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Ask Dr. Volt!
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The Pauper's Theater
  
Ask Dr. Volt!
 
Befuddled by physics?  Stymied by science?  Then ask Dr. Volt!
 
Dr. Volt, certified Mad Scientist, will take your questions, scrutinize them over a Bunsen burner, and post the answers here!  You can also search the archives for answers to past questions.
 



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Why does music sound different in different parts of a concert hall?


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Mary Kay S. asks, "Dr. Volt, why is the sound different in different parts of a concert hall? Where should I sit to get the best sound?"

Ah, it all has to do with acoustics - the physics of how sound, well, sounds in a particular space. Every surface, be it the walls, the seats, and even the audience, will absorb or reflect the sound in a particular way. Concert halls are designed in order to maximize the quality of the sound, both for the listeners, but for the performers as well. If, for example, all the sound is absorbed by the walls, the ceiling, etc. before it ever has a chance to reach the audience's ears, then you can bet they will soon be making a very lively march towards the box office for a refund! The key is to create surfaces in the hall such that the sound is evenly distributed over the entire hall, but yet doesn't reverberate too long (else it will interfere with the sound still to come). It is also important that enough sound bounce back to the performers, so that they are able to hear one another. Otherwise while the audience may hear very clearly, the performance may not turn out to be worth hearing! As you can imagine this all poses a very difficult puzzle for the acoustical engineers designing the hall, further complicated by the fact that you have to take into account how the hall will sound when people are filling all of the seats.

The ancient Greeks were geniuses when it came to acoustics. Their amphitheatres were designed such that an actor on stage could be heard clearly by thousands of spectators all at once, a feat which proves a challenge even for our modern engineering.

As for the best place to sit, that I think is left in "the eye of the beholder." A well-designed concert hall should have excellent sound wherever you sit, and thus it all comes down to your own personal preference.


The Greek ampitheatre at Epidaurus

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What's the big deal about potential energy?

Patty B. asks, "Dr. Volt, what's the big deal about potential energy?"

Ah, potential energy, one of my favorite concepts, for really, where would we be without it? But let's start at the beginning with energy in general. There are two primary types of energy: kinetic energy and potential energy. An object's total energy is the sum of the two and will always remain constant.** Kinetic energy is an object's energy of motion, given by Kinetic Energy = ½mv2. Here m is the object's mass and v is the object's velocity (or speed). All other forms of energy are potential energy, which simply means that they have the potential to become energy of motion. Gravitational potential energy would be a common example. As a lift an object up (that is, away from the Earth) it gains potential energy due to gravity. When I release the object, and gravity pulls it back to Earth, that potential energy is transformed into kinetic energy.

But perhaps a more mad sciencey example is in order. Another form of potential energy is chemical potential energy, which is how batteries work. In a battery a chemical reaction inside creates an electric current, which is simply electrons in motion, i.e. kinetic energy. But a much more exciting example is this:

  

That's right, it's our old friend trinitrotoluene, better known as TNT. TNT is a chemical that contains a great deal of chemical potential energy, enough so that when that potential energy is released the results are quite, well, explosive. Chemical potential energy is also found in many fuels that we use, such as oil or coal, not to mention the food we eat in order to gain the energy to pursue our dreams of world domination (I am quite partial in this regard to banana splits).

So you see, Patty, potential energy is all around us and is quite a big deal indeed! For more information on potential energy I suggest you attend my Mad Scientist Training Academy this summer (Assistant's note: see Schrödinger's Cat Must Die!). I think you shall find it most enlightening!

**All right, technically it is the mass and energy combined that remains constant, as shown by Einstein in his famous equation Energy = mc2 where c is the speed of light. Show off.

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How big is the universe?

Jessica E. asks, "Dr. Volt, how big is the universe?"

Ah, Jessica, this is a far more intriguing question than it at first appears! You see, to this day scientists are still not certain if the universe has a finite size or if it is infinite! At the very least we know it is billions of light years wide (a light year being how far light travels in a year, and given that light moves at around 300,000,000 meters per second that's pretty far itself!). But it is indeed possible that the universe is of infinite size. We may never really know, for in order to even see objects at the edges of the known universe the light must have had time to travel and reach Earth. It is possible, and indeed likely, that there are parts of the universe from which light has yet to reach us.

But let us for a moment assume that the universe is of a finite (albeit very, very large) size. Does this mean the universe has an edge? And end beyond which we can go no further? Not necessarily. Picture a ball. The two-dimensional surface of the ball is of a finite size that we can measure, but that surface doesn't have an edge. If you start and one point and move around the ball you will come back to the point at which you started. The thought is that the universe, if finite, is like a three-dimensional version of that ball: travel far enough and you will eventually come back to the same point as the universe loops back in on itself. It is, to be sure, a strange idea, but since we know that gravity, for example, can warp space-time (thank you, Einstein), the idea is not so far-fetched.

Deep field image from the Hubble, courtesy of NASA
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Does mold grow on peanut butter?

Sarah P. asks, "Dr. Volt, why doesn't mold grow on peanut butter?"

Oh dear, Sarah, I hope that you are not eating any strangely-colored peanut butter thinking that this is the case! In fact, peanuts are susceptible to certain molds which can then produce a particularly dangerous chemical called aflatoxin, which is a carcinogen believe to cause liver cancer. However, most major brands of peanut butter contain sufficient preservatives to prevent the growth of molds in the finished product for weeks or even months without requiring refrigeration (assuming the jar is kept tightly sealed). But eventually the peanut butter will go bad and can become quite dangerous to eat. Natural peanut butters do require refrigeration, as they lack the same preservatives (the oils also tend to separate and can go rancid).

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Why do Peeps blow up in the microwave?

Aimee J. asks, "Dr. Volt, why do PeepsTM blow up in the microwave?"

Egad, Aimee! What sort of dastardly, diabolical experiments are you up to? I'm impressed; clearly you are quality material for my Mad Scientist Training Academy this summer.

PeepsTM, like many living organisms, are primarily composed of water. Microwaves function as they do because the wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation they emit (with wavelengths on the order of ~ 10-6 meters, term micrometers or microns, hence the name microwave) are wavelengths easily absorbed by water molecules. When the water molecules absorb the microwaves they gain energy, and as all the water molecules in an object gain energy the temperature of the object as a whole increases.

The marshmellow-based tissue of a PeepTM consists primarily of water and sugar, which when whipped up into a foam contains many tiny air bubbles. As the water heats up it in turn heats up the air pockets which then expand, causing the entire structure of the Peep to expand with it.

For more information check out PeepTM Research Headquarters. Do these guys know Mad Science or what?

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Electron vs. Proton

Kelly B. asks: "Dr. Volt, who would win in a fight? An electron or a proton?"

A very intriguing question, Kelly. Due to their mutual electrostatic attraction it is difficult to imagine an electron and a proton being at odds with one another enough to engage in such rowdy behavior, but we shall try. Electrons are certainly the speedier particles, and due to quantum mechanics their wave functions are often spread out space making them difficult to find. Protons, on the other hand, have mass on their side, being nearly 2000 times more massive than an electron. So who would win? Well, as Rutherford observed when studying atomic structure, when an electron and proton collide the electron, due to its small mass, will be bounced back the direction in which it came, while the proton will experience only a small change in motion. So I think we can safely say that the proton would win, assuming it can sufficiently solve the Schrödinger's equation to find the electron to begin with.

But remember, Kelly, while we here at "Ask Dr. Volt!" indeed dabble in the mad sciences, we do not condone the abuse of any subatomic particle. They have a hard enough time dealing with the ramifications of quantum mechanics without us adding to their troubles.

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