Explosions, Inc.

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Man of Random Science: Explosive Meditations

I was staring resolutely into the middle distance, practicing my world-weary, erudite look, when a few feral thoughts scampered nimbly through the wastes of my wide-open mind: What exactly is an explosion? Shorn of all the fire, debris, shockwaves, and cool protagonists walking away without looking back, what is the essence of an explosion, the thread that binds all explosions together? Is there a singular definition that encompasses them all? Give yourselves a second to think about that. I'll wait........(Warning. Some gross images ahead)

I can definitely picture an explosion. Heck, most of my pensive, brooding moments are doing pretty much that. I can make explosions of all sorts That's kind of my thing. Don and I have even named our entire shtick after just that. But really, short of spreading my arms apart and making the international noise for "explosion" how can I encapsulate the panoply of booms, bangs, ker-pows and ka-thooms that make up the multi-hued palette of explosions?

 Well, I guess that qualifies too…

Well, I guess that qualifies too…

The most simplified description of an explosion is a sudden change of potential energy to work. Not very exciting, huh? But that's at the root of every explosion. Potential energy releasing that potential, suddenly and violently. The shockwave, the fire, the way "Danger Zone" by Kenny Loggins starts to mysteriously play in the background, these are all just garnishes to the main dish of potential energy.

 Pictured: Potential energy moments before doing it’s thing.

Pictured: Potential energy moments before doing it’s thing.

There are three main types of explosions, each resulting from a different process by which potential energy transfers to work: chemical, physical, and nuclear. Let's take a moment to explore how each of these processes produce work. (The scientific definition of work is using a force to move an object a distance. Both the force and the motion have to be in the same direction to qualify as work.)

Chemical: This is the explosion that comes to mind most readily. The result of an exothermic (exo=out, thermic=heat) reaction, chemical explosions are caused by decomposition of a molecule or a combination of molecules. In both circumstances energy is released with combustion gases formed at high heat. Since gases have a much greater volume than solids, rapid expansion happens and you know how the rest goes.

 Yes, I do. Cue “ Final Countdown ” by Europe

Yes, I do. Cue “Final Countdown” by Europe

Physical: Usually physical explosions occur when a gas is kept under high pressure and the containment vessel ruptures, allowing the gas to expand to it's normal volume. Imagine a balloon popping after receiving too much air. Any process that produces gas in a sealed environment can lead to a physical explosion. Like the gases produced when a body (in this case a deceased sperm whale) decomposes........

 Pictured: An extremely lucky person.

Pictured: An extremely lucky person.

Nuclear: The most destructive form of potential energy, nuclear explosions come in two flavors: fission (atoms split apart, releasing energy) and fusion (atoms combine, also releasing energy). In both cases a very small amount of the atoms involved are converted into energy. Now, atoms are small and the amount of mass being converted to energy is likewise very small, but nuclear explosions can destroy entire cities. This can be explained with one of Einstein's most famous equations; E=mc². The amount of energy (E) in an object is equivalent to the mass of the object (m) multiplied by the speed of light (c) squared. Seeing as how the speed of light is nearly 300,000,000 meters per second (186,000 miles per second), even a tiny bit of matter is equivalent to a huge amount of energy.

 Pictured: A huge amount of energy.

Pictured: A huge amount of energy.

The largest nuclear explosion ever was Russia's Tsar Bomba. It's test detonation in 1961 released energy equal to 10 times the combined power of all the conventional explosives used in World War II. Using Einstein's equivalency equation for energy and mass, the amount of energy released was equal to the amount of energy contained in an object between 2 and 3 kilograms (5-6 lbs.) Of course the bomb was much larger than that (around 27 metric tons) since our paltry nuclear explosions can't convert more than a tiny amount of matter to pure energy. Still, there is a HUGE amount of potential energy stored up in every object that contains mass (e.g. everything).

It is definitely true that we all have hidden potential. Just be careful when releasing yours.

Copyright 2017 by Aaron Berenbach and Don Riefler

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