How Everything Works
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Page 30 of 160 (1595 Questions and Answers)

291. Occasionally my receiver will pick up two stations at the same time, fading in and out and fighting to be heard. How is this possible?
In AM radio, the sound is encoded as the strength of the radio wave. If two transmitters are using the same frequency (or your receiver cannot distinguish between them due to its limited resolution), then it will responds to both of them at once. The sound that you hear will be the sum of them both, as though they were two musical instruments in the same room. In FM radio, the sound is encoded as the exact frequency of the radio wave. In this case, your receiver is likely to follow the strongest of the two stations and flip in between occasionally when their strengths change (due to weather or reflections from moving objects). Thus it is common for AM radio receivers to superpose two stations but not so common for FM radio receivers to do the same trick.

292. What is the difference between an electric and a magnetic field?
An electric field exerts forces on electric charges while a magnetic field exerts forces on magnetic poles. If you place a positive electric charge in an upward-pointing electric field, that electric charge will accelerate upward (in the direction of the electric field). But if you place a stationary north magnetic pole (if you could find one) in that same electric field, nothing will happen. An electric field exerts no force on a stationary magnetic pole. On the other hand, if you place a north magnetic pole in an upward-pointing magnetic field, that pole will accelerate upward (in the direction of the magnetic field). But if you place a stationary positive electric charge in that same magnetic field, nothing will happen. So electric fields act on stationary electric charges and magnetic fields act on stationary magnetic poles.

293. When a station transmits a signal, do all receiving antennae have the same reciprocal charge?
Yes. The transmitting antenna pushes huge amounts of charge up and down so that all of the receiving antennae respond primarily to it rather than to one another. However when many receiving antennae are very near one another, they can begin to cause trouble. In effect, each antenna draws a small amount of energy out of the radio wave. If there are too many nearby antennas, they will sap the radio wave's energy and each receiving antenna will get less than its normal amount. The other way to look at this effect is to realize that the receiving antennas actually retransmit the radio wave that they receive, but upside down. They weaken the wave as a result. If there are too many antennas around, they will reduce the wave to almost nothing.

294. Where does the charge on the antenna come from?
In the transmitting station, the moving charge is pumped back and forth between the ground and the antenna. The net charge in the vicinity of the station remains zero, but it is constantly being redistributed. Sometimes the antenna is positively charged and the ground is negatively charged and sometimes it's the reverse. In the receiving station, the same may be true. But there are also hand-held receivers that do not touch the ground. In that case, the receiver is still neutral, but charge is being pushed back and forth along the antenna and tank so that when the antenna is positively charged, the bottom of the tank circuit itself is negatively charged.

295. Why do radio waves travel better at night?
AM radio waves travel remarkably long distances near dusk because of the behavior of the earth's atmosphere. A layer in the upper atmosphere, the ionosphere, contains many electrically charged particles and it behaves like a poor electrical conductor. Its conductivity improves in the early evening. When low frequency radio waves encounter this conducting layer, it responds to them and reflects them just like a mirror reflects light. As a result, you can hear very distant radio stations as their waves bounce of the ionosphere. FM transmissions occur at high frequencies that are too fast for the ionosphere to reflect.

296. How can computer monitors and televisions have images burnt into them over time?
As the electron beam collides with the phosphor coating on the inside of the picture tube, it slowly damages that phosphor coating. Eventually the phosphors are burnt away and the inside surface of the picture tube stops being uniform. To avoid burning specific regions more than others, computers use screen savers that darken the images by turning down the electron beam and keep those images moving about randomly.

297. How can the magnets be manipulated in such a way that they can do this moving of the electron beam in such an incredibly small amount of time?
The electromagnets that control the beam are able to turn on and off very quickly. The only limit on the rate at which they can change the magnetic field comes from their inductance. They do resist changes in current passing through them. Fortunately, the television doesn't move the beam about randomly; it sweeps the beam smoothly. Thus the changes in the current through the electromagnetic coils are also smooth. The television has no trouble ramping the field through the horizontal sweep coils back and forth every 1/15,750th of a second.

298. How do high definition televisions differ from traditional ones?
High definition televisions have more individual spots of color and brightness than the traditional sets. They may also have a somewhat different aspect ratio (horizontal width vs. vertical height). Creating high definition picture tubes is not particularly difficult since they are now rather common on computers. However, transmitting the increased information needed to paint the picture on a high definition television is a serious problem. One approach is data compression, in which redundant information is eliminated from the signal so that only new information is sent to the television. To avoid making all of the present televisions obsolete, the new high definition television standards are supposed to be downward compatible with those televisions. Unfortunately, trying to serve both types of televisions with the same transmitted signal is going to be a difficult task.

299. How do projection or rear projection televisions work?
Inside the projection TV, there are three separate picture tubes that work very much like normal black and white picture tubes. One of these tubes creates an image of the red light in the television image, one creates an image of the green light, and the third creates an image of the blue light. In front of each tube, there is a color filter: red for the red tube, green for the green tube, and blue for the blue tube. There is also a projector lens that takes the light leaving the tube and filter and projects a clear image of that light on the screen in front of the projector. The light striking the screen looks exactly like the light leaving the surface of the picture tube. The three images (red, green, and blue) are carefully overlapped so that they mix and you perceive all colors.

300. How do the electrons know which spots on the screen to color darker and which to leave lighter?
The electrons simply deliver energy (their own kinetic energy) to the phosphors they hit. When they are hit by electrons, these phosphors emit light. They fluoresce. The picture determines which spots on the screen should be dark and which ones should be light by controlling the number of electrons that hit those spots; by controlling the current in the beam. When the current hitting a spot is low, that spot glows dimly. When the current hitting a spot is high, that spot glows brightly.
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