How Everything Works
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Page 116 of 160 (1595 Questions and Answers)

1151. What is the chemistry involved with natural dyes adhering to surfaces? — AG, Aloha, OR
Unless a chemical reaction binds them permanently in place, dye molecules that are soluble enough to wash into fabrics are equally likely to wash back out of the fabrics later on. To remain in place, the dyes must undergo chemical reactions that attach them to the fibers of the fabric. Some dyes react spontaneously to the fabric molecules but many others need help. The traditional scheme for binding dyes to fabrics involves mordents—relatively colorless chemicals that bind to both fabric and dye, and that hold the two together. Tannic acid and various metal salts have been used as mordents for centuries. They form insoluble compounds that wedge themselves into hollow spaces in the fibers and then bind chemically to the dye molecules. These mordents hold the dye molecules in place in much the same way that technical climbing gear holds rock climbers to the face of a cliff.

1152. I was told by an electrician to use 130-volt bulbs, which he said were outlawed by the electric bulb makers because they last so long. He said that electricians can buy them and not the public. I found them and have used them for 5 years and he is right! They last forever. Why is that? How do they compare to more energy efficient lights? — J
When you use a bulb designed for 130 volts in a fixture that operates at 120 volts, the bulb's filament runs at less than its rated temperature. This temperature change has two consequences—one good and one bad. The good news is that operating the filament at less than its normal temperature slows the evaporation of tungsten atoms and prolongs the filament's life. That's why your bulbs are lasting so long. The bad news is that incandescent bulbs become much less energy efficient as you lower their filament temperatures. The light emitted by the filament is thermal radiation and its color spectrum and brightness depend almost exclusively on its temperature. These 130-volt bulbs emit redder and dimmer light than a normal bulb and they are significantly less energy efficient as a result. Incandescent bulbs already emit far more invisible infrared light than visible light and operating them at reduced temperatures only makes this problem worse. I recently read the statement "this bulb burns cooler than a normal bulb" on a package of super-long-life bulbs—as though burning cooler was a good thing rather than a serious shortcoming.

As energy becomes more and more precious, making the most of it becomes more and more important. I would suggest saving these 130-volt bulbs for fixtures that are so difficult to reach that you want to avoid changing bulbs at all costs. In more easily accessible fixtures, replacing bulbs is only a minor inconvenience associated with improved energy efficiency. Better still, switch to fluorescent lamps—which are much more energy efficient than even the best incandescent lamps.

1153. For home canning it is necessary to thoroughly sterilize the containers. In the past, I have had to boil the jars in a large container. This is dangerous. If I were to moisten the jars and place them in the microwave, would there be enough heat to sterilize them? — CM
While you could sterilize jars in a microwave oven, doing so would be extremely dangerous. Your chances of successfully sterilizing the jars without blowing one of them up is very small. Here is an explanation.

When you place a canning jar in boiling water, what you are really doing is exposing that jar to a water bath at a temperature of 212° F (100° C). Boiling water self-regulates its temperature very accurately, making it a wonderful reference for cooking. Below water's boiling temperature, water molecules evaporate relatively slowly from the surface of water so that when you add heat to the water, it tends to get hotter and hotter. But once the water begins to boil—meaning that evaporation begins to occur within the body of the water—water molecules evaporate so rapidly that when you add heat to the water, more of it converts into steam and its temperature doesn't change much. When you boil canning jars for 5 minutes, you are simply making sure that the canning jars sit at about 212° F for about 5 minutes; long enough to kill bacteria in the jars. Since the boiling temperature of water diminishes at high altitudes and lower atmospheric pressures, you must wait longer for your jars to be adequately sterilized if you live in the mountains.

Microwave cooking wouldn't heat the jars to any specific temperature. As you cooked the jars in a microwave oven, their contents would become hotter and hotter. Even if we ignore the fact that microwave cooking is uneven, so that the temperature inside each jar won't be uniform, there will be nothing special about the temperature 212° F. If you cook the food long enough, its temperature will reach 212° F, but will then keep rising. As it does, the water vapor in the jars will become more and more dense and its pressure will rise higher and higher. If the canning jar had been properly capped, the metal lid ought to be loose enough to allow this steam to escape. However, the canning system wasn't designed to handle large amounts of escaping steam and an over-tightened jar might not permit the steam to escape at all. With the steam trapped inside, the pressure inside the jar may become large enough to cause it to explode. Since too little time in the microwave oven will leave the jars unsterilized and too much time in the microwave oven may cause them to explode, I suggest sticking to the tried and true method of sterilizing your jars in boiling water.

1154. I heard on a news report that there is a paint that will generate heat from a 12-volt battery. What can you tell me about this subject? — JF
Generating heat from a battery is relatively easy. All you need is a material that conducts electricity only moderately well and you're in business. If you allow current to flow through that material from the battery's positive terminal to its negative terminal, the current will lose energy as it struggles to get through the material and the current's lost energy will become thermal energy in the material. The only difficult part of this task is in choosing the right material so that it doesn't produce too much or too little heat. In short, the electric resistance of the finished material has to be in the right range. For a solid system that you can cut and tailor, that's not much of a problem. But for a paint, it could be tricky. To make an inexpensive paint, it would probably need to use carbon powder as the electric conductor. A thin layer of carbon granules held in place by a plastic of some sort would probably provide a suitable conducting surface that would become warm when you allowed current to flow through it from a battery. There are copper and silver conducting paints that might also work, but these are rather expensive and I'm not sure how they behave at elevated temperatures.

1155. How can I build an AM radio?
That's a very open ended question so I'll describe the simplest AM radio I can think of—a crystal radio. A crystal radio already addresses most of the issues of AM radio and more sophisticated AM radios just improve on its performance.

You need only four basic components for a crystal radio: an antenna, a tank circuit, a diode, and a high-impedance earphone.

The antenna is a long wire that projects upward into the electromagnetic fields of the passing radio wave so that electric charges begin to move up and down its length. The ideal length for this wire is a quarter of the wavelength of the wave you're trying to receive, but since that's hundreds of meters for a typical AM station, you'll have to settle for a shorter than ideal antenna.

The tank circuit is a coil of wire that's connected at each end to the two ends of a capacitor. In a typical crystal radio, one of these items—either the coil or the capacitor—is adjustable and forms the tuning element that allows you to select a particular AM station. The tank circuit is a resonant device—electric charges and current flow back and forth through it rhythmically at a specific frequency. If that resonant frequency is adjusted so that it coincides with the transmission frequency of an AM radio station, the small currents flowing in the antenna that's connected to the tank circuit will excite large movements of charge and current in the tank circuit.

The diode is also connected to the tank circuit. Its job is to extract some of the charge that oscillates back and forth in the tank circuit and to send that charge to the earphone. By allowing current to flow only in one direction, the diode samples the overall amount of charge moving in the tank circuit. What it passes to the earphone is a measure of how strong the radio wave is, which is actually the form in which the AM radio station is transmitting sound information.

The high-impedance earphone uses the diode's tiny charge deliveries to reproduce sound. The diaphragm inside the earphone moves back and forth as the amount of charge passing through the diode fluctuates up and down. Each time the radio wave increases in strength, the diaphragm moves in one direction. Each time the radio wave decreases in strength, the diaphragm moves in the other direction. Thus as the radio station varies the strength of its radio wave, the earphone's diaphragm moves back and forth and it reproduces the sound.

1156. I heard of a laser induced fluorescence instrument that is used in aiding cancer diagnosis. Could you tell me how this instrument works?
You are probably referring to a device developed at the BC Cancer Research Center in Vancouver, British Columbia and now available commercially from Xillix Technologies. A scientist from that research center gave me the following description of their technique.

The instrument is based on the discovery that most tissues when illuminated by blue or UV light emit a natural fluorescence spectral signature known as autofluorescence. This fluorescence signature is the sum of the emission of the various biochemical fluorphores present in the tissue. If the tissue chemical or physical structure changes, then the spectral signature changes. By exploiting differences in the spectral signature between cancerous and healthy tissue one can create an imaging device that can "see" the difference in the color of the autofluorescence of the tissue and detect changes that may indicate the presence of cancer. The sensors used to see the low levels of fluorescence light employ similar technology to military night vision devices. Once areas of change are located and confirmed by analysis of a biopsy sample treatment can begin. This technique is primarily useful for early stage cancers that are not visually apparent to a physician.

1157. How does a parabolic microphone work? — KL, Regina, Saskatchewan
A parabolic microphone is effectively a mirror telescope for sound. When sound waves strike the dense, rigid surface of the parabolic dish, they partially reflect. This reflection occurs because sound travels much faster in a rigid solid than in the air and changes in the speed of a wave cause part of it to reflect. In this case, the reflection redirects the sound waves inward because the reflecting surface is curved and the sound waves form a real image of the distant source that produced them. While you can't see this real image with your eyes, you can hear it with your ears. If you were to mount a large parabolic dish so that it faced horizontally and then moved your ear around in the focal plane of the dish, you would hear sounds coming from various objects far away from the dish. The same effect occurs for light when it bounces off a curved mirror—a real mirror telescope. A TV satellite dish is the same thing, but this time for microwaves! In all three cases, the real images that form are upside down. To make a parabolic microphone, you normally put a conventional microphone in the central focus of a parabolic surface so that the microphone receives all the sound coming from objects directly in front of the parabola. To listen to different objects, you simply steer the parabola from one to the other. This is exactly what a TV satellite dish does when it wants to "listen" to a different satellite—it steers from one to the other.

1158. Why do you hear different music coming from a compact disc when the laser of the CD player is just going around the same part of the CD over and over again? — KD, McMinnville, OR
The CD player's laser doesn't really go over the same part of the CD over and over again. As the disc turns, the laser slowly moves outward from the middle of the disc toward its edge. The laser beam is focused to an extremely small spot inside the disc and it is carefully following a tight spiral ridge in the aluminum layer inside. This ridge runs continuously from the center of the disc to its edge. With each revolution of the disc, the laser works its way outward by one more turn of the spiral. The ridge has interruptions in it every so often and it is this pattern of interruptions that contains the information needed to reproduce sound.

1159. If you were out in space and could see every individual person clearly, would it look like they were walking at a slant? — KD, McMinnville, OR
To the astronauts orbiting the earth, up and down have very little meaning. Because they are falling all the time, these astronauts have no feeling of weight and can't tell up from down without looking. If an astronaut were to look at a person walking on the ground below, that person might easily appear at a strange angle, depending on the astronaut's orientation and point of view.

1160. What do engineers have to consider about waves when they are building bridges? — K
There are two answers to this question because there are two possible interpretations of the word "waves." If you mean waves in the water beneath the bridge, then naturally the engineers must plan for the forces exerted on the bridge by the moving water that flows around its surfaces. But a more interesting wave issue is waves in the bridge itself. The bridge's surface can experience waves, just as a taut rope or a long beam can have waves running through it. For example, when a heavy object drops on the surface of the bridge, a ripple heads outward along the bridge surface and doesn't stop completely until it reaches the ends of the bridge. In fact, the wave will reflect from various portions of the bridge and its effects may not disappear for many seconds after the incident that started the waves.

Most of the time, these waves aren't important and can be ignored. But occasionally some special event will cause enormous waves to begin traveling through a bridge. The classic example was the Tacoma Narrows Bridge in Washington State that collapsed in 1940 when wind-driven waves in its surface ripped it apart. The entire collapse was captured on film and is a fascinating to watch. When a large group of soldiers crosses a footbridge, they are often instructed to break step so that their rhythmic cadence doesn't excite intense waves that might damage the bridge. In general, modern bridges are engineered to dampen these waves—wasting their energy through friction or friction-like effects so that they die away quickly. While it might be fun to watch waves traveling along the surface of a bridge from a safe vantage point, you probably wouldn't want to be on a bridge when it was experiencing strong ones.
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