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Page 147 of 160 (1595 Questions and Answers)

1461. What is terminal velocity? — EW, Fisher, Australia
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After falling for a long time, an object will descend at a steady speed known as its "terminal velocity." This terminal velocity exists because an object moving through air experiences drag forces (air resistance). These drag forces become stronger with speed so that as a falling object picks up speed, the upward air resistance it experiences gradually becomes stronger. Eventually the object reaches a speed at which the upward drag forces exactly balance its downward weight and the object stops accelerating. It is then at "terminal velocity" and descends at a steady pace.

The terminal velocity of an object depends on the object's size, shape, and density. A fluffy object (a feather, a parachute, or a sheet of paper) has a small terminal velocity while a compact, large, heavy object (a cannonball, a rock, or a bowling ball) has a large terminal velocity. An aerodynamic object such as an arrow also has a very large terminal velocity. A person has a terminal velocity of about 200 mph when balled up and about 125 mph with arms and feet fully extended to catch the wind.


1462. Why does a shave that looks great under incandescent light look terrible under fluorescent light? And, for a woman, what light is best for putting on makeup? — JE
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Illumination matters because your skin only reflects light to which it's exposed. When you step into a room illuminated only by red light your skin appears red, not because it's truly red but because there is only red light to reflect.

Ordinary incandescent bulbs produce a thermal spectrum of light with a "color temperature" of about 2800° C. A thermal light spectrum is a broad, featureless mixture of colors that peaks at a particular wavelength that's determined only by the temperature of the object emitting it. Since the bulb's color temperature is much cooler than that of the sun's (5800° C), the bulb appears much redder than the sun and emits relatively little blue light. A fluorescent lamp, however, synthesizes its light spectrum from the emissions of various fluorescent phosphors. Its light spectrum is broad but structured and depends on the lamp's phosphor mixture. The four most important phosphor mixtures are cool white, deluxe cool white, warm white, and deluxe warm white. These mixtures all produce more blue than an incandescent bulb, but the warm white and particularly the deluxe warm white tone down the blue emission to give a richer, warmer glow at the expense of a little energy efficiency. Cool white fluorescents are closer to natural sunlight than either warm white fluorescents or incandescent bulbs.

To answer your question about shaves: without blue light in the illumination, it's not that easy to distinguish beard from skin. Since incandescent illumination is lacking in blue light, a shave looks good even when it isn't. But in bright fluorescent lighting, beard and skin appear sharply different and it's easy to see spots shaving has missed. As for makeup illumination, it's important to apply makeup in the light in which it will be worn. Blue-poor incandescent lighting downplays blue colors so it's easy to overapply them. When the lighting then shifts to blue-rich fluorescents, the blue makeup will look heavy handed. Some makeup mirrors provide both kinds of illumination so that these kinds of mistakes can be avoided.


1463. I am twelve years old and weigh 85 pounds. How much helium would it take to lift me off the ground?
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While helium itself doesn't actually defy gravity, it is lighter than air and floats upward as descending air pushes it out of the way. Like a bubble in water, the helium goes up to make room for the air going down. The buoyant force that acts on the helium is equal to the weight of air that the helium displaces.

A cubic foot of air weighs about 0.078 pounds so the upward buoyant force on a cubic foot of helium is about 0.078 pounds. A cubic foot of helium weighs only about 0.011 pounds. The difference between the upward buoyant force on the cubic foot of helium and the weight of the helium is the amount of extra weight that the helium can lift; about 0.067 pounds. Since you weigh 85 pounds, it would take about 1300 cubic feet of helium to lift you and a thin balloon up into the air. That's a balloon about 13.5 feet in diameter.


1464. I always thought that pure water cannot exceed 100° Celsius at atmospheric pressure without first turning into its gaseous state. How is it that the water heated in the microwave oven can superheat and exceed 100° Celsius? — AC
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The relative stabilities of liquid and gaseous water depend on both temperature and pressure. To understand this, consider what is going on at the surface of a glass of water. Water molecules in the liquid water are leaving the water's surface to become gas above it and water molecules in the gas are landing and joining the liquid water below. It's like a busy airport, with lots of take-offs and landings. If the glass of water is sitting in an enclosed space, the arrangement will eventually reach equilibrium—the point at which there is no net transfer of molecules between the liquid in the glass and the gas above it. In that case, there will be enough water molecules in the gas to ensure that they land as often as they leave.

The leaving rate (the rate at which molecules break free from the liquid water) depends on the temperature. The hotter the water is, the more frequently water molecules will be able to break away from their buddies and float off into the gas. The landing rate (the rate at which molecules land on the water's surface and stick) depends on the density of molecules in the gas. The more dense the water vapor, the more frequently water molecules will bump into the liquid's surface and land.

As you raise the temperature of the water in your glass, the leaving rate increases and the equilibrium shifts toward higher vapor density and less liquid water. By the time you reach 100° Celsius, the equilibrium vapor pressure is atmospheric pressure, which is why water tends to boil at this temperature (it can form and sustain steam bubbles). Above this temperature the equilibrium vapor pressure exceeds atmospheric pressure. The liquid water and the gas above it can reach equilibrium, but only if you allow the pressure in your enclosed system to exceed atmospheric pressure. However, if you open up your enclosed system, the water vapor will spread out into the atmosphere as a whole and there will be a never-ending stream of gaseous water molecules leaving the glass. Above 100° C, liquid water can't exist in equilibrium with atmospheric pressure gas, even if that gas is pure water vapor.

So how can you superheat water? Don't wait for equilibrium! The road to equilibrium may be slow; it may take minutes or hours for the liquid water to evaporate away to nothing. In the meantime, the system will be out of equilibrium, but that's ok. It happens all the time: a snowman can't exist in equilibrium on a hot summer day, but that doesn't mean that you can't have a snowman at the beach... for a while. Superheated water isn't in equilibrium and, if you're patient, something will change. But in the short run, you can have strange arrangements like this without any problem.


1465. There is a story circulating by email about a 26 year old man who heated a cup of water in a microwave oven and had it "explode in his face" when he took it out. He suffered serious burns as a result. Is this possible and, if so, how did it happen? — JJ, Kirksville, Missouri
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Yes, this sort of accident can and does happen. The water superheated and then boiled violently when disturbed. Here's how it works:

Water can always evaporate into dry air, but it normally only does so at its surface. When water molecules leave the surface faster than they return, the quantity of liquid water gradually diminishes. That's ordinary evaporation. However, when water is heated to its boiling temperature, it can begin to evaporate not only from its surface, but also from within. If a steam bubble forms inside the hot water, water molecules can evaporate into that steam bubble and make it grow larger and larger. The high temperature is necessary because the pressure inside the bubble depends on the temperature. At low temperature, the bubble pressure is too low and the surrounding atmospheric pressure smashes it. That's why boiling only occurs at or above water's boiling temperature. Since pressure is involved, boiling temperature depends on air pressure. At high altitude, boiling occurs at lower temperature than at sea level.

But pay attention to the phrase "If a steam bubble forms" in the previous paragraph. That's easier said than done. Forming the initial steam bubble into which water molecules can evaporate is a process known as "nucleation." It requires a good number of water molecules to spontaneously and simultaneously break apart from one another to form a gas. That's an extraordinarily rare event. Even in a cup of water many degrees above the boiling temperature, it might never happen. In reality, nucleation usually occurs at a defect in the cup or an impurity in the water—anything that can help those first few water molecules form the seed bubble. When you heat water on the stove, the hot spots at the bottom of the pot or defects in the pot bottom usually assist nucleation so that boiling occurs soon after the boiling temperature is reached. But when you heat pure water in a smooth cup using a microwave oven, there may be nothing present to help nucleation occur. The water can heat right past its boiling temperature without boiling. The water then superheats—its temperature rising above its boiling temperature. When you shake the cup or sprinkle something like sugar or salt into it, you initiate nucleation and the water then boils violently.

Fortunately, serious microwave superheating accidents are fairly unusual. However, they occur regularly and some of the worst victims require hospital treatment. I have heard of extreme cases in which people received serious eye injuries and third degree burns that required skin grafts and plastic surgery.

You can minimize the chance of this sort of problem by not overcooking water or any other liquid in the microwave oven, by waiting about 1 minute per cup for that liquid to cool before removing it from the microwave if there is any possibility that you have superheated it, and by being cautious when you first introduce utensils, powders, teabags, or otherwise disturb very hot liquid that has been cooked in a microwave oven. Keep the water away from your face and body until you're sure it's safe and don't ever hover over the top of the container. Finally, it's better to have the liquid boil violently while it's inside the microwave oven than when it's outside on your counter and can splatter all over you. Once you're pretty certain that the water is no longer superheated, you can ensure that it's safe by deliberately nucleating boiling before removing the cup from the microwave. Inserting a metal spoon or almost any food into the water should trigger boiling in superheated water. A pinch of sugar will do the trick, something I've often noticed when I heat tea in the microwave. However, don't mess around with large quantities of superheated water. If you have more than 1 cup of potentially superheated water, don't try to nucleate boiling until you've waited quite a while for it to cool down. I've been scalded by the stuff several times even when I was prepared for an explosion. It's really dangerous.

For a reader's story about a burn he received from superheated water in a microwave, touch here.


1466. How come planets are spherical, albeit with somewhat flattened poles? — DB
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The answer is gravity. Gravity smashes the planets into spheres. To understand this, imagine trying to build a huge mountain on the earth's surface. As you begin to heap up the material for your mountain, the weight of the material at the top begins to crush the material at the bottom. Eventually the weight and pressure become so great that the material at the bottom squeezes out and you can't build any taller. Every time you put new stuff on top, the stuff below simply sinks downward and spreads out. You can't build bumps bigger than a few dozen miles high on earth because there aren't any materials that can tolerate the pressure. In fact, the earth's liquid core won't support mountains much higher than the Himalayas—taller mountains would just sink into the liquid. So even if a planet starts out non-spherical, the weight of its bumps will smash them downward until the planet is essentially spherical.

The flattened poles are the result of rotation—as the planet spins, the need for centripetal (centrally directed) acceleration at its equator causes its equatorial surface to shift outward slightly, away from the planet's axis of rotation. The planet is therefore wider at its equator than it is at its poles.


1467. I work in a company shop that uses a 600-watt laser with a wavelength of 1064 nm. How safe is this machine? What is the radiation hazard, if any? I've noticed that my eyes feel strange after working with it for 4-5 hours. It also has an uncomfortable smell. — EC
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The laser you're using is a neodymium-YAG laser. It uses a crystal of YAG (yttrium aluminum garnet), a synthetic gem that was once sold as an imitation diamond, that has been treated with neodymium atoms to give it a purple color. When placed in a laser cavity and exposed to intense visible light, this crystal gives off the infrared light you describe. You can't see this light but, at up to 600 watts, it is actually incredibly bright. You don't want to look at it or even at its reflection from a surface that you're machining. That's because the lens of your eye focuses it onto your retina and even though your retina won't see any light, it will experience the heat. It's possible to injure your eyes by looking at this light, particularly if you catch a direct reflection of the laser beam in your eye.

In all likelihood, the manufacturer of this unit has shielded all the light so that none of it reaches your eyes. If that's not the case, you should wear laser safety glasses that block 1064 nm light. But it's also possible that the irritation you're experiencing is coming from the burned material that you are machining. Better ventilation should help. High voltage power supplies, which may be present in the laser, could also produce ozone. Ozone has a spicy fresh smell, like the smell after a lightning storm, and it is quite irritating to eyes and nose.


1468. Does ice melt faster in air or in water? — BP
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Ice will melt fastest in whatever delivers heat to it fastest. In general that will be water because water conducts heat and carries heat better than air. But extremely hot air, such as that from a torch, will beat out very cold water, such as ice water, in melting the ice.

1469. Is there sound in space? If so, what is the speed of sound there? — MH
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No, there is no sound in space. That's because sound has to travel as a vibration in some material such as air or water or even stone. Since space is essentially empty, it cannot carry sound, at least not the sorts of sound that we are used to.

1470. I have a digital camera and when I put an IR remote control in front of the lens and press a button, a bluish white light is visible on the camera's monitor. Why is that? — MC
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What a neat observation! Digital cameras based on CCD imaging chips are sensitive to infrared light. Even though you can't see the infrared light streaming out of the remote control when you push its buttons, the camera's chip can. This behavior is typical of semiconductor light sensors such as photodiodes and phototransistors: they often detect near infrared light even better than visible light. In fact, a semiconductor infrared sensor is exactly what your television set uses to collect instructions from the remote control.

The color filters that the camera employs to obtain color information misbehave when they're dealing with infrared light and so the camera is fooled into thinking that it's viewing white light. That's why your camera shows a white spot where the remote's infrared source is located.

I just tried taking some pictures through infrared filters, glass plates that block visible light completely, and my digital camera worked just fine. The images were as sharp and clear as usual, although the colors were odd. I had to use incandescent illumination because fluorescent light doesn't contain enough infrared. It would be easy to take pictures in complete darkness if you just illuminated a scene with bright infrared sources. No doubt there are "spy" cameras that do exactly that.


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