How Do Trick Candles Work?

iStock/SabrinaDain
iStock/SabrinaDain

Today is my birthday. While you're surfing mentalfloss.com, I'm home celebrating with single-malt scotch and Rock Band. Wish you were here. In honor of my special day, here's the science behind the trick in trick candles, which I really hope aren't part of today's festivities, for they are cruel and unusual and prolong the wait for delicious cake.

A lit candle wick melts the paraffin wax near it, absorbs the liquid wax, and pulls it upward. The flame vaporizes the wax, the vapor burns and keeps the flame lit, allowing the cycle to continue. When you blow out a regular candle, you might notice the little wisp of smoke that rises from the wick. That's a last little bit of paraffin that's been vaporized by the dying ember of the wick, but didn't ignite because the ember isn't hot enough.

The trick to a re-lighting candle, then, is getting enough heat going to ignite the escaping vapor and bring the flame back to life. The folks who don't want you to eat your cake and make these candles usually turn to magnesium for the job. Magnesium, the ninth most abundant element in the universe by mass, is an alkaline earth metal that's highly flammable and ignites at temperatures as low as 800 degrees F (430 degrees C) when powdered or shaved into thin strips. Powered magnesium is put inside the wick, where it's kept cool and shielded from oxygen by the liquid wax. When the candle is blown out, the wick's ember ignites the magnesium "“ if you watch closely, you can see little bits of magnesium sparking "“ which ignites the paraffin vapor and re-lights the candle. Magic!

The problem, of course, is getting the candles out once and for all when you get tired of games and want to eat (or if the cake bursts into flames). Trick candles need to be snuffed or dunked in a liquid to cut off the oxygen supply so the flame can't re-ignite. And no, you cannot use my scotch.

This question was suggested by my friend Paul. If you've got a burning question that you'd like to see answered here, shoot me an email at flossymatt (at) gmail.com. Twitter users can also make nice with me and ask me questions there. Be sure to give me your name and location (and a link, if you want) so I can give you a little shout out.

You Can Now Go Inside Chernobyl’s Reactor 4 Control Room

bionerd23, YouTube
bionerd23, YouTube

The eerie interior of Chernobyl’s Reactor 4 control room, the site of the devastating nuclear explosion in 1986, is now officially open to tourists—as long as they’re willing to don full hazmat suits before entering and undergo two radiology tests upon exiting.

Gizmodo reports that the structure, which emits 40,000 times more radiation than any natural environment, is encased in what's called the New Safe Confinement, a 32,000-ton structure that seals the space off from its surroundings. All things considered, it seems like a jolly jaunt to these ruins might be ill-advised—but radiology tests are par for the course when it comes to visiting the exclusion zone, and even tour guides have said that they don’t usually reach dangerous levels of radiation on an annual basis.

Though souvenir opportunists have made off with most of the plastic switches on the machinery, the control room still contains original diagrams and wiring; and, according to Ruptly, it’s also been covered with an adhesive substance that prevents dust from forming.

The newly public attraction is part of a concerted effort by the Ukrainian government to rebrand what has historically been considered an internationally shameful chapter of the country's past.

“We must give this territory of Chernobyl a new life,” Ukraine's president Volodymyr Zelensky said in July. “Chernobyl is a unique place on the planet where nature revives after a global man-made disaster, where there is a real 'ghost town.' We have to show this place to the world: scientists, ecologists, historians, tourists."

It’s also an attempt to capitalize upon the tourism boom born from HBO’s wildly successful miniseries Chernobyl, which prompted a 35 percent spike in travel to the exclusion zone earlier this year. Zelensky’s administration, in addition to declaring the zone an official tourist destination, has worked to renovate paths, establish safe entry points and guidelines for visitors, and abolish the photo ban.

Prefer to enjoy Chernobyl’s chilling atmosphere without all the radioactivity? Check out these creepy photos from the comfort of your own couch.

[h/t Gizmodo]

Invasive Snakehead Fish That Can Breathe on Land Is Roaming Georgia

Mohd Fazlin Mohd Effendy Ooi, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Mohd Fazlin Mohd Effendy Ooi, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

A fish recently found in Georgia has wildlife officials stirred up. In fact, they’re advising anyone who sees a northern snakehead to kill it on sight.

That death sentence might sound extreme, but there’s good reason for it. The northern snakehead, which can survive for brief periods on land and breathe air, is an invasive species in North America. With one specimen found in a privately owned pond in Gwinnett County, the state wants to take swift action to make certain the fish, which is native to East Asia, doesn’t continue to spread. Non-native species can upset local ecosystems by competing with native species for food and habitat.

The Georgia Department of Natural Resources’ Wildlife Resources Division is advising people who encounter the snakehead—a long, splotchy-brown fish that can reach 3 feet in length—to kill it and freeze it, then report the catch to the agency's fisheries office.

Wildlife authorities believe snakeheads wind up in non-native areas as a result of the aquarium trade or food industry. A snakehead was recently caught in southwestern Pennsylvania. The species has been spotted in 14 states.

[h/t CNN]

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