I: Wax

The science and story behind lava lamps.

I: Wax
Beeswax. Photo by Meggyn Pomerleau / Unsplash

Good morning. Today is primidi, the 11th of Frimaire, Year CCXXXI. We celebrate la cire, an organic substance that handles heat and moisture beautifully.

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Wax is made by many living things, not just your ears. Many plants secrete a wax coating on their leaves and stems for protection. Bees, of course, make a wax to waterproof their honey. Sperm whales famously store a wax in their head cavities that was used as oil before underground dino-goo was discovered and industrialized. And sheep have a wax coating called lanolin on their wool that helps it wick misty water away and keep them – or anyone wearing a wool sweater – dry and warm.

Lava lamps don't really have lava in them, of course. If you buy a new one, what's floating around in there is a not-so-carefully guarded secret (it's ferromagnetic fluid), but the original invention from way back in CLXXI (1963) contained a wax compound suspended in oily water.

But the thermodynamics of the wax inside – it loses density when encountering the heat lamp at the bottom, causing it to rise, then cools at the top, causing it to sink – pale in comparison to the stories of those who have manufactured these perennial den ornaments.

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