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Where the rubber meets the road

technofile  by al fasoldt

Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology

Simple gray rule

Where the rubber meets the road, then disappears: The Vaporization Theory and other mysteries explained

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1988, The Syracuse Newspapers

When I was in Vietnam, I learned one of those universal truths they never teach you about in school. I called it Markoff's Law, in honor of a machinegunner I knew.

It went like this: Things That Are Shot Up in the Air Never Come Down.

Markoff loved Vietnamese holidays, since they gave him an excuse to shoot off his weapon like the Vietnamese did. He would aim it straight up and hold the trigger back until every last bullet was launched into space.

The bullets just disappeared. No one ever knew where they went. Nobody ever reported finding a hole where one didn't belong.

It was one of those mysteries of science, unfathomable and forever alluring. I was reminded of it the other day when a neighbor found a dent in the roof of his car. It was too small to have been caused by a golf ball. The thought that it might have been one of Markoff's bullets, lost in some sort of Van Allen Belt for 22 years until it was shaken loose by a solar flare, would not leave my mind.

And that, in turn, raised the issue of those other mysteries nobody speaks about. I've decided to bring them up in the hope that light can be shed on this last great Twilight Zone of free inquiry.

What, for example, happens to automobile tires? You put them on your car and then they start to disappear. The traditional explanation is that they are wearing out.

This, of course, is something even a second-grader knows is double-talk.

Out? Where does all that rubber go when it goes "out''? Sometimes it goes down, as is evident when long black patches appear mysteriously on the pavement. But usually it just disappears.

One theory is that rubber molecules have a "memory'' more or less like molecules of sheet metal do. When the sheet metal gets dented, a smart aleck who is being overpaid sticks a thingamabob against the dent and does something. (No one ever actually sees this process taking place, so we never know what really happens.) At any rate, the metal "remembers'' what shape it was in before and pops right back.

And likewise, the theory goes, rubber molecules "remember'' where they came from. After getting beaten around for mile after mile, they get tired of that kind of abuse and migrate back to the rubber factory.

How they get there (if this theory is correct) is anybody's guess. The tire companies know, of course, but they figure if the word got out they might lose their government subsidies on the paint they use to make white-letter sidewalls. So another mystery remains sealed.

How about refrigerators? When they wear out or whatever they do when they get tired, what happens to them?

The most likely scenario—that they are taken away to a refrigerator graveyard by the same burly workers who brought the new refrigerator—can be readily discounted. Records going far back into history show that no one who ever brought a new appliance ever took away the old one.

So another explanation is needed. The one that makes the most sense is the Curbside Vaporization Theorem, which holds that refrigerators that are dragged to the curb disappear suddenly a few weeks later.

How this occurs isn't fully understood. It is well known that trash collectors don't take anything that won't fit into a Sears Best All-Weather Guardian Suburban Receptacle, so that rules out human intervention.

The Vaporization Theorem explains the situation through the application of Newton's Fourth Law of Thermofridgidation. This law, which is seldom remembered these days, says that there is no such thing as "cold.'' Anything that seems cold is really warm, except that it is warm to someone who is a heck of a lot colder than we are, and not to us.

Follow? Here is where it gets murky. Since there is no such thing as "cold,'' the inside of a refrigerator is actually "warm'' (stay with me), but because it feels "cold'' to us, the heat that is actually there has to be stored in some molecular form.

It is stored as tiny heat particles (this is another aspect of physics that is seldom taught in school these days, to the shame of us all), and these little Hot Spots, which is the technical name for them, gather on the outside of the Freon molecules and lapse into what is scientifically referred to as a deep sleep. (Basically, they are sort of drugged.)

After about 18 years the somnolence wears off, and these Hot Spots are, technically speaking, hot to . . . well, trot. They remain in this agitated state until the refrigerator is unplugged, and within a week or two they combine into a large gathering and more or less explode. (College physics professors explain this to students as the "party'' mode.) The explosion vaporizes the object that contains the hotspots.

As coincidence will have it, refrigerators are never unplugged unless they are going to be dragged out of the house, and so they end up being vaporized within a few days at curbside.

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