How Everything Works   Page 62 of 160 (1595 Questions and Answers) Printer Friendly Version

611. What is gravity and how do you define it?
There are two levels at which to work. First, there is Newtonian gravity—an attraction that exists between any two objects and that pulls each object toward the center of mass of the other object with a force that's equal to the gravitational constant times the product of the two masses, divided by the square of the distance separating the two objects. For example, you are attracted toward the earth's center of mass with a force equal to the gravitational constant times the product of the earth's mass and your mass, divided by the square of the distance between the earth's center of mass and your own center of mass. This force is usually called "your weight." The earth is attracted toward your center of mass with exactly the same amount of force.

Second, there is the gravity of Einstein's general relativity—a distortion of space/time that's caused by the local presence of mass/energy. Space is curved around objects in such a way that two freely moving objects tend to accelerate toward one another. As long as those objects aren't too large or too dense, this new description of gravity is equivalent to the Newtonian version—they both predict exactly the same effects. But when one or both of the objects is extremely massive or very dense, general relativity provides a more accurate prediction of what will happen. In reality, mass/energy really does warp space/time and general relativity does provide the correct view of gravity in our universe. The next level of theory, quantum gravity (which will reconcile the theory of general relativity with the theory of quantum physics), is still in the works.

612. How does a Bourdon tube pressure gauge work? - AM
A Bourdon tube pressure gauge works on much the same principle as a party favor that inflates and unrolls when you blow in its tube. The hollow Bourdon tube of the pressure gauge isn't circular in cross-section—it's somewhat oval. When the pressure inside the tube increases, the tube's oval walls are distorted and the tube's cross-section becomes slightly more circular. However, the tube is wrapped in a coil and as its walls become more circular, the tube uncoils slightly. The amount of uncoiling that occurs is almost exactly proportional to the pressure inside the Bourdon tube. As the tube uncoils, its motion activates a rack-and-pinion gear system that turns the needle on the pressure dial of the gauge. While all that you see when you look at the gauge is this needle pointing at the current pressure, you should understand that there is a small, bent tube that's coiling and uncoiling with each change in the pressure inside that tube.

613. What is a photoconductor? — MN, Chicago, IL
A photoconductor is a material that behaves as an electric insulator in the dark but becomes an electric conductor when exposed to light. An insulator is unable to transport electric charges because its own electrons can't respond to modest electric forces. Because of quantum physics, electrons can only follow specific paths called "levels" as they move through a material and all of the easily accessible levels in an insulator are completely filled. For reasons of symmetry, there are always as many electrons traveling to the right in an insulator as are traveling to the left, so that on average, no electrons move anywhere, even when they are exposed to electric forces. But when light energy shifts some of the electrons from the filled levels to a collection of formerly unoccupied levels that previously weren't accessible, these shifted electrons can respond to electric forces and transport electric charge through the material. In the light, a photoconductor stops acting as an insulator and starts acting as a conductor. Such photoconductors are the basis for xerographic copiers and laser printers.

614. Can plastic melt in a microwave oven? How does this process work? Can plastic burn in a microwave oven? - HD
Most plastics are unaffected by microwaves and do nothing at all in a microwave oven. For them to absorb energy from the microwaves, the plastics must either conduct electricity or their molecules must undergo the twisting motions that water molecules experience in the microwave oven. There are a few conducting plastics and these may melt or burn in a microwave as the microwave electric fields propel electric currents through them. There are also some plastics that trap water molecules and these may also melt or burn as the water molecules gather energy from the microwaves. I suppose that there are also a few plastics that have polar molecules in them that respond to the microwaves the way water does. However, most plastics do none of these and only melt or burn if they accidentally come in contact with very hot food or pieces of metal that happen to be in the microwave oven.

615. Is the fact that the small magnetic fields generated by appliances change due to the alternating electric current the reason that EMFs may cause health problems? — MC, Independence, KS
I believe that the alternating nature of the electromagnetic fields around appliances is at least part of the reason they're suspected of causing health problems. Since these fields are created by an electric current that alternates in direction, they alternate in direction, too. However, I have not seen any credible evidence for there being a relationship between these appliance-related fields and health problems, nor have I heard any sensible physical theory for such a possibility. On the contrary, I have read a number of compelling arguments for why the tiny electromagnetic fields around appliances should have no biological effects at all. I think that the worries about EMFs are unfounded.

616. How does an internal combustion engine work? — RT, Kitchener, Ontario
An internal combustion engine burns a mixture of fuel and air in an enclosed space. This space is formed by a cylinder that's sealed at one end and a piston that slides in and out of that cylinder. Two or more valves allow the fuel and air to enter the cylinder and for the gases that form when the fuel and air burn to leave the cylinder. As the piston slides in and out of the cylinder, the enclosed space within the cylinder changes its volume. The engine uses this changing volume to extract energy from the burning mixture.

The process begins when the engine pulls the piston out of the cylinder, expanding the enclosed space and allowing fuel and air to flow into that space through a valve. This motion is called the intake stroke. Next, the engine squeezes the fuel and air mixture tightly together by pushing the piston into the cylinder in what is called the compression stroke. At the end of the compression stroke, with the fuel and air mixture squeezed as tightly as possible, the spark plug at the sealed end of the cylinder fires and ignites the mixture. The hot burning fuel has an enormous pressure and it pushes the piston strongly out of the cylinder. This power stroke is what provides power to the car that's attached to the engine. Finally, the engine squeezes the burned gas out of the cylinder through another valve in the exhaust stroke. These four strokes repeat over and over again to power the car. To provide more steady power, and to make sure that there is enough energy to carry the piston through the intake, compression, and exhaust strokes, most internal combustion engines have at least four cylinders (and pistons). That way, there is always at least one cylinder going through the power stroke and it can carry the other cylinders through the non-power strokes.

617. Does the pull of the moon have any effect on a person's behavior? — PSC, Summerville, WV
No, but for an interesting reason. While the moon's gravity acts on people, it also acts on everything around them and everything falls toward the moon at the same rate. Because of this uniform falling, we don't feel the moon's gravity at all. This effect is identical to the one that astronauts feel as they orbit the earth—the earth's gravity pulls on them and on their spaceship, but they are falling freely under the influence of that gravity and they don't feel it—they feel weightless. Since we are falling freely under the influence of the moon's gravity, we don't feel it either—we feel moon-weightless.

Since we are being pulled toward the moon by the moon's gravity, you might wonder why we don't crash into the moon. That's because we're traveling sideways so fast that we perpetually miss the moon and circle it once every 27.3 days. Similarly, the moon perpetually misses the earth and circles it, too.

The only significant effect of the moon's gravity is to create the tide. The earth's oceans are so large that they're sensitive to variations in the moon's gravity. The moon's gravity decreases with distance from the moon, so that the oceans on the near side of the earth are pulled harder than the oceans on the far side of the earth. The result is two bulges in the oceans—one on the near side of the earth and one on the far side of the earth. These bulges create the familiar high and low tides that we observe at the seashore.

618. Hydrogen atoms can form a single bond to each other, oxygen atoms can form a double bond to each other, and nitrogen atoms can form a triple bond to each other. Is there any element that can form a quadruple bond? — KC, Mendenhall, MS
The bonds that you are referring to are call "covalent bonds," in which two atoms share a pair of electrons in order to lower their total energy. When two electrons are shared in this manner, the electrons are able to spread out over two atoms rather than one. This broadening of their territories lowers their kinetic energies because of quantum mechanical effects. The electrons also spend large portions of their times between the atoms, where they lower the electrostatic potential energies of the two atoms. Lowering the total energy of the two atoms binds them together.

The number of covalent bonds that form between two atoms depends on the number of electrons in those atoms. Hydrogen atoms have only one electron each and can form only one covalent bond. Oxygen atoms have two electrons each that they can share and form two covalent bonds. Nitrogen atoms have three electrons to share and form three covalent bonds. And carbon atoms have four electrons to share, so you might expect them to form four covalent bonds. But there's a hitch...

In the first covalent bond that forms between two atoms, the pair of electrons positions itself directly in between the atoms. This arrangement is most effective for lowering the energy of the system and binding the two atoms together. Chemists call this arrangement a "sigma bond." In the second covalent bond, the two electrons position themselves on both sides of the sigma bond. If you picture the atoms as two people facing one another and holding hands, the electrons are located along the arms of the two people. This arrangement is reasonably effective for lowering the energy of the system and is called a "pi bond." The third covalent bond is also a pi bond, but it forms 90° from the first pi bond, as though the two people are now touching their heads and their feet together along with their hands. With a sigma bond and the two pi bonds between the atoms, there is no room for additional electrons. The fourth covalent bond that two carbon atoms would like to form with one another simply can't form. While two carbon atoms will bind together with a triple bond, each atom will have one remaining electron that is still seeking a partner. The carbon dimer molecule is a highly reactive double radical that will bind to just about anything it encounters.

619. What is the "optimal" shape for a pinewood derby car — I'm guessing some sort of short, flat, thin rectangle. - BP
The car's biggest obstacle is air resistance, which in this case is a force known as "pressure drag." The pressure drag force is proportional to the size of the turbulent wake the car creates in the air as it passes through the air. Streamlining is important to minimizing this wake. The thinner and shorter you can make the car, the smaller its wake will be. The ideal shape would be an airfoil, like those used in airplane wings and bodies. These carefully tapered shapes barely disturb the air at all and experience very little pressure drag. If you design your car to resemble a wingless commercial jet airliner, you will be doing pretty well.

620. What is the "optimal" weight distribution for a pinewood derby car — in front/behind, above/below the center of gravity? - BP
I'll assume that the car starts on a slope and coasts downhill to a level finish. If that's the case, then you want to put the car's center of gravity as far back in the car as you can get it. That way, the center of gravity will start as high as possible in the tilted car and will finish as low as possible in the level car. During a race, the car obtains its kinetic energy (its energy of motion) from its gravitational potential energy. The farther the car's center of gravity descends during the race, the more gravitational potential energy will be converted to kinetic energy and the faster the car will go.

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