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How Everything Works  
Page 63 of 160 (1595 Questions and Answers)

621. A friend was telling me of a guy who created a TV satellite dish out of chicken wire in his attic — how would you do it, adjust it, and what kind of home-brew receiver would be required to use it? - BP
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Since the microwaves used in satellite transmissions have wavelengths of several centimeters or more, they can't pass through holes in a conducting material if those holes are less than about a centimeter in diameter. As a result, chicken wire reflects microwaves as though it were a sheet of solid metal. You can form a dish antenna by bending chicken wire into a parabola. When the microwaves from the satellite strike this parabolic reflecting surface, they are brought together to a focus at a particular point above the center of the parabola. If you then place a microwave receiving device at this focal point, you'll be able to watch satellite TV.

If you want to do this, you should make a cardboard template for the parabolic shape and bend the chicken wire carefully to match this template. The more highly curved the parabola, the closer the focus will be to the dish's surface. You should aim this dish directly at the satellite and put the receiving unit at the focus of the parabola, above its center. However, you'll have difficulty building the receiving device yourself, although there are probably kits you can buy. The receiver should have a tiny antenna, a microwave amplifier, and a frequency down-converter, all together on a single circuit board. Working with microwave-frequency electronics is difficult because the wave character of the electric signals is painfully obvious in those circuits. Designing microwave circuits is a job for experts. In short, you can build the dish, but you should buy the receiver that sits at the center of the dish.


622. Could you explain the microscopic model of temperature in a gas? — DD, SC
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Thermodynamics imposes a severe constraint on the meaning of temperature by observing that when two objects are at the same temperature, no heat flows between them when they touch. That constraint leads to the follow possibility: in a gas composed of independent particles, temperature must be proportional to the average internal kinetic energy per particle. By internal kinetic energy, I mean that we are excluding any kinetic energy associated with the movement of the gas as a whole. And by average per particle, I mean to add up all the internal kinetic energies and divide the sum by the number of particles. With this definition of temperature, two bodies of gas that have the same temperature won't exchange heat when they touch. It turns out to be a good definition of temperature and the one that we use in general.

623. What is the relationship between turbulence, laminar flow, and Reynolds number? — DD, SC
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The Reynolds number is a measure of the way in which a moving fluid encounters an obstacle. It's equal to the fluid's density, the size of the obstacle, and the fluid's speed, and inversely proportional to the fluid's viscosity (viscosity is the measure of a fluid's "thickness"—for example, honey has a much larger viscosity than water does). A small Reynolds number refers to a flow in which the fluid has a low density so that it responds easily to forces, encounters a small obstacle, moves slowly, or has a large viscosity to keep it organized. In such a situation, the fluid is able to get around the obstacle smoothly in what is known as "laminar flow." You can describe such laminar flow as dominated by the fluid's viscosity—it's tendency to move smoothly together as a cohesive material.

A large Reynolds number refers to a flow in which the fluid has a large density so that it doesn't respond easily to forces, encounters a large obstacle, moves rapidly, or has too small a viscosity to keep it organized. In such a situation, the fluid can't get around the obstacle without breaking up into turbulent swirls and eddies. You can describe such turbulent flow as dominated by the fluid's inertia—the tendency of each portion of fluid to follow a path determined by its own momentum.

The transition from laminar to turbulent flow occurs at a particular range of Reynolds number (usually around 2500). Below this range, the flow is normally laminar; above it, the flow is normally turbulent.


624. I have heard that microwaving can destroy certain nutrient molecules in food, such as vitamins. Is this true? — D, Boulder, CO
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A microwave oven heats the food it cooks; nothing more. If it damages nutrients, then it's by overheating those nutrients. Such overheating could happen in a microwave oven if you don't move the food about during cooking. That's because the microwaves aren't uniformly distributed in the cooking chamber and some parts of the food heat faster than others. Some parts of the food could become hotter than you intend and this overheating could damage sensitive molecules. However, I think that microwave cooking is probably less injurious to the food than conventional cooking. It's pretty hard to burn food in a microwave!

625. What material is used in glass to make it polarize light? — FG, Torrance, CA
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Actually, the polarizing material you are referring to is a plastic that has been impregnated with iodine atoms. The plastic, polyvinyl alcohol, is heated and stretched to align its long molecules in a particular direction. This plastic is then exposed to iodine, which binds to the long molecules and forms the equivalent of molecular wires along the direction of the aligned plastic molecules. These molecular wires absorb light that is polarized along them because the light's electric field points along its polarization direction and pushes electric charges wastefully along the iodine wires. This light is absorbed and its energy is converted to thermal energy, leaving only light with the other polarization.

626. Exactly what is light? Is it a wave or particles? — MW, Catoosa, OK
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Light is an electromagnetic wave—an excitation of the electric and magnetic fields that can exist even in "empty" space. Light's electric field creates its magnetic field and its magnetic field creates its electric field and this self-perpetuating arrangement zips off through space at a phenomenal speed—the speed of light. Light is created by moving electric charges, which first excite the electromagnetic fields. Light is also absorbed by electric charges, which obtain energy from the light's electromagnetic fields.

Like everything else in the universe, light exhibits both wave and particle behaviors. When it is traveling through space, light behaves as a wave. That means that its location is generally not well defined and that it can simultaneously pass through more than one opening (the way a water wave can when it encounters a piece of screening). But when light is emitted or absorbed, it behaves as a particle. It's created all at once when it's emitted from a particular location and it disappears all at once when it's absorbed somewhere else. This wave/particle arrangement is true of everything, including objects such as electrons or atoms: while they are traveling unobserved, they behave as waves but when you go looking for them, they behave as particles.


627. What effects do fluorescent lamps have on household plants? — SN, Milwaukee, WI
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Since plants appear green, they are absorbing mostly the red and blue portions of the visible light spectrum. Blue light is particularly important to them. Incandescent light contains relatively little blue light, so it probably doesn't help plants very much. Because fluorescent lighting provides more blue light than incandescent lighting, fluorescent lighting is certainly better for plants.

628. How do sound proof and bulletproof glasses work? - DH
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Sound proof glass uses several separate layers of glass to make it difficult for sound to move from one room to another. Each time sound passes through a surface and experiences a change in speed, some of the sound reflects. Sound travels much more slowly in air than in glass, so with each transition into or out of a glass pane, most of the sound is reflected backward. If two rooms are separated by 3 or 4 sheets of glass, each carefully sealed into place so that there are no holes for sound to leak through, the amount of sound that can make it through the overall window will be very small. Most of the sound will be reflected.

Bulletproof glass is actually a multi-layered sandwich of glass and plastic—it's like the front windshield of a car, but with many more layers. When a bullet hits the surface of the sandwich, it begins to tear into the layers. But the bullet loses momentum before it manages to burrow all the way through to the final layers. The bullet's energy and momentum are transferred harmlessly to the layers of glass and plastic.


629. I read recently that scientists at CERN produced some form of antimatter, but that it could not be stored. Why can't it be stored and, if it could, would it be a viable method of propulsion? — BC, Ottawa, Ontario
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The antimatter that was formed at CERN was an antihydrogen atom, which consisted of an antiproton and an antielectron (often called a positron). Antiprotons and positrons have been available for a long time, but it has been a challenge to bring them together gently enough for them to stick to one another and form a bound system. An antihydrogen atom is hard to store because, like a normal hydrogen atom, it moves or falls so quickly that it soon collides with its container. For a normal hydrogen atom, that collision is likely to cause a chemical reaction. But for an antihydrogen atom, that collision is likely to cause annihilation. When an antiproton touches a proton, the two can destroy one another and convert their mass into energy. The same is true for a positron and an electron. To store an antihydrogen atom, you must keep it from touching any normal matter. That's not an easy task. Because of its ability to emit its entire mass and that of the normal matter it encounters into energy, antimatter is the most potent "fuel" imaginable. But don't expect it to show up in a rocket ship any time soon.

630. How can one prove to students that the earth rotates. Any instructions on how to build a pendulum to show rotation or some other way? - KC
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There are many indirect indications that the earth rotates, including the motions of celestial objects overhead, the earth's winds—particularly the counter-clockwise rotation of surface winds in northern hemisphere hurricanes, and the outward bulge of the earth around its equator. But for a more direct indication, a Foucault pendulum is a good choice.

Unfortunately, a Foucault pendulum isn't easy to interpret or build. It would be easiest to interpret if it were at the north pole, where it would swing back and forth in a fixed plane as the earth turned beneath it. To a person watching the pendulum from the ground, the pendulum's swinging arc would appear to complete one full turn each day. However, elsewhere in the northern hemisphere, the plane of the pendulum does change and the pendulum's swinging arc will appear to complete less than one full turn each day. Nonetheless, the fact that the arc shifts at all is an indication that the ground is accelerating and that the earth is turning.

The problem with building a Foucault pendulum is that it must retain its swinging energy for hours or even days and that it must not be perturbed by activities around it. It must have a very dense, massive pendulum bob supported on a strong, thin cable and that cable must be attached to a rigid support overhead. The longer the cable is, the longer it will take the bob to complete each swing and the more slowly the pendulum will move. Slow movements are important to minimize air resistance. If I were building a Foucault pendulum, I'd find a tall empty shaft somewhere, away from any moving air, and I'd attached a lead-filled metal ball (weighing at least 100 pounds but probably more) to the top of the shaft with a thin steel cable. I'd make sure that nothing rubbed and that the top of the cable never moved. (Over the long haul, there is the issue of damage to the top of the cable because of flexure...it will eventually break here. Wrapping the cable around a drum so that there is no specific bending point helps.) Then I'd pull the pendulum away from its equilibrium position and let it start swinging slowly back and forth. Over the course of several hours, its swing would decrease, but not before we would notice that its arc had turned significantly away from the original arc because of the earth's rotation.


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