Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The Continuing Mystery of "Self-Combustible" Wool

I was listening to Car Talk (in podcast form) on the bus ride home this afternoon, when I heard a new reference to wool being self-combustible! In answering last week's puzzler, Ray was reading from Philip McCutcheon's book "Tall Ships":
Spaced along the upper deck were the cargo hatches with their heavy covers of reinforced hardwood planks, well chocked in and secured with three separate layers of tarpaulin, held down with ropes and more chocks to withstand the pounding of heavy seas. Below the hatches lay the reason for the ship's presence on the sea, her cargo, to be held inviolate against nature and disaster, against fire that could come from a self-combustible cargo like wool, or a cargo that could swell when it met water, such as rice.

So, seeing a possible opportunity to get an answer to this burning question, I sent Car Talk the following e-mail:
I have two questions for you, one which has been bothering me for a long time, and one that came up today as I listened to the podcast of the latest show.

My first question relates to terminology used on the show. One of the brothers always announces that the new puzzler will be given in the "third half" of the show. Mathematically, unless each show is actually a show and a half, there can only be two halves to each whole show. Is the "third half" terminology something standard in radio and or showbusiness (and if so, why?), or are Click and Clack just doing their "sounding stupid" thing?

My other question is actually something that's been bothering me for a long time as well, but only thought of writing Car Talk after hearing the Puzzler answer. In the answer, Ray reads from Tall Ships, which refers to "a self-combustible cargo like wool." Some of my knitter friends have not been able to mail packages after saying the contents are wool, because the post office also has the notion that wool is self-combustable when wet. Now, as a knitter, I have never had my wool self-combust, not even when washing it. I have never heard of sheep in Britain (where it is certainly very damp much of the year) self-combusting either. In fact, one test of whether or not yarn is indeed wool is to hold it to a lit match, and then see if it *self-extinguishes* when the match is taken away. I can only imagine the wool would be even less combustible when wet... unless it was wet with gasoline. (At which point, I think just about anything would be considered self-combustible.) Could you please help me and my knitting friends understand this?

Thank you!
I'll let you know if I get an answer. ;)

8 comments:

jess said...

haha, your email made me laugh! let us know what they say!

"third half" is often used in sports as a bit of a joke...

Celeste said...

awesome! i hope you DO get a response!!!

Kath said...

Self-combustible wool?!?!? That is the first I've heard of such a thing! And oh...help me now...the "self-combusting sheep" was hilarious. (Can you imagine what the knitters of the world would do to keep the poor sheep from "self-combusting"?)

I'm familiar with the "match test" also, although I've never tried it. I truly cannot wait to hear what response is!

Kelli said...

I'm pretty sure the "third half" thing is a joke. :-) And is it terrible that when I read the passage, I imagined it in Ray's voice? :-P I'd love it if they mentioned your wool question on the air!

Lucia said...

Yes, the "third half" is a joke. I too am puzzled by the wool thing (although they may not have meant to imply that wool combusts more readily when wet).

I am probably one of five people in the US who don't like "Car Talk" -- they spend way too much time laughing at something the other one said, and they're not half as funny as they think they are. IMHO, of course.

noricum said...

They are a "loud" kind of humour, I do admit.

Kristen said...

I hope they write back. I googled (because I'm impatient like that) and just from perusing the results page without actually clicking on anything, it became apparent that STEEL WOOL is self-combustible. I sure hope no one thinks that steel wool is shorn from steel sheep.

noricum said...

Uh... how can STEEL wool be self-combustible? Yes, it can oxidize (rust), but I wouldn't consider that "burning" in the colloquial sense. I guess perhaps there's enough surface area that the heat released could cause something else with a low ignition temperature to ignite, but I'd be pretty surprised. I think you'd need pretty specific conditions, too.