What Is Inside a Lava Lamp?

FreedomMaster/iStock via Getty Images
FreedomMaster/iStock via Getty Images

It’s not exactly an accident that so few people have a clear idea of what’s inside a lava lamp, as manufacturers are notoriously tight-lipped about their top-secret recipes. Having said that, knowing how lava lamps work has definitely shed some light on what types of ingredients must be in there, and industry professionals have shared a few clues over the years, too.

Just by looking at a lava lamp in action will tell you this much: There are two different substances in there that do not mix.

Bryan Katzel, vice president of product development at the lava lamp company Schylling, told Business Insider that the watery-looking base liquid is mostly a mixture of water, colored dye, and chemicals that prevent the formation of fungus. The other ingredient, which forms the psychedelic, slowly-changing shapes that float around the lamp, is primarily made of wax. In Schylling’s case, it’s paraffin wax, a petroleum-based wax that's commonly found in candles and cosmetic products.

Because the wax and water mixtures have different densities, they don’t mix with each other. But if you’ve ever left an oil-based salad dressing sitting out for a while, you probably know that liquids with different densities typically end up settling in starkly defined layers. Why, then, does the wax in a lava lamp seem to have such a tough time deciding where it wants to be?

This is where what Katzel calls the “lava magic” comes in. Usually, since wax is less dense than water, it would simply sit on top of it. In lava lamps, however, the water-based liquid is mixed with a secret combination of chemicals that give it a similar density to the wax.

When your lamp is turned off, the wax is slightly more dense than the water, and will rest on the bottom of the lamp. When you turn your lamp on, the light bulb at its base will heat the wax, causing it to expand, lose density, and rise through the lamp. By the time it reaches the top, it has cooled, contracted, and begun to fall back down to the bottom, where it will keep repeating the process until you pull the plug.

The secret blend of chemicals needed to achieve the perfect density might be specific to each lava lamp manufacturer, but that’s not to say people haven’t tried to create DIY lava lamps at home. According to Myria.com, some have done it by mixing the wax with dry-cleaning fluid or brake cleaner (perchloroethylene) and mixing the water with pure salt and antifreeze (ethylene glycol).

No matter what’s in there, we can all agree that lava lamps are uniquely mesmerizing. Want to take your viewing experience to the next level? Watch some wild GoPro footage from the inside of a lava lamp here.

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In What Field Was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. a Doctor?

Express Newspapers/Getty Images
Express Newspapers/Getty Images

Martin Luther King Jr. earned a doctorate in systematic theology from Boston University in 1955. He’d previously earned a Bachelor of Arts from Morehouse College and a Bachelor of Divinity from Crozer Theological Seminary. His dissertation, “A Comparison of the Conception of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman,” examined the two religious philosophers’ views of God in comparison to each other, and to King’s own concept of a "knowable and personal" God.

In 1989, some three decades after King had earned his doctorate, archivists working with The Martin Luther King Papers Project discovered that King’s dissertation suffered from what they called a “problematic use of sources.” King, they learned, had taken a large amount of material verbatim from other scholars and sources and used it in his work without full or proper attribution, and sometimes no attribution at all.

In 1991, a Boston University investigatory committee concluded that King had indeed plagiarized parts of his dissertation, but found that it was “impractical to reach, on the available evidence, any conclusions about Dr. King's reasons for failing to attribute some, but not all, of his sources.” That is, it could have been anything from malicious intent to simple forgetfulness—no one can determine for sure today. They did not recommend a posthumous revocation of his degree, but instead suggested that a letter be attached to the dissertation in the university library noting the passages lacked quotations and citations.

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Who Is 'The Real McCoy'?

Inventor Elijah McCoy is may or may not be "The Real McCoy."
Inventor Elijah McCoy is may or may not be "The Real McCoy."
Ypsilanti Historical Society, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

After taking a cool, carbonated sip of champagne from the Champagne region of France, you might say, “Ah, now that’s the real McCoy.” Sparkling wine from anywhere else is technically just sparkling wine.

The phrase “the real McCoy,” which can be used to describe any genuine version of something, has several possible origin stories. And while none of them mention champagne, a few do involve other types of alcohol.

According to HowStuffWorks, the earliest known recorded instance of the saying was an 1856 reference to whisky in the Scottish National Dictionary—"A drappie [drop] o' the real MacKay”—and by 1870, a pair of whisky distillers by the name of McKay had adopted the slogan “the real McKay” for their products. As the theory goes, the phrase made its long journey across the pond, where it eventually evolved into the Americanized “McCoy.”

Another theory suggests “the real McCoy” originated in the United States during Prohibition. In 1920, Florida-based rum runner Bill McCoy was the first enterprising individual to stock a ship with alcohol in the Caribbean, sail to New York, and idle at least three miles offshore, where he could sell his wares legally in what was then considered international waters. Since McCoy didn’t water down his alcohol with substances like prune juice, wood alcohol, and even turpentine, people believe his customers started calling his top-notch product “the real McCoy.” There’s no definitive proof that this origin story is true, but The Real McCoy rum distillery was founded on the notion.

There are also a couple other leading theories that have nothing to do with alcohol. In 1872, inventor Elijah McCoy patented a self-regulating machine that lubricated parts of a steam engine without the need for manual maintenance, allowing trains to run continuously for much longer distances. According to Snopes, the invention’s success spawned a plethora of poor-quality imitations, which led railroad personnel to refer to McCoy’s machines as “the real McCoy.”

Elijah McCoy’s invention modernized the transportation industry, but he wasn’t the only 19th-century McCoy who packed a punch. The other was welterweight champion Norman Selby, better known as Kid McCoy. In one story, McCoy decked a drunken bar patron to prove that he really was the famous boxer, prompting others to christen him “the real McCoy.” In another, his alleged penchant for throwing fights caused the press to start calling him “the real McCoy” to acknowledge when he was actually trying to win. And yet another simply suggests that the boxer’s popularity birthed so many McCoy-wannabes that Selby started to specify that he was, in fact, the real McCoy.

So which “the real McCoy” origin story is the real McCoy? The 1856 Scottish mention of “the real MacKay” came before Elijah McCoy’s railroad invention, Kid McCoy’s boxing career, and Bill McCoy’s rum-running escapades, but it’s possible that the phrase just gained popularity in different spheres at different times.

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