A Fly in the Ointment
I was flying last month to attend a graduation and it occurred to me that I was, in fact, flying in a large metal tub with metal flappy bits bolted on. How do airplanes fly? Well, they have wings. Duh! But why do wings fly? What makes a wing a wing? Can any flat sheet of metal be used? Why do planes only fly when moving? This is quite an interesting question indeed. The answer is quite subtle – subtler than you may think. It is in fact confusing enough that a lot of high school text books and a good chunk of introductory university physics textbooks explain it incorrectly. You may have been taught the answer in high school and you have just accepted it without thinking too hard about it. Read on if you wish to check if you were indeed taught correctly.
… how I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb.
This is the last post in our series of posts on nuclear energy. Here, I shall describe the basic principles behind the design and continued operation of a nuclear reactor. In our last post, we looked at the techniques responsible for making fissile matter release energy as quickly as possible (in a nuclear explosion). Today, we will instead look at techniques to control nuclear fission reactions and usefully harness the resultant energy. Since there are a variety of various nuclear reactor designs and fuels, I shall stick to talking about a reasonably common (although a bit aged) design known as the pressurized-water reactor using U-235 fuel.
Clean, Green Energy: The Search for a Free Lunch
You’ve heard it all before, we need to find a new, sustainable, clean source of energy, and fast. People are looking to wind, solar, nuclear, and biofuels. But what do these things mean, really?
Today, I will discuss solar.
The sun is the main source of energy for this entire planet. We get much of our energy from coal and oil which is made of millions-of-years-old plant and animal matter. Animals get their energy from plants, which get their energy from the sun. The wind blowing your hair in your face and turning the wind turbines? That’s from the difference in temperature in different locations (due to the sun) and the rotation of the earth. Hydroelectric power like that made at the Hoover Dam? That’s from rainwater filling up a high altitude river source. What causes rain? The evaporation of water by heat from the sun, of course. As you can see, there are few sources of energy (nuclear and geothermal being the primary exceptions) which are not directly related to energy recently emitted from the sun. The problem with all of these forms of energy is that there is a “middle man” between the sun’s energy and usable electricity. Solar cells, which have been around since the mid-1950’s, attempt to dispose of the middle man allowing us to directly harness the power of the sun.
Today’s post is about nuclear bombs. Big boom. Mushroom clouds. Yep, those bombs. In our last post, we discussed the basic mechanism behind the uranium fission chain reaction. We also briefly talked about the difficulties involved in making it a continuous, feasible reaction. In this post, I’ll talk about the basic principles behind the design of a nuclear fission bomb. We’ll see two classic designs – the designs of the Hiroshima and the Nagasaki bombs, known as Little Boy and Fat Man. I assume that you have read the previous posts, or are familiar with basic scientific terminology related to nuclear reactions.
Nuclear Fission: A ‘Critical’ Inquiry
In the previous post, I described the basic principles behind radioactivity. In today’s post, I will describe nuclear fission reactions – the technique through which we can deliberately induce heavy atoms to break apart into smaller fragments, releasing energy in through radiation. In the previous post, we talked about half-lives and what happens to radioactive atoms if one were to leave them alone and let them naturally decay. As it turns out, there are other ways to make atoms break apart; one can slam atoms with proton and neutrons to make them more unstable, causing them to fragment. The energy released from this fragmentation can be harnessed in a controlled manner in nuclear reactors, or can be deployed destructively in the form of a nuclear fission bomb. Read More…
“Paging Dr. Freeman”: What Radioactivity Is
The recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan and the subsequent crisis at the Fukushima nuclear power plants have propelled nuclear reactors and nuclear energy to the top of every media outlet across the world. In light of this increased interest in nuclear energy, I have decided to write about radioactivity. Radioactivity is a natural physical phenomenon that is a consequence of the weak nuclear force, strong nuclear force and the electromagnetic force – three of the four fundamental forces of nature. It commonly refers to the process by which an unstable atom decays or transmutates to one or more atoms with an accompanying release of energy. In this article, I will try to explain what radioactivity means and what natural phenomena it describes, why some atoms are radioactive, what radiation is and how it relates to radioactivity.
Wishful Thinking: A Critical Analysis of Homeopathy Part II
This is a continuation of my post on homeopathy in which I talked about the history of homeopathy and how it is scientifically tested. I ended the post wondering why there was so much public acceptance for such an ineffective product. In this post, I will discuss the various cognitive biases that allow well-intentioned individuals to falsely believe that homeopathic interventions have positive effects.
No Free Lunch: A Critical Analysis of Homeopathy Part I
Usually, when I write one of these posts, I write a short, snappy introduction using an interesting hypothetical situation. I shall not do so for this post. In this post, I will discuss homeopathy – an “alternative” medical intervention that is entrenched or gaining traction in a number of countries around the world such as India, Germany, the UK and the United States. This is quite a serious topic and I wish to go over it in a reasonably serious way. This post of for those who have heard about homeopathy during a television commercial (flu remedies, Zicam etc.) or knows of a family member who uses it but doesn’t quite know what it is. I will go over the history, the underlying principle behind homeopathy, and a scientific examination of it. I will also discuss some of the current explanations that homeopaths provide that attempt to explain or justify the efficacy of homeopathic medicine. This is going to be a pretty detailed post – so hang in there!
Ever wondered how an electric incandescent bulb, an electric room heater or an electric stove worked? Ever wondered how they produce so much heat and light? Today, we will explore the working of electric bulbs and heaters. I will given an overview of how electric power is converted to heat and light. As a bonus, here is a quick poll to give you a teaser.
A Fowl Dilemma
Today, I will tackle the conundrum of Which came first: the chicken or the egg? This is an age-old dilemma, confounding early philosophers. The core argument takes the form of a catch-22. All chicken hatch from an egg. Hence, to have a chicken, one must first have had an egg. But chicken eggs need to be laid by a chicken. Hence, to have an egg, one must first have a chicken to lay it. Phrased this way, this question does not seem to have a good solution. Nevertheless, evolutionary biology has been able to resolve the issue with a correct but perhaps unsatisfactory answer.