Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Science on the docks

I had a brief career as a stevedore. I had met Leslie the year before, she was the one, and she wisely counseled I get my ass out of Port Newark.

Shoveling on ship in July with a late adolescent body can be joy; doing the same in November in my 6th decade would have sucked.

Leslie's rarely wrong.

Still, I was there long enough to learn some science.

I worked for M.J.Rudolph, based at Starboard and Export Streets in the port. We loaded ships.

We loaded piles of metal turnings on ships headed for Japan; across the way we could see Port Newark, where our metal returned as Hondas and Mitsibushis.

I shoveled. A lot. I worked with metal turnings, shreds of old cars, old refrigerators, old wheel barrows, old metal tanks. I stood on huge piles of this stuff.

Despite wearing thick work boots with wool socks, my feet would get uncomfortably hot from the heat rising from the pile. Oxidizing lets high energy electrons slip down a state or two. When electrons relax, the energy has to go somewhere--in this case, it went to my feet.

The heat is not trivial--ships have been threatened by oxidizing scrap metal.

I can talk about oxidation all period in science class, but no reason to expect it to stick. Standing on top of a mountain of oxidizing strips of metal, however, grabs attention.

May be time for a field trip.

Steel can kill you several ways on the docks.

Occasionally we loaded transmissions or steel ingots onto ships. The crane operators used magnets to lift the steel.

Now and again an ingot would fall. And bounce, and bounce, and bounce some more. Turns out steel is phenomenally elastic. A steel ingot will bounce like a massive rubber ball. Transmissions will bounce off a ship's deck like a tennis ball off Venus' racket. I once stood mesmerized as several transmissions bounced around me.

Hardhats are useless when tons of steel dance around your head.

Elasticity is an object's ability to quickly return to its original shape after a deforming force is applied to it.

I can talk about elasticity all period long in science class, but it won't stick. A few moments of terror dodging huge chunks of dancing metal, however, forge the concept in one's brain.

Tiggers bounce, ingots bounce more.

May be time for a field trip.

Photo from the Star-Ledger.


Sean Nash said...

Dad helped me put in a new sink last weekend. Something either of us could have done alone, but even father-son bonding over a beer aside, it's nice to have moral support on something you've not done.

While I was doing... something, Dad grabbed a pad of steel wool and began cleaning up prior to dropping in the new hardware. He asked for a cleaner, and I dug around half-heartedly in a bucket nearby, ultimately pulling out some sort of surface cleaner with "oxy magic" in it.

Let the fun begin, right? ;)

After about 20 seconds of work with that piece of steel wool, we took it outside to finish its rush to chemical stability. Peroxide is speedy. I wondered at the time how many people might have just tossed it into the trash can at that moment.

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