Titanium: An Excellent Metaphor for Emotional Resilience

Titanium metal
Source: Wikipedia Commons

What’s stronger than Roger Federer’s backhand, more durable than Celine Dion’s singing career and lighter weight than Kate Moss after a coke binge?

Titanium!

From NASA space shuttles to dental implants, this metal boasts a suite of impressive properties that makes it, quite literally, the most awesome metal on the planet and so very useful to mankind. In fact, many of our most important medical feats would not be possible without titanium.

Can you craft a functional tooth replacement from platinum? Nope! Can you make a space shuttle out of silver? You could, but it would be Challenger all over again. Could Venus Williams send a tennis ball into hyper drive with a tennis racquet made of gold? With deltoids like that, probably… but that’s not the point.

Titanium is more than just a David Guetta song. Let’s take a closer look at this indispensable metal.

Titanium’s Many Claims to Fame

 

space shuttle Kennedy Space Center.

You cannot imagine a metal with more applications – important applications – than titanium. This lustrous metallic element is incredibly strong, lightweight, has a non-corrosive personality and enjoys long walks on the beach. A combination of these traits coupled with its low thermal conductivity (science speak for a high resistance to heat) makes titanium the perfect metal for the fabrication of totally awesome things like space shuttle, fighter jets, high performance cars, submarines and naval ships.

Powdered titanium burns brilliantly, so it’s used by pyrotechnics to make fireworks that don’t fizzle, but bang! It’s also used in sports where the weight of your tennis racquet, lacrosse stick or golf club is as important, if not more so than its strength. Titanium, which is as strong as a steel alloy but 45% lighter, has the highest strength to weight ratio, so it achieves both. It’s no wonder the Russians clicked on to its incredible potential for military and naval applications, most notably for the building of submarines. And yes… the Russians beat the Americans to this one.

It’s in You

Usually, the special metals that are coveted by humans are rare. Or perhaps it’s because they’re rare that they’re coveted… but in titanium’s case, it is the 7th most abundant metal on the planet and the 9th most common element in the Earth’s crust. Just look at the ground beneath your feet. You are, unbeknownst, staring at this metal of which I so reverently speak. Touch yourself. Not there! There’s titanium in you too…

And that isn’t a metaphor for emotional resilience.

There’s titanium in meteorites, plants, on the moon and in the stars – our sun in particular – which is where this metal and the heavier elements that make up our universe are forged. There’s titanium everywhere and thank goodness for that, otherwise Venus Williams would long have long ago been kicked out of professional tennis for breaking so many racquets!

The Name’s Bond… Biological Bond

dental implant Xray

One of titanium’s most interesting traits is that it is totally bio-compatible and that, if implanted in the body, will not be rejected by the tissue. In fact, bone readily bonds with the surface of titanium metal, as if it were just another part of your body and this is called ‘osseointegration.’ The ability of the bone tissue to biologically bond with titanium is what has made it an indispensible material in orthopaedic surgery, where the repair of bones and replacement of joints is necessary.

It’s also what has made the entire field of dental implantology possible. In other words, without titanium, there would be no fixed and non-removable replacement solution to missing teeth. This would spell certain disaster for the human race, since we are so preoccupied with appearance. A lost tooth causing a conspicuous gaping hole in your smile would be the end of your sexual career.

Funny

Forever.

Class Dismissed: Your Take-Home Message

Titanium is so strong, yet lightweight and so resistant to cracks, breaks, corrosion and fatigue that it’s used in some of the most demanding applications on Earth: to fabricate space shuttle that can safely tear through the thermosphere and submarines that can plunge more than 3,000 feet deep into the inky blackness of the ocean.

Submarine underwater
Source: Wikipedia Commons

Then there’s jewellery, professional sports equipment, pyrotechnics and dental implants, which can last more than 30 years embedded in the jaw of your mouth. We owe much of our medical and technological advancement to titanium.

Titanium’s abundance on Earth also holds for mankind an incredibly important lesson. To covet a resource just because it is rare is dangerous and the product of flawed thinking. Titanium is in great demand because it has so many essential applications in the advancement of our civilisation.

Now if only we regarded our natural environment with the same eyes.

Teen girl with planet earth.

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Drunk History: The Invention of Coca Cola

Watch the “Eureka” moment when American pharmacist John Pemberton innovated one of the world’s biggest and probably (in the eyes of dentists) most regrettable inventions: Coca Cola. What initially began as a new medicine with some interesting applications ended up as the addiction of tens of millions around the world and an essential accompaniment to popcorn at the movies.

This “Drunk History” moment is brought to you by ingenious comedy writer Derek Waters, a very drunk Jenny Slate (narrator) and brilliant actor Bill Hader, who plays John Pemberton.

Video Source: Comedy Central, as seen on the YouTube channel http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R-mU4pf3ywU

What’s In a Name? Bad Science, That’s What

One of the most interesting and thought-provoking books I have ever read is called ‘Bad Science’ and it’s by Ben Goldacre, an Oxford and London-trained doctor who also dedicates much of his time to writing and broadcasting. In his book, he takes a look at many different products and technologies that have more than just blithely sailed under the radar of good science: they’ve gone on to make their manufacturers billions upon billions of dollars in profits.

Ben Goldacre Bad Science
A must-read for anyone and everyone. Dr. Ben Goldacre revives the ailing enquiring mind by exposing the methodology of corporations using ‘science’ to sell. He runs an interesting blog too, which you can check out at http://www.badscience.net.

Any woman (or her husband) will know that when it comes to buying face cream, there are price discrepancies that could feed an impoverished third world country for a week. A 200ml tub of Nivea Crème, or cream if you had to drop the pretence, costs in the region of $3 and is readily available from Clicks, Boots or any other supermarket or pharmacy. I consider this a bargain. Chanel sells a face cream – ostentatiously named Precision Sublimage Serum Essential Regenerating Cream – that, at $375, is one hundred times more expensive. But Chanel is far from the costliest on the market. According to http://www.totalbeauty.com (at the time of writing)

Guerlain’s Orchidee Imperiale Cream Next Generation goes for *cough* $410-$420

Why? Because it contains special ‘molecular extract’ from orchids.

Orlane Crème Royale goes for *choke* $650

Why? Because it contains 24-carat gold and royal jelly (bee’s glandular secretion.)

Expensive face creams
Orlane Crème Royale goes for $650 a pot owing to its content of bee secretion and 24-carat bullshit, I mean, gold.

But the prize has to go to La Prairie Cellular Cream Platinum Rare, at *faint* $1,200, which is more than the standard income of a middle class South African.

Why, Larry, Why? Because its key ingredient is platinum, one of the rarest elements in the Earth’s crust, which not surprisingly goes for around $1,240 per fine ounce at the time of writing.

Against all Common Sense and Rationality, Platinum Will Make You Look Younger

Wow, impressive! No wonder it’s expensive. With ingredients that require the processing of thousands of acres of expensive and rare flowers, or thousands of tonnes of ore, it’s really no wonder that a tiny pot of cream is so damn expensive. MY question is what on EARTH is platinum going to do for my skin? Platinum is a totally stable and non-reactive metal that, even at high temperatures, is non-corrosive. So coating your face with it may prevent you from rusting IF you were the tin-man from The Wizard of Oz.

I’ve no doubt that the chemists, cellular biologists and other specialists these multi-billion dollar corporations have working for them could explain how vanilla extract might prevent the early signs of skin aging, or how 24-carat gold might make my face look more radiant. But I’m even more certain that there are abundant cheaper alternatives that do EXACTLY the same thing. Under a microscope, vitamin E oil from rare orchids that grow exclusively on the island of Madagascar looks exactly the same as vitamin E oil from something as commonplace as sunflowers.

Class Dismissed: Your Take-Home Message

expensive face creams

Keeping your skin looking healthy and young is about keeping it hydrated, which also means staying out the sun and avoiding habits such as tobacco smoking. And Dr. Ben Goldacre explains this beautifully in Chapter 3 of his book Bad Science (seriously, give it a read!) If you look at the list of ingredients on the tubs of these various moisturizing creams, there is almost zero different between the $3 tub of Nivea and $300 tub of Chanel. The difference that can be found lies in the addition of super strange and exotic ingredients that are almost always impossibly hard to find. You’re also paying for the brand name, which I can assure you does sweet FA for your skin.

It’s the schism between science and society that enables these cosmetic companies (and many, many other big brand names) to charge you an obscene amount of money for products that are essentially the same as their inexpensive and unpretentious counterparts. Trust me. If it had to be shown in a number of controlled scientific trials that, for example, gibbon ejaculate could reduce the evidence of aging more effectively than your standard moisturizer’s ingredients, I’m sure it would be huge news, complete with captivating headlines…

“Monkey Comes to the Rescue of Your Aging Skin”

“The Fountain of Youth Discovered!”

Refuse those highly processed headlines and do the truth-seeking yourself. And the next time you consider spending more than $50 on face cream, ask yourself how many monkeys were touched inappropriately to bring this product to you.

angry funny gibbon monkey

How To Bake a Diamond

Beautiful diamond gem

Diamonds have been getting men out of trouble for hundreds of years. They have also been getting men into trouble for hundreds of years. So, what’s so special about diamonds? They’re really pretty, they’re really strong, they have a great pair of tits…

Sorry, that’s Lara Croft.

DIAMONDS are really pretty, they’re really strong and they’re really RARE. They are also the gemstone of choice when it comes to getting hitched because, just like Shirley Bassey sang, diamonds are forever.

Diamonds are Forever… No, Really, They Are!

Aside from their unparalleled resilience and durability, diamonds are spectacular-looking rock minerals. Cut into a complex and intricate array of facets and planes, their refractive light properties send out a kaleidoscope of colour which spans the visible light spectrum, even though the gem itself appears totally translucent and colourless.

What are diamonds? What are they made of? How are they formed?

Yeah, yeah… what you REALLY want to know is what it takes to bake your own diamond so that you can become super rich and super lazy just like Paris Hilton. Well, just like everything else on this planet and in our universe really, diamonds are made of tiny, tiny building blocks. A closer look into their crystal structure tells us just how these highly coveted stones are formed.

Diamond, which is derived from the ancient Greek word adámas, meaning ‘unbreakable,’ is made from one of the most common elements here on planet Earth. It’s in the soil we walk on, in the air we breathe and in the food we eat. Here’s another clue: you’re made from it.

Carbon!

Diamonds from black carbon

It’s the same black crap your science teacher created from burning sugar, the same black crap the graphite in your pencil is made of and the same black crap shown in the picture above. Oh, how unromantic!

Surely such a rare and highly prized stone would be constructed from something equally as exotic and just as rare? Alas, my friends. It is not the building blocks of diamonds that make these stones so special, but rather the conditions under which they are forged. It’s like baking a cake: at the right temperature and with the right cooking time, the cake will come out beautiful, spongy, moist and delicious. At the wrong temperature and cooking time, the same batter will come out black, bitter, inedible and more appropriately used as a bludgeoning weapon.

Carbon + Contaminant = Colour!

Colorful diamond array

We’ve established that diamonds are made from carbon. Actually, they’re made from a carbon allotrope, just so that you geology geeks don’t get a kick out of correcting me. But for all intents and purposes, diamonds are essentially made out of carbon. And carbon is abundant. So, theoretically, you should be able to make your own diamonds! Just don’t tell anybody about it or you could throw a major spanner in the traditional works and symbolism of marriage, just like those pesky homosexuals who want equal rights. I mean, who do they think they are?

Hold on a minute! All it takes is carbon? Then what gives some diamonds their colour? Well noted, my avaricious rapscallions! Diamonds don’t ONLY come as colourless, expensive globules of carbon. Interestingly enough, the unique and very rigid arrangement of carbon atoms in the crystal structure of a diamond (cubic to be exact) makes it difficult for other chemical elements to infiltrate it, causing impurities. This explains why the insides of most diamonds look so beautifully pure and translucent.

Most, but not all.

Diamond, actually, is quite snobby. It only allows very particular elements into its crystal lattice and then again, it only does this on the rare occasion. To give you an idea of just how fussy diamond is, it is estimated that for every million atoms of well-behaved carbon, there is a single alien atom infiltrator. The result: a fantastic analogy for opening your heart to different races, creeds, genders and nationalities.

And colour!

The colour of a diamond can have a huge influence on the amount wealthy housewives get their husbands to pay for them. Blues and greens are exceptionally rare, so they will fetch a high price. Yellows and browns are more common. And there’s nothing like a brown diamond to make you feel REAL special.

Now, gather your cooking implements and turn the oven on… HOT.

Hot temperature oven

Diamond Recipe

What You’ll Need:

  1. Carbon
  2. A choice of chemical impurity or radioactive element (for colour)
  3. Titanium metal
  4. A shovel
  5. Patience
  6. A degree in town planning

Step 1: Take carbon and mix in desired chemical impurity, or pilfer local science laboratory for radioactive element*.

* If you want to bake a blue diamond like the one Rose threw into the ocean at the end, you need to add boron to your mix of carbon. If you want to bake a yellow diamond, you’ll need nitrogen. If you want your diamond to turn a more exotic shade of purple, pink, red or orange, then make sure you bury it close to a radioactive element, such as plutonium or uranium. Other colours, such as black, brown and sometimes even red and pink are caused by structural flaws that harbour dark impurities that only make them appear the colour they are.

Step 2: Put ingredients into an air-tight and incredibly durable box.

Step 3: Phone NASA for left-over titanium to build said box. If you struggle to get past some power-tripping secretary, you can always melt down your brother’s professional tennis racquet; a legacy from the days he actually thought he’d be a professional at anything. If THAT fails, dental implants are made from titanium, but whatever you do, don’t get caught at the morgue.

Step 4: Bury carbon-filled box at a depth of between 140 and 190 kilometres, or 85 to 120 miles, where there exist conditions of immense pressure and temperature. An ambient temperature of at least 1,050 deg Celsius is what you’re aiming for.

Step 5: Bake for at least one billion years, but it could take as long as three billion years. This is where patience comes in handy.

Step 6: Wait for a super-deep volcanic eruption to bring the box of crystallized carbon to the near-surface of the Earth.

Step 7: Plant a flag at the location, build a town, exploit the native inhabitants as your labour force and dig a big hole in the ground to retrieve your creation.

Step 8: Allow to cool before eating.

Class Dismissed: Your Take-Home Message

Beautiful gem diamonds

It’s probably better to buy a diamond than make your own.

This aside, the next time you walk past a jewellery store or stare lovingly at your own engagement/wedding ring, you should look – really look – at the diamond. Know that the real beauty of these radiant gems transcends the price tag affixed to them. Diamonds are approximately half the age of the Earth, they will last your lifetime and millions more like yours and they’re composed of carbon, the very same building blocks as you and me.

The very same material that is forged in the hearts of dying stars.

The 6 Most Awesome Rock Minerals (For Various Reasons), PART 1

Blue stone lapis lazuli macro

Geology is just one of the many scientific disciplines that have fascinated me over the years. As a teenager, I became fanatical about collecting rocks, rock minerals, crystals and fossils, every specimen of which I arranged fastidiously along the wall shelf that overlooked my desk (see photo below). I am proud to say that this extensive collection has been lovingly preserved in its original arrangement by my mother, starting with translucent colourless quartzite crystals, ranging right through the colours of the rainbow and ending with opaque, jet black fragments of obsidian. Dust and the occasional long-dead beetle aside, not a single rock has been discarded. They’re all there and they’re all special. I would like to extend a thank you to my mom for preserving my collection, although it wouldn’t hurt you to dust once in a while…

rock mineral collectionMy personal collection of rocks, rock minerals, crystals, coral and fossils.

Collecting Rocks is Not Just for Boring People

Why on Earth would anyone collect rocks? Well, rocks tell us about the history of the ground underneath our feet and you don’t need to be terribly nerdy to appreciate that! Unfortunately, too large a percentage of that ground has been covered in concrete, ceramic tile, plush carpets, hardwood or laminate (if you’re a cheapskate.) But beneath the man-made veneer of our planet lies a fabulous variety of rock types, minerals and crystals, each with a history, each with a unique set of properties, each comprising a piece of the puzzle that, once put together, tells the story of the formation of the Earth and how the land came to be shaped the way it is.

My deep interest in mineralogy and geology was and is about more than just the pretty appearance of certain rock minerals and crystals. It’s about their unique properties, characteristics and traits, a handful of which you will come to learn about in this two-part blog. Of the many rock minerals I have collected over the years and encountered during my University geology classes, there are some that have remained firmly lodged in my memory, just like pyroclasts in a volcanic breccia. These are the rock minerals that, in my mind, are true testaments to the sheer awesomeness of the natural world.

And the Nominees Are…

Firstly, in the interests of scientific rigor, let me stipulate the following: this list is totally subjective, so forget the part about “scientific rigor.” The facts I present, however, are true! Secondly, my choice is restricted to rock minerals or gemstones. Not rock types, such as marble, granite and shale. Minerals are the building blocks of rocks, just like desperate and marginally talented 20-something year old girls are the building blocks of girl groups.

Granite, for example, generally consists of three different rock minerals: Scary Spice, Baby Spice, Fanta Pants and one that looks like a lesbian. Hold on… I’m getting confused. That’s four spices.

Anyway, you get the point, so now that you know what a rock mineral is, let’s get to it! Get your De Beers on ‘cos we’re going digging!

Awesome Rock Mineral # 1: Iron Pyrite

gold (iron pyrite mineral)

AKA: Fool’s Gold

Chemical Composition: Iron and sulphur

Why it makes this list: Iron pyrite crystals are one of the most incredible demonstrations of symmetry in nature.

Name Origin: Pyrite originates from the Greek word for “fire”

We tend to think of nature as being random and chaotic, but rock crystals are a beautiful example of how there is more flawless pattern and symmetry in nature than there is entropy and disorder. Iron pyrite is one of my favourite examples, with its brassy yellow crystals that are seemingly impossibly square in shape. Pyrite frequently grows in great tangles of inter-grown geometric shapes, most commonly cubic and octahedral. The result is both incredibly beautiful and intriguing: something that could pass as the work of an abstract artist on acid.

Iron pyrite has been dubbed “fool’s gold” owing to its glistening metallic yellow colour, which makes it look quite similar to gold; one of the most coveted elements on Earth. There are many differences between pyrite and gold, of course, but the most important to mankind is that iron pyrite is appallingly common and is likely to get an icy reception from your wife or girlfriend if given as a gift.

Then again, Jessica Simpson is living proof that you can be appallingly common AND rich at the same time.

Awesome Rock Mineral # 2: Diamond

Beautiful diamond gem copy

AKA: A girl’s best friend.

Chemical Composition: Carbon and sometimes trace elements

Why it makes this list: Diamond doesn’t need an excuse to make this list.

Name Origin: Diamond comes from the Greek word adamas meaning “unconquerable” or “invincible.”

Diamond is the Chuck Norris of gemstones. It’s hard, it’s tough and it’ll charm the pants off any lady. Formed deep in the Earth’s crust under conditions of bone-pulverizing pressure and temperature, diamond is the hardest known substance in existence and it wins this title by a very, very, very large margin.

When cut correctly, diamond’s reflective and refractive properties emit a kaleidoscopic disco of light, coruscating with every colour of the rainbow. Uncut, diamonds are translucent and have an almost greasy or soapy lustre; certainly not something one might describe as breathtakingly beautiful. Most ladies prefer it cut. Their diamonds too.

A rough, uncut, brown diamond.

An uncut diamond, which just goes to show how important cut is to the aesthetic appeal of this gemstone.

In addition to their aesthetic appeal, which has been adored and worshipped by cultures and civilizations across the world for centuries, diamonds also have rather useful modern applications. Actually, 80% of all the diamonds unearthed are exploited for their incredible strength as blades, grinders, bearings and drill bits. The other 20% are considered too pretty to be used for drilling open rotten teeth and so they are square-cut and pear-shaped, these rocks don’t lose their shape DIAAAAMOOOOOONDS…

*ahem* sorry.

There are many things that make diamonds exceptionally awesome: they’re the only gemstone composed of a single element (carbon), they’re the hardest substance known to humankind, they’re incredibly beautiful and they’re incredibly expensive. But the bottom line really is that diamond’s awesomeness transcends time, culture, civilization and class. Diamond is king (and a giiiiiiiiiiiiirl’s beeeeeeeeest frieeeeeeeeeeend!)

Awesome Rock Mineral # 3: Fluorspar

natural fluorite stones

AKA: Fluorite

Chemical Composition: Calcium and Fluorine

Why it makes this list: For its, like, totally insane property known as thermoluminescence.

Name Origin: “Fluo” is the Latin word for “to flow.”

I first came across Fluorspar on a seven-day canoe trip down the Orange River, which is the natural border between South Africa and Namibia. On our fourth or fifth day, the guides pulled the canoes off the river onto Namibian shores and took the younger whipper-snappier of us on a gruelling 45-minute hike up the steep, boulder-strewn slopes. At the summit, we found an old abandoned fluorspar mine. There were just piles of this translucent green and purple mineral lying everywhere. So, we all filled our pockets and headed back down towards the camp.

That night, our chief guide showed us just why fluorspar was so damn cool. Onto the searing-hot coals that were the remainder of our nightly camp fire, he cast a handful of broken fluorspar shards and dust. After a few seconds, these rocks started to glow bright electric blue and green before shattering like popcorn into smaller fragments. In spite of the burning-hot bits of shrapnel that were sent whistling past our heads, we were enraptured by the performance and I have used fluorspar to impress girls ever since.

Unfortunately, I have run out of fluorspar.

Fortunately, I have my personality to fall back on.

Fluorescent Fluorite

Fluorite is the trance party-goer of the mineral world

Fluorspar or fluorite most commonly comes in cubic crystals, although the one’s we found on the Orange River had all been shattered or broken at some stage and so ranged in amorphous size. “Fluo” is the Latin word for “to flow” and this name was given to this rock mineral for its applications in iron smelting. In a peanut shell, fluorite decreases the viscosity of molten iron, helping it to flow better.

It was only after the discovery and naming of fluorite that its awesome physical properties of fluorescence and thermoluminescence were discovered, which is incidentally where the word “fluorescence” comes from. Fluorescence – the emittance of that strange otherworldly light – is caused by the dancing of electrons within the mineral’s atomic structure. As they stomp around to the doef-doef music in their heads, they emit quanta of visible light that is most frequently blue in colour, but can be green, white, red, purple or yellow.

Stay Tuned for Part 2…

You may be bored at work, but you still have to look busy or else your boss will give you the boot. To accommodate this, I have taken the liberty of dividing this post in two. Stay tuned for the second instalment in which we shall intrepidly explore the remaining three most awesome rock minerals!

In the meantime, your homework is to ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’ at this picture…

Lechuguilla_Chandelier_Ballroom

“Lechuguilla Chandelier Ballroom” (New Mexico) by Dave Bunnell. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons. Giant otherworldly fingers of glittering gypsum crystal formations reach down from the cave ceiling.

Five Experiments You Weren’t Taught At School

For a quick and entertaining peak at the world of chemicals and one man’s death wish to get his hands blown clean off, watch this pretty cool video of five relatively easy experiments you were never taught at school for reasons that will become blatantly obvious to you once you’ve seen them…


Video Source: Grant Thompson – “The King of Random” Youtube Channel at https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC1zZE_kJ8rQHgLTVfobLi_g

Today’s Sciencey LOL

funny_and_clever_science_jokes_640_08

Diamonds are forged deep in the Earth’s mantle, where conditions of immense temperature and pressure exist. This forces Carbon atoms to arrange into a different crystal lattice and the result is a girl’s best friend!

Like Why? Because Science‘s Facebook page to receive sexy doses of entertaining science on the daily!

Somewhere Over the Rainbow, Photons Fly!

Beautiful rainbow Grand Canyon

Image Source: “Rainbow Ignites” over Grand Canyon, uploaded by Cathy Smart to travel.nationalgeographic.com

Rainbows have enchanted humankind since our very beginnings, leading to the spinning of countless myths and legends about why and what they are. Just about every ancient civilization, culture and religion has its unique explanation of rainbows; all of them creative, but absolutely NONE of them correct. There is no pot of gold.

Aside from the fact that they look like a hippy has barfed across the sky, rainbows have quite a fascinating backstory involving the physics of light, which really isn’t all that complicated! In this blog, we’ll be taking a look at the physical laws and facts that give rise to some spectacular atmospheric masterpieces and a sky that would put a tie-dye T-shirt convention to shame.

The first ingredient on our palette is solar radiation…

You Need Sunshine, On a Cloudy Day!

One does not simply meme

Sunshine. It’s a simple concept: light from the sun. But one does not simply have interminable nuclear reactions without generating a spectrum of electromagnetic radiation. Our sun is a star and in keeping with the personality of stars, things are positively nuclear beneath its photosphere. These nuclear fusion reactions release a broad range of radiation types (see diagram below), from low energy, long wavelength infrared radiation (left) to the high energy, short wavelength Gamma radiation (right).

the_electromagnetic_spectrum

Image Source: The Electromagnetic Spectrum – faculty.olympic.edu

Slap bang in the middle of the electromagnetic spectrum is visible light, which only accounts for a narrow portion of the total energy generated by our sun day-after-day. This visible light pours out into space faster than Kris Jenner can say to Bruce “You’re becoming a what!?” covering the vast distance between the Sun and Earth in just 8 minutes and 20 seconds. It then smacks into our atmosphere and all its constituent gas and water vapor molecules. The photons (particles of light) that manage to escape atmospheric collision end their journey at the Earth’s surface, which is what brings warmth to our lives and color to our environment.

Snow White Light and the Seven Composite Colors

As I explained in the blog The Sky Is Only Sometimes Blue, visible (white) light is composed of seven different colors. Each of these colors has a different wavelength and ranges from the lower frequency, longer wavelength color red to the higher frequency, shorter wavelength color violet.

When visible light from the sun strikes a white surface, all of its seven dwarfs, I mean constituent colors get scattered in every direction, which is why we view the object as Snow White, I mean white. If that object is black, however, all of those seven colors become absorbed by the object, which is why you can cook an egg on the dashboard of your black Merc after leaving it in the sun for an hour.

visible light spectrum rainbow

Image Source: The Visible Light Spectrum – CultureLab/LabCulture at http://www.viralprojects.com

What about colorful objects?

Violet surfaces, like your gay best friend’s curtains, selectively scatter light with a wavelength of around 400 nanometers and absorb the rest. As such, you perceive the color violet (and bad taste) when you look at them.

Blue surfaces, like your lover’s eyes, selectively scatter light with a wavelength of around 450 nanometers. As such, you perceive the color blue and experience inappropriate clenchings in the nethers.

MIRRORS, interestingly enough, reflect all the seven colors of incoming visible light, but instead of scattering them in random directions, they reflect them at precisely the same angle as they arrived at and so the integrity of the image is preserved.

WHAT does this have to do with rainbows?

This discussion is intended to help you understand and appreciate the nature of visible light and the fact that it’s composed of different colors, which are capable of acting independently of each other due to their different wavelengths.

Now it’s when visible light strikes water droplets in our atmosphere that the real magic can begin to happen, potentially making it look like a unicorn wiped its butt on the horizon…

Prism (Not a Katy Perry Album)

Prism rainbow

Image Source: All The Pretty Colors – SeeMore Sights, http://www.seemoresights.net

So far, we’ve spoken about light as though it travels in a straight line, which is typically what it does between bouncing off of and being scattered by objects. However, this isn’t the case when it travels through water. When visible light travels from one medium to another – from air into the water – its pathway becomes slightly bent in a process termed “refraction.” This explains why objects under water look so strange: the light that enables us to perceive them is being refracted or bent and this makes your toes (or whatever body part you happen to be scrutinizing) look bigger and closer to you than they really are.

When sunlight passes through a water droplet, it deviates slightly from its incoming direction, because it’s refracted (see diagram below). A portion of this light is then reflected off the far surface of the raindrop. If this angle is at 40° – 42° to the original direction of incoming sunlight, we get a rainbow!

how rainbows are formed

Image Source: What Causes a Rainbow? NASA/NOAA – scijinks.jpl.nasa.gov

So you see, rain droplets not only refract the sunlight that passes through them, they also act as prisms. The reason this process results in a rainbow is because the seven constituent colors of visible sunlight become refracted to different degrees: the shortest wavelength light (violet) becomes refracted the most and so it’s bent the most. The largest wavelength light (red) becomes refracted the least and so it’s bent the least. As such, when white light passes through a water droplet, it becomes split into its seven different personalities, from violet, blue and green to yellow, orange and red!

This is beautifully captured in the following 40-second video:

Video Source: “Light Split into Colors by a Prism” Uploaded by MadDogScience in YouTube channel http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hLFcf58qD4w

A Rainbow Is Made!

We can now understand how white visible light, upon passing through water droplets suspended in the atmosphere, is split into its seven constituent colors. The final piece of the puzzle is looking at this process on the large scale. There are billions of water droplets in clouds or mist and each one disperses and refracts the sunlight that hits it. The overall result is a vast display of color in a circular or semicircular arc. Obviously, to us here on Earth, most rainbows would appear to be semi-circular, because the ground gets in the way of us seeing the other half. However, viewed from the air or from the following rare perspective at the top of Zambia’s Victoria Falls, we can see the full glorious monty:

Rainbow, Victoria Falls, Zambia - Aug 2012

Image Source: Circle Rainbow Over Victoria Falls, Zambia – Aug 2012 by Nicole Cambré/REX (2105841a): FULL WORDS LINK: http://www.rexfeatures.com/nanolink/ju4n

What I haven’t mentioned yet is that perspective plays a major role in our ability to visually enjoy rainbows. The sun has to be behind you and the angle of dispersion – the angle between the incoming sunlight and the direction the refracted light is exiting the raindrop – has to be between 40° and 42°.

Beautiful rainbow pictures

Image Source: Rainbow Over Lake Ontario, uploaded by Melagoo on Weather Underground, http://www.wunderground.com.

Class Dismissed: Your Take-Home Message

Rainbows have this wonderful effect on people: they make us look. They compel us to forget for just a few seconds everything it is we are thinking/worrying/stressing about and look up to the sky and admire. Really, all a rainbow is is water droplets playing with the paths and emotions of sunlight… but they are beautiful and a reminder that God – or whatever deity is or isn’t up there – is in fact a fan of gay people.

lgbt gay rainbow flag

Image Source: http://www.telegraph.co.uk

Copyright © Thea Beckman 2015

Today’s Sciencey LOL

Say it’s true!!

Funny science Emma Watson

Quantum physics is an established field of science that has revealed to us crucial insights into the behaviour of our physical environment and those that lie beyond the boundaries of our observable universe. As such, we can all look forward to the eventuality of banging Emma Watson. And if Hermoine Granger isn’t up your alley, or you don’t want her there, then you can always apply this probability to your favorite sexy celebrity.

That certainly is awesome.