How Everything Works   Page 138 of 160 (1595 Questions and Answers) Printer Friendly Version

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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