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Page 146 of 160 (1595 Questions and Answers)

1451. How can I make an electric generator from scratch? — OD
Generators and motors are very closely related and many motors that contain permanent magnets can also act as generators. If you move a permanent magnet past a coil of wire that is part of an electric circuit, you will cause current to flow through that coil and circuit. That's because a changing magnetic field, such as that near a moving magnet, is always accompanied in nature by an electric field. While magnetic fields push on magnetic poles, electric fields push on electric charges. With a coil of wire near the moving magnet, the moving magnet's electric field pushes charges through the coil and eventually through the entire circuit.

A convenient arrangement for generating electricity endlessly is to mount a permanent magnet on a spindle and to place a coil of wire nearby. Then as the magnet spins, it will turn past the coil of wire and propel currents through that coil. With a little more engineering, you'll have a system that looks remarkably like the guts of a typical permanent magnet based motor. In fact, if you take a common DC motor out of a toy and connect its two electrical terminals to a 1.5 V light bulb or a light emitting diode (try both directions with an LED because it can only carry current in one direction), you'll probably be able to light that bulb or LED by spinning the motor's shaft rapidly. A DC motor has a special switching system that converts the AC produced in the motor's coils into DC for delivery to the motor's terminals, but it's still a generator. So the easiest answer to your question is: "find a nice DC motor and turn its shaft".

1452. I recently read a full-page ad for FREE ELECTRICITY from a company called United Services Company of America. Their Website is at I walked through their site and viewed some of their videos "demonstrating" clear violations of the well-known and well-founded Laws of Thermodynamics, and listened to the description of the new Fourth Law of Motion (following Newton's other well known three). Are these people the same who were denied patent approval for a Perpetual Motion Machine? Have any reputable independent test labs reviewed their products under controlled conditions? Do they publish, even at a price, the fundamental mathematical and physical processes that allow for the claims that seem to be shown? I realize you're not a "debunker", but maybe you can shed some light on this. They have scheduled dozens of seminars across the country at considerable cost (and most likely considerable profit to them), and taken out full-page ads in national newspapers. The speakers do not comment on their academic training or experience, but tend to speak of hidden conspiracies from the power industry to stop their proliferation of free power. — DH
What a great find! This site is filled with pseudo-science at its best. I don't know the history or training of these people, but it's pure garbage. They use the words of science but without any meaningful content. Just as putting on a crown doesn't make you a king, using phrases like "action and reaction" and "Newton's third law" doesn't mean that you are discussing real science.

I watched the video on the "Counter Rotation Device" and found the discussion of "Newton's Fourth Law of Motion" quite amusing. The speaker claims that this fourth law was discovered about 30 years ago by a person now at their research lab. It is based on Newton's third law, which the speaker simplifies to "for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction." In a nutshell, his fourth law claims that you can take the reaction caused by a particular action and apply it to the action in the same direction—action causes reaction which causes more action which causes more reaction and so on. Pretty soon you have so much action and reaction that anything becomes possible. The video goes on to show devices that yield more power than they consume and that can easily become net sources of energy—by using part of the output energy from one of these energy multiplying devices to power that device, you can create endless energy from nothing at all.

Sadly enough, it's all just nonsense. Newton's third law is not as flexible as the speaker supposes and this endless feedback process in which reaction is used as action to produce more reaction is ridiculous. A more accurate version of Newton's third law is: "Whenever one object pushes on a second object, the second object pushes back on the first object equally hard but in the opposite direction". Thus when you push on the handle of a water pump, that handle pushes back on you with an equal but oppositely directed force. The speaker's claim is that there is a way to use the handle's push on you as part of your push on the handle so that, with your help, the handle essentially pushes itself through action and reaction. You can then pump water almost without effort. Sorry, this is just nonsense. It's mostly just playing with the words action and reaction in their common language form: if you scare me, I react by jumping. That action and reaction has nothing to do with physics.

The speaker uses at least three clever techniques to make his claims more compelling and palatable. First, he refers frequently to a power-company conspiracy that is out to destroy his company and its products. Conspiracy theories are so popular these days that having a conspiracy against you makes you more believable. Second, he describes the fellow who discovered the fourth law of motion as a basement inventor who has taken on the rigid scientific establishment. Ordinary people love to see pompous, highly educated academics brought low by other ordinary people; it's kind of a team spirit issue. And third, he makes casual use of technical looking equipment and jargon, as though he is completely at ease in the world of advanced technology. Movies have made it easier to trust characters like Doc Brown from "Back to the Future" than to trust real scientists.

In fact, there is no power-company conspiracy because there is no free electricity. The proof is in the pudding: if these guys really could make energy from nothing, they'd be doing it every day and making a fortune. They would be the power companies. If they were interested in public welfare rather than money, they'd have given their techniques away already. If they were interested in proving the scientific establishment wrong, they'd have accepted challenges by scientific organization and demonstrated their devices in controlled situations (where they can't cheat). The fact is, they're just frauds and of no more interest to the power companies than snake oil salespeople are to doctors. No decent people want to see others defrauded of money, property, or health, but the free electricity people present no real threat to the power companies.

The popular notion that an ordinary person is likely to upset established science is an unfortunate product of the anti-intellectual climate of our present world. Becoming a competent scientist is generally hard work and requires dedication, time, and an enormous amount of serious thinking. Physics is hard, even for most physicists. The laws governing the universe are slowly being exposed but it has taken very smart, very hardworking people almost half a millennium to get to the current state of understanding. Each new step requires enormous effort and a detailed understanding of a good part of the physics that is already known. Still, there is a common myth that some clever and lucky individual with essentially no training or knowledge of what has been discovered before will make some monumental breakthrough. The movies are filled with such events. Unfortunately, it won't happen. In new or immature fields or subfields, it is possible for an essentially untrained or self-trained genius to jump in and discover something important. Galileo and Newton probably fit this category in physics and Galois and Ramanujan probably fit it in mathematics. But most of physics is now so mature that broad new discoveries are rare, and accessible only to those with extremely good understandings of what is already known. A basement tinkerer hasn't got a prayer.

Finally, real scientists don't always walk around in white lab coats looking serious, ridiculing the less educated, and trying to figure out how to trick the government into funding yet another silly, fraudulent, or unethical research project. In fact, most scientists wear practical clothes, have considerable humor, enjoy speaking with ordinary folk about their science, and conduct that science because they love and believe in it rather than as a means to some diabolic end. These scientists use the words of science in their conversations because it is the appropriate language for their work and there is meaning in each word and each sentence. The gibberish spoken by "scientists" in movies is often offensive to scientists in the same way that immigrant groups find it offensive when people mock their native languages.

I don't know about any patent history for the free electricity organization but everyone should be aware that not all patented items actually do what they're supposed to. In principle, the U.S. Patent Office only awards a patent when it determines that a concept has not been patented previously, is not already known, is not obvious, and is useful. The utility requirement should eliminate items that don't actually work. One of my readers, a patent attorney, reports that he regularly invokes the utility regulation while escorting the "inventors" of impossible devices such as "free electricity" to the door. They consider him part of the conspiracy against them, but he is doing us all a service by keeping foolishness out of the patent system. However, proving that something doesn't work often takes time and money, so sometimes nonfunctional items get patented. Thus a patent isn't always a guarantee of efficacy. Patented nonsense is exactly that: nonsense.

Finally, how do I know that Free Electricity is really not possible? Couldn't I have missed something somewhere in the details? No. The impossibility of this scheme is rooted in the very groundwork of physics; at the deepest level where there is no possibility of mistake. For the counter rotation device to generate 15 kilowatts of electricity out of nothing, it would have to be a net source of energy—the device would be creating energy from nothing. That process would violate the conservation of energy, whereby energy cannot be created or destroyed but can only be transferred from one object to another or converted from one form to another. Recognizing that our universe is relativistic (it obeys the laws of special relativity), the actual conserved quantity is mass/energy, but the concept is the same: you can't make mass/energy from nothing.

The origin of this conservation law lies in a mathematical theorem noted first by C. G. J. Jacobi and fully developed by Emmy Noether, that each symmetry in the laws of physics gives rise to a conserved quantity. The fact that a translation in space—shifting yourself from one place to another—does not change the laws of physics gives rise to a conserved quantity: momentum. The fact that a rotation—changing the direction in which you are facing—does not change the laws of physics gives rise to another conserved quantity: angular momentum. And the fact that waiting a few minutes—changing the time at which you are—does not change the laws of physics gives rise to a third conserved quantity: energy. The conservation of energy is thus intimately connected with the fact that the laws of physics are the same today as they were yesterday and as they will be tomorrow.

Scientists have been looking for over a century for any changes in the laws of physics with translations and rotations in space and with movement through time, and have never found any evidence for such changes. Thus momentum, angular momentum, and energy are strictly conserved in our universe. For the counter rotation device to create energy from nothing, all of physics would have to be thrown in the trashcan. The upset would be almost as severe as discovering that 1+1 = 3. Furthermore, a universe in which physics was time-dependent and energy was not conserved would be a dangerous place. Free electricity devices would become the weapons of the future—bombs and missiles that released energy from nothing. Moreover, as the free electricity devices produced energy from nothing, the mass/energy of the earth would increase and thus its gravitational field would also increase. Eventually, the gravity would become strong enough to cause gravitational collapse and the earth would become a black hole. Fortunately, this is all just science fiction because free electricity isn't real.

For more information about the "free electricity" hoax, sent in by readers of this site, touch here.

1453. If I knew the initial (exact) conditions of the throw of a die, could I throw a 6 with certainty? How does the Heisenberg principle affect my ability to control the outcome? — TW
In the classical view of the world, the view before the advent of quantum theory, nature seemed entirely deterministic and mechanical. If you knew exactly where every molecule and atom was and how fast it was moving, you could perfectly predict where it would be later on. In principle, this classical world would allow you to throw a 6 every time. Of course, you'd have to know everything about the air's motion, the thermal energy in the die, and even the pattern of light in the room. But the need for enormous amounts of information just means that controlling the dice will be incredibly hard, not that it will be impossible. For simple throws, you could probably get by without knowing all that much about the initial conditions. As the throws became more complicated and more sensitive to initial conditions, you'd have to know more and more.

However, quantum mechanics makes controlling the die truly impossible. The problem stems from the fact that position and velocity information are not fully defined at the same time in our quantum mechanical universe. In short, you can't know exactly where a die is and how fast it is moving at the same time. And that doesn't mean that you can't perform these measurements well. It means that the precise values don't exist together; they are limited by Heisenberg uncertainty. So quantum physics imposes a fundamental limit on how well you can know the initial conditions before your throw and it thus limits your ability to control the outcome of that throw. How much quantum physics affects your ability to throw a 6 depends on the complexity of the throw. If you just drop a die a few inches onto a table, you can probably get a 6 most of the time, despite quantum mechanics and without even knowing much classical information. But as you begin throwing the die farther, you'll begin to lose control of it because of quantum mechanics and uncertainty. In reality, you'll find classical physics so limiting that you'll probably never observe the quantum physics problem. Knowing everything about a system is already unrealistic, even in a classical universe. The problems arising from quantum mechanics are really just icing on the cake for this situation.

1454. I was recently riding as a passenger in a van and there was a housefly buzzing around in the van. While trying to squash the fly, I was wondering why was the fly traveling the same speed as the van at 70 mph as it was hovering in mid air. Shouldn't it have smashed into the rear window of the van just like so many bugs would have been, on the grill of the vehicle?? — DS
Flies travel at modest speeds relative to the air that surrounds them. Since the outside air is nearly motionless relative to the ground (usually), a fly outside the van is also nearly motionless. When the fast-moving van collides with the nearly motionless fly, the fly's inertia holds it in place while the van squashes it.

But when the fly is inside the van, the fly travels about in air that is moving with the van. If the van is moving at 70 mph, then so is the air inside it and so is the fly. In fact, everything inside the van moves more or less together and from the perspective of the van and its contents, the whole world outside is what is doing the moving—the van itself can be considered stationary and the van's contents are then also stationary.

As long as the fly and the air it is in are protected inside the van, the movement of the outside world doesn't matter. The fly buzzes around in its little protected world. But if the van's window is open and the fly ventures outside just as a signpost passes the car, the fly may get creamed by a collision with the "moving" sign. Everything is relative and if you consider the van as stationary, then it is undesirable for the van's contents to get hit by the moving items in the world outside (passing trees, bridge abutments, or oncoming vehicles.

1455. My four-year-old son was fooling around with a magnet, and when I was turned away, put it right on our TV screen. I then saw him doing this, and before I could bring myself to think consequences, we were both mollified by the amazing and colorful patterns it created on the screen. He sort of moved it around the screen, like you would an eraser on a black board. Well, when he removed the magnet, the screen had been drained of its normally saturated colors, and what we now have left is a color TV with only three colors, basically green, blue, and red. And they are not solid and deep like they were before. They are rather faded, and arranged in three distinct blotches, if you will. Are we stuck with this situation forever, or will this aberration fade with time, back to normal? And, why did this happen? — E-S.B.
Your son has magnetized the shadow mask that's located just inside the screen of your color television. It's a common problem and one that can easily be fixed by "degaussing" the mask (It'll take years or longer to fade on its own, so you're going to have to actively demagnetize the mask). You can have it done professionally or you can buy a degaussing coil yourself and give it a try (Try a local electronics store or contact MCM Electronics, (800) 543-4330, 6" coil is item #72-785 for $19.95 and 12" coil is item #72-790 for $32.95).

Color sets create the impression of full color by mixing the three primary colors of light—blue, green, and red—right there on the inside surface of the picture tube. A set does the mixing by turning on and off three separate electron beams to control the relative brightnesses of the three primary colors at each location on the screen. The shadow mask is a metal grillwork that allows the three electrons beams to hit only specific phosphor dots on the inside of the tube's front surface. That way, electrons in the "blue" electron beam can only hit blue-glowing phosphors, while those in the "green" beam hit green-glowing phosphors and those in the "red" beam hit red-glowing phosphors. The three beams originate at slightly different locations in the back of the picture tube and reach the screen at slightly different angles. After passing through the holes in the shadow mask, these three beams can only hit the phosphors of their color.

Since the shadow mask's grillwork and the phosphor dots must stay perfectly aligned relative to one another, the shadow mask must be made of a metal that has the same thermal expansion characteristics as glass. The only reasonable choice for the shadow mask is Invar metal, an alloy that unfortunately is easily magnetized. Your son has magnetized the mask inside your set and because moving charged particles are deflected by magnetic fields, the electron beams in your television are being steered by the magnetized shadow mask so that they hit the wrong phosphors. That's why the colors are all washed out and rearranged.

To demagnetize the shadow mask, you should expose it to a rapidly fluctuating magnetic field that gradually decreases in strength until it vanishes altogether. The degaussing coils I mentioned above plug directly into the AC power line and act as large, alternating-field electromagnets. As you wave one of these coils around in front of the screen, you flip the magnetization of the Invar shadow mask back and forth rapidly. By slowly moving this coil farther and farther away from the screen, you gradually scramble the magnetizations of the mask's microscopic magnetic domains. The mask still has magnetic structures at the microscopic level (this is unavoidable and a basic characteristic of all ferromagnetic metals such as steel and Invar). But those domains will all point randomly and ultimately cancel each other out once you have demagnetized the mask. By the time you have the coil a couple of feet away from the television, the mask will have no significant magnetization left at the macroscopic scale and the colors of the set will be back to normal.

Incidentally, I did exactly this trick to my family's brand new color television set in 1965. I had enjoyed watching baseball games and deflecting the pitches wildly on our old black-and-white set. With only one electron beam, a black-and-white set needs no shadow mask and has nothing inside the screen to magnetize. My giant super alnico magnet left no lingering effect on it. But when the new set arrived, I promptly magnetized its shadow mask and when my parent watched the "African Queen" that night, the colors were not what you'd call "natural." The service person came out to degauss the picture tube the next day and I remember denying any knowledge of what might have caused such an intense magnetization. He and I agreed that someone must have started a vacuum cleaner very close to the set and thus magnetized its surface. I was only 8, so what did I know anyway.

Finally, as many readers have pointed out, many modern televisions and computer monitors have built-in degaussing coils. Each time you turn on one of these units, the degaussing circuitry exposes the shadow mask to a fluctuating magnetic field in order to demagnetize it. If your television set or monitor has such a system, then turning it on and off a couple of times should clear up most or all of the magnetization problems. However, you may have to wait about 15 minutes between power on/off cycles because the built-in degaussing units have thermal protection that makes sure they cool down properly between uses.

1456. My science book said that a microwave oven uses a laser resonating at the natural frequency of water. Does such a laser exist or was that a major typo?
It's a common misconception that the microwaves in a microwave oven excite a natural resonance in water. The frequency of a microwave oven is well below any natural resonance in an isolated water molecule, and in liquid water those resonances are so smeared out that they're barely noticeable anyway. It's kind of like playing a violin under water—the strings won't emit well-defined tones in water because the water impedes their vibrations. Similarly, water molecules don't emit (or absorb) well-defined tones in liquid water because their clinging neighbors impede their vibrations.

Instead of trying to interact through a natural resonance in water, a microwave oven just exposes the water molecules to the intense electromagnetic fields in strong, non-resonant microwaves. The frequency used in microwave ovens (2,450,000,000 cycles per second or 2.45 GHz) is a sensible but not unique choice. Waves of that frequency penetrate well into foods of reasonable size so that the heating is relatively uniform throughout the foods. Since leakage from these ovens makes the radio spectrum near 2.45 GHz unusable for communications, the frequency was chosen in part because it would not interfere with existing communication systems.

As for there being a laser in a microwave oven, there isn't. Lasers are not the answer to all problems and so the source for microwaves in a microwave oven is a magnetron. This high-powered vacuum tube emits a beam of coherent microwaves while a laser emits a beam of coherent light waves. While microwaves and light waves are both electromagnetic waves, they have quite different frequencies. A laser produces much higher frequency waves than the magnetron. And the techniques these devices use to create their electromagnetic waves are entirely different. Both are wonderful inventions, but they work in very different ways.

The fact that this misleading information appears in a science book, presumably used in schools, is a bit discouraging. It just goes to show you that you shouldn't believe everything read in books or on the web (even this web site, because I make mistakes, too).

1457. What is the function of a magnet in an audio speaker? — EB
An audio speaker generates sound by moving a surface back and forth through the air. Each time the surface moves toward you, it compresses the air in front of it and each time the surface moves away from you, it rarefies that air. By doing this repetitively, the speaker forms patterns of compressions and rarefactions in the air that propagate forward as sound.

The magnet is part of the system that makes the surface move. Attached to the surface itself is a cylindrical coil of wire and this coil fits into a cylindrical channel cut into the speaker's permanent magnet. That magnet is carefully designed so that its magnetic field lines radiate outward from the inside of the channel to the outside of the channel and thus pass through the cylindrical coil the way bicycle spokes pass through the rim of the wheel.

When an electric current is present in the wire, the moving electric charges circulate around this cylinder and cut across the magnetic field lines. But whenever a charge moves across a magnetic field line, it experiences a force known as the Lorenz force. In this case, the charges are pushed either into or out of the channel slot, depending on which way they are circulating around the coil. The charges drag the coil and surface with them, so that as current flows back and forth through the coil, the coil and surface pop in and out of the magnet channel. This motion produces sound.

1458. What is the difference between spark ignition engines and diesel engines? — JC
Just before burning their fuels, both engines compress air inside a sealed cylinder. This compression process adds energy to the air and causes its temperature to skyrocket. In a spark ignition engine, the air that's being compressed already contains fuel so this rising temperature is a potential problem. If the fuel and air ignite spontaneously, the engine will "knock" and won't operate at maximum efficiency. The fuel and air mixture is expected to wait until it's ignited at the proper instant by the spark plug. That's why gasoline is formulated to resist ignition below a certain temperature. The higher the "octane" of the gasoline, the higher its certified ignition temperature. Virtually all modern cars operate properly with regular gasoline. Nonetheless, people frequently put high-octane (high-test or premium) gasoline in their cars under the mistaken impression that their cars will be better for it. If your car doesn't knock significantly with regular gasoline, use regular gasoline.

A diesel engine doesn't have spark ignition. Instead, it uses the high temperature caused by extreme compression to ignite its fuel. It compresses pure air to high temperature and pressure, and then injects fuel into this air. Timed to arrive at the proper instant, the fuel bursts into flames and burns quickly in the superheated compressed air. In contrast to gasoline, diesel fuel is formulated to ignite easily as soon as it enters hot air.

1459. If a microwave oven with painted inside walls has some of the paint removed due to a very small fire caused by arcing, is it still safe to use?
Yes. The paint is simply decoration on the metal walls. The cooking chamber of the microwave has metal walls so that the microwaves will reflect around inside the chamber. Thick metal surfaces are mirrors for microwaves and they work perfectly well with or without thin, non-conducting coatings of paint.

1460. How does a Tesla coil work? — EK
Popular in movies as a source of long glowing sparks, a Tesla coil is basically a high-frequency, very high-voltage transformer. Like most transformers, the Tesla coil has two circuits: a primary circuit and a secondary circuit. The primary circuit consists of a capacitor and an inductor, fashioned together to form a system known as a "tank circuit". A capacitor stores energy in its electric field while an inductor stores energy in its magnetic field. When the two are wired together in parallel, their combined energy sloshes back and forth from capacitor to inductor to capacitor at a rate that's determined by various characteristics of the two devices. Powering the primary of the Tesla coil is a charge delivery system that keeps energy sloshing back and forth in the tank circuit. This delivery system has both a source of moderately high voltage electric current and a pulsed transfer system to periodically move charge and energy to the tank. The delivery system may consist of a high voltage transformer and a spark gap, or it may use vacuum tubes or transistors.

The secondary circuit consists of little more than a huge coil of wire and some electrodes. This coil of wire is located around the same region of space occupied by the inductor of the primary circuit. As the magnetic field inside that inductor fluctuates up and down in strength, it induces current in the secondary coil. That's because a changing magnetic field produces an electric field and the electric field surrounding the inductor pushes charges around and around the secondary coil. By the time the charges in the secondary coil emerge from the coil, they have enormous amounts of energy; making them very high voltage charges. They accumulate in vast numbers on the electrodes of the secondary circuit and push one another off into the air as sparks.

While most circuits must form complete loops, the Tesla coil's secondary circuit doesn't. Its end electrodes just spit charges off into space and let those charges fend for themselves. Many of them eventually work their ways from one electrode to the other by flowing through the air or through objects. But even when they don't, there is little net build up of charge anywhere. That's because the direction of current flow through the secondary coil reverses frequently and the sign of the charge on each electrode reverses, too. The Tesla coil is a high-frequency device and its top electrode goes from positively charged to negatively charge to positively charged millions of times a second. This rapid reversal of charge, together with reversing electric and magnetic fields means that a Tesla coil radiates strong electromagnetic waves. It therefore interferes with nearby radio reception.

Finally, it has been pointed out to me by readers that a properly built Tesla coil is resonant—that the high-voltage coil has a natural resonance at the same frequency that it is being excited by the lower voltage circuit. The high-voltage coil's resonance is determined by its wire length, shape, and natural capacitance.
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