Can’t explosions both make and break things? Perhaps it depends whether they’re accidental or not. And are we talking about explosions in nature or man-made ones? Why don’t we dig a little deeper…
Are explosions always destructive?
Embrace the chaos
Given the laws of probability, things are much more likely to be disorganised than organised. And explosions are an extreme example of disorder! So let's take a closer look at them...
90% of Mount Rushmore was carved with dynamite!
90% of Mount Rushmore was carved with dynamite!
The explosion that started it all
Surely the biggest and best explosion was the very first one - the Big Bang. And that certainly created a lot of stuff!
4 things that wouldn't exist without explosions
- A popcorn kernel (seed) is mostly made up of starch, surrounded by a strong, hard shell. When you pop a packet of these kernels in the microwave and heat them up, the starchy moisture inside also gets hot and wants to turn into steam. But the hard outer shell stops this from happening. As things get hotter and hotter, the pressure builds up and the heat starts to turn the starch into a kind of jelly. Eventually, the hard shell of the kernel gives in to the pressure and splits, which blows the starchy jelly out into the air where it cools down and hardens into the foam which we call popcorn. Yum. It definitely tastes better than it sounds.
- Car engines
- Every time you get a lift somewhere, remember that explosions (better known as combustion) are what’s helping you on your way. If you put a tiny amount of high-energy fuel (like petroleum) in a small, enclosed space and ignite it, a huge amount of energy is released in the form of expanding gas. If you can create a cycle that allows you to set off explosions like this, hundreds of times per minute, and if you can harness that energy in a useful way, then what you have is the core of a car engine. Almost all modern car engines use something called a ‘four-stroke combustion cycle’ to convert petrol into motion.
- A firework is basically just a very colourful missile, designed to explode in a very controlled - and pretty - way. And it takes several different types of explosion to make the beautiful displays we 'ooh' and 'ahh' about. There’s an initial ‘charge’ explosion, which is usually made up of tightly packed gunpowder and is designed to blast the firework up into the sky - sometimes more than 1000 feet high and at roughly the same speed as a jet fighter! Then there are the ‘effect’ explosions, made up of finer, more loosely packed explosive material often separated into different ‘stars’ which make up the small, colourful explosions from a larger firework. More specifically, gunpowder is a mix of saltpetre, sulfur and carbon (charcoal) and it's these different chemical compounds that give the different colours.
- If you're ever unlucky enough to be in a car accident, a carefully controlled explosion could save you. When a car hits something, it starts to decelerate (lose speed) very rapidly - much faster than normal braking. If it slows down fast enough, the accelerometer (an electronic chip in the car that measures acceleration and force) triggers the airbag circuit. This generates an electric current which then ignites a chemical explosive (Sodium Azide). As the explosive burns, it creates Nitrogen gas, which floods into nylon bags packed behind the steering wheel and dashboard of the car. As the bags expand they blow through their plastic coverings and inflate in front of the passenger and the driver, cushioning some of the impact from the crash and helping to reduce their injuries.
Take a look at the science (and the implications) behind one of the most explosive ideas in human history: the atomic bomb.
Enduring an epic explosion: 6 creatures that could survive a nuclear bomb
- It might sound like a made-up creature from Hogwarts, but it’s actually a type of fish and it can literally live anywhere. It normally hangs out in the most polluted areas of ocean where there are severe chemical spills, but it’s also the only fish to have been to space. A few mummichogs were taken to the Skylab space station in 1973 for tests and it was discovered that they could actually swim in space, as well as have babies up there (who were all born normally). Plus mummichogs have been observed adapting their own body parts to cope with new environments, so they’re all set for the post-nuclear-destruction world.
- Braconidae wasps
- The braconidae is a kind of parasitoid wasp - that means they lay their eggs inside other animals. Researchers have discovered they can withstand up to 1800 Sieverts of radiation. To put it in perspective, the UK workplace limit for how much background radiation an employee can be exposed to, is 20 thousandths of 1 Sievert. This makes Braconidae wasps one of the toughest animals alive today. Although, there’s some argument about whether or not the species would survive for long, as there wouldn’t be many other animals for them to lay their eggs in. But if this list turns out to be right, they’ll have at least five other types of creature to choose from for their egg babysitters.
- It’s not an absolute guarantee, but these little guys are pretty hardcore. They’re not harmed at all by ultraviolet radiation and can even be frozen and brought back to life. And they’re usually found in burrows or rock crevasses, which would give them some extra physical protection from nuclear radiation. Plus, they can glow in the dark. And that’s just cool.
- Otherwise known as ‘water bears’ these dudes are insane - they’re what scientists call ‘extremophiles’ because they can withstand crazy extremes that would instantly kill other creatures. They can be boiled, crushed, frozen, live in space, live without water and be brought back to life after being clinically dead for almost a decade! So they probably won’t be put off by a little thing like a nuclear bomb. They also only grow up to 1.5mm long, so are less likely to be at risk from the explosion itself.
- Fruit flies
- The common fruit fly (or Drosophila if you want to use their scientific name) can survive high doses of radiation up to around 640 sieverts, so they’re pretty likely to make it through a blast even if they’re close to the epicentre. The fact that they’re so small works in their favour too, as they have fewer cells to be affected by the radiation and a smaller surface area to absorb it.
- These creepy little scuttlers always make the guest list for the nuclear bomb after-party, but actually, they’re only a ‘maybe’. Some research was done exposing a group of cockroaches to a radiation level of 100 Sieverts and only about 10% of them survived, and most nuclear explosions would involve higher radiation levels than that now. If they were far enough from the epicentre of the explosion they might be ok, and they’ve still got a higher chance of survival than most animals - but of all the creatures on our list they’re actually the least likely to make it.
Are explosions always destructive?
It all started with a bang…
Many scientists and cosmologists believe that the Universe was created following an enormous explosion (known as the Big Bang Theory). 'Everything we see in space was hugely condensed down into this very small region – smaller than an atom – and it would have blown up to bigger than a sun in a fraction of second’ explains Professor Jo Dunkley (Princeton University). ‘We think that this began the expansion of the Universe and this also put in the seeds of the beginnings of structure that could later evolve’… So, according to this theory, everything that we see, know and experience today came about originally because of a large explosion.
Bombs have featured in wars and attacks for many, many years and our developing understanding of science and technology has only served to accelerate the power of them. The nuclear bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan at the end of the Second World War killed and injured thousands of people. It also destroyed people’s homes and livelihoods. Many of those affected were ordinary civilians. The damage caused continued beyond the explosion itself with the long-lasting effects of injury, grief and potential radiation poisoning. This continues to be a highly controversial historical issue with some believing that this destruction ultimately prevented further devastation that a prolonged world war would have caused. While others believe that destruction on this scale can never be justified.
Explosions can be beautiful
A firework is basically just a very colourful missile, designed to explode in a very controlled - and pretty - way. The initial ‘charge’ explosion can blast a firework more than 1000 feet high and at roughly the same speed as a jet fighter! Then the ‘effect’ explosions which are made up of finer, more loosely packed explosive material often separate into different ‘stars’. Although they are not without their dangers, fireworks can be very artistic. So when you ‘ooh’ and 'ah' next Bonfire Night, take a moment to think about the clever science behind it all. Also, 90% of Mount Rushmore was carved by dynamite and as a piece of sculpted art, it continues to impress tourists.
Explosive science can go seriously wrong
Science can be amazing but also amazingly dangerous when it goes wrong, especially when there's an explosion involved. The Hindenberg and R101 airship disasters occurred when a series of incidents (technical fault, bad weather conditions) led these hydrogen gas-filled structures to rapidly catch fire. Both resulted in many fatalities and serious injuries demonstrating the powerful impact of explosions.
They can be useful, life-saving and tasty!
Explosions have been put to a range of purposes – some which are very useful and feature in our everyday lives. Every time you get a lift somewhere, remember that explosions (better known as combustion) are what’s helping you on your way. Almost all modern car engines use something called a ‘four-stroke combustion cycle’ to convert petrol into motion. If you're ever unlucky enough to be in a car accident, a carefully controlled explosion could save you in the form of airbags. When the airbag circuit is triggered, this generates an electric current which then ignites a chemical explosive (Sodium Azide). As the explosive burns, it creates Nitrogen gas, which floods into nylon bags packed behind the steering wheel and dashboard of the car. Air bags cushion some of the impact from a crash and help reduce injuries – potentially saving many people’s lives. And last but not least, popcorn is a result of a series of mini-explosions that turn the hard kernels into the airy puffs of corn that we know and love!
Nature can be explosive
Not all explosions are man-made. Planet Earth can pack an equally as powerful and frightening punch. Volcanoes have proven this for centuries. In fact, the biggest volcanic eruption ever recorded took place in April 1815 when Indonesia’s Mount Tambora blew its top, sending molten rock 25 miles up into the air. The resulting lava flows and tsunamis killed more than 60,000 people. Don’t mess with Mother Nature!
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