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Archives for: May 2009 - 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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How big is the universe?


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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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What is Fire?

Gretchen K. asks, "Dr. Volt, can you please explain fire?"

Well, Gretchen, fire is actually a complex series of chemical reactions termed exothermic, which means that the reaction emits energy as heat. The burning of a fuel then releases latent energy present in the fuel, transforming it from chemical potential energy into more useful forms: in this case heat and light. The color of fire depends both on the heat of the fire (bright yellow flames are hotter than orange flames) and the fuel source used (for example, the blue flame that results from burning natural gas).

Fire requires three elements: fuel, oxygen, and heat. Once a fire starts it becomes a chain reaction that will continue as long as its three requirements remain present in sufficient quantities to sustain the reaction.

Byproducts of the fire include carbon dioxide (CO2), which results from the combination of oxygen in the air with carbon in the fuel source. Soot is carbon that remains unburned; ash is also remnants of the fuel source that haven't burned. A very efficient fire (such as results from the burning of flash paper) will leave little to no soot or ash behind. Other byproducts of the fire will depend on the chemicals present in the fuel source.

The shape of flames is affected by gravity – NASA has learned that in low or zero gravity environments flames becomes spherical, although these flames can quickly go out because the carbon dioxide generated does not disperse well and can smother the flame.

Thank you, Gretchen, for such a scintillating question!

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Welcome to Ask Dr. Volt!

Greetings! I am Dr. Ernest F. Volt and this summer I will be bringing my Mad Scientist Training Academy to Minneapolis as part of the Minnesota Fringe Festival. (You can find all of the details here.) But as there is only so much that can be covered in one hour, I have created this blog to answer all of your scientific questions and inquiries. So if you're puzzled by physics, confused about chemistry, or baffled by biology, just Ask Dr. Volt! and I shall do my utmost to answer each and every question!

Sincerely,
Dr. Ernest F. Volt, Certified Mad Scientist

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