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How Everything Works  
Page 148 of 160 (1595 Questions and Answers)

1471. How do the automatic doors at a supermarket know when to open and close? How do they work? — KL
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Devices that sense your presence are either bouncing some wave off you or they are passively detecting waves that you emit or reflect. The wave-bouncing detectors emit high frequency (ultrasonic) sound waves or radio waves and then look for reflections. If they detect changes in the intensity or frequency pattern of the reflected waves, they know that something has moved nearby and open the door. The passive detectors look for changes in the infrared or visible light patterns reaching a detector and open the door when they detect such changes.

1472. Are microwaves attenuated in air?
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Not significantly. Air doesn't absorb them well, which is why the air in a microwave oven doesn't get hot and why satellite and cellular communication systems work so well. The molecules in air are poor antennas for this long-wavelength electromagnetic radiation. They mostly just ignore it.

1473. How does a parabolic sound collecting dish work? - C
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A parabolic dish microphone is essentially a mirror telescope for sound. A parabolic surface has the interesting property that all sound waves that propagate parallel its central axis travel the same distance to get to its focus. That means that when you aim the dish at a distant sound source, all of the sound from that object bounces off the dish and converges toward the focus in phase—with its pressure peaks and troughs synchronized so that they work together to make the loudest possible sound vibrations. The sound is thus enhanced at the focus, but only if it originated from the source you're aiming at. Sound from other sources misses the focus. If you put a sensitive microphone in the parabolic dish's focus, you'll hear the sound from the distant object loud and clear.

1474. When a device uses two batteries, why do they have to be place positive to negative? Are there any exceptions? - MS
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Batteries are "pumps" for electric charge. A battery takes an electric current (moving charge) entering its negative terminal and pumps that current to its positive terminal. In the process, the battery adds energy to the current and raises its voltage (voltage is the measure of energy per unit of electric charge). A typical battery adds 1.5 volts to the current passing through it. As it pumps current, the battery consumes its store of chemical potential energy so that it eventually runs out and "dies."

If you send a current backward through a battery, the battery extracts energy from the current and lowers its voltage. As it takes energy from the current, the battery adds to its store of chemical potential energy so that it recharges. Battery charges do exactly that: they push current backward through the batteries to recharge them. This recharging only works well on batteries that are designed to be recharged since many common batteries undergo structural damage as their energy is consumed and this damage can't be undone during recharging.

When you use a chain of batteries to power an electric device, you must arrange them so that each one pumps charge the same direction. Otherwise, one will pump and add energy to the current while the other extracts energy from the current. If all the batteries are aligned positive terminal to negative terminal, then they all pump the same direction and the current experiences a 1.5 volt (typically) voltage rise in passing through each battery. After passing through 2 batteries, its voltage is up by 3 volts, after passing through 3 batteries, its voltage is up by 4.5 volts, and so on.


1475. Is it better to use warm or cold air to defrost your windshield?
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If you can't alter the air's humidity, warm air will definitely heat up your window faster and defrost it faster than cold air. The only problem with using hot air is that rapid heating can cause stresses on the window and its frame because the temperature will rise somewhat unevenly and lead to uneven thermal expansion. Such thermal stress can actually break the window, as a reader informed me recently: "On one of the coldest days of this Boston winter, I turned up the heat full blast to defrost the windshield. The outside of the window was still covered with ice, which I figured would melt from the heat. After about 10 minutes of heating, the windshield "popped" and a fracture about 8 inches long developed. The windshield replacement company said I would have to wait a day for service, since this happened to so many people over the cold evening that they were completely booked." If you're nervous about breaking the windshield, use cooler air.

About the humidity caveat: if you can blow dry air across your windshield, that will defrost it faster than just about anything else, even if that air is cold. The water molecules on your windshield are constantly shifting back and forth between the solid phase (ice) and the gaseous phase (steam or water vapor). Heating the ice will help more water molecules leave the ice for the water vapor, but dropping the density of the water vapor will reduce the number of water molecules leaving the water vapor for the ice. Either way, the ice decreases and the water vapor increases. Since you car's air condition begins drying the air much soon after you start the car than its heater begins warming the air, many modern cars concentrate first on drying the air rather than on heating it.


1476. What everyday household chemicals (cleaners, paints, detergents, etc.) contain large enough amounts of phosphor to glow under black light?
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Fluorescent paints and many laundry detergents contain fluorescent chemicals-chemicals that absorb ultraviolet light and use its energy to produce visible light. Fluorescent paints are designed to do exactly that, so they certainly contain enough "phosphor" for that purpose. Detergents have fluorescent dyes or "brighteners" added because it helps to make fabrics appear whiter. Aging fabric appears yellowish because it absorbs some blue light. To replace the missing blue light, the brighteners absorb invisible ultraviolet and use its energy to emit blue light.

1477. I am in 4th grade, and working on a science fair project using a basketball and have it pumped with 0 psi, 3 psi, 6 psi, 9 psi and 12 psi of air. Why is it that the 9psi ball bounces the highest when dropped from 6ft? - T
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The more pressure a basketball has inside it, the less its surface dents during a bounce and the more of its original energy it stores in the compressed air. Air stores and returns energy relatively efficiently during a rapid bounce, so the pressurized ball bounces high. But an underinflated ball dents deeply and its skin flexes inefficiently. Much of the ball's original energy is wasted in heating the bending skin and it doesn't bounce very high. In general, the higher the internal pressure in the ball, the better it will bounce.

However, the ball doesn't bounce all by itself when you drop it on a flexible surface. In that case, the surface also dents and is responsible for part of the ball's rebound. If that surface handles energy inefficiently, it may weaken the ball's bounce. For example, if you drop the ball on carpeting, the carpeting will do much of the denting, will receive much of the ball's original energy, and will waste its share as heat. The ball won't rebound well. My guess is that you dropped the ball on a reasonably hard surface, but one that began to dent significantly when the ball's pressure reached 12psi. At that point, the ball was extremely bouncy, but it was also so hard that it dented the surface and let the surface participate strongly in the bouncing. The surface probably wasn't as bouncy as the ball, so it threw the ball relatively weakly into the air.

I'd suggest repeating your experiment on the hardest, most massive surface you can find. A smooth cement or thick metal surface would be best. The ball will then do virtually all of the denting and will be responsible for virtually all of the rebounding. In that case, I'll bet that the 12psi ball will bounce highest.


1478. I am currently working on a physics project, the magnetic levitation train. How can I make this train move on the track without it crashing? I only have a few days to make it work so I can present it in the science fair. - VC
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I'm afraid that you're facing a difficult problem. Magnetic levitation involving permanent magnets is inherently and unavoidably unstable for fundamental reasons. One permanent magnet suspended above another permanent magnet will always crash. That's why all practical maglev trains use either electromagnets with feedback circuitry (magnets that can be changed electronically to correct for their tendencies to crash) or magnetoelectrodynamic levitation (induced magnetism in a conducting track, created by a very fast moving (>100 mph) magnetized train). There are no simple fixes if what you have built so far is based on permanent magnets alone. Unfortunately, you have chosen a very challenging science fair project.

1479. My teacher said that if you lift a 5 pound sack, you are doing work but if you carry the sack, you aren't doing any work. Why is that?
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When you lift the sack, you are pushing it upward (to support its weight) and it is moving upward. Since the force you exert on the sack and the distance it is traveling are in the same direction, you are doing work on the sack. As a result, the sack's energy is increasing, as evidenced by the fact that it is becoming more and more dangerous to a dog sitting beneath it.

But when you carry the sack horizontally at a steady pace, the upward force you exert on the sack and the horizontal distance it travels are at right angles to one another. You don't do any work on the sack in that case. The evidence here is that the sack doesn't become any more dangerous; its speed doesn't increase and neither does its altitude. It just shifts from one place to an equivalent one to its side.


1480. If a microwave oven door were to open while it was still on, what would happen? Could it hurt you? - JP
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The microwaves would flow out of the oven's cooking chamber like light streaming out of a brightly illuminated mirrored box. If you were nearby, some of those microwaves would pass through you and your body would absorb some of them during their passage. This absorption would heat your tissue so that you would feel the warmth. In parts of your body that have rapid blood circulation, that heat would be distributed quickly to the rest of your body and you probably wouldn't suffer any rapid injuries. But in parts of your body that don't have good blood flow, such as the corneas of your eyes, tissue could heat quickly enough to be permanently damaged. In any case, you'd probably feel the warmth and realize that something was wrong before you suffered any substantial permanent injuries.

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