Where does the candle wax go? –Dave, Vanessa, Jill, Susannah, and everyone else we know

Where do you think it goes? It burns, just like the logs in a fireplace. You evidently have the idea that candle wax is only there to hold the wick upright. On the contrary, the wax is the fuel for the flame, the wick being merely the conduit for drawing melted wax up by capillary attraction. Rapid oxidation (burning, for you civilians) scrambles the constituent elements of the wax and they recombine to produce, among other things, carbon dioxide and water vapor, which drift off into the void.

Many people find the fact that burning produces water surprising. They shouldn’t. The great British scientist Michael Faraday used to do an annual lecture on the “chemical history of a candle” in which he would hold a flask full of ice above a candle flame. After a short time the flask would be covered with droplets of water, most of it newly manufactured by the burning candle. They say Faraday used to pack the house for this demonstration. How fortunate to live in an age when you didn’t have to compete with music videos.


You and others have commented on the received “history” of the QWERTY [i.e., conventional] typewriter keyboard design and remarked on the supposed superiority of the Dvorak keyboard, which puts all the vowels in the “home row” and slightly favors the right hand [The Straight Dope, page 249]. The time has come to put this myth to rest. Enclosed is an article from the Journal of Law and Economics. Enjoy. –Scott Koslow, assistant professor of marketing, University of Texas at Dallas

OK, doc, you got me dead to rights. The origin of the QWERTY keyboard, so named because that’s what the top row of letter keys spells out, is one of those oft-told tales about how we got stuck with an oddball standard because of a shortsighted decision by some mope(s) in the dawning days of a new technology. According to legend, the seemingly random layout of today’s keyboard has its origins in the limitations of the first typewriters. The early machines were crude and prone to jamming if you typed too fast. The QWERTY keyboard was designed to place the most commonly used letters on opposite sides of the keyboard, making jams less likely. Legend has it that the QWERTY keyboard was also made intentionally clumsy (only one vowel in the home row, for instance) in order to slow down typists and further reduce the possibility of jamming.

Within a relatively short time, of course, typewriter engineering had improved sufficiently that jamming was no longer a major concern. But by then, the story goes, people were used to the QWERTY keyboard and we’ve been stuck with it ever since, even in the face of allegedly superior alternatives such as the Dvorak keyboard. Advocates say research proves the Dvorak is easy to learn and makes typing faster and more accurate. But it’s never made much headway because of the crushing power of standards, even stupid ones.

Baloney, say the authors of the article you enclose, S.J. Liebowitz and Stephen Margolis. They point out that (1) the research demonstrating the superiority of the Dvorak keyboard is sparse and methodologically suspect; (2) a sizable body of work suggests that in fact the Dvorak offers little practical advantage over the QWERTY; (3) at least one study indicates that placing commonly used keys far apart, as with the QWERTY, actually speeds typing, since you frequently alternate hands; and (4) the QWERTY keyboard did not become a standard overnight but beat out several competing keyboards over a period of years and thus represents the considered choice of the marketplace. It saddens me to know I helped to perpetuate the myth of Dvorak superiority, but I will sleep better at night knowing I have rectified matters at last.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.