How Everything Works
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MLA Citation: Bloomfield, Louis A. "How Everything Works" How Everything Works 23 Oct 2017. Page 126 of 160. 23 Oct 2017 <>.
1251. How does an automatic transmission in a car work? — ORL, Trondheim, Norway
An automatic transmission contains two major components: a fluid coupling that controls the transfer of torque from the engine to the rest of the transmission and a gearbox that controls the mechanical advantage between the engine and the wheels. The fluid coupling resembles two fans with a liquid circulating between them. The engine turns one fan, technically known as an "impeller," and this impeller pushes transmission fluid toward the second impeller. As the liquid flows through the second impeller, it exerts a twist (a "torque") on the impeller. If the car is moving or is allowed to move, this torque will cause the impeller to turn and, with it, the wheels of the car. If, however, the car is stopped and the brake is on, the transmission fluid will flow through the second impeller without effect. Overall, the fluid coupling allows the efficient transfer of power from the engine to the wheels without any direct mechanical linkage that would cause trouble when the car comes to a stop.

Between the second impeller and the wheels is a gearbox. The second impeller of the fluid coupling causes several of the gears in this box to turn and they, in turn, cause other gears to turn. Eventually, this system of gears causes the wheels of the car to turn. Along with these gears are several friction plates that can be brought into contact with one another by the transmission to change the relative rotation rates between the second impeller and the car's wheels. These changes in relative rotation rate give the car the variable mechanical advantage it needs to be able to both climb steep hills and drive fast on flat roadways.

Finally, some cars combine parts of the gear box with the fluid coupling in what is called a "torque converter." Here the two impellers in the fluid coupling have different shapes so that they naturally turn at different rates. This asymmetric arrangement eliminates the need for some gears in the gearbox itself.

1252. Is there rain above the clouds? — JM, Arlington Heights, Illinois
No. If you are above the clouds, then the sky above you is free from droplets of condensed moisture. While that doesn't mean that there is no water overhead, that water must be entirely in the form of gaseous water molecules. Since rain forms when droplets of condensed moisture grow large enough to descend rapidly through the air, the absence of any condensed droplets makes it impossible for full raindrops to form. In short, no clouds overhead, no rain.

1253. How does an acetylene miner's lamp work? How does a propane gas lamp work? Why do gas lamps need a mantle and what is the mantle made of? — DK, Washington, DC
An acetylene miner's lamp produces acetylene gas through the reaction of solid calcium carbide with water. An ingenious system allows the production of gas to self-regulate—the gas pressure normally keeps the water away from the calcium carbide so that gas is only generated when the lamp runs short on gas. In contrast, a propane lamp obtains its gas from pressurized liquid propane. Whenever the propane lamp runs short on gas, the falling gas pressure allows more liquid propane to evaporate.

Only the propane lamp needs a mantle to produce bright light. That's because the hot gas molecules that are produced by propane combustion aren't very good at radiating their thermal energy as visible light. The mantle extracts thermal energy from the passing gas molecules and becomes incandescent—it converts much of its thermal energy into thermal radiation, including visible light. Mantles are actually delicate ceramic structures consisting of metal oxides, including thorium oxide. Thorium is a naturally occurring radioactive element, similar to uranium, and lamp mantles are one of the few unregulated uses of thorium.

The light emitted by these oxide mantles is shorter in average wavelength than can be explained simply by the temperature of the burning gases, so it isn't just thermal radiation at the ambient temperature. The mantle's unexpected light emission is called candoluminescence and is thought to involve non-thermal light emitted as the result of chemical reactions and radiative transitions involving the burning gases and the mantle oxides.

In contrast, the acetylene miner's lamp works pretty well without a mantle. I think that's because the flame contains lots of tiny carbon particles that act as the mantle and emit an adequate spectrum of yellow thermal radiation. Many of these particles then go on to become soot. A candle flame emits yellow light in the same manner.

One last feature of a properly constructed miner's lamp, a safety lamp, is that it can't ignite gases around it even if those gases are present in explosive concentrations. That's because the lamp's flame is surrounded by a fine metal mesh. This mesh draws heat out of any gas within its holes and thus prevents the flame inside the mesh from igniting any gas outside the mesh.

1254. Why are there no bubbles in carbonated water until you open the sealed cap? Why are the bubbles inside the opened bottle then larger than the ones in a glass? — EP
When the bottle is sealed, its contents are in equilibrium. In this context, equilibrium means that while carbon dioxide gas molecules are continuously shifting from solution in the water to independence in the gas underneath the cap, there is no net movement of gas molecules between the two places. Since the company that bottled the water put a great many gas molecules in the bottle, the concentration of dissolved molecules in the water is high and so is the density of molecules in the gas under the cap. This high density of gaseous carbon dioxide molecules under the cap makes the pressure inside the bottle quite high, which is why the bottle's surface is taut and hard.

While you can't see it in this unopened bottle, there is activity both at the surface of the water and within the water. At the water's surface, carbon dioxide molecules are constantly leaving the water for the gas under the cap and returning from the gas under the cap to the water. The rates of departure and return are equal, so that nothing happens overall. Within the water, tiny bubbles are also forming occasionally. But these tiny bubbles, which nucleate through random fluctuations within the liquid or more often at defects in the bottle's walls, can't grow. Even though these bubbles contain gaseous carbon dioxide molecules, the molecules aren't dense enough to keep the bubbles from being crushed by the pressurized water. So these tiny bubbles form and collapse without ever becoming noticeable.

However, once you remove the top from the bottle, everything changes. The bottle's contents are no longer in equilibrium. To begin with, carbon dioxide molecules that leave the surface of the water are no longer replaced by molecules returning to the liquid. That's one reason why an opened bottle of carbonated water begins to lose its dissolved carbon dioxide and become "flat." Secondly, without its trapped portion of dense carbon dioxide gas, the bottle is no longer pressurized and it stops being taut and hard (assuming that it's made of plastic rather than gas). Thirdly, with the loss of pressure, the water in the bottle stops crushing the tiny gas bubbles that form within it. In fact, once one of those bubbles forms, carbon dioxide molecules can enter it from the liquid just as they enter the gas at the top of the bottle. As a result, each bubble that forms grows larger and larger. Since the gas in a bubble is less dense than water, the bubble begins to float upward until it reaches the top of the bottle. Because the bottle is taller than a typical water glass, a bubble has more time to grow before reaching the top in the bottle than it would have in the glass. That's one reason why the bubbles in a bottle are taller than in a glass. Another reason is that the concentration of dissolved carbon dioxide molecules is higher while the water is in the bottle than it is by the time the water reaches the glass, so that bubbles grow faster in the bottle than in the glass.

1255. Is wearing rubber-soled shoes more dangerous or less dangerous if you are hit by lightning? — JH, Santa Fe, New Mexico
Once lightning strikes you, whether or not you are wearing rubber-soled shoes will make little difference. The voltages involved in lightning are so enormous (hundreds of millions of volts) that the insulating character of rubber soles will be completely overwhelmed. If the electric current can't pass through your rubber soles, it will simply form an electric arc around them or through them.

However, I would guess that rubber-soled shoes provide some slight protection against being hit by lightning in the first place. Lightning tends to strike objects that have acquired an electric charge that is opposite that of the cloud overhead. This opposite charge naturally appears on grounded conducting objects because the cloud's charge pulls opposite charges up from the ground and onto the objects. Once this charging has taken place, the object is a prime target for a lightning strike.

If you are standing alone and barefoot on the top of a mountain during a thunderstorm, the cloud will draw opposite charge up from the ground through your feet and you will become very highly charged. There are even photographs of people on mountaintops with their hair standing up because of this charging effect. Unfortunately, some of these people were struck by lightning shortly after experiencing this effect. If you ever experience it, run for your life down the mountain! It's possible that wearing rubber soles shoes will prevent or delay this charging effect, and it might keep you from being struck by lightning. But I sure wouldn't count on it.

1256. Recently, my doctor attached a small clip to my index finger that allowed a machine to not only measure my pulse rate but my blood gasses too. No needles were involved. How does this work? — CM, New York, New York
The red blood cells in your blood contain large amounts of a complicated and brightly colored molecule known as hemoglobin. This molecule's ability to bind and later release oxygen molecules is what allows blood to carry oxygen efficiently throughout your body.

Each hemoglobin molecule contains four heme groups, the iron-containing structures that actually form the reversible bond with oxygen molecules and that also give the hemoglobin its color. However, this color depends on the oxidization state of the heme group—red when the heme group is binding oxygen and blue-purple when the heme group is alone. That color difference explains why someone who is holding their breath may "turn blue"—their hemoglobin is lacking in oxygen. The clip you wore was analyzing the color of your blood to determine the extent of oxygenation in its hemoglobin. It measured your pulse rate by looking for periodic fluctuations in the opacity of your finger, brought on by changes in your finger's blood content with each heartbeat.

1257. Why is there always snow on mountaintops, even if the weather in the valley is not cold? — GV, El Paso, Texas
The atmosphere maintains a natural temperature gradient of about 10° C (which is equivalent to 18° F) per kilometer in dry air and about 6 or 7° C (which is equivalent to about 12° F) per kilometer in moist air. The higher you look in the lower atmosphere, the colder the air is. Because of this gradient, it may be 20° C (68° F) in the valley and 0° C (32° F) at the top of a 2,000 meter high mountain.

This temperature gradient has its origin in the physics of gases—when a gas expands and does work on its surroundings, its temperature decreases. To see why this effect is important, imagine that you have a plastic bag that's partially filled with valley air. If you carry this bag up the side of the mountain, you will find that the bag's volume will gradually increase. That's because there will be less and less air overhead as you climb and the pressure that this air exerts on the bag will diminish. With less pressure keeping it small, the air in the bag will expand and the bag will fill up more and more. But for the bag's size to increase, it must push the air around it out of the way. Pushing this air away takes work and energy, and this energy comes from the valley air inside the bag. Since the valley air has only one form of energy it can give up—thermal energy—its temperature decreases as it expands. By the time you reach the top of the mountain, your bag of valley air will have cooled dramatically. If it started at 20° C, its temperature may have dropped to 0° C, cold enough for snow.

If you now turn around and walk back down the mountain, the increasing air pressure will gradually squeeze your bag of valley air back down to its original size. In doing do, the surrounding air will do work on your valley air, giving it energy, and will increase that air's thermal energy—the valley air will warm up! When you reach the valley, the air in your bag will have returned to its original temperature.

Air often rises and falls in the atmosphere and, as it does, it experiences these same changes in temperature. Air cools as it blows up into the mountains (often causing rain to form) and warms as it flows down out of the mountains (producing dry mountain winds). These effects maintain a temperature gradient in the atmosphere that allows snow to remain on mountaintops even when it's relatively warm in the valleys.

1258. Is it true that you can determine the distance of a lightning bolt by counting the second that are between the sound of the thunder and the flash of the light? I heard that every second represents one mile in distance. — LS, Los Gatos, CA
You can tell how far away a lightning flash is by counting the time separating the flash from the thunderclap. Every five seconds is about a mile. The reason that this technique works is that light and sound travel at very different speeds. The light and sound are created simultaneously, but the light travels much faster than the sound. You see the flash almost immediately after it actually occurs, but the thunderclap takes time to reach your ears. You can determine how long it takes sound to travel from the lightning bolt to your ears by counting the seconds between the flash and the thunderclap. Since it takes sound about 5 seconds to travel a mile, you can determine the distance to the lightning bolt in miles by dividing the seconds of sound delay by 5.

1259. How do slot machines work? — DD, Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada
A slot machine is a classic demonstration of rotational inertia. When you pull on the lever, you are exerting a torque (a twist) on the three disks contained inside the machine. These disks undergo angular acceleration—they begin turning toward you faster and faster as you complete the pull. When you stop pulling on the lever, the lever decouples itself from the disks and they continue to spin because of their rotational inertia alone—they are coasting. However, their bearings aren't very good and they experience frictional torques that gradually slow them down. They eventually stop turning altogether and then an electromechanical system determines whether you have won. Each disk is actually part of a complicated rotary switch and the positions of the three disks determine whether current can flow to various places on an electromechanical counter. That counter controls the release of coins—coins that are dropped one by one into a tray if you win. Sadly, computerized gambling machines are slowly replacing the beautifully engineered electromechanical ones. These new machines are just video games that handle money—they have little of the elegant mechanical and electromechanical physics that makes the real slot machines so interesting.

1260. I cannot understand a step-up transformer. Why is the voltage doubled when we double the secondary turns? What isn't it possible to have a dc transformer; since the law of induction says that when a current passes through a conductor it provides a magnetic field, isn't it the same as ac? — C
A transformer only works with ac current because it relies on changes in a magnetic field. It is the changing magnetic field around the transformer's primary coil of wire that produces the electric field that actually propels current through the transformer's secondary coil of wire.

When dc current passes through the primary coil of wire, the coil does have a magnetic field around it, but it doesn't have an electric field around it. The electric field is what pushes electric charges through the secondary coil to transfer power from the primary coil to the secondary coil. In contrast, when ac current passes through that primary coil of wire, the magnetic field around the coil flips back and forth in direction and this changing magnetic field gives rise to an electric field around the coil. It is this electric field that pushes on electrically charged particles—typically electrons—in the secondary coil of wire. These electrons pick up speed and energy as they move around the secondary coil's turns. The more turns these charged particles go through, the more energy they pick up. That's why doubling the turns in a transformer's secondary coil doubles the voltage of the current leaving the secondary coil.
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