January 5th, 2014

#4086: Of the hard sciences, chemistry is my weak point

So naturally I find myself reading a treatise on the history of liquid rocket fuels, which is all about chemistry. The book is written for the scientifically-minded amateur, but there are still a lot of chemicals floating around in the thing and it's hard to keep them straight.

Thanks to this guest post on Sarah Hoyt's site I found the book Ignition! (PDF link) which is all about the development of liquid fuels for rockets.

In his book, John D. Clark discusses--in dry prose--the development of various rocket fuels and oxidizers and why the ones that fell out of use did so. His discussion of chlorine trifluoride (CTF) has been used by Derek Lowe in his discussions of "things I won't work with" and the guy just seems fearless when it comes to talking about chemicals I would never, never, ever want to get close to.

Like? Red fuming nitric acid. This, he says, is a good oxidizer. He blithely talks about fuel/oxidizer combinations which contain, in their exhaust, hydrofluoric acid. Of course, when you talk about CTF and speak of it as a good rocket fuel oxidizer, with some of the best properties an oxidizer can have, I suppoe you're not going to worry about a piddling thing like nitric acid mixed with nitrogen tetroxide.

He does talk about the downside that the oxidizer lines must be carefully prepared for CTF lest the CTF destroy them in spectacular fashion, which is why it's not generally used for rocketry. Not because of its other properties, like the ability to burn concrete, but because it's a pain in the ass to get the oxidizer lines clean enough. (Leave a little bit of slag behind on a weld and--well, you're not going to space today. Or anywhere else.)

...of course when you are simply considering the performance of the rocket engine, little things like that don't matter. And most of his work was on military hardware; you're not going to launch a Saturn V on red fuming nitric acid (RFNA) and monomethyl hydrazine.

It was written in 1972 and only covers liquid fuels. Still, it's a damned interesting read, and it's written with exactly the kind of dry humor I enjoy. But it's a tough slog if you're not well-versed in chemistry, only because of all the things you need to remember to understand what's going on. I've had to backtrack several times, mainly to remind myself what an acronym meant, because it was defined fifty pages ago and I've since forgotten what it was.

It also provides an interesting insight into why "our rockets always blow up."

* * *

The weather outside is frightful.

I finished boiling down the turkey stock last night, and now I need to figure out what I'm going to put it in--but it's done, and ready for freezing. When I made dinner last night I made julienne potatos from a box (a variation on potatos au gratin) and instead of using boiling water, I used turkey stock. It was there, it was already boiling, and Mom's recipe for mashed potatos involves using chicken or turkey stock to boil them; why not?

They were delicious. Mrs. Fungus was amazed that the dish had come from a box, it was so creamy and flavorful. I mean, dang.

* * *

Friday night, Mrs. Fungus and I watched Insidious 2.

I'm not generally a fan of horror movies. They used to scare the hell out of me, one way or another, but having gotten Hollywood's number I am now largely unmoved by them. When you grasp the formula, it stops being scary, and the scariest movies we've watched have done little more than make me feel a vague apprehension.

It doesn't help that movies which used to look extremely scary to me turned out to be about as frightening as a soiled diaper when I watched them. 90% of the scariness of such movies is shock takes, and they play out the same way every time: person creeps into room, looking apprehensive. Total silence, not even any music, just some quiet sound effects. Some sort of stealthy action on the actor's part, and then DAHH!!! something happens that's very noisy and sudden. Recently they've taken to adding the sudden appearance of something scary, like having the antagonist appear behind someone without warning, but--again--it's a variation on a theme and nothing new.

I2 was no different in that respect. The movie didn't scare me.

What it did do was to tell its story with some very nicely done plotting. I quite liked the way the foreshadowing was handled, and the explanation of some things that happened in the first movie (and why they were that way) was pretty well-done. It reminds me of The Prophesy (the one starring Christpher Walken as the Archangel Gabriel), which had been written and filmed as a trilogy from the get-go. (Note to self: now that I have income, I really ought to get those movies....)

Anyway, the story set up the father as some kind of crazed murderer--gee, where have we seen that before?--and so there was a scene where he told his wife, the protagonist of the story, that he was taking their sons to school.

Me: Okay, I'm going to take the boys to school. I'll...try not to murder them on the way there. I can't make any guarantees, though.

Mrs. Fungus: AHHHH HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA....

My wisecracks do tend to diffuse the tension. Somehow, we still end up enjoying ourselves, though.