United Nations Photo, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. Image cropped.
United Nations Photo, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. Image cropped.

11 Secrets of Volcanologists

United Nations Photo, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. Image cropped.
United Nations Photo, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. Image cropped.

Around the world, over 600 million people live near one of 1500 active terrestrial volcanoes. Who's keeping them safe from potential future eruptions? The women and men who study these gas-and-ash-and-lava belching windows into the center of the earth: volcanologists.

You might not be sure what volcanologists do or why they matter—especially if you live thousands of miles away from one of these fiery mountains. So, Mental Floss went searching for answers from four volcanologists working in various capacities around the country, who shared their experiences in the field, under the ocean, and gazing far out into space.

1. THEY STUDY EVERYTHING FROM MAGMA COMPOSITION TO VOLCANIC GASSES AND BEYOND.

A volcanologist takes gas emission measurements during an assessment mission inside the crater at Mount Nyamulagira
United Nations Photo, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

"When I tell people what I do, 95 percent of the time they ask, 'What is that?'" says Arianna Soldati of the University of Missouri, who researches lava flows.

Volcanology is the study of how volcanoes form, what they're made of, and what they eject, among other areas of research. Many volcanologists have degrees in geology; some, like Soldati, are physical geologists, collecting samples on site and then analyzing them to figure out their composition. Others are geophysicists who study tectonic plates and their role in volcanic eruptions and earthquakes. Geochemists and petrologists study volcanic gasses and minerals, and geodesists look at deformations on and around volcanoes to figure out if magma is pooling up underneath them. All these disparate disciplines work together, Soldati says, to "understand how the planet works, so we can understand how eruptions work."

2. THEY WORK WITH OTHER VOLCANOLOGISTS AROUND THE GLOBE IN THE NAME OF SAFETY.

Jacob Lowenstern is Chief of the Volcano Disaster Assistance Program at the United States Geological Survey (USGS), a government agency that monitors our country's 169 active land volcanoes, largely via observatories in Hawaii, Alaska, Washington, and Oregon. But it also offers assistance and training to volcanologists in other countries because, as Lowenstern points out, an active volcano system respects no human borders. The program helps keep people and animals safe from the destruction wrought by lava flows, mudslides, and gas: When eruptions happen, localities issue alerts based on data from USGS.

Underwater volcanoes can create shipping hazards, like floating chunks of pumice, but a land-based volcano can create serious chaos worldwide. When Iceland's Eyjafjallajökull erupted in 2010, its miles-high ash cloud grounded aircraft to and from Europe and Britain for about a week. "We didn't even know what concentration of ash it was safe to fly through, because no one had studied it before," Soldati says. (They do know now, although the answer depends on how long the aircraft is aloft [PDF]). Back when Tambora erupted in Indonesia in 1815, it kicked off the Year Without a Summer, as ash circled the globe and blocked out the Sun, resulting in crop failures, famine, and a total of 100,000 human deaths. "At some point, something truly global [like that] is going to happen again," Lowenstern says. Volcanologists aim to be prepared.

3. SOME OF THEM WORK UNDERWATER ...

An estimated 80 percent of eruptions happen beneath the oceans' waves. It hasn't been easy for volcanologists to research them—for starters, there was no comprehensive map of the ocean floor until just a few years ago. And not being able to see a volcano that's 3000 feet underwater makes observation … challenging. Historically, scientists mostly monitored underwater volcano activity using fickle, battery-operated equipment installed on the seafloor, which could only store (rather than transmit) data. The first complete footage of an underwater eruption wasn't captured till 2009.

William Wilcock says technology has finally caught up to the thirst for information. He studies the Pacific Ocean's Axial Seamount—the most active volcano in the Northeast Pacific—via the Cabled Array ocean observatory, 550 miles of fiber-optic cable equipped with sensors that allow scientists to to monitor the Juan de Fuca ridge off of Oregon's coast. Using the array, they can monitor the chemicals and temperature in the water column, measure the volcano's magma chamber, and keep tabs on earthquakes, which could signify an eruption.

The array sends underwater volcanologists data in real time—fast enough that they can sometimes deploy autonomous vehicles for a closer look at eruptions as they happen. In April 2015, the project's team was able to witness an entire eruption of Axial Seamount from start to finish, leading to “the most detailed observations ever made” of an undersea volcano, as Wilcock told The Washington Post. The data they gleaned helped them understand how the seamount's caldera falls during eruptions and then reinflates with gases and magma before reaching a particular threshold, at which it erupts. Understanding how that inflation works is important for land volcanoes too, which is part of why data from the array is posted on the internet for scientists around the world to use.

4. ... AND SOME STUDY VOLCANOES IN SPACE.

The cloud-covered Mayon volcano spews ash as it erupts near the Philippines
ROMEO GACAD/AFP/Getty Images

The only scientist NASA sent to the moon was geologist Harrison “Jack” Schmitt, who flew on Apollo 17. (All of the other astronauts were military men-turned-NASA test pilots.) Schmitt—who was actually allergic to regolith, a.k.a. moon dust—helped prove that the moon was once volcanically active. This fact makes NASA's Alex Sehlke incredibly proud—and envious. He's a volcanologist who conducts research in Idaho's Craters of the Moon National Monument in preparation for the agency's planned return there in a few years. Craters of the Moon is geologically similar to our actual moon, in part because it was formed by lava erupting from the middle of the continent, not a juncture where two plates meet; moon volcanos were likely formed in a similar fashion, since the moon is covered, basically, by a single giant plate.

Volcanologists like Sehlke usually play supporting roles in space exploration. They test equipment and speculate about how, say, Craters of the Moon's lava tubes are like those under the surface of the actual moon and might make for a good base of operations. "Imagine looking at the surface of the moon [from Earth] when you're planning a mission and saying, ‘Hmm, looks alright,'" Sehlke says. "But there are questions we need to answer before we go—maybe the terrain is treacherous."

They may also offer guidance from mission control to astronauts (often about areas that look like they might be interesting to explore), and analyze data from probes—like the first images of an ice volcano erupting on Saturn's moon Enceladus, captured by the Cassini spacecraft in 2005.

5. SOME OF THEM ARE LOOKING FOR THE BEGINNINGS OF LIFE.

Sulfide chimneys at the Urashima vent site in the Pacific
NOAA Ocean Exploration & Research, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Hydrothermal vents—openings in the seafloor where water enters, becomes heated, then spurts back out—support a lot of weird microbes that Wilcock says may be similar to the first organisms that ever existed on our planet. Studying them and the conditions that created them may help us understand how to look for life on other planets and moons—one of NASA's primary objectives. But Sehlke and others are also looking for life by scanning data from probes exploring our solar system: "Wherever volcanoes sit, on Enceladus or elsewhere, there is heat or fluids that maybe provide the necessary environment for microorganisms like the ones we know on Earth," Sehlke says. Volcanoes like these "give us the highest chance of finding life" out in space.

6. THEY ALSO WANT TO UNDERSTAND HOW TO SUSTAIN THE LIFE WE ALREADY HAVE.

While volcanoes created Earth's original atmosphere by emitting the carbon dioxide and nitrogen necessary for life, other volcanic gasses, like sulfur dioxide, increase the ability of our current atmosphere to retain heat [PDF]. "Learning how these things balance out is hugely important to understanding our future" on the planet, Soldati says. That's why new studies are looking at the links between volcanic activity and climate change, and how they may exacerbate each other.

Some volcanologists are particularly concerned about Iceland, where melting ice caps may be releasing pressure on magma chambers, contributing to more—and more explosive—volcanic eruptions in the future. The effect of the reduced pressure is similar to how “the cork of a champagne bottle flies into the air when it has loosened sufficiently,” geophysicist Magnus Guðmundsson told Hakai magazine. Another new study urged those making models of our climate future to include volcanic eruptions as a variable, which they find are under-sampled in such models but can have big effects on temperatures, sea levels, global radiation, and ocean circulation, among other key elements of the climate.

7. THEY GET TO USE A LOT OF COOL EQUIPMENT ...

A volcanologist examines seismic charts
Ulet Ifansasti, Getty Images

Volcanologists use a lot of very high-tech equipment in their line of work. Seismometers measure earthquakes on volcanic slopes. Infrared cameras measure the heat of lava flows. Correlation spectrometers measure the amount of sulfur dioxide in the air, which is released when magma is rising to the surface (and so can signal when a volcano might be ready to erupt). Tiltmeters measure, literally, the tilt of the land around a volcano. If instruments like these, having been mounted on a volcano, fall apart during an eruption, "we sometimes use helicopter drops to put new equipment on the ground," Lowenstern says. More and more, though, volcanologists monitoring land volcanoes rely on equipment mounted on aerial or space-based unmanned craft, "so we don't put people in harm's way." This includes technology called InSAR (Interferometric Synthetic Aperture Radar), which, from a satellite in space, can measure a volcano stretching and contracting. That helps scientists keep tabs on just what the magma inside a volcano is doing—and whether it's about to come up.

8. ... BUT ONE OF A VOLCANOLOGIST'S MOST IMPORTANT TOOLS IS A ROCK HAMMER.

Out in the field, Soldati says, her most important tools are her notebook, for jotting observations, and her steel rock hammer, which she uses both to chip away at rock and to gather samples of molten lava. To grab a sample, she swings into the lava with the pointed end of the hammer, then drops the molten material—which is around 2000°F—into a pail of water; quickly cooling the lava in this way turns it to glass (slow cool it, and it becomes rock), which she transports back to the lab.

Once there, Soldati relies on machines like a concentric cylinder viscometer, which melts lava samples so she can measure their viscosity—which tells her how explosive a volcano's eruptions are. Less viscous lava trickles out of a volcano, while more viscous, and hence more explosive, lava can blow out the whole side of a mountain, sending burning lava, rocks, and other debris flying.

9. IT DOESN'T LOOK LIKE THE MOVIES.

Volcanologist suit

One thing field volcanologists almost never use: those clichéd silver flame-proof proximity suits. "They're heavy, and since you usually have to walk hours to get to your field site, no one wants to carry all that weight," Soldati says. Besides, "heat is almost never the hazard that matters in the situations in which we work," writes Aaron Curtis, a volcanologist working at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. (You have a greater chance of "being hit by ballistics, or getting gassed," he notes.) "The reason you see those suits so often is that they look really cool on TV."

So what do they wear? Jessica Ball, a Postdoctoral Fellow at the U.S. Geological Survey, writes that "sturdy boots, hard hats, work gloves, rip-resistant clothing with long sleeves, and sunglasses or safety goggles are pretty standard, and I will add a gas mask if I’m going to be in an area with lots of fumes. Also, sunscreen is always important, because I’m often out in the sun all day."

10. SOME OF THEIR WORK IS DANGEROUS IN UNEXPECTED WAYS.

Lava and flying debris aren’t the only hazards during fieldwork. Tina Neal, a volcanologist with the USGS, has reported that she’s had several encounters with bears while working at Ukinrek Maars in Alaska. She also says, "I think the aircraft work of volcanologists is as dangerous if not more so than the active volcanoes we visit and study." Geologist Christina Heliker has described the most fearful moments during her time on staff at the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory as being those that involved flying in a helicopter over continuously active Pu`u `O`o. Once, while trying to return to camp after mapping lava flows, “It was almost dark, and we were sandwiched between an incandescent field of `a`a [lava] and this thick layer of clouds that were glowing orange from the reflected light of the lava,” she told an interviewer. “I was plenty relieved when the pilot decided to give it up and fly out to somewhere else.”

11. THEY WANT YOU TO KNOW: VOLCANOES AREN'T ALL BAD.

Volcanologists aren't drawn to their work only because of the destructive power of their research subjects. "[Volcanoes] also have a positive impact on our life," Soldati says. She points out that volcanoes fertilize the soil—some of the most productive crops on our planet are grown in mineral-rich volcanic ash. They also create new land; the Hawaiian volcano Kilauea has added 500 acres to the Big Island since 1983. So don't say volcanoes never give back.

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11 Secrets of Romance Writers
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Some readers may snicker at book covers featuring aerobicized men and titles like The Firefighter’s Woman or The Bull Rider’s Christmas Baby. But if it weren’t for the steamy, escapist fantasy of romance novels, a healthy portion of the publishing industry would cease to exist: According to the Romance Writers of America (RWA), romantic fiction brings in $1.08 billion annually and accounts for 13 percent of all fiction sales in the marketplace.

What keeps readers coming back for more? We asked some of the genre’s top authors for insight into the “secret baby" trope, why pen names are necessary, and the one rule of romance that can never, ever be violated.

1. THEY WEAR PERIOD CLOTHING.

Novelist Shelley Adina (A Lady of Resources, A Lady of Integrity) writes historical, Amish, and steampunk-themed fiction, just a few of the many sub-categories that appeal to niche audiences. To better understand her characters, Adina dresses in period outfits to gather what she calls “tactile details.”

“I like to feel how a heroine would feel in the clothes,” she says. “I’ve been laced into a proper corset and you realize what kind of dance steps you can do, or why a lady’s back never touches a chair—a tight corset won't allow it."

2. THE REASON THEY USE PEN NAMES ISN'T WHAT YOU THINK.

Covers of two romance novels by Shelley Adina
Shelley Adina

The authors of romance novels don't use pen names out of embarrassment. Adina (a.k.a. Adina Senft) says that pseudonyms—many authors have more than one—help readers compartmentalize writers who generate multiple series. “People who read Amish fiction may not read steampunk,” she says. Another, bigger reason: Bookstore software can use “kill orders” on authors who don’t sell a certain number of titles. If they fall below parity, retailers will automatically stop ordering more copies from that author. “If that happens,” she says, “you have to reinvent yourself with a new name.”

3. THEY’LL DIGITALLY REVISE THEIR WORK AFTER PUBLISHING IT.

The analog publishing model has traditionally been one of permanence: Once a book is in print and in readers' hands, there's no going back. But romance novel readers are a very particular clientele with certain expectations about how they’d like their protagonists to behave—and the self-published digital distribution model that's popular within the genre allows for a little customization. Author Heather C. Leigh (the Famous series) found that out when her first books featured a heroine who was a little too acerbic. “My first three books sold well, but there were critiques that my female lead was too sarcastic,” she says. “I understood and took it out. I don’t mind making work better based on feedback.”

4. COVER MODELS OFTEN LOSE THEIR HEADS.

The covers of two romance novels by Heather C. Leigh
Heather C. Leigh

Despite seeing hundreds of new titles published every month, the romance genre still manages to find new ways to visualize their shirtless male protagonists. In many cases, though, the beefcake winds up getting decapitated. “A lot of times, the man will be turned away or cut off at the forehead,” says author Eliza Night (The Conquered Bride series). “Readers want to imagine his looks in their own mind.” Grooming is also a necessity. “I had a cover with chest hair once. My readers did not like it.”

5. THEY HAVE BONUS SCENES.

Self-published authors (who make up about two-thirds of the total romance e-book revenue on Amazon) spend much of their time marketing their work. To help maintain interest from their existing readership, some send out email newsletters with updates on new titles and include exclusive passages that can enhance the experience of a previous book. “My first book was about an actor who had to do a love scene with a woman he hated,” Leigh says. “It was never going to be in the book because that was from his girlfriend’s point of view, but I got a chance to write it as a bonus.”

6. THEY WANT READERS TO BECOME WRITERS.

While resources for aspiring writers of all genres are plentiful, the romance field makes an exceptional attempt to recruit new talent. Industry interest group RWA doubles as a conduit between established writers and novices, hosting conferences and panels on the best ways to break in. “We don’t live in a competitive hierarchy,” Adina says. “There are so many readers with so many diverse tastes. It’s a big community where we support one another.”

7. THEY GET HELP FROM THE AMISH.

An Amish woman walking in a field
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While the Amish sub-genre has received media attention for its peculiarity, Adina doesn't believe it's so unusual: She says readers are attracted to a pastoral environment “without having to leave their wired-up house.” For accuracy’s sake, the author has enlisted an Amish reader to vet her titles for details. The popularity of the books “mystifies them,” she says. “They don’t understand the interest. They just hope the books might be able to point people to God.”  

8. THE “SECRET BABY” TROPE IS A READER FAVORITE.

Readers like resourceful women and skilled, wealthy love interests—and they especially like it when the former keeps their baby a secret from the latter. “The trope is that the hero and heroine have an affair, she gets pregnant, never tells him, and he comes back around five, 10, or 20 years later and finds out,” Adina says. “Reunion stories are popular. It’s the appeal of a responsible man.”

9. THEY’RE HISTORY GEEKS.

The cover of a romance novel by Eliza Knight
Eliza Knight

Knight cringes at the idea romance authors do little more than transcribe their own lurid fantasies. A self-described “history geek,” she travels frequently for research into Scottish history. “Most of us who write history nerd out on it,” she says. While once writing about a zeppelin-riding heroine, Adina jumped into one that offered rides over Silicon Valley to see how it would feel. She also got her motorcycle license for the same reason. “We’re serious about it,” Adina says. “We’re not sitting around in housecoats with barking Pomeranians.”

10. THEY’D APPRECIATE NOT BEING ASKED ABOUT THEIR SEX LIFE.

Many romance authors have at least one story to tell about people in their private life finding out they write for the genre and subsequently losing any sense of boundaries. “Strangers have asked me, ‘Do you test out scenes before you write them?’” Leigh says. “It’s like they lose a filter. It’s not real life. J.K. Rowling isn’t a wizard.”

11. THERE’S ONE RULE THAT CAN NEVER BE BROKEN.

While writing instructors invariably have all kinds of techniques for nourishing a story, the romance genre spells it out in an unequivocal manner. According to the RWA, nothing can be considered a “romance novel” without a central love story (naturally) and what authors have come to refer to as the Happily Ever After ending, or HEA. “Romance is a courtship story,” Adina says. “Readers expect the bond will be created at the end of the book. If not, it’s Nicholas Sparks or Romeo and Juliet. It would be like having a mystery where the detective doesn’t solve the case.”

This story originally appeared in 2016.

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15 Secrets of Fireworks Designers
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The Fourth of July just wouldn't be the same without the colorful peonies, waterfalls, and comets that burst across the night sky above wowed crowds. But designing fireworks and their choreographed displays is a labor-intensive, dangerous job that requires the imagination of an artist and the precision of an engineer. Mental Floss talked to two experts in the field to learn how fireworks designers plan their shows, the history and the chemistry behind their displays, and why you don't necessarily want more bang for your buck.

1. THE ROOTS OF THEIR PROFESSION GO BACK OVER A THOUSAND YEARS.

Humans have been adding bright, noisy explosions to their celebrations by setting fire to chemicals since at least 9th-century China. The very first fireworks were little more than quick orange bursts emanating from bamboo rods packed with charcoal, sulfur, and potassium nitrate and tossed into bonfires. Slowly, these contraptions progressed into flares cannon-fired into the sky by “firemasters” in medieval England. By 1830s Italy, the use of metal salts such as strontium, barium, copper, and sodium added vivid reds, greens, and blues to firework displays—a precursor of the brilliant hues we see today.

2. THEY CONSIDER THEMSELVES ARTISTS.

“Fireworks are our paint or our clay, and our canvas is the night sky—or a building, or a bridge, or a waterway,” says fifth-generation fireworks designer Phil Grucci, CEO and creative director of the Bellport, New York-based Fireworks by Grucci. The company has created fireworks displays for seven consecutive U.S. presidential inaugurations, Olympic games in Beijing and Los Angeles, and commemorations such as the centennial of the Statue of Liberty, among other events. “Working with space, understanding color and the dynamics within the fireworks, what moves very quickly, what sounds very loud, what sounds very soft, what is subtle and elegant”—all of it takes an artist's touch, Grucci says.

Pyrotechnic designers “can visualize exactly how various fireworks devices will burst in the sky,” says Julie Heckman, executive director of the American Pyrotechnics Association. That means they know "how high [fireworks] will reach their apex and burst, how wide they will spread, and how long the effect will ‘hang,' or linger. They can then choose other fireworks to burst above, below, or on each side of an effect to create the image they wish to see across the sky."

Of course, "painting" with fireworks is a little trickier than using acrylics or oils, since the medium is explosive. "The difference [compared to painting] is that we’ve got something that’s dynamic, that moves, it’s constantly moving and it’s very temporary," Grucci explains.

3. THEY START WITH A PAPER SKETCH.

A red and green firework bursting in the night sky
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Old pros like Grucci may know from experience how certain fireworks will look together against a backdrop. But he still sketches out each segment of every show he designs with colored markers on paper. From there, he works with his team to set the show to music, then choreographs it using software called Visual Show Director. Next, his programmers create a script in SolidWorks and/or AutoCAD. “In the past,” Grucci explains, “we scripted it all on a piece of paper, and the pyrotechnicians installed the hardware from that same piece of paper." Now, he says, they can be "taking advantage of the computer age, to visualize [a show] to see whether the product works as you’ve designed it.” Finally, Grucci’s team generates the computer file that will electronically ignite the fireworks at showtime—much safer than the days when a human had to ignite the fuse.

But Heckman says that although the technology is useful, it's made fireworks performances a little more homogenous. "Before electrical firing, computer choreography and a reliance on imported product [mostly from China], I think fireworks companies' unique style was much more prevalent," she says. "Technology has somewhat leveled that out." A few companies do still have distinctive styles, she notes—even if those differences are usually only apparent to true fireworks aficionados.

4. SOME THINGS ARE STILL DONE BY HAND.

A fireworks cartridge contains a series of pellets called stars, which are cubes, spheres, or cylinders about an-inch-and-a-half long filled with explosive materials and color-producing chemicals and metals [PDF]. A star’s colors are formulated via computer, then pressed into a pellet shape by machine. But when it comes to arranging the stars in the casings that will be fired into the night sky, it's usually human hands doing the arranging. The pattern laid out inside the casing determines the pattern of the explosion—a heart-shaped firework blooms from stars arranged in a heart shape—and according to Grucci, automating the task to account for the enormous variety of available patterns would be too expensive. The task can be labor-intensive, since a single shell can contain hundreds of stars.

5. THE VENUE DETERMINES HOW THEIR SHOW WILL UNFOLD.

Fireworks over the Brooklyn Bridge in 2018
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

It's as true in fireworks as it is in real estate: It's all about location. That’s partly for reasons of safety—Heckman says that every show has to follow industry standards for “tables of distance,” which “mandate the size of the largest shell that can be fired safely from a standpoint of fallout distance to spectators, and also public highways, occupied buildings, and public roads.” She says there's a complex regulatory scheme that dictates the type of products that can be used per type of venue, as well as when shows can begin and end.

But the site is also an integral part of the beauty and impact of the show itself. "We’re very aggressive in looking at structures, and trying to highlight their key features," Grucci says. “Whether it’s a tower, whether it’s a bridge, we will be [scouting from] the very highest point of that. If [a structure] is horizontal, I know that we are going to capitalize on the entire width of it. I could be easy and say, 'put some fireworks to the left and right side of a bridge.' But that’s not good enough. We have to take advantage of the undercarriage of a bridge, the steel cables that hold its towers together, and highlight the entire structure.” Grucci says he'll often calculate the entire surface area of a structure, so he can make sure he's taking advantage of every square inch.

6. THEY MATCH THE FIREWORKS TO THE MUSIC.

Not all fireworks displays have music, but when they do, the score and the effects should complement each other—not clash. A delicate classical piece may call for smaller, quieter fireworks, while a piece like the "1812 Overture" might fit bigger, louder bangs.

"So many of the [effects] we’re working with, they may have a baroque feel to them," Grucci says. "They’re very bold and strong and very in-your-face, but then you have that very elegant feel to some of the fireworks, that you would never put onto the canvas when there’s a rock-n-roll sequence on. When the product is so simple or so elegant, it would not match that tempo or that thematic."

7. THEY HAVE HIGH-TECH TESTING FACILITIES.

An assortment of colorful fireworks bursting in the sky
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Say you want to create a streaking green comet with a silver twinkling tail. “We’ll make that on a small scale, then we’ll test it at one of our two test sites, in upstate New York or in Virginia,” Grucci says. “Our pyrotechnicians are in protective bunkers and we have high-speed video cameras, wind meters, and dB [decibel] meters for noise. We record everything that we’re testing, so that we can look back on that and analyze it. I can’t tell you how many times we’ve failed. But we failed at the test site—never on the performance stage.”

8. THEY DON'T REPEAT THEMSELVES.

“My desire is to always make something that’s different,” Grucci says. He tries not to repeat a particular scene more than once in a performance, let alone repeat a whole show—although he notes that it helps that the "canvas" is always changing: “Even though we may use a particular beautiful color scheme with a metallic glitter, putting that on the Washington Monument as opposed to [over] an open baseball field—those are two completely different visuals.” One of his newest innovations turned up in the presidential inauguration in January 2017: a 600-foot by 700-foot display behind the Lincoln Memorial, made up of a series of 800 fireworks shells that burst in sequence into an American flag. “The color red [we used] is from a formula that is probably a few hundred years old," he says. "But delivering these little red dots on the sky at these [different] heights is what [allowed us to create the flag].”

9. LESS CAN BE MORE.

Fireworks at the opening of the New York, New York hotel in Las Vegas
JOHN GURZINSKI/AFP/Getty Images

"Sometimes people get caught in the trap of thinking that more is better," Grucci says, but when it comes to the number of fireworks in a performance, it can be exactly the opposite: More shells equals more smoke, which can white-out the night sky. "When you put too much in the sky ... you’re not really allowing the medium to display the beauty of what the product is about," Grucci says. (Plus, the metallic particles in fireworks smoke can pose a health risk for people with asthma or other health problems, which means it's wise to limit smoke where possible.)

10. THEY HAVE THEIR OWN LINGO.

Fireworks designers love to borrow from nature for the names of their displays. In addition to peonies and chrysanthemums, which both burst into circles (chrysanthemums have longer tails), there are willows (bursts with trails of gold or silver stars), falling leaves (glowing embers that flicker as they tumble to earth), fish (which leave little squiggles of light), spiders (a hard burst with straight, flat legs), and palms (which bursts up and out in a shape like its namesake tree). But there are also fountains (showers of sparks, sometimes also called gerbs), comets (several long trails of sparks), crossettes (a comet that breaks into other comets, usually creating a cross shape), dragon eggs (a delayed crackle effect), salutes (a loud noise without a display), and strobes (which burst with a blinking effect).

While creating their show, fireworks designers may work with cake (a single fuse that lights several fireworks in a sequence), whistle mixes (a combination of potassium and sodium benzoate that burns noisily), and dark fire, which is used to allow a star to change from one color to another (it gives off no light as it burns, allowing the new color layer to ignite below it). They hope to avoid flowerpots (which burst prematurely) and stars that are blown blind—or fail to ignite at all.

11. DANGER IS (UNFORTUNATELY) THEIR MIDDLE NAME.

Fireworks manufacturing presents an enormous danger. In 2016, Slate reported on a preponderance of deadly fireworks-making accidents in China—with an average of 400 workers in fireworks production plants dying every year between 1986 and 2005. Elsewhere, fewer accidents seem to happen than one might expect from the mixing and storing of combustible chemicals. According to Heckman, in the U.S. at least, that’s because the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) “stringently regulates the manufacturing process, including personal protective gear, and employers must train their personnel on the hazards and the [kind of gear that’s] required.”

“We’re mixing powders to create explosive compositions that have to be handled very delicately," Grucci says. The work has to be done in a non-sparking environment (one with special tools and materials that reduce the risk of sparks), and in a room that has plenty of exits. "[You don’t want to be in a] big, giant room filled with fireworks and there’s only one door to get out," Grucci says. Workers in their factory wear conductive shoes, which conduct static electricity through the footwear and into the ground, "because the environment is very dry and you wouldn’t want to walk across the floor and touch something and have an arc spark that goes to a box of open powder and explodes on you.”

Safety is paramount for Grucci, who lost his father, James, in a massive industrial accident in 1983 at the family fireworks plant on Long Island. He says that the secret to safety, from manufacturing through installation, is to “be consistent and never cut a corner.” He says his grandfather always told him, "As soon as you think you know it all, or you want to start cutting corners, [that's] when potentially you’re increasing your odds of getting injured or possibly killed."

12. SOMETIMES THEIR FAVORITE WAY TO WORK IS SMALL.

Yes, it’s a challenge to produce a 30-minute fireworks show off five barges in the middle of Manhattan’s East River—but intimate shows present their own set of hurdles. Grucci mentions a Dolce & Gabbana fashion event held around Lincoln Center’s fountain that he created pyrotechnics for this spring. The flaming bits were a mere 15 feet from the audience and the clothing that was showcased in Lucite boxes. In that kind of scenario, “You can’t afford to have the hard outer casing or the inner paper wrappings” you’d use at an aerial fireworks event over the river, Grucci says. “The last thing you want is debris falling on the audience.” The solution: stationary fireworks comprised of titanium and aluminum particles of a sub-micron size, which burn quickly and don’t sustain heat for more than a few milliseconds—sort of like a sparkler.

13. THEY BREAK RECORDS.

World fireworks records include the largest fireworks display: 810,904 of them, fired off on January 1, 2016 in Manila, Philippines. And the most shells launched per minute: 479,651 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE) in 2013. And the longest fireworks waterfall (a long, glittering shower of embers): 11,539 feet, 5 inches, at a fireworks festival in Fukuoka, Japan, in 2008. On New Year’s Eve 2018, the Gruccis broke the world record for the world’s largest single aerial shell at a show they produced on Al Marjan Island in UAE. Weighing 2397 pounds, it was the culmination of almost 40 years of Grucci family trial and effort. “My father attempted the world record for the largest firework back in 1979 [with] a 42-inch-diameter white magnesium cascading flower that we displayed down in Titusville, Florida," he says. "Guinness gave him the world record, but it didn’t launch to the height or break to the size that he wanted it to. He always wanted to retry that and I had the opportunity this past New Year’s Eve to give my family another crack.”

14. THE FUTURE IS BRIGHT (OR PASTEL).

Research is underway on fireworks that are quieter—which could cause less stress to animals, children, and those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder—as well as fireworks that are kinder to the environment by using cleaner, nitrogen-based fuel.

But those aren't the only innovations shaping the future of fireworks. Shapes are changing, too; look for letters and corporate logos. Designers now also have a host of softer and more diverse colors at their disposal. “In the early ‘80s we started developing colors in between ROYGBIV, the basic colors, so now we can produce lemon and tangerine and chartreuse and aqua and every color within the spectrum,” Grucci says. They do so by fiddling with the purity of the metals used and the size of their particles—which also change other parts of their overall effect. Large particles of metals like titanium, iron, and aluminum result in large “splinters” and a glittery effect, Grucci says, while smaller particles lead to fewer splinters and “a very bright light.” He notes that at this point, they can "get pretty much any Pantone color" in a fireworks composition.

15. THEY LOVE TO SEE AMAZEMENT ON THE FACES OF AUDIENCES.

People watch the Macy's Fourth of July Fireworks from outside Brooklyn Bridge Park in 2015
Andrew Renneisen/Getty Images

“I think a crowd, in general, appreciates a lot of action—variations in colors and noise; and pattern shells such as smiley faces, hearts, and dice are always pleasers,” Heckman says. According to Grucci, “This is a very serious business. But it’s colorful and it’s beautiful and it has great, great energy. When we go to a performance, we can see an 80-year-old man and a 5-year-old granddaughter watching the show and their expressions are pretty much the same.” In that moment, “They both [become] children.”

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