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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
Are There Number 1 Pencils?
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Almost every syllabus, teacher, and standardized test points to the ubiquitous No. 2 pencil, but are there other choices out there?

Of course! Pencil makers manufacture No. 1, 2, 2.5, 3, and 4 pencils—and sometimes other intermediate numbers. The higher the number, the harder the core and lighter the markings. (No. 1 pencils produce darker markings, which are sometimes preferred by people working in publishing.)

The current style of production is profiled after pencils developed in 1794 by Nicolas-Jacques Conté. Before Conté, pencil hardness varied from location to location and maker to maker. The earliest pencils were made by filling a wood shaft with raw graphite, leading to the need for a trade-wide recognized method of production.

Conté’s method involved mixing powdered graphite with finely ground clay; that mixture was shaped into a long cylinder and then baked in an oven. The proportion of clay versus graphite added to a mixture determines the hardness of the lead. Although the method may be agreed upon, the way various companies categorize and label pencils isn't.

Today, many U.S.  companies use a numbering system for general-purpose, writing pencils that specifies how hard the lead is. For graphic and artist pencils and for companies outside the U.S., systems get a little complicated, using a combination of numbers and letters known as the HB Graphite Scale.

"H" indicates hardness and "B" indicates blackness. Lowest on the scale is 9H, indicating a pencil with extremely hard lead that produces a light mark. On the opposite end of the scale, 9B represents a pencil with extremely soft lead that produces a dark mark. ("F" also indicates a pencil that sharpens to a fine point.) The middle of the scale shows the letters and numbers that correspond to everyday writing utensils: B = No. 1 pencils, HB = No. 2, F = No. 2½, H = No. 3, and 2H = No. 4 (although exact conversions depend on the brand).

So why are testing centers such sticklers about using only No. 2 pencils? They cooperate better with technology because early machines used the electrical conductivity of the lead to read the pencil marks. Early scanning-and-scoring machines couldn't detect marks made by harder pencils, so No. 3 and No. 4 pencils usually resulted in erroneous results. Softer pencils like No. 1s smudge, so they're just impractical to use. So No. 2 pencils became the industry standard.

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Big Questions
What Are Curlers Yelling About?
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Curling is a sport that prides itself on civility—in fact, one of its key tenets is known as the “Spirit of Curling,” a term that illustrates the respect that the athletes have for both their own teammates and their opponents. But if you’re one of the millions of people who get absorbed by the sport once every four years, you probably noticed one quirk that is decidedly uncivilized: the yelling.

Watch any curling match and you’ll hear skips—or captains—on both sides barking and shouting as the 42-pound stone rumbles down the ice. This isn’t trash talk; it’s strategy. And, of course, curlers have their own jargon, so while their screams won’t make a whole lot of sense to the uninitiated, they could decide whether or not a team will have a spot on the podium once these Olympics are over.

For instance, when you hear a skip shouting “Whoa!” it means he or she needs their teammates to stop sweeping. Shouting “Hard!” means the others need to start sweeping faster. If that’s still not getting the job done, yelling “Hurry hard!” will likely drive the point home: pick up the intensity and sweep with downward pressure. A "Clean!" yell means put a brush on the ice but apply no pressure. This will clear the ice so the stone can glide more easily.

There's no regulation for the shouts, though—curler Erika Brown says she shouts “Right off!” and “Whoa!” to get her teammates to stop sweeping. And when it's time for the team to start sweeping, you might hear "Yes!" or "Sweep!" or "Get on it!" The actual terminology isn't as important as how the phrase is shouted. Curling is a sport predicated on feel, and it’s often the volume and urgency in the skip’s voice (and what shade of red they’re turning) that’s the most important aspect of the shouting.

If you need any more reason to make curling your favorite winter sport, once all that yelling is over and a winner is declared, it's not uncommon for both teams to go out for a round of drinks afterwards (with the winners picking up the tab, obviously). Find out how you can pick up a brush and learn the ins and outs of curling with our beginner's guide.

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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