5 Invisible Forces That Can Ruin Your Life

Save my friend from the invisible fire!
5 Invisible Forces That Can Ruin Your Life

The most dangerous threat to the average person may well be the Tyrannosaurus rex. Consider how, in the last 30 years, not a single person has survived a T. rex attack. Still, you shouldn’t feel too paranoid about one suddenly appearing. The Tyrannosaurus is very large and easily spotted, and you’ll also note its approach well in advance thanks to how its heavy steps send all nearby Jell-O vibrating. 

Other forces, however, are totally invisible. Some will kill you. Others will merely ruin your life. We’ll warn you to watch out for them, but how do you watch out for something you can’t see?

Secret Fire

Fire gives off both heat and light. That’s quite convenient. The light part is very useful for illuminating dark corridors, when you’re exploring an ancient temple, armed only with a torch. But the light is also very useful for illuminating the chemical reaction of combustion itself. If a fire starts on your stove, you’ll see it and can reach for an extinguisher. If you instead see that the flames have covered the entire north side of the room, you’ll know to run out of the house, with one baby under each arm. 

house on fire


See flames next door as well? Better not seek relief there.

Some fires give off deadly heat but not much light at all. When methanol burns, it gives off a bit of light that you can see in complete darkness, but daylight overpowers this light, rendering the fire invisible. Race cars have used methanol as fuel, precisely because its fumes catch fire less easily than gasoline fumes, and yet, when methanol does catch fire, people don’t see the flames. You might remember the movie Talladega Nights, where Will Ferrell thinks he’s on fire when he’s not. The joke, like all Will Ferrell jokes, has many layers, but “there’s no such thing as invisible fire” isn’t one of them. 

Hydrogen, too, burns with a flame you can’t see in daylight:

Firefighters need ways of detecting these fires even when they can’t see them. While high-tech solutions exist, they’ve also had a more basic solution. They point long brooms at suspected areas. If fire’s there, the broom catches alight, and these new flames are honest and visible. 

The Hum Around Power Lines Can Timestamp Your Conversations

You and a friend want to discuss something personal — say, some sex act involving pineapples. You know far better than to talk about this online, where half a dozen different entities record your every move. So, you meet outside in talk in secret. 

Later, you learn your enemies knew of the meeting in advance and bugged the area. You dispute the recording, saying they must have spliced a bunch of separate recordings together, with the goal of destroying you. The matter reaches a court, which sends the recording to a forensics lab. This lab determines that it was an original, unbroken recording made at the very time when you and your friend met by that lake. They find this by analyzing a quiet hum in the recording, a hum from electricity traveling through the main supply. 

power lines

Andrey Metelev/Unsplash

“We should have talked on that desert island, like I said!”

Electricity flows through power lines using a 60-hertz signal, which you yourself don’t notice but which pops up in recordings. The signal varies slightly up and down over time, unpredictably, based on supply and demand. This varying signal is identical at all parts of a single electric grid, and forensic labs record these signals. By comparing this constant record of the hum (which most people have no access to) to the snippets of hum that appear in recordings, labs can determine if the recordings are real, and when they were taken

You don’t have to be sitting under some active power lines for this hum to watermark your recordings either. If you’re near an electric light or an electric socket, you can expect to capture the very quiet hum. And what if you record no audio at all, instead just annotating your video with text and some Dua Lipa song? Authorities might still be able to derive the hum by looking at how lightbulbs in your video imperceptibly change in brightness

There is no escape.

You’ve Never Seen Steam

We all know what steam looks like, right? You boil some water to wash away the evidence or to cook pasta, and you see this wavy gas billowing off of the water. That’s steam, right?

Wrong. Steam is invisible, much like oxygen, nitrogen or a fair number of other gases. When you think you’re seeing steam, you’re really seeing water vapor that is no longer steam. You’re seeing this water vapor condensing against the steam, while the steam itself remains totally transparent. 

hot coffee

Tabitha Turner/Unsplash

It’s like throwing paint at the invisible man

That’s no mere academic difference. Because when steam gets really hot, it all stays steam, nothing condenses, and the whole thing’s invisible. So, if you find yourself in a factory with a high-pressure steam pipe, and it springs a leak, you won’t be able to see any sign of the escaping gas. The pressure of this invisible steam could be high enough to slice your hand off. Then you’ll say, “That pipe must be leaking steam. Of course!” And you’ll move to slap your forehead, but you won’t be able to, since your severed hand is now lying on the floor. 

Computers Keep Getting Errors Thanks to Rays From Outer Space

Sometimes, a computer program just gets it wrong. Maybe one wrong letter appears on the screen when you type, or maybe your character glitches when you’re playing a video game. “I probably typed it wrong,” you say to yourself, “or maybe it’s a bug in the code.” And maybe that is what happened. Or maybe the problem is your RAM was hit with a cosmic ray. 

Cosmic rays start out in the Sun, and they result in charged particles in the atmosphere. Occasionally, these particles mess with memory in a computer, resulting in a bit flip — a 1 turns to a 0, or a 0 turns to a 1. The program then runs wrongly in one tiny way, and no one realizes just what the cause is. 

RAM stick

Liam Briese/Unsplash

If this article contains any typos, cosmic rays did it. 

When the result is a spelling error that you later dismiss as a typo, that’s no big deal. Other times, the error might be bigger. Maybe someone’s flying in a plane when a cosmic ray messes with their pacemaker, which suddenly erroneously starts sending jolts to their heart. Maybe the ray instead hits the flight computer, sending the plane plummeting hundreds of feet — and then, 10 minutes, later, sending it plummeting hundreds of feet again.

In such cases, no scientist conducting a postmortem will ever be able to identify the cause for sure. They can just look at the computer, then look at the sky and say, “You know what? This might have been space rays.” 

Planes Create Invisible Tornadoes

When planes aren’t worrying about being so high in the atmosphere that they’re subject to mysterious space forces, they’re worried about creating invisible forces of their own. 

Flight is all about invisible forces. You can’t see drag or lift, but they’re there, and they’re why the plane flies, instead of just flipping over and giving up. Along with all these other forces are spirals that shoot through the air from each wingtip. They’re called wingtip vortices, and you can see them if the humidity’s high enough, but otherwise, you see nothing. 

Vortices shed at the tips and from the leading-edge extensions of an F/A-18

U.S. Navy

These are either vortices or chemicals they’re spraying to control us all.

Wingtip vortices affect how well the plane flies, naturally. They also affect how anyone else flies. Let’s say you’re piloting your own little plane, and you happen to find yourself in a path behind a much bigger plane. You don’t collide with the other aircraft, which rules out one obvious danger. But you do collide with those invisible tornadoes the other plane creates. You get caught up in the turbulence, and down you go

Farewell, sweet world. If only you’d listened to aircraft control and stayed clear of the big plane’s wake, maybe you’d still be alive right now. 

Follow Ryan Menezes on Twitter for more stuff no one should see.

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