Saturday, February 18, 2017

Is there gas in that light bulb?

I'm a fan of topics in thermal physics. Not thermodynamics as much as temperature, heat, and heat transfer. These topics have been largely abandoned by NGSS (HS-PS) and are not included in AP Physics 1. For the moment, I teach AP Physics 2, which has some concern for thermodynamics. That gives me reason enough to teach thermal physics as a precursor.

We cover that content in the fall. We are now into geometric optics. That's how it was that I came to have a 40-W incandescent bulb with a dimmer switch on a gooseneck lamp glowing on a classroom table. I was demonstrating the classic image-formation trope of "What will happen the to the image if half the lens is covered?" (It's right up there with "How would the results of this [mechanics] experiment be different if it were conducted on the moon?" among well-worn item-writing chestnuts.)

But we had a few minutes before the end of the period. So I offered a question: "How could you know whether or not there's gas in this bulb?" If I had planned this inquiry a bit better, I would have  begun with "Why is the filament enclosed in a glass bulb?" If incandescents weren't becoming increasingly rare, we could break the glass on one and see what happens when the filament is exposed to air.

Of course, the immediate solution posed by my thoughtful teenage (mostly male) scholars—after milliseconds of contemplative deliberation—was "break it!". You hardly need a question. The best and most immediate answer is going to be "break it!". It just is.

I asked how breaking the bulb would reveal the answer to the question. Forced into a corner of their own making, they suggested weighing the bulb before and after the break. A difference in weight would reveal the prior existence of the gas. I argued the difficulty of the logistics and the precision required.

To move them off the property destruction solution, I moved the goalposts. How could you know without breaking the bulb? And without any other instruments? Hemming and hawing ensued. The end of the period was approaching.

Is the glass strong enough to hold up under atmospheric pressure if it's evacuated? Maybe. Could there be a gas in there given the rapid burn-out that happens when the filament is exposed to air? Yes: inert gases, noble gases.

I touched the bottom of the bulb and reported that it was warm. I casually kept my fingers on the glass of the bulb. Didn't the transfer of heat from filament to bulb require a conducting medium? No, they insisted. The bulb could have been warmed by thermal radiation.

An inquisitive student got up and touched the top of the bulb. He did not keep his fingers on the bulb very long at all and complained about how hot is was. (I had adjusted the 40-watt bulb down to about 10 watts, so it wasn't as bad as it could have been. I also assured him any burns would heal in a few days.)

At that point, they got it. The bottom was warm but the top was hot. Gas in the bulb is heated by the filament, rises, and deposits heat on the top of the bulb. Convection!

The key to knowing there was gas in there was feeling the top and bottom of the bulb. Having the bulb in a horizontal orientation helps: you have a "top" and "bottom" made of the same glass. The FLIR One thermal camera image was an afterthought, and is not needed to develop a solution.

When the period was over and students were filing out of class, the inquisitive student told me that breaking the bulb could be a simple solution, as long as you broke the bulb underwater.

He had me there.

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