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How Everything Works  
Page 110 of 160 (1595 Questions and Answers)

1091. What is the difference between internal and external combustion engines?
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External combustion engines burn a fuel outside of the engine and produce a hot working fluid that then powers the engine. The classic example of an external combustion engine is a steam engine. Internal combustion engines burn fuel directly in the engine and use the fuel and the gases resulting from its combustion as the working fluid that powers the engine. An automobile engine is a fine example of an internal combustion engine.

1092. In his Lectures on the Elements of Chemistry, Joseph Black discussed his difficulty in understanding latent heat. He performed an experiment where water in a tube was brought below freezing without a phase change. The water remained in this equilibrium as long as the tube of water was not disturbed. When it was disturbed, the water instantly turned to ice, releasing enough heat to raise the temperature of the ice to 0° C. Please explain why the system remained in equilibrium until it was acted upon by some external motion. — EDH, Annapolis, MD
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The water in Black's tube was in an unstable equilibrium state known as supercooled water. Supercooled water tends to spontaneously convert into ice. When part of this supercooled water does convert to ice, it releases enough latent heat energy to raise its temperature and that of the remaining water to 0° C, thereby terminating the phase transition before all of the water has become ice.

But in the experiment you describe, the supercooled water was having trouble nucleating the initial seed ice crystal on which the remaining water could crystallize. Given enough time, that water would have spontaneously formed a seed crystal and the growth of the ice crystal would have proceeded rapidly after that. However, Black accelerated the formation of the seed crystal by shaking the tube. A defect at the surface of the tube or a piece of dust then acted as the trigger and helped the seed ice crystal form. The water then crystallized rapidly around this seed crystal. After the ice had formed, the water was truly in equilibrium.


1093. Is it true that water that has been previously boiled will boil faster than water that hasn't been boiled? — HE, Haddonfield, NJ
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I don't think so. The only effect that bringing water to a boil has on the water is to drive dissolved gases out of solution. Once the water returns to room temperature, it's essentially the same as it was before it was heated to boiling, except that it contains very little dissolved air. It may be that this absence of dissolved air will allow the water to boil slightly faster the next time around, but I doubt that you'd be able to detect a difference.

1094. When you walk on snow when it is cold (-20° C), the snow squeaks; but when it is relatively warm (-5° C) the snow doesn't squeak. Why? — PW, Alberta, CA
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Near ice's melting temperature, the surfaces within warm snow become more and more liquid-like. These liquid-like surfaces not only allow the warm snow to stick together as firm snowballs, but they act as lubricants so that the snow is particularly slippery. At much lower temperatures, the snow's surfaces are much more solid and they slide uneasily and noisily across one another. The cold snow squeaks because it hasn't "been oiled."

1095. I know that photons are particles of light—but how are photons related to the "excited" electrons in the atoms of a gas discharge?
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An atom in a gas discharge emits light when one of its electrons shifts from an orbital with extra energy into an empty orbital in which it will have less energy. Since an electron can only travel around the atom's nucleus in an allowed orbit—an orbital—and the energy it has while in that orbital is very specifically defined, such a shift from one orbital to another results in the emission of a photon of light with a very specific energy. Because a photon's energy is directly proportional to the frequency of the light, and light's frequency and wavelength are related by the speed of light, the amount of energy the electron gives up in shifting from one orbital to another determines the photon's energy, frequency, and wavelength.

1096. When you were saying that even humans travel as waves (which I can picture), is this the theory behind how the people in the show Startrek are "beamed" to certain planets and back to the ship?
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The fact that all objects, including people, travel as waves in our universe is probably not what the writers of Startrek had in mind when they "invented" the transporter. In Startrek, the transporter seems to disassemble the people involved at one location and then reconstruct them at another. That disassembly/reassembly process is purely science fiction while the wave propagation of matter is quite real. We never notice this wave propagation for large objects because their wave effects are too small to detect and because watching an object propagate prevents its wave properties from having any significant consequences. Each observation of an object tends to localize it and minimize its wave properties, so that watching an object moves makes the effects of its wave properties minimal.

1097. How do radios work?
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A radio station launches a radio wave by moving electric charges rhythmically up and down their antenna. As this electric charge accelerates back and forth, it produces a changing electric field—a structure in space that pushes on electric charges—and a changing magnetic field—a structure in space that pushes on magnetic poles. Because the electric field changes with time, it creates the magnetic field and because the magnetic field changes with time, it creates the electric field. The two travel off across space as a pair, endlessly recreating one another in an electromagnetic wave that will continue to the ends of the universe. However, when this wave encounters the antenna of your radio, its electric field begins to push electric charges up and down on that antenna. Your radio senses this motion of electric charges and thus detects the passing radio wave.

To convey audio information (sound) to you radio, the radio station makes one of several changes to the radio wave it transmits. In the AM or Amplitude Modulation technique, it adjusts the amount of charge it moves up and down its antenna, and hence the strength of its radio wave, in order to signal which way to move the speaker of your radio. These movements of the speaker are what cause your radio to emit sound. In the FM or Frequency Modulation technique, the radio station adjusts the precise frequency at which it moves charge up and down its antenna. Your radio senses these slight changes in frequency and moves its speaker accordingly.


1098. Assuming microwave ovens cook on the principle of "moist" heat cookery, what are the general effects of microwave cooking on various foods, including effects on chemical structure? — EJ, Sydney, Australia
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Microwave ovens cook by depositing thermal energy in the water molecules, which isn't the same as cooking food in moist hot air. Microwave cooking tends to heat food uniformly throughout where as more conventional "moist" heat cooking still heats food from the outside in. Nonetheless, the chemical effects on food are very similar for both types of cooking. Virtually all of these effects are caused by elevating the temperatures of the food. I'm not an expert on the chemistry of cooking, but elevated temperatures certainly denature proteins and caramelize sugars.

1099. I know that microwaves only heat polar molecules but what about aluminum foil and graphitic carbon, which are both heated by microwaves even though they have no dipole moments? — EB
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Aluminum foil and graphitic carbon are both conductors of electricity. When they're exposed to microwaves, the electric fields in those microwaves causes currents to flow through them. If the aluminum were thick enough, it would be able to handle the currents without trouble. But aluminum is very thin and the current that flows through it may be more than it can tolerate, particularly if it's only a narrow strip. It then becomes very hot. The effect is the same as would happen if you plugged the aluminum foil into an electric outlet and sent current through it that way. The same heating occurs in the carbon—the current that flows in it heats it up. In short, relatively poor conductors of electricity become hot in a microwave because they permit currents to flow in response to the microwave electric fields but then can't tolerate those currents without becoming hot.

1100. How do neon lights work? — MT, Cement City, MI
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A neon light uses a high voltage transformer to place electric charges on the wires at each end of a neon-filled glass tube. One end of the tube receives positive charges and the other end receives negative charges. Since like charges repel one another, the vast numbers of like charges at each end push apart strongly and some of them leave the wire and enter the neon gas. Once they're in the gas, these charges are draw quickly toward the opposite charge at the far end of the tube. As they travel through the tube, these moving charges pick up speed and kinetic energy but they occasionally collide with neon atoms as they travel and can transfer some of their kinetic energies to the neon atoms. The neon atoms retain this extra energy only briefly before getting rid of it in the form of visible light—the familiar red glow of a neon lamp. Overall, electric charges stream from one end of the tube to the other, frequently colliding with the neon atoms and causing those atoms to emit red light. If you look closely at a neon lamp, you'll see that it is the gas itself that's emitting the red light.

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