How Do Fireworks Actually Work?

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iStock

by Sarah Dobbs

Each year, as the Fourth of July approaches, the sound of explosions starts to become a normal part of the evening. Fireworks have existed in one form or another for around 1000 years, and they show no signs of going away anytime soon. But how do they work? Most of us just know to light the fuse and stand back. Let’s take a closer look …

ROCKETS

fireworks over new york city
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Rocket-type fireworks can produce all kinds of different effects when they go off, but the basic structure of an aerial firework stays more or less the same. Each rocket is made up of the following parts: a mortar, fuses, propellant powder, a shell, a bursting charge, and a collection of "stars." The mortar is the outer container, and the fuse is, of course, the piece that you light. When the fuse burns down, the propellant ignites and shoots the firework into the air.

When it’s airborne, a second explosion is triggered inside the shell by a time delay fuse. The bursting charges set off the stars—small, explosive pellets made of fuel and metallic compounds that create the lights in the fireworks display. Different metals create different colors when they ignite: barium goes green, calcium salts go orange, magnesium goes white, copper is blue, lithium turns red, and sodium becomes gold. And the arrangement of the stars will determine the shape of the explosion—so if they’re packed in a heart shape, they should reproduce that heart shape in the sky.

Other effects can also be built in by adding various ingredients; different kinds of fuel can create sound effects, for example, like the whistling or screaming noises some rockets make as they shoot into the sky. Stars can be made up of layers of different metallic compounds, to create multicolored explosions. And in some more complex fireworks, there may be several stages of explosions; in that case, there are generally multiple fuses inside the shell, and as each burns down, a different explosive goes off.

FOUNTAINS

fountain type fireworks
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Of course, not all fireworks are of the shoot-into-the-air-and-go-bang variety. Fountains don’t take off, and generally don’t go bang, either; instead, they stay where they’re placed and give off a cascade of sparks—like a fountain, but with pyrotechnics instead of water.

Usually conical in shape, fountains consist of a paper or plastic tube, with clay plugs at either end. Inside the tube are a couple of different kinds of fuel, plus the metal compounds that create the sparks. When the fuse is lit, the fuel ignites, and sparks are forced out of an aperture in the top of the fountain.

Again, different metals create different colors and effects. Multi-stage effects can be created by bundling multiple tubes together, so that as one finishes another starts, adding different colors or sound effects to the display.

CATHERINE WHEELS

wheel firework
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Catherine wheels are another common type of firework, and again the same kinds of ingredients are used to create a slightly different effect. Named for the unfortunate Saint Catherine, these fireworks are generally fixed to a pole or a mount, so that they can spin as they burn, creating a spiral of sparks.

Bigger Catherine wheels tend to have a plastic disk at their center, with “gerbs” attached around the edge. The gerbs are similar to fountains, in that they’re tubes filled with the mixture of ingredients that create the effects; when lit, the thrust from the explosives makes the wheel turn as they burn. And again, the effect can be made more elaborate with multi-stage effects and different colors; each gerb might be different, so that the wheel changes as each one ignites in turn.

Smaller Catherine wheels might, instead, be made up of a single long, thin tube coiled into shape around a smaller central disk. Again, the thrust of ignition makes the wheel spin.

SPARKLERS

person holding sparkler
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The only firework you should ever hold in your hand once it’s lit is a sparkler—a Fourth of July staple. Unlike most other fireworks, they don’t explode with a bang, but gently fizzle for around a minute, as a ball of sparks makes its way down a metal wire. And they’re pretty simple: basically, the metal wire is dipped into a pyrotechnic compound that’s made up of a metallic fuel, an oxidizer, and a binding material.

The metallic fuel is what creates the sparks; it’s usually aluminum or magnesium, which creates white sparks, but some sparklers may use iron or ferrotitanium for gold sparks instead. The oxidizer, which provides the oxygen to keep the spark going, is generally potassium nitrate. And then a binding material, a kind of flammable starch, keeps the mixture together, and burns away once the sparkler is lit.

Hopefully, none of that has taken away any of the magic of a good fireworks display. If nothing else, you’ll be able to impress your friends by quietly musing “oooh, barium” next time you see a green firework.

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Why Do Bats Hang Upside Down?

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iStock.com/CraigRJD

Stefan Pociask:

The age-old question of upside down bats. Yes, it is awfully weird that there is an animal—a mammal even—that hangs upside down. Sure, some monkeys do it when they're just monkeying around. And a few other tree climbers, like margays, hang upside down if they are reaching for something or—again, like the margay cat—may actually even hunt that way ... But bats are the only animals that actually spend most of their time hanging upside down: feeding this way, raising their young this way, and, yes, sleeping or roosting this way.

There is actually a very good and sensible reason why they do this: They have to hang upside down so that they can fly.

First off, we have to acknowledge that bats are not birds, nor are they insects. These are the other two animals that have true powered flight (as opposed to gliding). The difference between bat flight and bird or insect flight is weight—specifically, the ratio of weight to lift-capacity of the wings. If you walk up to a bird or insect, most species will be able to fly right up into the air from a motionless position, and do it quickly.

Bats, on the other hand (or, other wing), can’t do that. They have a lot of difficulty taking off from the ground (not that they can’t do it ... it’s just more difficult). Insects and birds often actually jump into the air to give them a start in the right direction, then their powerful wings take them up, up, and away.

Birds have hollow bones; bats don’t. Insects are made of lightweight chitin or soft, light tissue; bats aren’t. And bats don’t have what you could call "powerful" wings. These amazing creatures are mammals, after all. The only flying mammals. Nature found a way to evolve such an unlikely thing as a flying mammal, so some compromises had to be made. Bats, once airborne, manage perfectly well in the air, and can literally fly circles around most birds in flight. The problem is in first getting off the ground.

To compensate for the extra weight that mammals must have, to compensate for the problem of getting off the ground, evolution found another way for bats to transition from being motionless to immediately being able to fly when necessary. Evolution said, “How about if we drop them from above? That way they are immediately in the air, and all they need to do is start flapping."

It was a great idea, as it turns out. Except bat feet aren’t any good for perching on a branch. They are mammals, not birds, so their musculature, their bones, and their tendons are set up in a completely different way. When a bird squats down on a branch, their tendons actually lock their toes into an even tighter grip on the perch. It happens automatically. That’s part of being a bird, and is universal. That’s why they don’t fall off in their sleep.

Bats, as mammals, are set up differently. Therefore, to compensate for that fact, nature said, “How about if we have them hang upside down? That way, their tendons will actually pull their toes closed, just like a bird does from the opposite direction.” So that’s what evolved. Bats hang from the bottom of something, and all they have to do is "let go" and they are instantly flying. In fact, with this gravity-assist method, they can achieve instant flight even faster than birds, who have to work against gravity.

Side note: In case you were wondering how bats poop and pee while upside down ... First off, pooping is no big deal. Bat poop looks like tiny grains of rice; if they are hanging, it just falls to the floor of the bat cave as guano. Pee, however ... well, they have that covered too. They just “hold it” until they are flying.

So there you go. Bats sleep hanging upside down because they are mammals and can’t take off into the air like birds can (at least not without difficulty). But, if they're hanging, all they do is let go.

Makes total sense, right?

Now, having said all that about upside down bats, I must mention the following: Not all of the 1240-plus species of bats do hang upside down. There are exceptions—about six of them, within two different families. One is in South America (Thyropteridae) and the other is in Madagascar (Myzopodidae). The Myzopodidae, which includes just one species, is exceedingly rare.

So it turns out that these bats roost inside the tubes of young, unfurled banana leaves and other similar large leaves. When they attach themselves to the inside of this rolled leaf, they do it head-up. The problem with living inside of rolled-up leaves is that within a few days, these leaves will continue growing, and eventually open up. Whenever that happens, the whole group of bats has to pick up and move to another home. Over and over again. All six of these species of rare bats have a suction cup on each wrist and ankle, and they use these to attach to the smooth surface of the inside of the leaf tube. Evolution: the more you learn, the more amazing it becomes.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

What's the Difference Between Tequila and Mezcal?

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iStock.com/mediaphotos

Aside from tacos, enchiladas, and other tasty tortilla-wrapped treats, tequila and mezcal are among some of Mexico’s best-known offerings in the food and beverage category. These tipples, made from the agave plant, are so embedded in the country’s culture that Mexico City even has a museum dedicated to the two drinks, and Jose Cuervo operates a "tequila train" to none other than the city of Tequila. These beverages can be used to make a variety of cocktails, from the tequila sunrise to the mezcalita, but unless you’re a bartender or a connoisseur of spirits, you might not know the difference between the two. Is mezcal just fancier tequila?

Not exactly. Tequila is a type of mezcal, but the reverse isn’t always true. It’s similar to the distinction between champagne and sparkling wine, in which the name of the beverage depends on whether it was produced in the Champagne region of France or elsewhere. While mezcal can be produced anywhere in Mexico, tequila is made in the Mexican state of Jalisco (though a few exceptions do apply).

Tequila and mezcal also differ in the ingredients from which they are derived. Mezcal can come from any of the dozens of agave plants—a type of desert succulent—that are grown throughout Mexico. Tequila is made specifically from blue agave and, depending on the variety and brand, a bottle will contain between 51 percent and 100 percent of the plant-based nectar. According to The Tierra Group, a wholesaler of agave products, blue agave nectar is especially sweet because it’s 80 percent fructose, per Mexico’s regulations.

Lastly, tequila and mezcal taste different because of the ways in which they are prepared. Mezcal tends to have a savory, smoky, earthy flavor because the agave hearts (or piñas) are left cooking for several days in a fire pit that has been lined with volcanic rock and covered with agave leaves and earth. The piñas destined to end up in tequila, on the other hand, are often cooked in a brick oven, then crushed up to extract the juice.

If you ever feel adventurous at the liquor store and decide to bring home a bottle of mezcal, just keep in mind that there’s a particular way to drink it. “The first mistake many people make is pouring mezcal in a shot glass and pouring it down their throat,” Chris Reyes, a mixologist at New York City’s Temerario bar and restaurant told Liquor.com. Instead, the spirit is best sipped in a clay cup known as a jicarita.

Some words of advice if you do go shopping for mezcal: If you ever see a worm at the bottom of the bottle, that means it’s probably not a very good mezcal, according to Reyes. By contrast, tequila bottles should never have worms in them (despite the common misconception). So if you’re looking to avoid invertebrate-infused concoctions at all costs, tequila is your best bet.

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