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Page 59 of 160 (1595 Questions and Answers)

581. Can you get electricity or some sort of energy or power from fruit? — J, Embrun, Ontario
The answer is yes, but the method may not be what you had in mind. While it's possible to make a battery by inserting two dissimilar metal strips into the fruit, the battery that results is really powered by the metals themselves. The fruit juice just acts as an "electrolyte"—an electrically conductive liquid that facilitates the movement of electric charges. Claiming that the fruit is responsible for the energy is like claiming that the stone in "stone soup" (an old tale about a beggar who tricks the villagers in a community into contributing vegetables to spice up the soup that he's making with his magic stone) is really the basis for the soup.

The best way to obtain energy from the fruit is to eat it! The sugars and starches in the fruit have plenty of chemical potential energy that's released when those chemicals are oxidized in your body. This released energy is what allows you to live, work, and play.

582. How does an amplifier work and what are the basic components of one? — WT, Albuquerque, NM
A typical amplifier examines the current flowing in its input circuit and produces a current in its output circuit that's proportional to but much larger than this input current. The factor by which the amplifier multiplies the input current to produce the output current is sometimes called the amplifier's "current gain." The tiny currents produced by a microphone attached to an audio amplifier's input circuit are boosted into huge currents that flow through speakers attached to the amplifier's output circuit. Since your voice is controlling these large currents, the speakers reproduce the sound of your voice.

While there are many techniques used to amplify currents, most modern audio amplifiers use transistors to do the amplification. A transistor is a device that permits a small current or electric charge to control the flow of a much larger current. The transistors inside the amplifier examine the current in the amplifier's input circuit and these transistors control the current passing through the amplifier's output circuit. Because the current in the output circuit needs electric power to continue flowing, a power supply inside the amplifier provides that current with power. As you talk into the microphone, the transistors adjust the current flowing through the output circuit so that that current is proportional to the current flowing through the input circuit.

583. If you microwaved bean plant seeds over a period of weeks while they were growing, would they grow faster or longer, and if they would, would that be due to the heat or some effect of the microwave radiation? - DS
Microwaving the bean plant seeds would be no different from heating them, except that the distribution of temperatures in the seeds and soil might be a little different from what you would get if you simply used a space heater. The particles or photons of ultraviolet light, X-rays, or gamma rays have enough energy to cause chemical changes in organic molecules and can induce mutations in living organisms. However, the photons of microwaves have so little energy that all they can do is heat living things. The most likely result of microwaving the bean plant seeds will be that the seeds will overheat and won't grow at all. You'll have bean stew.

584. My mother owns a microwave oven that is about 20 years old. It looks like new and has always been well taken care of. However, I was wondering whether it is still safe to use. Should I have it tested for leakage? — KE, Milwaukee, WI
As long as it still cooks, it's probably fine. Leakage of microwaves can only occur if the cooking chamber has holes in its metal walls. These walls include the metal grid over the front window and the seals around the door. If the metal grid is intact and the door still appears to close properly, the oven shouldn't leak any more microwaves now than it did 20 years ago. However, to set your mind at ease, you can have it tested or test it yourself. sells a simple microwave leak tester for $30. You can probably find similar devices at local appliance stores or, for a more accurate and reliable test, take your microwave oven to a service shop for inspection with an FDA certified meter. [Note added 1/10/97: I have finally found one microwave oven that leaks enough that a simple tester identifies it as dangerous—it's the microwave oven in my laboratory and I've moved it around frequently and taken it apart several times for my classes. Evidently, I damaged its door hinges during my experiments because the door now sags a bit and doesn't seal properly. The tester worked nicely in finding the leaks.]

585. Where does the white go when the snow melts? - JM
To start with, light slows down when it moves from air to ice and speeds up when it moves from ice to air. That's because the electric charges in matter can delay a light wave and slow it down. Since electric charges are more concentrated in ice than they are in air, light travels more slowly in ice than it does in air. Next, some light reflects whenever light changes speed. That's why a glass windowpane reflects some light from both its front and back surfaces. Similarly, light reflects from each surface of an ice crystal. Finally, snow is a jumbled heap of ice crystals. These clear crystals partially reflect light in all different directions like billions of tiny mirrors. The result is a white appearance. You see this exact same effect when you look at white sand, granulated salt, granulated sugar, clouds, fog, white paint, and so on. Each of these materials consists of tiny, clear objects that partially reflect light in all directions. Since they reflect all colors of light equally and spread that light in all direction equally, they appear white.

When the snow melts and becomes water, it stops having all those tiny surfaces to partially reflect light. Instead, it has only its top surface and this surface continues to partially reflect light. That's why you see reflections in the top of a puddle.

586. Do regular fluorescent lights emit ultraviolet light? If so, how does the ultraviolet level compare to what we would receive if we were outside? — GF, Barstow, CA
While the electric discharge in the tube's mercury vapor emits large amounts of short wavelength ultraviolet light, virtually all of this ultraviolet light is absorbed by the tube's internal phosphor coating and glass envelope. As a result, a fluorescent lamp emits relatively little ultraviolet light. I think that the ultraviolet light level under fluorescent lighting is far less than that of outdoor sunlight.

587. What is the composition of the phosphors used in fluorescent light bulbs? - M
The exact composition depends on the color type of the bulb, with the most common color types being cool white, warm white, deluxe cool white, and deluxe warm white. In each case, the phosphors are a mixture of crystals that may include: calcium halophosphate, calcium silicate, strontium magnesium phosphate, calcium strontium phosphate, and magnesium fluorogermanate. These crystals contain impurities that allow them to fluoresce visible light. These impurities include: antimony, manganese, tin, and lead.

588. How does a telephone switching system work? Why was it so hard to trace telephone calls? In movies we see people pulling wires in order to trace the origin of a call. - AZ
Before the advent of electronic telephone switching systems, the automatic switching was done by electromechanical relays. These remarkable devices were essentially 10-position rotary switches that were turned by a series of electric pulses—the same pulses that were produced by the rotary dial of a telephone. When you dialed a "5", your telephone produced a series of 5 brief pulses of electric current and one of these relays advanced 5 positions before stopping. Each number that you dialed affected a different relay so that your called was routed through one relay for each digit in the number that you called. To trace a called, someone had to follow the wires from relay to relay in order to determine what position each relay was in. From those positions, they could determine what number had been dialed. The first few digits of the telephone number determine which exchange (which local switching system) was being called, so those first relays were located in the caller's telephone exchange building. The last few digits determine which number in the answerer's exchange was being called, so those relays were located in the answerer's telephone exchange. As you can imagine, finding your way through all those relays and wires in at least two different buildings was quite a job.

589. If E=mc2 and we know light exists, why is it that light doesn't have infinite mass and consequently why aren't we all squashed? - M
The equation that you present is a simplification of the full relationship between energy, mass, momentum, and the speed of light, and is really only appropriate for stationary massive particles. In it, E is the particle's energy, m is the particle's rest mass, and c is the speed of light. Since light has no rest mass, the previous equation is simply not applicable to it. I should note that this equation is sometimes used to describe moving massive particles, in which case the m is allowed to increase to reflect the increasing energy of the moving particle. But the use of this equation for moving particles and the redefinition of mass as something other than rest mass often leads to confusion.

A better way to deal with moving particles, particularly massless particles, is to incorporate momentum into the problem. The full equation, correct for any particle, is E2=m2c4+p2c2. In this equation, E is energy, m is the rest mass of the particle (if any), p is the momentum of the particle (if any), and c is the speed of light. While light has no rest mass, it does have momentum and it's this momentum that gives light an energy. Light travels along at the speed of light with a finite momentum and a finite energy. On the other hand, the momentum of a massive particle increases without limit as the particle approaches the speed of light and so does the particle's energy. Thus massive particles can't ever reach the speed of light.

590. How does a magnetically levitated transit vehicle work? — LB, West Palm Beach, FL
Although there are a variety of schemes for magnetically levitating trains, perhaps the most promising is a technique called electrodynamic levitation. In this scheme, the train contains very strong magnets (probably superconducting magnets like those used in MRI medical imaging systems) and it travels along an aluminum track. The train starts out rolling forward on wheels but as its speed increases, the track begins to become magnetic. That's because whenever a magnet moves past a conducting surface, electric currents begin to flow in that surface and electric currents are magnetic. Thus the moving magnetic train makes the aluminum track magnetic. For complicated reasons having to do with electromagnetic induction, the track's magnetic poles are oriented so that they repel the magnetic poles of the train—the two push apart. While the track can't move, the train can and it floats upward as much as 25 cm (10 inches) above the track. Once the magnetic forces can support the train, the wheels are retracted and the train floats forward on its magnetic cushion. To keep the train moving forward against air resistance (and a small magnetic drag force), there is also a linear electric motor built into the train and track. This motor uses additional electromagnets in the train and track to push and pull on one another and to propel the train forward (or backward during braking).
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