When I first saw this photograph of a man's hand submerged in liquid nitrogen at somewhere below -320° F, my immediate thought was, "That guy must be crazy! One second in that stuff, and you're shopping for new skin!" My shock was tempered only slightly by the fact that it was my hand, and we'd taken the picture just a minute earlier.
It's all sweetness and light until the sugar hits the fan. In 2008 the sweetener killed 14 people in Georgia -- not from diabetes or heart disease, but in a violent explosion. Absence of regulation, ineffective enforcement, and lack of preparation for the potential danger led to the Imperial Sugar factory disaster, one of the worst industrial accidents of our time.
When you step on your car's gas pedal, you're taking chemical energy stored in gasoline molecules and turning it into the kinetic energy of a moving car. It's not the most efficient process in the world, but much of the energy content of the gas ends up as useful motion. Yet when you step on the brakes, you're just throwing it all away—the kinetic energy is wasted as heat in the brake pads and rotors.
Electric cars can recover that energy by taking advantage of a wonderful property of electric motors: They also work as generators.
Once a piece of magic technology becomes so common that you can buy it at the gas station, people start taking it for granted. That happened with light sticks sometime in the 1990s. But with a little creativity, diagonal cutters and Drano, you can reveal—and control—that old black, green, red and blue magic inside.
Theodore Gray, author of our own Gray Matter, turned the periodic table into one of the most stunning (and popular) applications for the iPad. Here, take an inside look on what brought it from fantasy to reality in 60 days
Every once in a while things just come together to make you realize that you'd be an idiot not to put yourself through hell in pursuit of an impossible goal. That day arrived for me on January 27th when Steve Jobs announced that the iPad would be shipping 60 days hence.
After some deep soul searching for about 60 seconds, I decided that I had the chance to create something quite remarkable, and just maybe do it better and faster than anyone else in the world. More specifically that I had a chance to take my recently published book, The Elements: A Visual Exploration of Every Known Atom in the Universe, and turn it into a book that Harry Potter might check out of the Hogwarts library.
I wanted to make Harry Potter's magic books a reality, and do it in 60 days flat. Here's how we pulled it off.
Editor's note: A big congratulations today to Theo Gray, whose Gray Matter column was nominated for a 2010 ASME award in the Columns and Commentary category. Great to see Theo's excellent work being recognized. Here, his latest column from the March issue:
The first light-emitting diodes went on sale in 1962, and you could have any kind you wanted as long as it was dim and red. Green, yellow and orange came next, but blue LEDs didn't debut until 1989. So it may surprise you that the first LEDs, discovered in 1907, included blue—and were made of sandpaper.
A battery that runs on air? Why, that’s almost as good as a car that runs on water! Those cars are fantasy, but batteries that run on air are actually quite common, especially among older people. Tiny zinc-air batteries are widely used in hearing aids, where they have replaced toxic mercury-based batteries in providing a small but steady stream of power. They supply more energy for their size than any other battery, because they draw some of their power straight from the air.
A fine-mesh kitchen sieve with a candle inside simulates a Davy miner's safety lamp. An explosive mixture of propane gas and air is blown in from the outside. If the mesh is fine enough, the fire will stop at the screen even as the explosive gas flows through it.
If you were a coal miner in the early 1800s, the light you used was an open-flame oil lamp—even though mines were sometimes filled with "fire-damp," a volatile mixture of air and methane gas. Explosions were inevitable, and at times threw bodies from mine shafts like grapeshot from a cannon. Humphry Davy became a national hero when, in 1815, he found a remedy: Surround the lamp flame with mosquito screen.
The explosive C4, a favorite for everything from demolition to terrorism to action movies, is in fact one of the safest explosives. How can an explosive be safe? If it's hard to set off by accident. C4 is so stable that you can light it with a match (it burns but does not explode) or shoot it (it splatters but does not explode). To go bang, it requires a detonator that produces both heat and shock.
At the other end of the spectrum are mixtures that ignite simply from being scratched or knocked. There are obvious challenges in mixing, storing, and handling these substances so that they explode only when intended, yet they're surprisingly common.