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Page 51 of 160 (1595 Questions and Answers)

501. How does a mass spectrometer work and why must it be evacuated before being used?
A mass spectrometer is a device that measures the masses of the atoms or molecules in a sample. There are many different types of mass spectrometers but they all work on roughly the same principle: they give each atom or molecule a single electric charge and look at how easy or hard it is to accelerate that atom or molecule by pushing on it with electric or magnetic fields. The more mass the atom or molecule has, the more slowly it will accelerate in response to a particular force. Some mass spectrometers use an electric field to push the atoms or molecules forward until they all have the same amount of kinetic energy and the more massive particles end up traveling more slowly than the less massive particles. Their masses can then be determined by timing how long it takes them to travel a certain distance or by sending them through a magnetic field that bends their flight paths. Because the force that a magnetic field exerts on a moving particle increases with that particle's speed, the paths of slow moving massive particles bend less than those of fast moving less massive particles. Since all of this mass analysis occurs while the particles are traveling through space, it's important that they not collide with any gas particles inside the mass spectrometer. That's why the mass spectrometer must be evacuated before use.

502. What are the two substances in a Lava Lamp, and why do they react the way they do?
I'm afraid that I'm unable to determine exactly what substances the lamp contains. However, I believe that one of them is water and the other is a high-density wax. When the lamp is cold, the wax is a crystal solid with a density slightly higher than that of water. Because the buoyant force this wax experiences from the water is less than its weight, the wax sinks to the bottom of the lamp. But when the lamp is on, the bottom of its container heats up and the wax begins to melt. Like most materials, wax's liquid phase is substantially less dense than its solid phase. As it melts, the wax expands so much that its density drops below the density of water and it floats upward to the cool top of the container. Once it reaches the top, the wax begins to solidify. As it solidifies, the wax contracts so much that its density rises above the density of water and it sinks downward to the bottom of the container. Thus when the lamp is in full operation, the rising bubbles of wax are liquid and the descending bubbles of wax are solid. Dyes are added to the two materials to make them more visible—the water is colored by a water-soluble dye (perhaps food coloring) while the wax is colored by an oil-soluble dye (like those used in permanent markers).

503. Both hydrogen and oxygen fuel flame, but together they make water and that can put out a flame. Why?
In a sense, water is the "ash" that forms when hydrogen burns in oxygen. Like all fully burned materials, water can't burn any further. When you put cold water on a fire, it extracts heat from the fire because the water is much colder than the fire and heat naturally flows from hotter objects to colder objects. Since heating the water doesn't cause the water to burn (it can't burn), the heat that's lost by the fire doesn't create new fire (as would be the case if you threw gasoline on the fire instead of water). So the water gradually cools down the fire until the fire no longer has enough thermal energy to sustain its own chemical reactions. The fire then goes out.

504. Why is it that when you have water on your skin and an air current travels over it, your skin gets cold?
Whenever water is exposed to air, the water and air begin to exchange water molecules. By that, I mean that water molecules leave the surface of the liquid water to become water vapor in the air and water molecules that are already vapor in the air leave the air to become liquid water. If the relative humidity of the air is less than 100% (meaning that the air can still hold more water vapor), more water molecules will leave the liquid water than will return to it and the liquid water will gradually evaporate into water vapor. If the relative humidity of the air is greater than 100% (meaning that the air is holding more water vapor than it can tolerate), more water molecules will return to the liquid water than leave it and the water vapor will gradually condense into liquid water.

For a water molecule to leave the surface of liquid water, it needs a substantial amount of energy because it must break several hydrogen bonds which are holding it to its neighbors. It obtains this extra energy from nearby molecules and they become colder. Whenever a water molecule returns to the surface of liquid water, it returns this energy to the nearby molecules and they become hotter. Thus whenever liquid water is evaporating, the water molecules that leave the liquid water are taking away its energy so that it becomes colder. And whenever water vapor is condensing, the water molecules that return to the liquid water are giving it energy so that it becomes hotter.

When your skin is wet and water is evaporating from it, your skin also becomes colder. Blowing additional air across your skin prevents any build-up of humid air near its surface so that far more water molecules leave your skin than return to it. The evaporation then proceeds rather quickly and your skin feels quite cold.

505. Are divining rods and their abilities to locate ground water fact or myth?
I'm afraid that I think they're myth. Despite extensive searches, physicists have found only four forces in nature: gravity, the electromagnetic force, the strong force, and the weak force. Of these, only gravity and the electromagnetic force are noticeable outside of atoms. Since ground water has no electric charge, it can't affect a divining rod through the electromagnetic force. That leaves only gravity as a possibility and the gravity between modest sized objects such as a stick and a pool of water is so incredibly weak that I can't imagine anyone detecting it with their hands. Having eliminated all the possible external forces that would bend a stick downward when it's near water, it's clear that this bending is done by the hands of the person holding it. Perhaps a good dowser can see features in the environment that prompts the dowser, consciously or unconsciously, to believe that water is nearby. In short, I think that there are people who are good at identifying signs that indicate ground water is present and who can find that water. The divining rod itself is unimportant.

506. Why did Fahrenheit choose 32° for the freezing point of water and 212° for the boiling point of water? These seem like such awkward numbers to use.
Daniel Gabriel Fahrenheit chose as the zero of his temperature scale the temperature at which ice melts when it's mixed 50/50 with salt. He then set the temperature at which pure ice melts to be 30° above zero and normal body temperature to be 90° above zero. These values were adjusted several times over the years as temperature measurements became more accurate and are now 32° and 98.6° respectively. Having established the temperature scale based on these various situations, he had no choice about water's boiling temperature. Water's boiling temperature at normal atmospheric pressure simply turns out to be roughly 212° on his temperature scale.

507. When you freeze water, are the minerals separated from the molecules of the water? (When I freeze store-bought water and it then thaws out, there is a glob of nasty looking minerals that settle to the bottom of the bottle.)
When water freezes, it forms ice crystals. Crystals are very orderly arrangements of molecules in which each molecule has a particular position and orientation. Each crystal grows from a tiny initial seed crystal by adding one molecule after another to the surfaces of the crystal. Since each molecule that attaches to the crystal must fit into a particular position and have a particular shape and orientation, molecules that are different from those in the crystal tend to be excluded from the growing crystal. Thus an ice crystal that's growing in dirty water will nonetheless consist almost exclusively of water molecules. Only if the water freezes very quickly will it trap large numbers of impurities by not giving them time to get out of the way. Even gases are excluded from the ice, which is why air bubbles often appear as water freezes into ice.

The minerals that you see in the thawed bottle of water were originally dissolved or suspended in the water. But as the water froze, the ice crystals excluded those impurities and they remained in the liquid portion of the water. Eventually the liquid portion of the water dwindled away and the minerals were forced to come out of solution as solid particles. When the water thawed, those minerals failed to redissolve (they're often only weakly soluble in water and have great difficulty redissolving).

This phenomenon whereby crystallizing a liquid separates out its impurities is very useful in chemistry—many important chemicals, notably medicines, are purified in this manner. Similarly, freezing water is an important way of purifying it in some locations—native people in cold countries have used sea ice (the pure ice that forms when seawater freezes) as a source of fresh water for centuries. And you may have noticed that when you eat frozen juice, you can suck away the sweet flavored portion and leave behind only the pure ice portion—because the sugar and flavors have been excluded from the pure ice crystals during freezing.

508. How does an electric guitar amplify the sound from the strings?
As the steel strings of an electric guitar vibrate, they move back and forth across electromagnetic pickups on the guitar's surface. Each of these pickups consists of a coil of wire with a permanent magnet passing through its center. This permanent magnet has a north magnetic pole at one end and a south magnetic pole at the other end. Surrounding the permanent magnet are lines of magnetic flux that arc gracefully through space from the magnet's north pole to its south pole. These magnetic flux lines are associated with the forces that magnets exert on one another. Some of these flux lines pass very near the permanent magnet on their way from the north pole to the south pole and thus pass inside the coil of wire around the magnet. Other flux lines arc far outward and pass outside the coil of wire around the magnet. And a few of the flux lines pass through the steel string that lies just above one pole of the permanent magnet. Steel is a ferromagnetic metal, meaning that it easily develops strong north and south poles of its own when exposed to another magnet. This ferromagnetism is the result of a remarkable ordering process that takes place among the electrons inside the steel. The steel string is magnetized by its proximity to the permanent magnet in the pickup and it interacts strongly with the magnetic flux lines that pass near it. Some flux lines leaving the north pole of the permanent magnet connect to the south pole of the magnetized string and an equal number of flux lines leaving the north pole of the magnetized string connect to the south pole of the permanent magnet. Thus when the steel string vibrates back and forth, it pulls some of the flux lines with it. The paths that these flux lines take shift back and forth rhythmically as the string vibrates.

Whenever magnetic flux lines move, they create electric fields. An electric field is a phenomenon that exerts forces on charged particles, such as the mobile electrons in the coil of wire around the permanent magnet. As the string vibrates and the magnetic flux lines shift back and forth with it, electric fields appear in the wire coil and begin to push electrons through that coil. These electrons flow back and forth in the wire as the string vibrates. Wires connecting the pickup's coil to an electronic audio amplifier carry these moving electrons (actually an electric current) to the amplifier, where they are detected and used to control a much larger electric current. When this amplified current is sent through a speaker, the speaker produces a very loud sound that's an amplified version of the sound that the string itself is making as it pushes weakly on the air.

509. How does a UPC scanner work?
UPC labels are the bar codes placed on consumer goods to identify them as they pass over a glass window containing a UPC scanner. Although UPC labels were first conceived by Norman Joseph Woodland in the late 1940's, the scheme to read those codes required a very bright and narrow beam of light that could be scanned rapidly across the bars in order to measure their widths. Conventional light sources barely worked and the idea didn't catch on until lasers became available. A modern UPC scanner begins with a laser that emits a tightly collimated beam of light. Early scanners used helium-neon lasers, but new scanners use cheaper and more reliable solid-state or diode lasers. In a typical scanner, the red beam from a laser is directed toward a spinning object—either a carefully faceted and mirrored disk or a flat disk containing a carefully designed hologram. Laser light that reflects from the spinning object emerges from the glass window above the scanner and sweeps rapidly through the space like a tiny searchlight. When this light beam encounters a UPC label, each dark bars absorbs the beam while each light bar reflects it. Thus as the beam scans across the UPC label, the amount of light the product reflects fluctuates up and down in a characteristic manner. When a photodetector in the UPC scanner detects such a fluctuating reflected light signal, it determines that the laser beam is hitting a UPC label. A computer studies the sequence of the light and dark bars to determine exactly what UPC label is being hit and identifies the product to the store's computers.

510. Is it true that cold water in a pan will boil faster than hot water in a pan?
No. It takes more heat to bring a pan of cold water to boiling than it does to bring an equivalent pan of hot water to boiling. You can see that this must be true by noting that the cold water must first reach the temperature of the hot water, after which both pans will be equivalent. But there are a few interesting peculiarities with freezing and boiling water. One worth noting is that water that has recently been boiled will freeze more easily than water at an equal temperature that hasn't been boiled. That's because boiling drives the dissolved gases out of the water so that it can crystallize more easily. The ice that forms from boiled water tends to be unusually clear because it contains very few air bubbles. Water that contains lots of dissolved air traps those air bubbles as it freezes and the air bubbles slow the freezing process.
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