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Matmail:

These questions have haunted me through my adolescence: Where does all the white come from in breaking waves? If hot air rises and cold air sinks, why is it colder at higher altitudes, where you are also a smidgen closer to the sun? And if someone tells you, "I always lie," should you believe them?

-- Jacob Schechter, UCSD student

Ooh, Jacob, the old U has its work cut out for it, I'd say. I'm impressed that you're reading the Reader instead of those fat, expensive textbooks they made you buy this semester. They're worth more when you trade them in if they've never been opened. But take a tip and put that adolescent angst behind you. It's good for picking up chicks in coffeehouses, I guess, but after sophomore year, it'll just drag you down. So to make your college career a productive experience, here's the scoop. The white in whitecaps is air. Well, actually it's sunlight scattered by jillions of tiny air bubbles incorporated into the crest of a wave when it breaks. A trickier question is why the ocean looks blue when a glass of ocean water would look clear. Don't care? Okay. Question two: Forget your cold feet. We need to see the bigger atmospheric picture, i.e., it's cooler on Mt. Shasta than in Death Valley. The whole solar radiation thing is complicated, but basically as air (hotted up by sun energy) rises, there's less atmospheric pressure, the gases/water vapor/particles expand and cool. About 30 miles up, at the ozone layer, things heat up again, since ozone absorbs solar radiation. Then it cools until you hit the ionosphere, where it gets really toasty again. Above that, into the void of space, the little bits of atmosphere are free of gravity and really chilly. Question three? Lose that smart aleck. Take a nap.

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