Ask Ms. Scientist: Fires and waves

What are gravitational waves?

Mary J.

About a year ago, the scientific community, and even the general public, was rocked by an amazing discovery—scientists had observed something called gravitational waves. What exactly are they though? Gravitational waves sound like something out of a sci-fi movie. They are basically ripples in the fabric of space time, and they’re created when two huge things—like black holes—crash into each other. Think of it as throwing two pebbles into a pond—together, they create a bigger ripple in the water. Gravitational waves were first theorized by Albert Einstein back in 1916, and they were a big part of his general theory of relativity, where he proposed that the universe was made of something that could be curved and distorted by objects with mass. In fact, he proposed that gravity resulted from this distortion; that planets orbiting around the sun were like marbles spinning around in circles in a huge funnel. However, until last year, no one could prove Einstein’s theory for sure. It was a momentous discovery that gave the last puzzle piece for one of his most important theories.

Why can’t I use water on a grease fire?

Edward O.

For a college student millennial that can’t cook, a grease fire is probably a familiar experience. It can happen when you leave the butter in the pan too long. When it comes to a grease fire, forget everything you’ve learned and don’t put it out with water! The chemical compound that makes up grease is lighter than water, so the grease will float on top of the water and continue to burn. Because burning grease is extremely hot, it will also cause the water to rapidly evaporate. This rapidly evaporating water will cause the grease to splatter, spreading the fire. Instead, use baking soda, or sodium bicarbonate, which creates carbon dioxide that can displace the oxygen fueling the fire, thus extinguishing the flames.

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