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Why Does the Road Look Wet on Hot Days?

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Reader Robert wrote in to say, “As I drive across the Panhandle of Texas, I am wondering why the highway looks wet and shiny off in the distance but normal as one gets closer.”

For the same reason that cartoon characters lost in the desert often think they see an oasis: a mirage caused by refraction. 

First, a quick physics lesson. Light moves slower through denser mediums and faster through less dense ones. As it travels through a given medium—say, air—it moves in a straight line. When it passes from one medium to another, though, and there’s a difference in density—say from air to water—the light waves change speed, which causes them to also change direction or refract, and then continue in a straight line on their new path.

An easy way to see refraction in action is to put a straw into a glass half-filled with water. From the top, it looks like the straw is bent or broken. From the side, depending on where in the glass the straw is, it might look like it grows wider below the water line or even detaches from the part above the water line. 

Remember that you see objects because light reflects off of them and then travels to your eye. What’s happening here is light from the straw is reflecting and traveling to your eye through two different mediums—the air and the water. Above the water line, light travels directly from the straw to your eye through the air and doesn’t refract (technically it travels through air into the glass and back into air, but the refraction into and out of the glass causes little enough deviation to not matter). Below the water line, though, the light reflecting off the straw has to travel through the water into glass and then into air. This light changes medium and speed, so it refracts or bends on its way to you. Your eye and brain don’t account for refraction when looking at the straw (stupid brain), and assume the object to be where the light waves appear to originate from along a straight line. The top and bottom parts of the straw are in line with each other, but the light from them comes along two different lines, making the straw look broken after your visual system gets done with it.

What Robert is describing is also the work of refraction. Maybe you were driving around one day and thought you saw a puddle on the pavement a little ways down the road. Once you got to the spot where you thought you saw the water, it was gone. Looking farther down the road, you see another puddle, but that one also disappears as you get closer to it. You can chase the puddles all day, but you’ll never actually find one. 

Light refracts not just when it moves through two different mediums like air and water, but also when it moves through different layers of the same medium that have different densities. As the sun beats down on the blacktop, it heats it up. The road, in turn, heats the air immediately surrounding it, keeping the air just above it warmer and less dense than the air farther up. 

As light from the sky travels downward toward the hot road, it moves through these increasingly warm and less dense layers of air, changing speed and refracting as it moves through each one. It winds up taking a sort of u-shaped path down toward the road, then parallel to it and finally back up into the sky—where it may meet the eye of someone standing up the road. 

When this refracted light reaches you, your brain and eye—like they did with the straw in the water—don’t account for all the bending it did along the way. They trace it back along a straight line and interpret that point as its origin and the location of the object. What you see, then, is a little bit of sky that appears to be sitting on the ground—an inferior mirage where the mirage is under the real object. Even as your brain and eye try to quickly make sense of what you’re seeing, the brain knows that sky on the ground doesn’t make sense, so you often wind up perceiving the mirage as water on the road reflecting the sky. Turbulence of the air also distorts the mirage, strengthening the effect. 

Sand, like highways, is really good at holding onto heat and warming up the air near it, so these types of watery mirages often happen in deserts and can fool people into thinking there’s water nearby.

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Big Questions
What Happened to the Physical Copy of the 'I Have a Dream' Speech?
AFP, Getty Images
AFP, Getty Images

On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and gave a speech for the ages, delivering the oratorical masterpiece "I Have a Dream" to nearly 250,000 people.

When he was done, King stepped away from the podium, folded his speech, and found himself standing in front of George Raveling, a former Villanova basketball player who, along with his friend Warren Wilson, had been asked to provide extra security around Dr. King while he was speaking. "We were both tall, gangly guys," Raveling told TIME in 2003. "We didn't know what we were doing but we certainly made for a good appearance."

Moved by the speech, Raveling saw the folded papers in King’s hands and asked if he could have them. King gave the young volunteer the speech without hesitation, and that was that.

“At no time do I remember thinking, ‘Wow, we got this historic document,’” Raveling told Sports Illustrated in 2015. Not realizing he was holding what would become an important piece of history in his hands, Raveling went home and stuck the three sheets of paper into a Harry Truman biography for safekeeping. They sat there for nearly two decades while Raveling developed an impressive career coaching NCAA men’s basketball.

In 1984, he had recently taken over as the head coach at the University of Iowa and was chatting with Bob Denney of the Cedar Rapids Gazette when Denney brought up the March on Washington. That's when Raveling dropped the bomb: “You know, I’ve got a copy of that speech," he said, and dug it out of the Truman book. After writing an article about Raveling's connection, the reporter had the speech professionally framed for the coach.

Though he displayed the framed speech in his house for a few years, Raveling began to realize the value of the piece and moved it to a bank vault in Los Angeles. Though he has received offers for King’s speech—one collector wanted to purchase the speech for $3 million in 2014—Raveling has turned them all down. He has been in talks with various museums and universities and hopes to put the speech on display in the future, but for now, he cherishes having it in his possession.

“That to me is something I’ll always be able to look back and say I was there,” Raveling said in the original Cedar Rapids Gazette article. “And not only out there in that arena of people, but to be within touching distance of him. That’s like when you’re 80 or 90 years old you can look back and say ‘I was in touching distance of Abraham Lincoln when he made the Gettysburg Address.’"

“I have no idea why I even asked him for the speech,” Raveling, now CEO of Coaching for Success, has said. “But I’m sure glad that I did.”

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Big Questions
How Are Rooms Cleaned at an Ice Hotel?

Cleaning rooms at Sweden’s famous ICEHOTEL is arguably less involved than your typical hotel. The bed, for example, does not have traditional sheets. Instead, it’s essentially an air mattress topped with reindeer fur, which sits on top of a custom-made wooden palette that has a minimum of 60 centimeters of airspace below. On top of those reindeer hides is a sleeping bag, and inside that sleeping bag is a sleep sack. And while it’s always 20ºF inside the room, once guests wrap themselves up for the night, it can get cozy.

And, if they’re wearing too many layers, it can get quite sweaty, too.

“The sleep sack gets washed every day, I promise you that. I know it for a fact because I love to walk behind the laundry, because it’s so warm back there," James McClean, one of the few Americans—if not the only—who have worked at Sweden's ICEHOTEL, tells Mental Floss. (He worked on the construction and maintenance crew for several years.)

There isn’t much else to clean in most guest rooms. The bathrooms and showers are elsewhere in the hotel, and most guests only spend their sleeping hours in the space. But there is the occasional accident—like other hotels, some bodily fluids end up where they shouldn’t be. People puke or get too lazy to walk to the communal restrooms. Unlike other hotels, these bodily fluids, well, they freeze.

“You can only imagine the types of bodily fluids that get, I guess, excreted … or expelled … or purged onto the walls,” McClean says. “At least once a week there’s a yellow stain or a spilled glass of wine or cranberry juice … and it’s not what you want to see splattered everywhere.” Housekeeping fixes these unsightly splotches with an ice pick and shovel, re-patching it with fresh snow from outside.

Every room has a 4-inch vent drilled into the icy wall, which helps prevent CO2 from escalating to harmful levels. Maintenance checks the holes daily to ensure these vents are not plugged with snow. Their tool of choice for clearing the pathway is, according to McClean, “basically a toilet brush on a stick.”

When maintenance isn’t busy unstuffing snow from that vent hole, they’re busy piping snow through it. Every couple days, the floor of each room receives a new coat of fluffy snow, which is piped through the vent and leveled with a garden rake.

“It’s the equivalent of vacuuming the carpet,” McClean says.

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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