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If You Fell Into a Volcano, How Would You Die?

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Reader Erica writes in to ask, “If you fell into a volcano, how would you die? Would you sink and drown in the lava or get burned to death on the surface before you could go under?”

Either way, it doesn’t sound pleasant, but drowning isn’t likely. 

First, let’s get the lingo down. Magma is molten rock beneath the earth’s surface. Lava is magma that’s come above the surface, usually through volcanic eruption. If you fall into a volcano, it’s magma that’s your problem. Most of us probably think of lava in the sense of lava flows, but you could also fall into a lava lake, which is lava that pools in a vent, crater or a depression on certain types of volcano. For our purposes here, magma and lava are both bad news.

Magma and lava are molten rock, but they don’t behave exactly like other liquids. First, they’re very dense—two to three times as much as water and the human body. Because of that density difference, a body thrown into a volcano, whether it belongs to Gollum or a sacrificial virgin, is going to float. What’s more, both magma and lava can be thousands to millions of times more viscous than water, and won’t deform as much or as fast when you hit it and allow you to sink. 

So, generally, the nature of lava/magma makes it unlikely that you’ll sink. With the right body, the right lava/magma and the right fall, though, there’s no guarantee. In the video below, volcano researcher Richard Roscoe tosses a ~65-pound box of trash ~260 feet into a lava lake, where it penetrates the lava’s crust and appears to sink. 

If you don’t sink, though, burning to death isn’t necessarily the only other option (and if you did sink, you probably wouldn’t drown so much as quickly burn your lungs to nothing). It isn’t really an either/or question. You might burst into flames and burn when you hit the lava/magma’s surface (depending on the type, lava’s temperature ranges from approximately 1,200 to 2,200 degrees). You might also burn before you hit the lava/magma due to the radiant heat. Or you could asphyxiate or char your lungs due to the hot air and gases above the surface of the lake. (Of course, you can get pretty close to lava on the surface without burning, but the inside of a volcano is an enclosed space, so the heat can’t dissipate as much. The radiant heat is potentially much higher here.) There’s also the possibility of hitting a super dense substance at a high speed and simply breaking your neck or cracking your skull open. This is, unfortunately, one of those questions you can’t answer with much more than hypotheticals because testing those ideas would be very difficult—and insane.  

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Big Questions
What is Duck Sauce?
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A plate of Chinese takeout with egg rolls and duck sauce
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We know that our favorite Chinese takeout is not really authentically Chinese, but more of an Americanized series of menu options very loosely derived from overseas inspiration. (Chinese citizens probably wouldn’t recognize chop suey or orange-glazed chicken, and fortune cookies are of Japanese origin.) It would also be unusual for "real" Chinese meals to be accompanied by a generous amount of sauce packets.

Here in the U.S., these condiments are a staple of Chinese takeout. But one in particular—“duck sauce”—doesn’t really offer a lot of information about itself. What exactly is it that we’re pouring over our egg rolls?

Smithsonian.com conducted a sauce-related investigation and made an interesting discovery, particularly if you’re not prone to sampling Chinese takeout when traveling cross-country. On the East Coast, duck sauce is similar to sweet-and-sour sauce, only fruitier; in New England, it’s brown, chunky, and served on tables; and on the West Coast, it’s almost unheard of.

While the name can describe different sauces, associating it with duck probably stems from the fact that the popular Chinese dish Peking duck is typically served with a soybean-based sauce. When dishes began to be imported to the States, the Americanization of the food involved creating a sweeter alternative using apricots that was dubbed duck sauce. (In New England, using applesauce and molasses was more common.)

But why isn’t it easily found on the West Coast? Many sauce companies are based in New York and were in operation after Chinese food had already gained a foothold in California. Attempts to expand didn’t go well, and so Chinese food aficionados will experience slightly different tastes depending on their geography. But regardless of where they are, or whether they're using the condiment as a dipping sauce for their egg rolls or a dressing for their duck, diners can rest assured that no ducks were harmed in the making of their duck sauce.

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
Can You Really Go Blind Staring at a Solar Eclipse?
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A total solar eclipse will cut a path of totality across the United States on August 21, and eclipse mania is gripping the country. Should the wide-eyed and unprotected hazard a peek at this rare phenomenon?

NASA doesn't advise it. The truth is, a quick glance at a solar eclipse won't leave you blind. But you're not doing your peepers any favors. As NASA explains, even when 99 percent of the sun's surface is covered, the 1 percent that sneaks out around the edges is enough to damage the rod and cone cells in your retinas. As this light and radiation flood into the eye, the retina becomes trapped in a sort of solar cooker that scorches its tissue. And because your retinas don't have any pain receptors, your eyes have no way of warning you to stop.

The good news for astronomy enthusiasts is that there are ways to safely view a solar eclipse. A pair of NASA-approved eclipse glasses will block the retina-frying rays, but sunglasses or any other kind of smoked lenses cannot. (The editors at MrEclipse.com, an eclipse watchers' fan site, put shades in the "eye suicide" category.) NASA also suggests watching the eclipse indirectly through a pinhole projector, or through binoculars or a telescope fitted with special solar filters.

While it's safe to take a quick, unfiltered peek at the sun in the brief totality of a total solar eclipse, doing so during the partial phases—when the Moon is not completely covering the Sun—is much riskier.

WOULDN'T IT BE EASIER TO JUST TELL YOUR KIDS THEY WILL GO BLIND?

NASA's website tackled this question. Their short answer: that could ruin their lives.

"A student who heeds warnings from teachers and other authorities not to view the eclipse because of the danger to vision, and learns later that other students did see it safely, may feel cheated out of the experience. Having now learned that the authority figure was wrong on one occasion, how is this student going to react when other health-related advice about drugs, alcohol, AIDS, or smoking is given[?]"

This story was originally published in 2012.

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