Monday, October 24, 2011

Caution: Rocks May Explode in Extreme Heat. Wait! What?!

Although I have an intense respect for the scientific community, I am fairly certain that I cannot be considered a part of it.  This is not because I prescribe to the mystical arts.  I don’t spend my evenings chanting over a hastily constructed ragdoll and exacting voodoo justice upon my enemies.

On the contrary, I think the various scientific disciplines are doing a fantastic job of figuring out the world we live in.  When I hear we have new pictures of a distant outer space phenomenon, I immediately consider what they might mean for our species’ long-term goals of self-affirmation.  When I read an article telling me how a mouse in a lab somewhere has successfully grown a fifth limb out of its forehead, I want to go and high five said new little mouse paw.  It gives me hope that if I ever need a new arm, I might be able to grow one out of my own forehead.  Talk about useful.

Forgive my sarcasm.  I don’t know any other way.

But really, I seriously think science kicks major rump.  I often wish I were better at it.  I received decent grades in my high school Physics, Chemistry and Biology classes, but you are not going to see me co-hosting Mythbusters anytime soon.

When I entered college, I chose Psychology as my major.  Trade secret: Psychology, despite what anyone tells you, is not a true science.  Physics developed precise methods to determine the relationships between two things in the real world.  In Psychology, despite experiment after experiment, the best you ever seem to be able to say is, “That thing that I thought was true seems to maybe be true as far as we can tell…so far.”  Frustrating.  I want an equation that will tell me exactly how crazy this guy I am talking to is and I want to be able to give him a PET scan, see a little blue spot on the screen and say, “Oh, that’s why he’s nuts right there.”  Problem solved.

What I am trying to say is, despite my respect for science in general, every now and then I am blindsided by a scientific fact that I cannot believe I didn’t know.  Case in point, yesterday I decided that with a large stack of extra patio and paver bricks I had lying around, I was going to undertake the project of building a fire pit in my backyard.  Yes, the Autumn spirit has its claws in me and on my upcoming nights off I was planning on sitting next to a fire with a (small…ish…case of) beer.  I figured I had the materials, so why not put them to good use?

Still, I’m no dummy and figured, since I’ve never built a fire pit before, I ought to research and make sure there isn’t anything I need to keep in mind.  The obvious things were all there on the various sites I looked up.  Keep fire away from home.  Do not build a fire pit beneath low, overhanging trees.  Do not sit in fire while it is burning.  Do not throw flaming logs at your companions around the fire pit.  All very simple stuff that my scientifically advanced mind already knew.

Then came the surprise warning: Do not use rocks that have been submersed in water in the base of your fire pit as they may explode in extreme heat.

What?!  Exploding rocks?

Here I had been imagining a simple ring of stone around some gravel and sand.  Now, I had to consider my family running for shelter from rock shrapnel.  Perhaps I would need to construct some ballistic shields to keep handy while enjoying out fire pit in case the rocks began spontaneously exploding.  What was I about to put my family through?  Thank God I looked into this.  I was terrified.

After a few minutes of panic, I calmed down and it made sense.  Some rocks are permeable.  Water left within said rocks could turn to gas quickly.  Gas takes up more space than liquid.  Cause the liquid to convert to gas extremely quickly and boom, rock explosion.

I assessed the potential risk of geologic detonation occurring in my yard and realized it was pretty slim.  After all, the bricks I am planning on using have been sitting in my yard and are nice and dry from being in the sun.  I didn’t plan to make an expedition to the bottom of the sea anytime soon to find rocks perfectly suitable for my fire pit on the ocean floor.  I breathed easy once again, the initial shock of the simple scientific fact I had overlooked, gone.  I simply needed to exercise caution and common sense around fire.

It caused me to remember the old fireworks lesson.  A firecracker exploding on your open palm may singe or slightly burn your skin.  The same firecracker exploding in your closed fist will send fragments of your fingers into your nearby friend’s eye.  Lesson: Your friend should wear protective glasses while watching you play with fireworks in order to reduce the risk of eye infection.

I'll let you all know how the fire pit turns out.  Just give me time as I may be typing with one hand.

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