometer that's capable of counting the atoms in the vapor above the amalgam.


657. If space is curved and gravity is not really a force (as per Einstein), how is it that an object can slingshot around a planet and gain kinetic energy? Where is the extra energy coming from? Which object converts mass to energy; the object or the planet? — EM, Redmond, WA
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When a small object such as a satellite arcs around the back side of forward moving planet, the satellite's speed and energy increase while the planet's speed and energy decrease. The planet has given some of its energy to the satellite. Viewed in terms of curved space, the satellite follows a curved path because of the planet's presence and the planet follows a curved path because of the satellite's presence. The satellite's effect on space is very small, but it is enough to change the planet's path slightly. The planet arcs toward the satellite and gives up a small amount of its speed and energy in the process. This energy is transferred to the satellite as the satellite arcs toward the planet. Overall, the planet loses a little of its kinetic energy and the satellite gains an equal amount of kinetic energy. However, neither the planet nor the satellite experience any changes in rest mass. Both objects still have the same numbers of atoms as before and both still have their original masses.

658. What was the profession of A. B. Strowger, the inventor of the Step by Step Switching System? — GC, Pleasanton, CA
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Mr. Strowger was apparently a Kansas undertaker when he developed his automatic telephone switching system.

671. I recently received a "strong magnetic cup" as a gift. According to the claims of the maker, water kept in this cup for a minute can lower blood pressure and reduce weight, etc. Please explain how this works. — AL, Pharr, TX
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I'm afraid that it works only by psychological effect, if at all. Water itself is non-magnetic and experiences no significant change when exposed to a magnetic field. Although the magnetic field of the cup has an ever so slight effect on the atomic and molecular structure of the water, this effect vanishes when the water leaves the cup. Water from the cup is just plain old water. There are many people in this world who take advantage of the public's relative inability to distinguish science from pseudoscience. One of the reasons that I enjoy answering questions here is to help people make that distinction. Magnets aren't magic—they are understandable devices and their effects on everything around them are also understandable.

672. In high school physics, we learned that matter and energy can neither be created nor destroyed. Is that true in quantum mechanics? What is quantum mechanics and how did the field come about? — JE, College Station, TX
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While modern physics continues to maintain that matter and energy can't be created or destroyed, the picture is a little more complicated than it was before the discovery of relativity and quantum mechanics. First, relativity ties matter and energy together so that matter can become energy and energy can become matter in certain circumstances. As a result, it's only the sum of matter and energy that can't be created or destroyed. Second, there are situations in which that sum of matter and energy can change temporarily in an isolated system. Quantum mechanics and its famous "uncertainty principle" permit brief but important violations of the conservation of mass/energy. The shorter a particular violation, the worse it may be. These violations are never directly observable because all observations are done on long time scales. But there are indirect indications of these temporary violations and they're critical to much of modern high energy and particle physics.

Quantum mechanics developed at the beginning of this century to explain several strange experimental observations, particularly the photoelectric effect and the black-body radiation spectrum. Einstein received his Nobel Prize for explaining the photoelectric effect in terms of quantum mechanics, not for any of his work on relativity.


705. How fast does sound travel through the telephone? - T
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When your voice travels through the telephone, it doesn't travel as sound. Instead, the microphone of your telephone unit produces an electric current that represents the sound of your voice. From there on until it arrives at the earpiece of your friend's telephone unit, your voice travels as an electromagnetic signal—either an electric current, a radio wave, or a light wave. Only when it reaches the earpiece is the electromagnetic signal used to recreate the sound itself. Since electromagnetic signals travel at or near the speed of light, your voice moves extremely quickly from your telephone unit to your friend's telephone unit. It would be quite easy, for example, for a friend living a few miles away to tell you about a nearby explosion or thunderclap and then have you hear that explosion or thunderclap yourself. Your friend's words would travel much more rapidly through the phone lines than the sound would travel over the countryside.

However, even the speed of light isn't fast enough in some cases. Shortly after the break-up of AT&T, new long-distance carriers began to appear. Some of these companies used geosynchronous satellites to handle the long distance calls. Because these satellites sit about 22,300 miles above the earth's equator, the travel time for radio waves to and from these satellites is a substantial fraction of a second. The delay between when you spoke and when your friend heard your voice was long enough that your friend might have begun talking, too. Those conversations were very awkward because you had to be very deliberate about starting and stopping your speech. You almost had to tell your friend when you were done talking so that they could begin. All modern long-distance calls are handled by surface links so that there is almost no delay, except perhaps when going to the other side of the earth.


706. If time passes more slowly for someone who is moving quickly and enormous speeds are needed to explore distant space, is there any way to counteract this time/speed phenomenon so that those on earth will not die waiting for the "space travelers/explorers" to return? — BC, Ottawa, Canada
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Unfortunately, no. Those of us who remained on earth would watch the explorers head off at enormous speeds toward the stars and would be old and gray before they returned. Even if the explorers could move at almost the speed of light, it would take them many years to reach nearby stars and many years to return. Since there is no way that they could travel even as fast as the speed of light, the absolute minimum time it would take for a round trip, from our perspective, would be the round trip distance to the stars divided by the speed of light.

But this brings up one of the peculiar results of special relativity. From our perspective on earth, the explorers are moving quickly as they head toward the stars and their clocks appear to be running slowly to us. But from their perspective, we are moving quickly in the other direction and our clocks appear to be running slowly to them. This apparent paradox is resolved by the fact that the explorers would not agree with us on the ordering of two events occurring at different locations—space and time appear differently to us; they are intermingled. However, when the explorers accelerate in order to turn around and headed back toward us, their perceptions of space and time undergo a radical change. They see our clocks zoom ahead while we continue to see their clocks running fairly slowly. When the explorers finally returned to earth, their clocks indicate that they had been gone only a short time. However our clocks indicate that they had been gone at least as long as the time it would take light to complete the roundtrip. This situation leads to the famous "twin paradox," in which one twin travels through space while the other remains at home. When the explorer twin returns to earth, the explorer twin is still young but the earthbound twin is very old. If near-light-speed travel were to become possible (a very remote possibility), such twin paradoxes would certainly occur.


707. Please explain how the different welding systems work, (Arc, TIG, MIG, and Oxy-Acet) and why some types work with certain metals (steel, aluminum, titanium, and cast iron) and others don't? — DC, Ceder, MN
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While I have very little experience welding myself, I can make a number of general observations about welding. All of the welding systems you mention are trying to join several pieces of metal by melting them together. In most cases, one of the pieces of metal is being used to form the joint and is sacrificed completely in the process (typically it's a welding rod made of a special metal that's good at forming a joint). How the melting and joining process proceeds depends on the welding system used.

An arc welder passes an electric current through the air from the pieces to be joined to a welding rod. The rod becomes so hot as the result of this arc that it melts and joins with the other pieces of metal, binding them together permanently. This scheme only works with relatively non-flammable metals such as steel. Aluminum or titanium will burst into flames when the arc starts. To joint these flammable metals, the arc has to be protected by a shroud of an inert gas such as argon or helium. TIG and MIG welding are based on this inert gas approach (the "IG" part of the names). In Tungsten-Inert-Gas (TIG) welding, an arc passes from the pieces being joined to a tungsten electrode. Tungsten has such as high melting point that it survives this arc and another piece of metal, the welding rod, is fed into the arc where it melts to form the joint. In Metal-Inert-Gas (MIG) welding, the arc passes from the pieces to a metal welding rod. This system resembles normal arc welding, in that the welding rod melts to form the joint, however now the arc is shrouded by a flow of inert gas so that there is no oxygen around to support combustion. Flammable metals can be welded with TIG or MIG welding and so can non-flammable metals.

As for oxygen-acetylene welding, here a very hot flame is used to heat the pieces involved to very high temperatures. A welding rod that melts at a slightly lower temperature than the pieces themselves is then used to join the pieces. The advantage to using this system is that it doesn't pass a current through the pieces and doesn't rely on their electric properties. The current of an arc welder could damage thin materials but an oxygen-acetylene flame should not (assuming they are relatively non-flammable metals). I'm sure that the metallurgical characteristics of the joints vary from system to system, but I can't make any useful statements about this. For a more detailed discussion of when and where to use each technique, you'll need a more experienced person than me.


726. How is chlorine gas used to disinfect water at treatment plants? - KM
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Chlorine molecules (Cl2) dissolve easily in water, where they react with water molecules to form hypochlorous acid (HOCl), chlorine ions (Cl-) and hydrogen ions (H+). Hypochlorous acid is a weak acid that partially dissociates into hydrogen ions (H+) and hypochlorite ions (OCl-). Studies have shown that it's predominantly the hypochlorous acid molecules and the hypochlorite ions that disable and kill microorganisms. These molecules and ions diffuse onto and into the microorganisms and oxidize important biological components, such as the protein coats of some viruses, key enzymes in many bacteria, and the genetic materials in both bacteria and viruses. — Thanks to J. Symons for pointing out this mechanism to me and providing me with detailed reference materials.

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