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.

Can You 'Hear' These Silent GIFs?

GIFs are silent—otherwise they wouldn't be GIFs. But some people claim to hear distinct noises accompanying certain clips. Check out the GIF below as an example: Do you hear a boom every time the structure hits the ground? If so, you may belong to the 20 to 30 percent of people who experience "visual-evoked auditory response," also known as vEAR.

Researchers from City University London recently published a paper online on the phenomenon in the journal Cortex, the British Psychological Society's Research Digest reports. For their study, they recruited more than 4000 volunteers and 126 paid participants and showed them 24 five-second video clips. Each clip lacked audio, but when asked how they rated the auditory sensation for each video on a scale of 0 to 5, 20 percent of the paid participants rated at least half the videos a 3 or more. The percentage was even higher for the volunteer group.

You can try out the researchers' survey yourself. It takes about 10 minutes.

The likelihood of visual-evoked auditory response, according to the researchers, directly relates to what the subject is looking at. "Some people hear what they see: Car indicator lights, flashing neon shop signs, and people's movements as they walk may all trigger an auditory sensation," they write in the study.

Images packed with meaning, like two cars colliding, are more likely to trigger the auditory illusion. But even more abstract images can produce the effect if they have high levels of something called "motion energy." Motion energy is what you see in the video above when the structure bounces and the camera shakes. It's why a video of a race car driving straight down a road might have less of an auditory impact than a clip of a flickering abstract pattern.

The researchers categorize vEAR as a type of synesthesia, a brain condition in which people's senses are combined. Those with synesthesia might "see" patterns when music plays or "taste" certain colors. Most synesthesia is rare, affecting just 4 percent of the population, but this new study suggests that "hearing motion synesthesia" is much more prevalent.

[h/t BPS Research Digest]

The Surprising Link Between Language and Depression

Skim through the poems of Sylvia Plath, the lyrics of Kurt Cobain, or posts on an internet forum dedicated to depression, and you'll probably start to see some commonalities. That's because there's a particular way that people with clinical depression communicate, whether they're speaking or writing, and psychologists believe they now understand the link between the two.

According to a recent study published in Clinical Psychological Science, there are certain "markers" in a person's parlance that may point to symptoms of clinical depression. Researchers used automated text analysis methods to comb through large quantities of posts in 63 internet forums with more than 6400 members, searching for certain words and phrases. They also noted average sentence length, grammatical patterns, and other factors.

What researchers found was that a person's use (or overuse) of first-person pronouns can provide some insight into the state of their mental health. People with clinical depression tend to use more first-person singular pronouns, such as "I" and "me," and fewer third-person pronouns, like "they," "he," or "she." As Mohammed Al-Mosaiwi, a Ph.D. candidate in psychology at the University of Reading and the head of the study, writes in a post for IFL Science:

"This pattern of pronoun use suggests people with depression are more focused on themselves, and less connected with others. Researchers have reported that pronouns are actually more reliable in identifying depression than negative emotion words."

What remains unclear, though, is whether people who are more focused on themselves tend to depression, or if depression turns a person's focus on themselves. Perhaps unsurprisingly, people with depression also use more negative descriptors, like "lonely" and "miserable."

But, Al-Mosaiwi notes, it's hardly the most important clue when using language to assess clinical depression. Far better indicators, he says, are the presence of "absolutist words" in a person's speech or writing, such as "always," "constantly," and "completely." When overused, they tend to indicate that someone has a "black-and-white view of the world," Al-Mosaiwi says. An analysis of posts on different internet forums found that absolutist words were 50 percent more prevalent on anxiety and depression forums, and 80 percent more prevalent on suicidal ideation forums.

Researchers hope these types of classifications, supported by computerized methods, will prove more and more beneficial in a clinical setting.

[h/t IFL Science]


More from mental floss studios