. I recently received a "strong magnetic cup" as a gift. According to the claims of the maker, water kept in this cup for a minute can lower blood pressure and reduce weight, etc. Please explain how this works. — AL, Pharr, TX
I'm afraid that it works only by psychological effect, if at all. Water itself is non-magnetic and experiences no significant change when exposed to a magnetic field. Although the magnetic field of the cup has an ever so slight effect on the atomic and molecular structure of the water, this effect vanishes when the water leaves the cup. Water from the cup is just plain old water. There are many people in this world who take advantage of the public's relative inability to distinguish science from pseudoscience. One of the reasons that I enjoy answering questions here is to help people make that distinction. Magnets aren't magic—they are understandable devices and their effects on everything around them are also understandable.
. In high school physics, we learned that matter and energy can neither be created nor destroyed. Is that true in quantum mechanics? What is quantum mechanics and how did the field come about? — JE, College Station, TX
While modern physics continues to maintain that matter and energy can't be created or destroyed, the picture is a little more complicated than it was before the discovery of relativity and quantum mechanics. First, relativity ties matter and energy together so that matter can become energy and energy can become matter in certain circumstances. As a result, it's only the sum of matter and energy that can't be created or destroyed. Second, there are situations in which that sum of matter and energy can change temporarily in an isolated system. Quantum mechanics and its famous "uncertainty principle" permit brief but important violations of the conservation of mass/energy. The shorter a particular violation, the worse it may be. These violations are never directly observable because all observations are done on long time scales. But there are indirect indications of these temporary violations and they're critical to much of modern high energy and particle physics.
Quantum mechanics developed at the beginning of this century to explain several strange experimental observations, particularly the photoelectric effect and the black-body radiation spectrum. Einstein received his Nobel Prize for explaining the photoelectric effect in terms of quantum mechanics, not for any of his work on relativity.
. Airplanes can land at many different altitudes above sea level. How does the altimeter work at these different landing altitudes to show zero when the plane has finally landed? — BC, Canada
Their altimeters don't read zero once they have landed—they read the altitude of the airport! Each airport's altitude is reported on the navigational maps that pilots use. As the pilot approaches the runway, the pilot watches the altimeter and expects it to reach the airport's altitude about the time that the plane touches the runway. Before the next take off, the pilot adjusts the altimeter using the airport's official altitude as a calibration point for the altimeter. Some modern planes also used radar equipment to determine the distance to the ground beneath the plane. These devices do read zero at landing. The satellite-based Global Positioning System (GPS) also provides altitude information to pilots. Since this system reports altitude above sea level, it gives the altitude of the airport at landing, not zero.
. How do the thermometers with digital (electronic) numbers work? — KM, Lincoln, NE
The electronic fever thermometers that you can buy in a grocery store use a thermistor to measure temperature. A thermistor is a semiconductor device that acts as a temperature-sensitive electric resistor. At very low temperatures, a thermistor is essentially an insulator—it has no mobile electric charges and thus can't carry electricity. But as its temperature increases, thermal energy rearranges the charges in the thermistor and it has more and more mobile electric charges. Its ability to conduct electricity increases with temperature fairly dramatically—it gradually becomes an electric conductor. The thermistor used in a fever thermometer is designed to undergo this rapid change in electric resistance at temperatures near 98° F. A simple computer inside the thermometer measures the thermistor's electric resistance and determines the thermistor's temperature. It then uses a liquid crystal-based display to show you what that temperature is.
. How do these digital thermometers work? I read somewhere that they contain alcohol instead of mercury. — KM, Lincoln, NE
Most modern liquid-in-glass thermometers do contain alcohol rather than mercury, but these aren't the digital thermometers you are referring to. The alcohol thermometers are the ones with the red line that moves upward in a glass tube as the temperature increases. I believe that the digital thermometers you're interested in are the ones with numbers that change colors as the temperature changes. For example, when its 72° F, the number "72" is brightly colored while the other numbers are essentially black. Those thermometers use liquid crystals to measure temperature. More specifically, they use chiral nematic liquid crystals—long asymmetric molecules that arrange themselves in orderly spirals in the liquid. When light strikes these spiral structures, some of it reflects. But the reflection is strongest when the light's wavelength is an integer or half integer multiple of the spiral's pitch—the distance between adjacent turns of the spiral. Since light's wavelength is related to its color, the light reflected by these liquid crystals is colored. Because the pitch of a chiral nematic liquid crystal changes with temperature, so does its color. Slightly different liquid crystals are inserted behind each number on the thermometer so that each number becomes colored at a different temperature.
. How is the xerographic copying process related to laser and led printers? - BG
The same basic printing process is used in both xerographic copiers and laser or led printers. In all cases, a charge image is formed on the surface of a photoconductor and this pattern of electric charge attracts a pattern of colored plastic powder. The powder is then transferred to paper and melted or pressed into the paper's surface to form a permanent print.
The main difference between a copier and a printer is in the source of light used to produce the charge image. In a copier, lenses and mirrors are used to form a real image of the original document on the surface of the photoconductor. Wherever light from the white portions of the document strikes the photoconductor, the photoconductor becomes an electric conductor and charge is able to move. The pattern of light then becomes a pattern of charge—a charge image.
In a printer, a laser or an array of light emitting diodes is used to form the pattern of light on the surface of the photoconductor. Wherever the light strikes the photoconductor, charge is again able to move about. Dot by dot or row by row, the charge image takes shape. The pattern of charge that's written on the surface of the photoconductor eventually becomes the printing itself.
. I have heard that diode lasers won't work in ring laser gyroscopes because these lasers are not single frequency. If this is true, will a prism or a diffraction grating isolate one of the frequencies? - M
While most diode lasers operate at several frequencies simultaneously, it's possible to make lasers that function at only one frequency. In fact, such "single mode" diode lasers are extremely stable light sources and the basis for much current research in optical science. For example, the recent observations of Bose condensation in vapors of alkali metal atoms were made with the help of single mode diode lasers.
The phrase "single mode" refers to a single longitudinal wave that travels back and forth through the device while it is operating. This single wave has one frequency and one wavelength. It is selected from other possible waves through the use of interference effects. For the wave to be stable inside the laser cavity (the laser is bounded at each end by a mirror, thus forming an optical cavity), the cavity's length must be an integer or half integer multiple of the light's wavelength. While that criterion alone will allow several possible waves to form, coupling a second cavity to this laser cavity further restricts the wave so that only a single wave can operate inside the laser. The diode laser will then have only a single mode of operation and will emit a single frequency of light.
. What are the risks of occupational exposure to "black" fluorescent lamps? - MB
By "black" lamps, you mean ultraviolet lamps. Since ultraviolet light is able to cause chemical damage to biological tissue, long-term exposure to this light isn't so good. How much risk there is depends on how much ultraviolet light they produce and how near you are to them. Sunlight contains a considerable amount of ultraviolet, so long exposure to sunlight burns and ages skin. The photons of ultraviolet light contain enough energy to cause changes in molecules and thus upset the cellular machinery that keeps us healthy. Ultraviolet lamps will do the same thing, given enough intensity and time.
. What is the most explosive and energy releasing combination of chemicals? — RC, Chapman, Australia
A mixture of 1 part hydrogen and 19 parts fluorine by weight is the most energetic possible mixture of chemicals, releasing approximately 13,600 joules of energy per gram. The next most potent mixture is 8 parts oxygen and 1 part hydrogen by weight, releasing approximately 13,400 joules of energy per gram. Because fluorine is such a vigorous oxidizer that tends to cause fires, it isn't practical for rocket propulsion. The hydrogen/oxygen mixture is the basis for the Single Stage to Orbit rockets that are currently being developed. — Thanks to Gary V. Lorenz at NASA for help on this question.
. What is the "memory effect" of a NiCad (nickel-cadmium) battery? Is it reversible or minimizable? - MF
NiCad batteries are more rechargeable than most batteries because the chemicals that power NiCad batteries remain solid throughout the discharge cycle. The chemicals in most other batteries, including alkaline batteries, go into solution or otherwise change shape during the discharge cycle so that it difficult to reconstruct the original battery electrodes during recharging.
Unfortunately, the two solid electrodes in a NiCad battery are damaged by repeated charging and discharging. These electrodes work best when they are both fine powders (the positive electrode is nickel hydroxide powder and the negative electrode is cadmium metal powder). With repeated use, the powder particles grow larger and larger and they stop contributing to the battery's power. "Memory" appears during the discharge cycle when all the useful small particles have been used up and only the undesirable large particles remain. Repeated charging and partial discharging tends to convert many of the small particles into large particles. You can improve the battery by fully discharging it before recharging it, presumably because this deep discharge breaks up the larger particles so that the battery contains mostly small particles once again.