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How Do Smoke Alarms Work?

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The smoke alarms in my apartment building are both ridiculously sensitive and ridiculously loud. They regularly go off even when there’s no smoke, and I often have to scramble up on top of a chair to reset them because a pot of boiling water is producing steam. If I stand in the hallway for a few minutes just before dinner time, I can hear them go off in the different apartments, followed by my neighbors’ strings of profanity and rushed footsteps. This got me wondering: How do these things work?

Where There's Smoke ...

There are two main types of smoke alarms used in homes: ionization detectors and photoelectric detectors. Inside the ionization ones there’s an ionization chamber with two plates and a source of ionizing radiation. The alarm’s battery sends a voltage to the plates, charging one positive and the other negative. The radiation source, a small amount (around 1/5000th of a gram) of an isotope called Americium-241, decays and emits alpha particles (subatomic particles made of two protons and two neutrons) at a reliable, constant rate. As the particles travel through the chamber, they ionize, or knock an electron from, the oxygen and nitrogen atoms in the air that passes through the chamber.

The newly free electrons, which have a negative charge, are attracted to the positively charged plate, and the now-positively charged atoms are attracted to the negative plate. This maintains a small but constant current between the two plates. When smoke enters the chamber, it disrupts this little dance of ionization and lowers or kills the current between the plates, triggering the alarm.

Now, if the idea of radioactive isotopes hanging from the ceilings in your home alarms you a little, and quick death by fire sounds more attractive than slow death by radiation, let me put your mind at ease. Alpha particles have very little penetrative power. They can’t get through the plastic of the detector, and if they did escape, they can’t travel very far in regular air. Because of the small amount of Americium in there, and the design of the detector, there’s no health hazard unless you monkey with the chamber and directly expose yourself to the particles (that is, inhale or ingest them).

The two big drawbacks to ionization detectors are that the radioactive isotope requires proper disposal of old detectors so that they don’t pose a hazard, and that their design is very sensitive (to detect hot, fast fires that produce very little smoke). This means, as I can attest, that they’re prone to false alarms caused by dust and steam and other vapors.

Ray of Light

The other common kind of detector, a photoelectric detector, contains a light-emitting diode that sends a beam of light across the top of a T-shaped chamber. At the base of the T is a photocell that detects light. When smoke enters the chamber, the light hits it, gets scattered into the base of the T and strikes the photocell.

When a certain amount of light hits the cell, it triggers an electrical current that sets the alarm off. These detectors are not as sensitive as the ionization ones and are designed to detect slow, smoldering, smokier fires.

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Big Questions
Why Do Cats Love Scratching Furniture?
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Allergy suffering aside, cat ownership has proven health benefits. A feline friend can aid in the grieving process, reduce anxiety, and offer companionship.

The con in the cat column? They have no reservations about turning your furniture into shredded pleather. No matter how expensive your living room set, these furry troublemakers will treat it with the respect accorded to a college futon. Do cats do this out of some kind of spite? Are they conspiring with Raymour & Flanigan to get you to keep updating home decor?

Neither. According to cat behaviorists, cats gravitate toward scratching furniture mostly because that love seat is in a really conspicuous area [PDF]. As a result, cats want to send a message to any other animal that may happen by: namely, that this plush seating belongs to the cat who marked it. Scratching provides both visual evidence (claw marks) as well as a scent marker. Cat paws have scent glands that can leave smells that are detectable to other cats and animals.

But it’s not just territorial: Cats also scratch to remove sloughed-off nail tips, allowing fresh nail growth to occur. And they can work out their knotted back muscles—cramped from sleeping 16 hours a day, no doubt—by kneading the soft foam of a sectional.

If you want to dissuade your cat from such behavior, purchasing a scratching post is a good start. Make sure it’s non-carpeted—their nails can get caught on the fibers—and tall enough to allow for a good stretch. Most importantly, put it near furniture so cats can mark their hangout in high-traffic areas. A good post might be a little more expensive, but will likely result in fewer trips to Ethan Allen.

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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Big Questions
Who Was Chuck Taylor?
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From Betty Crocker to Tommy Bahama, plenty of popular labels are "named" after fake people. But one product with a bona fide backstory to its moniker is Converse's Chuck Taylor All-Star sneakers. The durable gym shoes are beloved by everyone from jocks to hipsters. But who's the man behind the cursive signature on the trademark circular ankle patch?

As journalist Abraham Aamidor recounted in his 2006 book Chuck Taylor, All Star: The True Story of the Man behind the Most Famous Athletic Shoe in History, Chuck Taylor was a former pro basketball player-turned-Converse salesman whose personal brand and tireless salesmanship were instrumental to the shoes' success.

Charles Hollis Taylor was born on July 24, 1901, and raised in southern Indiana. Basketball—the brand-new sport invented by James Naismith in 1891—was beginning to take the Hoosier State by storm. Taylor joined his high school team, the Columbus High School Bull Dogs, and was named captain.

After graduation, instead of heading off to college, Taylor launched his semi-pro career playing basketball with the Columbus Commercials. He’d go on to play for a handful of other teams across the Midwest, including the the Akron Firestone Non-Skids in Ohio, before finally moving to Chicago in 1922 to work as a sales representative for the Converse Rubber Shoe Co. (The company's name was eventually shortened to Converse, Inc.)

Founded in Malden, Massachusetts, in 1908 as a rubber shoe manufacturer, Converse first began producing canvas shoes in 1915, since there wasn't a year-round market for galoshes. They introduced their All-Star canvas sports shoes two years later, in 1917. It’s unclear whether Chuck was initially recruited to also play ball for Converse (by 1926, the brand was sponsoring a traveling team) or if he was simply employed to work in sales. However, we do know that he quickly proved himself to be indispensable to the company.

Taylor listened carefully to customer feedback, and passed on suggestions for shoe improvements—including more padding under the ball of the foot, a different rubber compound in the sole to avoid scuffs, and a patch to protect the ankle—to his regional office. He also relied on his basketball skills to impress prospective clients, hosting free Chuck Taylor basketball clinics around the country to teach high school and college players his signature moves on the court.

In addition to his myriad other job duties, Taylor played for and managed the All-Stars, a traveling team sponsored by Converse to promote their new All Star shoes, and launched and helped publish the Converse Basketball Yearbook, which covered the game of basketball on an annual basis.

After leaving the All-Stars, Taylor continued to publicize his shoe—and own personal brand—by hobnobbing with customers at small-town sporting goods stores and making “special appearances” at local basketball games. There, he’d be included in the starting lineup of a local team during a pivotal game.

Taylor’s star grew so bright that in 1932, Converse added his signature to the ankle patch of the All Star shoes. From that point on, they were known as Chuck Taylor All-Stars. Still, Taylor—who reportedly took shameless advantage of his expense account and earned a good salary—is believed to have never received royalties for the use of his name.

In 1969, Taylor was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. The same year, he died from a heart attack on June 23, at the age of 67. Around this time, athletic shoes manufactured by companies like Adidas and Nike began replacing Converse on the court, and soon both Taylor and his namesake kicks were beloved by a different sort of customer.

Still, even though Taylor's star has faded over the decades, fans of his shoe continue to carry on his legacy: Today, Converse sells more than 270,000 pairs of Chuck Taylors a day, 365 days a year, to retro-loving customers who can't get enough of the athlete's looping cursive signature.

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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