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TNT vs. Dynamite: What's the Difference?

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The Quick Trick: If it's a white powder found in sticks, it's dynamite. If it's a yellow crystal, it's TNT. Use this little mnemonic to remember dynamite's inventor: "Winning a Nobel Prize would be dynamite!" The alternative, that winning would be TNT, just doesn't make any sense.

The Explanation: A lot of people use these two terms interchangeably, and the common misperception is that TNT is the chemical name and dynamite is the colloquial term. But like any good misperception, that's just plain wrong.

We'll start with dynamite. Patented in 1867 by the Swedish chemist Alfred Nobel (as in Nobel Prize), dynamite was discovered when old Alfie was looking for a way to make nitroglycerin more stable and less prone to, well, exploding in your face. By combining nitroglycerine with diatomaceous earth (the ground-up shells of microscopic diatoms, today used as a filtering agent in swimming pools) and sodium carbonate (found in baking soda and soaps), Nobel took explosives in a whole new direction. And because it was stable and wouldn't explode from jiggling, like nitroglycerin, dynamite was initially marketed as Nobel's Safety Blasting Powder. (Well, it wasn't that safe; an explosion at the family factory killed Alfred's brother Emil.) Nobel used the huge profits from his dynamite patent to endow the Nobel prizes—one of which is for peace. He may have been inspired to create the Nobel Prize after a premature obituary in a French newspaper called him a "merchant of death."

As for TNT, it's also a high explosive, but it ain't dynamite. TNT is a yellowish compound with the chemical name trinitrotoluene(try-night-row-TALL-you-een), which is somewhat easier to remember than its chemical formula, CH 3C6H2(NO2)3. TNT was discovered in Germany in 1863 by Joseph Wilbrand. Although not quite as powerful as dynamite (and harder to detonate), the main benefit of TNT is that it's even more stable than dynamite (Wilbrand, for instance, never lost a single brother to an explosion). Also, TNT can be melted down and poured into shell casings. On the downside, however, TNT is extremely toxic.

While TNT packs plenty of bang by itself, it's often mixed with other things. A TNT and ammonium nitrate cocktail will get you amatol, a military explosive. Remix those two and add some powdered aluminum, and you'll get ammonal, a common industrial explosive.

AC/DC

The confusion between TNT and dynamite isn't helped by popular culture. The two are routinely used interchangeably in movies. And in the song "TNT" by AC/DC, deceased lead singer Bonn Scott declares "I'm TNT, I'm dynamite." So which one is it, Bonn?

This post was excerpted from the Mental Floss book What's the Difference? 

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Big Questions
Are There Number 1 Pencils?
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Almost every syllabus, teacher, and standardized test points to the ubiquitous No. 2 pencil, but are there other choices out there?

Of course! Pencil makers manufacture No. 1, 2, 2.5, 3, and 4 pencils—and sometimes other intermediate numbers. The higher the number, the harder the core and lighter the markings. (No. 1 pencils produce darker markings, which are sometimes preferred by people working in publishing.)

The current style of production is profiled after pencils developed in 1794 by Nicolas-Jacques Conté. Before Conté, pencil hardness varied from location to location and maker to maker. The earliest pencils were made by filling a wood shaft with raw graphite, leading to the need for a trade-wide recognized method of production.

Conté’s method involved mixing powdered graphite with finely ground clay; that mixture was shaped into a long cylinder and then baked in an oven. The proportion of clay versus graphite added to a mixture determines the hardness of the lead. Although the method may be agreed upon, the way various companies categorize and label pencils isn't.

Today, many U.S.  companies use a numbering system for general-purpose, writing pencils that specifies how hard the lead is. For graphic and artist pencils and for companies outside the U.S., systems get a little complicated, using a combination of numbers and letters known as the HB Graphite Scale.

"H" indicates hardness and "B" indicates blackness. Lowest on the scale is 9H, indicating a pencil with extremely hard lead that produces a light mark. On the opposite end of the scale, 9B represents a pencil with extremely soft lead that produces a dark mark. ("F" also indicates a pencil that sharpens to a fine point.) The middle of the scale shows the letters and numbers that correspond to everyday writing utensils: B = No. 1 pencils, HB = No. 2, F = No. 2½, H = No. 3, and 2H = No. 4 (although exact conversions depend on the brand).

So why are testing centers such sticklers about using only No. 2 pencils? They cooperate better with technology because early machines used the electrical conductivity of the lead to read the pencil marks. Early scanning-and-scoring machines couldn't detect marks made by harder pencils, so No. 3 and No. 4 pencils usually resulted in erroneous results. Softer pencils like No. 1s smudge, so they're just impractical to use. So No. 2 pencils became the industry standard.

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Big Questions
What Are Curlers Yelling About?
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Curling is a sport that prides itself on civility—in fact, one of its key tenets is known as the “Spirit of Curling,” a term that illustrates the respect that the athletes have for both their own teammates and their opponents. But if you’re one of the millions of people who get absorbed by the sport once every four years, you probably noticed one quirk that is decidedly uncivilized: the yelling.

Watch any curling match and you’ll hear skips—or captains—on both sides barking and shouting as the 42-pound stone rumbles down the ice. This isn’t trash talk; it’s strategy. And, of course, curlers have their own jargon, so while their screams won’t make a whole lot of sense to the uninitiated, they could decide whether or not a team will have a spot on the podium once these Olympics are over.

For instance, when you hear a skip shouting “Whoa!” it means he or she needs their teammates to stop sweeping. Shouting “Hard!” means the others need to start sweeping faster. If that’s still not getting the job done, yelling “Hurry hard!” will likely drive the point home: pick up the intensity and sweep with downward pressure. A "Clean!" yell means put a brush on the ice but apply no pressure. This will clear the ice so the stone can glide more easily.

There's no regulation for the shouts, though—curler Erika Brown says she shouts “Right off!” and “Whoa!” to get her teammates to stop sweeping. And when it's time for the team to start sweeping, you might hear "Yes!" or "Sweep!" or "Get on it!" The actual terminology isn't as important as how the phrase is shouted. Curling is a sport predicated on feel, and it’s often the volume and urgency in the skip’s voice (and what shade of red they’re turning) that’s the most important aspect of the shouting.

If you need any more reason to make curling your favorite winter sport, once all that yelling is over and a winner is declared, it's not uncommon for both teams to go out for a round of drinks afterwards (with the winners picking up the tab, obviously). Find out how you can pick up a brush and learn the ins and outs of curling with our beginner's guide.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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