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How the Gas Pump Knows When to Shut Off

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The first gasoline pump certainly didn't exist for the purpose of fueling cars - though Karl Benz was tinkering with the idea, cars weren’t even invented yet. Created in 1885, that first pump was there to dispense fuel for stoves and kerosene lamps. It sure came in handy when cars did enter the scene, though.

The shutoff valve didn’t come along until more than 50 years later. In 1939, Olean, New York, resident Richard Corson noticed a man filling a barrel with gas and thought about what a waste of time and efficiency it was. He was sure there had to be a better way, but it wasn’t until he went to the bathroom and heard the toilet flush that the solution hit him - a butterfly float. The hands-free device would allow more than one barrel to be filled at once. Corson sketched a plan which was quickly followed by a rough prototype.

His original invention paved the way for the automatic shut-off used on most pumps today. The next time you’re trading in your savings to fill up your tank, take a second to really look at the nozzle you’re putting in the tank (don’t do this when you’re holding the trigger down). You’re probably going to notice two things: a tiny hole at the tip of the spout and a tube connected to it that runs down the interior side of the spout.

The hole is called a sensing hole; the tube connects it to a diaphragm near the shut-off valve in the nozzle.

When you squeeze the handle and precious gas starts to flow up through the spout, this creates a vacuum in that tube, keeping the diaphragm neutral. When your tank is reaching its limit, the gas is at a level high enough to cover the sensing hole. Air can’t get through the sensing hole to the vacuum, which makes the atmospheric pressure move the diaphragm, which flips a switch in the automatic shut-off device Richard Corson had a hand in creating. The switch flips, and voila, your tank is full.

Phew. Who knew keeping your shoes gas-free was so complicated?

If you’re still confused (or just want more details), here are a couple of experts:
The Straight Dope
How Stuff Works

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Space
Look Up! The Orionid Meteor Shower Peaks This Weekend
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Ethan Miller/Getty Images

October is always a great month for skywatching. If you missed the Draconids, the first meteor shower of the month, don't despair: the Orionids peak this weekend. It should be an especially stunning show this year, as the Moon will offer virtually no interference. If you've ever wanted to get into skywatching, this is your chance.

The Orionids is the second of two meteor showers caused by the debris field left by the comet Halley. (The other is the Eta Aquarids, which appear in May.) The showers are named for the constellation Orion, from which they seem to originate.

All the stars are lining up (so to speak) for this show. First, it's on the weekend, which means you can stay up late without feeling the burn at work the next day. Tonight, October 20, you'll be able to spot many meteors, and the shower peaks just after midnight tomorrow, October 21, leading into Sunday morning. Make a late-night picnic of the occasion, because it takes about an hour for your eyes to adjust to the darkness. Bring a blanket and a bottle of wine, lay out and take in the open skies, and let nature do the rest.

Second, the Moon, which was new only yesterday, is but a sliver in the evening sky, lacking the wattage to wash out the sky or conceal the faintest of meteors. If your skies are clear and light pollution low, this year you should be able to catch about 20 meteors an hour, which isn't a bad way to spend a date night.

If clouds interfere with your Orionids experience, don't fret. There will be two more meteor showers in November and the greatest of them all in December: the Geminids.

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science
11-Year-Old Creates a Better Way to Test for Lead in Water
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In the wake of the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, a Colorado middle schooler has invented a better way to test lead levels in water, as The Cut reports.

Gitanjali Rao, an 11-year-old seventh grader in Lone Tree, Colorado just won the 2017 Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge, taking home $25,000 for the water-quality testing device she invented, called Tethys.

Rao was inspired to create the device after watching Flint's water crisis unfold over the last few years. In 2014, after the city of Flint cut costs by switching water sources used for its tap water and failed to treat it properly, lead levels in the city's water skyrocketed. By 2015, researchers testing the water found that 40 percent of homes in the city had elevated lead levels in their water, and recommended the state declare Flint's water unsafe for drinking or cooking. In December of that year, the city declared a state of emergency. Researchers have found that the lead-poisoned water resulted in a "horrifyingly large" impact on fetal death rates as well as leading to a Legionnaires' disease outbreak that killed 12 people.

A close-up of the Tethys device

Rao's parents are engineers, and she watched them as they tried to test the lead in their own house, experiencing firsthand how complicated it could be. She spotted news of a cutting-edge technology for detecting hazardous substances on MIT's engineering department website (which she checks regularly just to see "if there's anything new," as ABC News reports) then set to work creating Tethys. The device works with carbon nanotube sensors to detect lead levels faster than other current techniques, sending the results to a smartphone app.

As one of 10 finalists for the Young Scientist Challenge, Rao spent the summer working with a 3M scientist to refine her device, then presented the prototype to a panel of judges from 3M and schools across the country.

The contamination crisis in Flint is still ongoing, and Rao's invention could have a significant impact. In March 2017, Flint officials cautioned that it could be as long as two more years until the city's tap water will be safe enough to drink without filtering. The state of Michigan now plans to replace water pipes leading to 18,000 households by 2020. Until then, residents using water filters could use a device like Tethys to make sure the water they're drinking is safe. Rao plans to put most of the $25,000 prize money back into her project with the hopes of making the device commercially available.

[h/t The Cut]

All images by Andy King, courtesy of the Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge.

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