Gifs Explained: Exploding Coffee


A few months ago, Buzzfeed posted a list called “21 Reasons Why You Should Have Paid Attention In Science Class,” composed of a bunch of cool, weird sciencey gifs. My initial reaction was, “Okay, pretty neat, but what am I actually seeing here?” Plenty of comments on the post echoed that thought, but Buzzfeed still hasn’t answered the cries of the writhing, curious masses.

I figure it's about time to take matters into my own hands and start explaining these things, starting with the ones from the original list that I can figure out or trace back to their source. Best case scenario, that gives us 21 cool gifs. Obviously, that’s not all the cool science gifs out there, so if you find any sciencey gifs or images that make you say, “Huh? What the heck is going on there?” send them my way!

Anyway, here’s our first gif, featuring what appears to be a cup of coffee exploding into a miniature Leaning Tower of Pisa.

So, what the heck is going on here?

Well, to start, that’s not coffee in there. It’s actually p-nitroaniline and sulfuric acid, which I cannot recommend drinking for a morning pick-me-up. When brought together and heated, the two go through what chemistry textbooks dryly refer to as a “vigorous reaction,” where they decompose and form a solid black-brown foam.

NASA studied the reaction in the 1970s because the foams which are formed have a low density and are flame-retardant, and had potential as a fire-control measure in the tight confines of spaceships. Here’s what they had to say about the reaction:

“The first, or pre-expansion, stage is the interval up to about 230°C. Water is the major gaseous constituent, with some nitroaniline subliming at higher mole ratios; sulfur dioxide is absent. Dehydration and sulfonation are the main chemical processes; some deamination also takes place.

“The second, or aphrogenic (intumescent), stage begins at about 230°C for 4- nitroaniline…and is over within a 50° interval when the heating rate is 6°/min. Sulfur dioxide and water are major gaseous products. [This is when the foamy tentacle bursts forth - Matt].

“The third stage, in air, represents oxidative decomposition of the residue (the primary product of the exothermal reaction) and dissociation of variable amounts of ammonium salts present in the residue.”

In layman’s terms, as the nitroaniline and acid climb in temperature, they experience some different chemical processes—losing water and amines and gaining sulfur compounds—and then explode into foam, which then breaks down.

You can see the buildup to the explosion in this video, which the gif was taken from.

What Pop Culture Gets Wrong About Dissociative Identity Disorder

From the characters in Fight Club to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, popular culture is filled with "split" personalities. These dramatic figures might be entertaining, but they're rarely (if ever) scientifically accurate, SciShow Psych's Hank Green explains in the channel's latest video. Most representations contribute to a collective misunderstanding of dissociative identity disorder, or DID, which was once known as multiple personality disorder.

Experts often disagree about DID's diagnostic criteria, what causes it, and in some cases, whether it exists at all. Many, however, agree that people with DID don't have multiple figures living inside their heads, all clamoring to take over their body at a moment's notice. Those with DID do have fragmented personalities, which can cause lapses of memory, psychological distress, and impaired daily function, among other side effects.

Learn more about DID (and what the media gets wrong about mental illness) by watching the video below.

Scientists Reveal Long-Hidden Text in Alexander Hamilton Letter

Age, deterioration, and water damage are just a few of the reasons historians can be short on information that was once readily available on paper. Sometimes, it’s simply a case of missing pages. Other times, researchers can see “lost” text right under their noses.

One example: a letter written by Alexander Hamilton to his future wife, Elizabeth Schuyler, on September 6, 1780. On the surface, it looked very much like a rant about a Revolutionary War skirmish in Camden, South Carolina. But Hamilton scholars were excited by the 14 lines of writing in the first paragraph that had been crossed out. If they could be read, they might reveal some new dimension to one of the better-known Founding Fathers.

Using the practice of multispectral imaging—sometimes called hyperspectral imaging—conservationists at the Library of Congress were recently able to shine a new light on what someone had attempted to scrub out. In multispectral imaging, different wavelengths of light are “bounced” off the paper to reveal (or hide) different ink pigments. By examining a document through these different wavelengths, investigators can tune in to faded or obscured handwriting and make it visible to the naked eye.

A hyperspectral image of Alexander Hamilton's handwriting
Hyperspectral imaging of Hamilton's handwriting, from being obscured (top) to isolated and revealed (bottom).
Library of Congress

The text revealed a more emotional and romantic side to Hamilton, who had used the lines to woo Elizabeth. Technicians uncovered most of what he had written, with words in brackets still obscured and inferred:

Do you know my sensations when I see the
sweet characters from your hand? Yes you do,
by comparing [them] with your [own]
for my Betsey [loves] me and is [acquainted]
with all the joys of fondness. [Would] you
[exchange] them my dear for any other worthy
blessings? Is there any thing you would put
in competition[,] with one glowing [kiss] of
[unreadable], anticipate the delights we [unreadable]
in the unrestrained intercourses of wedded love,
and bet your heart joins mine in [fervent]
[wishes] to heaven that [all obstacles] and [interruptions]
May [be] speedily [removed].

Hamilton and Elizabeth Schuyler married on December 14, 1780. So why did Hamilton try and hide such romantic words during or after their courtship? He probably didn’t. Historians believe that his son, John Church Hamilton, crossed them out before publishing the letter as a part of a book of his father’s correspondence. He may have considered the passage a little too sexy for mass consumption.

[h/t Library of Congress]


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