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Page 119 of 160 (1595 Questions and Answers)

1181. Is light a particle or a ray? — CG
Light is both a particle and a ray (a wave). Its wave character was known and understood for many years before its particle character was discovered. That a film of clear soap exhibits colors is one of many demonstrations that light travels as waves, and such demonstrations were well understood in the 19th century. But it wasn't until the early 20th century that people discovered the particle character of light. They found that light is absorbed in discrete packets of energy or quanta, and these quanta of light energy were called photons. As a simple rule of thumb, you can think of light as exhibiting wave-like properties while it's traveling, but particle-like properties when it's being emitted or absorbed. This dual nature of light is complicated but unavoidable; it's a consequence of the quantum mechanical nature of our universe.

1182. How is the skin better hydrated by vapor as opposed to liquid water? Wrapping yourself in a damp sheet is more effective at treating the dryness of eczema than taking a bath. — CW
When your skin is immersed in pure water, the only molecules that ever collide with its surface are water molecules. That might seem to be the ideal situation for keeping skin moist, however such immersion can have other unintended consequences. First, any water soluble atoms, molecules, and ions that can move to the surface of your skin will dissolve away in the surrounding water and you'll never see them again. Second, any water soluble atoms, molecules, and ions that can't move to the surface of your skin will draw water into your skin by way of osmosis—the pure water will flow into your skin cells in an attempt to dilute the dissolved particles inside those cells. After a relatively short time, the cells of your skin will contain many more water molecules than before and your skin will look all wrinkly. This flow of water soluble materials out of your skin and water into your skin may not be so wonderful for your eczema.

When you wrap yourself in a wet cloth, you are ensuring that the relative humidity near the surface of your skin will be close to 100%. Air molecules will still be present around your skin but now there will be essentially no net transfer of water between your skin and the surrounding air—water molecules will leave your skin for the air at roughly the same rate as water molecules return to your skin from the air. In effect, you are stopping evaporation from your skin and very little else. Stopping evaporation from your skin will also cause it to accumulate moisture, but this time the new moisture will come from within your body. Water molecules that would have left your skin had it been surrounded by dry air are now staying in your skin, where they add to the moisture in your skin. Overall, you skin will contain more water but it will not have lost as many water-soluble chemicals and it will not have water driven into it by osmotic pressure. It may be this more gentle moisturizing effect that makes wrapping yourself in a damp sheet more pleasant for your eczema than immersing yourself in water.

1183. We heated a cup of water in a microwave oven for 2-1/2 minutes and then added a spoonful of sugar to it. A rush of tiny bubbles ensued. Did the sugar crystals nucleate boiling water molecules that were trapped by surrounding cooler molecules or did they nucleate the release of dissolved air? — VC
When you heated the water in the microwave oven, you raised its temperature above its boiling temperature, yet it did not boil. While the water was hot enough to boil—that is, any steam bubble that formed in this hot water would have a pressure at least equal to atmospheric pressure and would not be crushed by the surrounding air—the water was having a difficult time forming steam bubbles. For a bubble to appear, several water molecules must simultaneously break free of their neighbors to form a bubble nucleus. Once this nucleation has occurred, additional water molecules can evaporate into the bubble, making it grow. This nucleation is rare in pure water near its boiling temperature; in most cases it is assisted by hot spots at the bottom of a pot on the stove or by imperfections in the container holding the water. But when you heat water in a glass or glazed ceramic container in a microwave oven, there are no hot spots or surface imperfections to nucleate the bubbles. The water superheats above its boiling temperature. When you add sugar crystals to this superheated water, the crystal's sharp edges and points assist the nucleation of steam bubbles and the water boils violently.

Your suggestions for why the bubbles appear raise two interesting points. First, in a thermal system such as hot water, you can't identify some molecules as being boiling hot and others as being cooler—temperature is a property of the entire system and not of individual molecules. However, at a given instant, there are molecules with more energy than their neighbors and it is these energetic molecules that may break free of their neighbors to form a bubble nucleus.

Second, water often contains dissolved gases and these gases come out of solution when the water is heated. While many of the gas molecules leave through the water's surface, some of them may leave as bubbles from within the water. This gas bubble formation requires nucleation as well, which is why these bubbles often appear on the inner surfaces of a metal pot on the stove—flaws in the pot's surface assist bubble nucleation. But these gas bubbles aren't what you observed; there just isn't that much dissolve gas. You can prove that the bubbles you observe are steam: repeat the experiment several times with the same water. Each time you heat the water and add sugar, it bubbles wildly—something that wouldn't be possible if you were simply releasing dissolved gases from the water.

1184. I fight a constant battle with mildew in the Pacific Northwest. I can buy solid chemicals to put in my closets, which take water out of the air, eventually creating a bucket full of water. Do these devices actually lower the moisture content of the air or do they just make me feel like I'm doing something? — MD
How much effect these drying agents have depends on how much air they're exposed to. Water molecules are continuously going back and forth between the air and everything exposed to that air—your clothing, your hair, the walls of your home, the contents of a saltshaker, and the drawers in a wooden bureau. The water molecules land on and take off from every surface, like busy miniature airports. The rate at which water molecules land on an object depends on how humid the air is. The rate at which water molecules leave that object depends on how hot the object is and on how tightly water molecules cling to it.

The landing and leaving processes are in perpetual competition and the fastest one wins. If the air is humid and the object is cold or attractive to water molecules, the landing process dominates and water condenses out of the air and onto the object. If the air is dry and the object is hot or doesn't bind water molecules well, taking off dominates and water evaporates from the object into the air.

Your problem is that the air in your closets is very humid and landing is winning—too much water is condensing on your walls. To stop this condensation, you either have to heat the walls, so that water molecules leave them faster, or reduce the humidity of the air, so that water molecules land less often. Putting a material that binds water molecules into your closets changes the balance of landing and taking off—water molecules that land on this material don't return to the air often so the humidity of the air diminishes. With less humidity in the air, the rate at which water molecules land on the walls also diminishes.

But this drying effect only works if the air in the closet is trapped there. If your closet exchanges air quickly with outdoor air, the water molecules removed by the drying agent will be quickly replaced with new water molecules from outside. In effect, you will be trying to dry the great outdoors, a hopeless task. To make the most of this drying agent, you should let it work on as little air as possible by sealing the closet and slowing the exchange of air with outside. Better yet, replace the drying agent with a dehumidifier. A dehumidifier accumulates water molecules from the air by presenting the air with a chilled surface. Water molecules land on the cold surface and then don't have enough energy to return to the air. They are trapped by the cold rather than by chemical binding.

1185. With the amount of wind that's produced by high-speed traffic on expressways, why don't electric companies put wind-powered generators in the center lanes? Using this (wasted) wind to generate electricity would be cheaper, safer, and environmentally friendlier than the power plants that they are running now. — DJA
While wind generators are being used experimentally to charge batteries in roadway equipment that can't be reached with power lines, there are at least three reasons why such generators aren't in large scale use. First, wind generators that connect to the AC power grid work most efficiently when they turn at a steady rate—the generator itself must remain in synch with the cyclic alternating current in the electric power lines. The intermittent and sporadic winds produced by passing cars and trucks aren't really suitable for such wind generators.

Second, to make efficient use of the wind created by traffic, hundreds of wind generators would have to be installed on each mile of expressway. Since wind generators are expensive, it's much more cost effective to put them on windy ridges out in the country or by the seashore.

Third, the wind generators you propose would actually extract energy from the cars and trucks and reduce their gas mileages! That fact might surprise you, since it would seem that extracting energy from the wind wouldn't have any effect on the cars and trucks that created that wind. But the wind and the vehicles continue to interact as they move along the expressway—each vehicle drags a pocket of air with it and interfering with this air pocket has the effect of interfering with the vehicle! The vehicle uses energy to maintain this moving air pocket and it burns additional fuel. An aerodynamically well-designed vehicle has a relatively small air pocket, but there is a limit to what can be done. To reduce the energy cost of maintaining the air pocket, the vehicle's driver can steer it into the air pocket behind another vehicle so that the two vehicles share a single air pocket. The lead vehicle then provides most of the energy needed to keep the air pocket moving. This technique of sharing an air pocket is called "drafting" and is frequently used by bicycle racers. But while drafting makes it easier for many vehicles to keep their air pockets moving, the wind generators that you propose would make it harder—they would steal energy from the air pockets of every passing vehicle and make those vehicles fight harder to keep their air pockets moving.

A better way to save energy would be to encourage large-scale drafting in some safe way. Having chains of independent cars tailgate one another would be energy efficient, but would cause horrific accidents. However, assembling those cars into a tightly coupled "train" may someday become possible with advances in technology and computer controls.

1186. Could microwave heating be used to treat sewage to wipe out disease organisms in it? — KO
While microwave heating could be used to sterilize sewage, it's not the most energy efficient or inexpensive technique. Microwave heating is really only worthwhile in cases where you can't reach the inside of an object directly—as is the case in most solid foods. Since sewage is essentially liquid, it can be heated quickly and efficiently by passing it close to a hot surface. Just about anything can be used to heat that surface—electricity, natural gas, coal, you name it.

But to be even more energy efficient, the sewage that was just sterilized a minute ago and is still hot can be used to heat the sewage that is about to be treated! A well designed thermal treatment facility could employ "counter-current exchange"—that is it could pass the hot, treated material through a heat exchanger to allow it to transfer most of its excess heat to the cooler, untreated material that is about to be sterilized. By recycling the heat in this manner, the facility could avoid having to burn so much fuel. The only drawback with this technique is that the heat exchanger must be leak-proof—it must keep the sterilized material from touching and being contaminated by the unsterilized material.

1187. How does the automatic cutoff valve on a gasoline pump work? How is it able to shut off the gas before the nozzle has become immersed in the liquid? I don't see how the pump could be so sensitive to back pressure in the gasoline. — NG, Bloomsburg, PA
As you suspect, the pump isn't able to detect the change in gasoline pressure that occurs when the fill level reaches the nozzle. Instead, the nozzle uses several hidden components to shut itself off when the tank is full. There is a small hole near the end of the nozzle that becomes blocked by the liquid gasoline as soon as the fill level reaches that hole. Blocking this hole with gasoline is what shuts off the valve. There is actually a thin tube inside the main gasoline delivery hose that operates this valve system. That tube runs from the hole in the nozzle to a vacuum pump inside the gasoline-pumping unit. While the pump is dispensing gasoline into a partially filled tank, air flows easily into the nozzle's hole and the pressure inside the thin tube remains close to atmospheric pressure. But when the level of gasoline rises high enough, it essentially blocks the hole and the pressure inside the thin tube drops. This pressure drop is what triggers the valve and stops the gasoline flow. Look for the hole near the end of the metal nozzle next time you fill your car with gasoline. In most cases, it's easy to see.

1188. Could you suspend a car on hot air produced below it? — RM, Toronto, Ontario
For the buoyancy of hot air to suspend a car, you would need a lot of it—in effect you would have to turn the car into a hot air balloon. That's because the lifting force experienced by hot air is really supplied by the cooler air around it and this upward buoyant force is proportional to the volume of hot air being lifted. Since a car is pretty heavy, the volume of hot air required will be enormous.

However, if you trap the air underneath the car, so that its volume can't increase, and then heat that air, its pressure will rise. This increased pressure below the car would produce an overall upward pressure force on the car and could support the car's weight. In effect, you would be creating a ground-effect hovercraft in which the elevated pressure of trapped hot air supports the weight of the vehicle. But it would be easier and less energy-intensive to pump air underneath your hovercraft with a big fan. That's what most ground-effect vehicles do. They pack extra air molecules underneath themselves and then allow those molecules to support their weight. Furthermore, because air molecules are always leaking out from beneath the vehicle, you'll need a fan to replace them anyway.

1189. I heard some time ago about a car that uses microwaves to heat the air in front of it so that it creates a vacuum. The relatively higher pressure behind then pushes it forward. Is this possible? — RM, Toronto, Ontario
Even if microwaves were effective at heating air, which they are not, this heating would not propel the car forward. The air in front of the car would become hot, but its pressure would remain almost unchanged. Instead, the air would expand to occupy a larger volume and would then be lifted upward by the cooler air around it ("hot air rises"). Cooler air would flow in to replace the escaping hot air and the car would simply sit there with a steady stream of hot air rising in front of it.

1190. What is the speed with which electric power is transmitted through the power grid? Believe it or not, the education center at an important nuclear power plant claims that "electrons travel at the speed of light," an obvious impossibility for current in a copper wire. What is the maximum speed of an electron in a commercial electric power grid? in a superconductor? — AW, Alexandria, VA
Amazingly enough, the speed at which electric power travels through a wire is very different from the speed at which electrons move through that wire. In most wires, electric power travels at very nearly the speed of light while the electrons themselves travel only millimeters per second! This statement is true whether the electricity is traveling in a copper wire or a superconductor!

To understand how this difference in speeds is possible, think about what happens when you turn on the water to a long hose. If that hose is already filled with water, water will immediately begin pouring out of the hose's end even though the water is flowing quite slowly through the hose. While the water itself moves slowly, the water's effects travel through the hose at the speed of sound in water—several miles per second! Water at the end of the hose "knows" that you have opened the faucet long before new water from the faucet arrives.

Similarly, when you turn on a flashlight, electrons begin to flow out of the battery's negative terminal at speeds of only a few millimeters per second. But these electrons don't have to travel all the way to the light bulb for the bulb to light up. When these electrons leave the battery, they push on the electrons in front of them, which push on the electrons in front of them, and so on. They produce an electromagnetic wave that rushes through the wire at an incredible speed. As a result, electrons begin flowing through the light bulb only a few billionths of a second after the first electron left the battery. So while the electrons that carry electricity through the power grid flow rather slowly, the power they deliver moves remarkably fast.
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