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Page 142 of 160 (1595 Questions and Answers)

1411. I wear glasses for distance vision, but my near vision is good. Why is it that when I use a nearby mirror to view distant objects, I must wear my glasses to see them clearly? I should be able to see the nearby mirror well without glasses. — JFJ
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When you view something in a flat mirror, you are looking at a virtual image of the object and this virtual image isn't located on the surface of the mirror. Instead, it's located on the far side of the mirror at a distance exactly equal to the distance from the mirror to the actual object. In effect, you are looking through a window into a "looking glass world" and seeing a distant object on the other side of that window. The reflected light reaching your eyes has all the optical characteristics of having come the full distance from that virtual image, through the mirror, to your eyes. The total distance between what you are seeing and your eyes is the sum of the distance from your eyes to the mirror plus the distance from the mirror to the object. That's why you must use your distance glasses to see most reflected objects clearly. Even when you observe your own face, you are seeing it as though it were located twice as far from you as the distance from your face to the mirror.

1412. Would it be possible to put a thermometer inside a microwave oven? Would the microwaves have an effect on an electronic thermometer? Would they have an effect on a mercury thermometer? — R
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This is an interesting question because it brings up the tricky issue of what is the temperature in a microwave oven. In fact, there is no specific temperature in the oven because the microwaves that do the cooking are not thermal. Rather than emerging from a hot object with a well-defined temperature, these microwaves are produced in a coherent fashion by a vacuum tube. Like the light emerging from a laser, these microwaves can heat objects they encounter as hot as you like, or at least until heat begins to escape from those objects as fast as it's being added.

So instead of measuring the "temperature of the microwave oven," people normally put thermometers in the food to measure the food's temperature. This works well as long as the thermometers don't interact with the microwaves in ways that make them either hotter or inaccurate. Electronic thermometers are common in high-end microwaves. There is nothing special about these electronic thermometers except that they are carefully shielded so that the microwaves don't heat them or affect their readings. By "shielded," I mean that each of these thermometers has a continuous metallic sheath that reflects the microwaves. This sheath extends from the wall of the oven's cooking chamber all the way to the thermometer probe's tip so that the microwaves themselves can't enter the measurement electronics. Since the sheath reflects microwaves, the thermometer isn't heated by the microwaves and only measures the temperature of the food it contacts.

On the other hand, putting a mercury thermometer in a microwave oven isn't a good idea. While mercury is a metal and will reflect most of the microwaves that strike it, the microwaves will push a great many electric charges up and down the narrow column of mercury. This current flow will cause heating of the mercury because the column is too thin to tolerate the substantial current without becoming warm. The mercury can easily overheat, turn to gas, and explode the thermometer. (A reader of this web site reported having blown up a mercury thermometer just this way as a child.) Moreover, as charges slosh up and down the mercury column, they will periodically accumulate at the upper end. Since there is only a thin vapor of mercury gas above this upper surface, the accumulated charges will probably ionize this vapor and create a luminous mercury discharge. The thermometer would then turn into a mercury lamp, emitting ultraviolet light. I used microwave-powered mercury lamps similar to this in my thesis research fifteen years ago and they work very nicely.


1413. I have been trying to get information on what causes strange gravity areas to exist...Walking on walls, water rolling uphill, etc. There are a number of such places advertised in the United States and elsewhere but are they optical illusions or for real? — MW
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These purported gravitational anomalies are just illusions. Because gravity is a relatively weak force, enormous concentrations of mass are required to create significant gravitational fields. Since it takes the entire earth to give you your normal weight, the mass concentration needed to cancel or oppose the earth's gravitation field in only one location would have to be extraordinary. While objects capable of causing such bizarre effects do exist elsewhere in our universe (e.g. black holes and neutron stars), there fortunately aren't any around here. As a result, the strength of the gravitational field at the earth's surface varies less than 1% over the earth's surface and always points almost exactly toward the center of the earth. Any tourist attraction that claims to have gravity pointing in some other direction with some other strength is claiming the impossible.

1414. If two planets were really close together and you were between them, how would the gravitational force affect you? — MB & Class
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If you were directly between the two planets, their gravitational forces on you would oppose one another and at least partially cancel. Which planet would exert the stronger force on you would depend on their relative masses and on your distances from each of them. If one planet pulled on you more strongly than the other, you would find yourself falling toward that planet even though the other planet's gravity would oppose your descent and prolong the fall. However, there would also be a special location between the planets at which their gravitational forces would exactly cancel. If you were to begin motionless at that point in space, you wouldn't begin to fall at all. While the planets themselves would move and take the special location with them, there would be a brief moment when you would be able to hover in one place.

But there is something I've neglected: you aren't really at one location in space. Because your body has a finite size, the forces of gravity on different parts of your body would vary subtly according to their exact locations in space. Such variations in the strength of gravity are normally insignificant but would become important if you were extremely big (e.g. the size of the moon) or if the two planets you had in mind were extremely small but extraordinarily massive (e.g. black holes or neutron stars). In those cases, spatial variations in gravity would tend to pull unevenly on your body parts and might cause trouble. Such uneven forces are known as tidal forces and are indeed responsible for the earth's tides. While the tidal forces on a spaceship traveling between the earth and the moon would be difficult to detect, they would be easy to find if the spaceship were traveling between two small and nearby black holes. In that case, the tidal forces could become so severe that they could rip apart not only the spaceship and its occupants, but also their constituent molecules, atoms, and even subatomic particles.


1415. I noticed that in your discussions of salted water in cooking, you never mentioned the main reason why people add salt to water: it raises the boiling temperature of the water so that foods cook faster — L
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You are right that adding salt to water raises the water's boiling temperature. Contrary to one's intuition, adding salt to water doesn't make it easier for the water to boil, it makes it harder. As a result, the water must reach a higher temperature before it begins to boil. Any foods you place in this boiling salt water (e.g. eggs or pasta) find themselves in contact with somewhat hotter water and should cook faster as a result. That's because most cooking is limited by the boiling temperature of water in or around food and anything that lowers this boiling temperature, such as high altitude, slows most cooking while anything that raises the boiling temperature of water, such as salt or the use of a pressure cooker, speeds most cooking. However, it takes so much salt to raise the boiling temperature of water enough to affect cooking times that this can't be the main motivation for cooking in salted water. By the time you've salted the water enough to raise its boiling temperature more than a few degrees, you've made the water too salty for cooking. It's pretty clear that salting your cooking water is basically a matter of taste, not temperature.

1416. Since a typical commercial jetliner cruises at around 30,000 feet (higher than Mt. Everest), where the air is very rarified, is there a mechanism to concentrate the air around the engine intake? — P
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There certainly is such a mechanism. The air at a jetliner's cruising altitude is much too thin to support life so it must be compressed before introducing it into the airplane's passenger cabin. The compressed air is actually extracted from an intermediate segment of the airplane's jet engines. In the course of their normal operations, these engines collect air entering their intake ducts, compress that air with rotary fans, inject fuel into the compressed air, burn the mixture, and allow the hot, burned gases to stream out the exhaust duct through a series of rotary turbines. The turbines provide the power to operate the compressor fans. Producing the stream of exhaust gas is what pushes the airplane forward.

But before fuel is injected into the engine's compressed air, there is a side duct that allows some of that compressed air to flow toward the passenger cabin. So the engine is providing the air you breathe during a flight.

There is one last interesting point about this compressed air: It is initially too hot to breathe. Even though air at 30,000 feet is extremely cold, the act of compressing it causes its temperature to rise substantially. This happens because compressing air takes energy and that energy must go somewhere in the end. It goes into the thermal energy of the air and raises the air's temperature. Thus the compressed air from the engines must be cooled by air conditioners before it goes into the passenger cabin.


1417. Is there any mathematical relevance to the period of motion of a pendulum? For example, if I made a scale model of a pendulum and then squared it or cubed it, would there be any mathematical correlation between the results?
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Yes, there would be a simple relationship between the periods of the three pendulums. That's because the period of a pendulum depends only on its length and on the strength of gravity. Since a pendulum's period is proportional to the square root of its length, you would have to make your model four times as long to double the time it takes to complete a swing. A typical grandfather's clock has a 0.996-meter pendulum that takes 2 seconds to swing, while a common wall clock has a 0.248-meter pendulum that takes 1 second to swing. Note that the effective length of the pendulum is from its pivot to its center of mass or center of gravity. A precision pendulum has special temperature compensating components that make sure that this effective length doesn't change when the room's temperature changes.

1418. How do the automatic soda dispensers at fast food joints know when the cup is full? — MB
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They measure the volume of liquid they deliver and shut off when they have dispensed enough soda to fill the cup. Accurate volumetric flowmeters, such as those used in the dispensers, typically have a sophisticated paddlewheel assembly inside that turns as the liquid goes through a channel. When the paddlewheel has gone around the right number of times, an electronic valve closes to stop the flow of liquid.

1419. I tried freezing two cups of water, one with salt added and one with sugar added, to see which would freeze first. I conducted my experiment three times and each time the sugar water froze first. Why? — AM
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Dissolving solids in water always lowers the water's freezing temperature by an amount that's proportional to the density of dissolved particles. If you double the density of particles in water, you double the amount by which the freezing temperature is lowered.

While salt and sugar both dissolve in water and thus both lower its freezing temperature, salt is much more effective than sugar. That's because salt produces far more dissolved particles per pound or per cup than sugar. First, table salt (sodium chloride) is almost 40% more dense than cane sugar (sucrose), so that a cup of salt weighs much more than a cup of cane sugar. Second, a salt molecule (NaCl) weighs only about 8.5% as much as a sucrose molecule (C12H22O11), so there are far more salt molecules in a pound of salt than sugar molecules in a pound of sugar. Finally, when salt dissolves in water, it decomposes into ions: Na+ and Cl-. That decomposition doubles the density of dissolved particles produced when salt dissolves. Sugar molecules remain intact when they dissolve, so there is no doubling effect. Thus salt produces a much higher density of dissolved particles than sugar, whether you compare them cup for cup or pound for pound, and thus lowers water's freezing temperature more effectively. That's why the salt water is so slow to freeze.


1420. Why does air speed up as it flows over an airplane wing? — MS
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When air flows past an airplane wing, it breaks into two airstreams. The one that goes under the wing encounters the wing's surface, which acts as a ramp and pushes the air downward and forward. The air slows somewhat and its pressure increases. Forces between this lower airstream and the wing's undersurface provide some of the lift that supports the wing.

But the airstream that goes over the wing has a complicated trip. First it encounters the leading edge of the wing and is pushed upward and forward. This air slows somewhat and its pressure increases. So far, this upper airstream isn't helpful to the plane because it pushes the plane backward. But the airstream then follows the curving upper surface of the wing because of a phenomenon known as the Coanda effect. The Coanda effect is a common behavior in fluids—viscosity and friction keep them flowing along surfaces as long as they don't have to turn too quickly. (The next time your coffee dribbles down the side of the pitcher when you poured too slowly, blame it on the Coanda effect.)

Because of the Coanda effect, the upper airstream now has to bend inward to follow the wing's upper surface. This inward bending involves an inward acceleration that requires an inward force. That force appears as the result of a pressure imbalance between the ambient pressure far above the wing and a reduced pressure at the top surface of the wing. The Coanda effect is the result (i.e. air follows the wing's top surface) but air pressure is the means to achieve that result (i.e. a low pressure region must form above the wing in order for the airstream to arc inward and follow the plane's top surface).

The low pressure region above the wing helps to support the plane because it allows air pressure below the wing to be more effective at lifting the wing. But this low pressure also causes the upper airstream to accelerate. With more pressure behind it than in front of it, the airstream accelerates—it's pushed forward by the pressure imbalance. Of course, the low pressure region doesn't last forever and the upper airstream has to decelerate as it approaches the wing's trailing edge—a complicated process that produces a small amount of turbulence on even the most carefully designed wing.

In short, the curvature of the upper airstream gives rise to a drop in air pressure above the wing and the drop in air pressure above the wing causes a temporary increase in the speed of the upper airstream as it passes over much of the wing.


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