# The Mach Cone

When an object moves faster than the speed of sound, it will go past an observer before the sound waves emitted by object do. The waves are compressed so strongly that a shock front forms. So instead of the sound gradually building up to a maximum as it is usually the case, the observer will hear nothing until the shock front arrives with a sudden and explosion-like noise.

Geometrically, the shock front forms a cone around the object, which under certain circumstances can even be visible to the naked eye (see image below). The great formula that is featured in this section deals with the opening angle of said cone. This angle, symbolized by the Greek letter θ, is also indicated in the image.

All we need to compute the mach angle θ is the velocity of the object v (in m/s) and speed of sound c (in m/s):

sin θ = c / v

Let’s turn to an example.

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A jet fighter flies with a speed of v = 500 m/s toward its destination. It flies close to the ground, so the speed of sound is approximately c = 340 m/s. This leads to:

sin θ = 340 / 500 = 0.68

θ = arcsin(0.68) ≈ 43°

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In the picture above the angle is approximately 62°. How fast was the jet going at the time when the picture was taken? We’ll set the speed of sound to c = 340 m/s and insert all the given data into the formula:

sin 62° = 340 / v

0.88 = 340 / v

Obviously we need to solve for v. To do that, we first multiply both sides by v. This leads to:

0.88 · v = 340

Dividing both sides by 0.88 results in the answer:

v = 340 / 0.88 ≈ 385 m/s ≈ 1390 km/h ≈ 860 mph

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This was an excerpt from the ebook “Great Formulas Explained – Physics, Mathematics, Economics”, released yesterday and available here: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00G807Y00.

# Comets: Visitors From Beyond

The one thing we love the most in the world of astronomy is a good mystery. And if there was ever a mysterious and yet very powerful force of nature that we witness in the night skies, it is the coming of the mighty comet.

The arrival of a comet within view of Earth is an event of international importance. Witness the huge media attention that the Haley or Hale-Bopp have had when they have come within view The sight of these amazing space objects is simultaneously frightening and awe inspiring.

Above all, it is during these comet viewings that the astronomer comes out in all of us. But what is a comet? Where did it come from? And how does it get that magnificent tail?

We should never confuse comets with asteroids. Asteroids are small space rocks that come from an asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. While still quite stunning to see, they pale in comparison to the arrival of a comet. Asteroids also have received considerable study by the scientific community.

Not as much is known about comets. As a rule, comets are considerably larger than asteroids. The composition of a comet is a mixture of nebulous, gasses, ice, dust and space debris. One scientist called the composition of a comet as similar to a “dirty snowball” because the composition is so diverse and changeable. The center or nucleus of a comet is usually quiet solid but the “snowball” materials often create a “cloud” around that nucleus that can become quite large and that extends at great lengths behind the comet as it moves through space. That trailing plume is what makes up the comet’s magnificent tail that makes it so exciting to watch when a comet comes within view of Earth.

The origins of comets is similarly mysterious. There are a number of theories about where they come from but it is clear that they originate from outside our solar system, somewhere in deep space. Some have speculated they are fragments left over from the organization of planets that get loose from whatever gravitational pull and are sent flying across space to eventually get caught up in the gravity of our sun bringing them into our solar system.

Another theory is that they come from a gaseous cloud called the Oort cloud which is cooling out there after the organization of the sun. As this space debris cools, it gets organized into one body which then gathers sufficient mass to be attracted into the gravity of our solar system turning into a fast moving comet plummeting toward our sun. However, because of the strong gravitational orbits of the many planets in our solar system, the comet does not always immediately collide with the sun and often takes on an orbit of its own.

The life expectancy of comets varies widely. Scientists refer to a comet that is expected to burn out or impact the sun within two hundred years as a short period comet whereas a long period comet has a life expectancy of over two hundred years. That may seem long to us as earth dwellers but in terms of stars and planets, this is a very short life as a space object indeed.

Scientists across the globe have put together some pretty impressive probes to learn more about comets to aid our understanding of these visitors from beyond. In 1985, for example, the United States put a probe into the path of the comet Giacobini-Zinner which passed through the comets tail gathering tremendous scientific knowledge about comets. Then in 1986, an international collation of scientists were able to launch a probe that was able to fly close to Haley’s comet as it passed near Earth and continue the research.

While science fiction writers and tabloid newspapers like to alarm us with the possibility of a comet impacting the earth, scientists who understand the orbits of comets and what changes their paths tell us this is unlikely. That is good because some comets reach sizes that are as big as a planet so that impact would be devastating. For now, we can enjoy the fun of seeing comets make their rare visits to our night sky and marvel at the spectacular shows that these visitors from beyond put on when they are visible in the cosmos.

# Physics (And The Formula That Got Me Hooked)

A long time ago, in my teen years, this was the formula that got me hooked on physics. Why? I can’t say for sure. I guess I was very surprised that you could calculate something like this so easily. So with some nostalgia, I present another great formula from the field of physics. It will be a continuation of and a last section on energy.

To heat something, you need a certain amount of energy E (in J). How much exactly? To compute this we require three inputs: the mass m (in kg) of the object we want to heat, the temperature difference T (in °C) between initial and final state and the so called specific heat c (in J per kg °C) of the material that is heated. The relationship is quite simple:

E = c · m · T

If you double any of the input quantities, the energy required for heating will double as well. A very helpful addition to problems involving heating is this formula:

E = P · t

with P (in watt = W = J/s) being the power of the device that delivers heat and t (in s) the duration of the heat delivery.

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The specific heat of water is c = 4200 J per kg °C. How much energy do you need to heat m = 1 kg of water from room temperature (20 °C) to its boiling point (100 °C)? Note that the temperature difference between initial and final state is T = 80 °C. So we have all the quantities we need.

E = 4200 · 1 · 80 = 336,000 J

Additional question: How long will it take a water heater with an output of 2000 W to accomplish this? Let’s set up an equation for this using the second formula:

336,000 = 2000 · t

t ≈ 168 s ≈ 3 minutes

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We put m = 1 kg of water (c = 4200 J per kg °C) in one container and m = 1 kg of sand (c = 290 J per kg °C) in another next to it. This will serve as an artificial beach. Using a heater we add 10,000 J of heat to each container. By what temperature will the water and the sand be raised?

Let’s turn to the water. From the given data and the great formula we can set up this equation:

10,000 = 4200 · 1 · T

T ≈ 2.4 °C

So the water temperature will be raised by 2.4 °C. What about the sand? It also receives 10,000 J.

10,000 = 290 · 1 · T

T ≈ 34.5 °C

So sand (or any ground in general) will heat up much stronger than water. In other words: the temperature of ground reacts quite strongly to changes in energy input while water is rather sluggish. This explains why the climate near oceans is milder than inland, that is, why the summers are less hot and the winters less cold. The water efficiently dampens the changes in temperature.

It also explains the land-sea-breeze phenomenon (seen in the image below). During the day, the sun’s energy will cause the ground to be hotter than the water. The air above the ground rises, leading to cooler air flowing from the ocean to the land. At night, due to the lack of the sun’s power, the situation reverses. The ground cools off quickly and now it’s the air above the water that rises.

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I hope this formula got you hooked as well. It’s simple, useful and can explain quite a lot of physics at the same time. It doesn’t get any better than this. Now it’s time to leave the concept of energy and turn to other topics.

This was an excerpt from my Kindle ebook: Great Formulas Explained – Physics, Mathematics, Economics. For another interesting physics quicky, check out: Intensity (or: How Much Power Will Burst Your Eardrums?).

# Physics: Free Fall and Terminal Velocity

After a while of free fall, any object will reach and maintain a terminal velocity. To calculate it, we need a lot of inputs.

The necessary quantities are: the mass of the object (in kg), the gravitational acceleration (in m/s²), the density of air D (in kg/m³), the projected area of the object A (in m²) and the drag coefficient c (dimensionless). The latter two quantities need some explaining.

The projected area is the largest cross-section in the direction of fall. You can think of it as the shadow of the object on the ground when the sun’s rays hit the ground at a ninety degree angle. For example, if the falling object is a sphere, the projected area will be a circle with the same radius.

The drag coefficient is a dimensionless number that depends in a very complex way on the geometry of the object. There’s no simple way to compute it, usually it is determined in a wind tunnel. However, you can find the drag coefficients for common shapes in the picture below.

Now that we know all the inputs, let’s look at the formula for the terminal velocity v (in m/s). It will be valid for objects dropped from such a great heights that they manage to reach this limiting value, which is basically a result of the air resistance canceling out gravity.

v = sq root (2 * m * g / (c * D * A) )

Let’s do an example.

Skydivers are in free fall after leaving the plane, but soon reach the terminal velocity. We will set the mass to m = 75 kg, g = 9.81 (as usual) and D = 1.2 kg/m³. In a head-first position the skydiver has a drag coefficient of c = 0.8 and a projected area A = 0.3 m². What is the terminal velocity of the skydiver?

v = sq root (2 * 75 * 9.81 / (0.8 * 1.2 * 0.3) )

v ≈ 70 m/s ≈ 260 km/h ≈ 160 mph

Let’s take a look how changing the inputs varies the terminal velocity. Two bullet points will be sufficient here:

• If you quadruple the mass (or the gravitational acceleration), the terminal velocity doubles. So a very heavy skydiver or a regular skydiver on a massive planet would fall much faster.
• If you quadruple the drag coefficient (or the density or the projected area), the terminal velocity halves. This is why parachutes work. They have a higher drag coefficient and larger area, thus effectively reducing the terminal velocity.

This was an excerpt from the Kindle ebook: Great Formulas Explained – Physics. Mathematics, Economics. Check out my BEST OF for more interesting physics articles.

# A tunnel through earth and a surprising result …

Recently I found an interesting problem: A straight tunnel is being drilled through the earth (see picture; tunnel is drawn with two lines) and rails are installed in the tunnel. A train travels, only driven by gravitation and frictionless, along the rails. How long does it take the train to travel through this earth tunnel of length l?

The calculation, shows a surprising result. The travel time is independent of the length l; the time it takes the train to travel through a 1 Km tunnel is the same as through a 5000 Km tunnel, about 2500 seconds or 42 minutes! Why is that?

Imagine a model train on rails. If you put the rails on flat ground, the train won’t move. The gravitational force is pulling on the train, but not in the direction of travel. If you incline the rails slighty, the train starts to move slowly, if you incline the rails strongly, it rapidly picks up speed.

Now lets imagine a tunnel through the earth! A 1 Km tunnel will only have a slight inclination and the train would accelerate slowly. It would be a pleasant trip for the entire family. But a 5000 Km train would go steeply into the ground, the train would accelerate with an amazing rate. It would be a hell of a ride! This explains how we always get the same travel time: the 1 Km tunnel is short and the velocity would remain low, the 5000 Km is long, but the velocity would become enormous.

Here is how the hell ride through the 5000 Km tunnel looks in detail:

The red, monotonous increasing curve, shows distance traveled (in Km) versus time (in seconds), the blue curve shows velocity (in Km/s) versus time. In the center of the tunnel the train reaches the maximum velocity of about 3 Km/s, which corresponds to an incredible 6700 mi/h!

# The Fourth State of Matter – Plasmas

From our everyday lifes we are used to three states of matter: solid, liquid and gas. When we heat a solid it melts and becomes liquid. Heating this liquid further will cause it to evaporate to a gas. Usually this is what we consider to be the end of the line. But heating a gas leads to many surprises, it eventually turns into a state, which behaves completely different than ordinary gases. We call matter in that state a plasma.

To understand why at some point a gas will exhibit an unusual behaviour, we need to look at the basic structure of matter. All matter consists of atoms. The Greeks believed this to be the undivisible building blocks of all objects. Scientists however have discovered, that atoms do indeed have an inner structure and are divisible. It takes an enormous amount to split atoms, but it can be done.

Further research showed that atoms consist of three particles: neutrons, protons and electrons. The neutrons and protons are crammed into the atomic core, while the electrons surround this core. Usually atoms are not charged, because they contain as much protons (positively charged) as electrons (negatively charged). The charges balance each other. Only when electrons are missing does the atom become electric. Such charged atoms are called ions.

In a gas the atoms are neutral. Each atom has as many protons as electrons, they are electrically balanced. When you apply a magnetic field to a gas, it does not respond. If you try to use the gas to conduct electricity, it does not work.

Remember that gas molecules move at high speeds and collide frequently with each other. As you increase the temperature, the collisions become more violent. At very high temperatures the collisions become so violent, that the impact can knock some electrons off an atom (ionization). This is where the plasma begins and the gas ends.

In a plasma the collisions are so intense that the atoms are not able to hold onto their outer electrons. Instead of a large amount of neutral atoms like in the gas, we are left with a mixture of free electrons and ions. This electric soup behaves very differently: it responds to magnetic fields and can conduct electricity very efficiently.

(The phases of matter. Source: NASA)

Most matter in the universe is in plasma form. Scientist believe that only 1 % of all visible matter is either solid, liquid or gaseous. On earth it is different, we rarely see plasmas because the temperatures are too small. But there are some exceptions.

High-temperature flames can cause a small volume of air to turn into a plasma. This can be seen for example in the so called ionic wind experiment, which shows that a flame is able to transmit electric currents. Gases can’t do that. DARPA, the Pentagon’s research arm, is currently using this phenomenon to develop new methods of fire suppression. Other examples for plasmas on earth are lightnings and the Aurora Borealis.

(Examples of plasmas. Source: Contemporary Physics Education Project)

The barrier between gases and plasmas is somewhat foggy. An important quantity to characterize the transition from gas to plasma is the ionization degree. It tells us how many percent of the atoms have lost one or more electrons. So an ionization degree of 10 % means that only one out of ten atoms is ionized. In this case the gas properties are still dominant.

(Ionization degree of Helium over Temperature. Source: SciVerse)