Monthly Archives: May 2013

100 posts, 100 fun facts

This list making business is slow stuff, and too interesting, so I decided to split it into two 50-fact posts. Happy memorial day, and happy 100 posts to me! Here are your first 50 factoids!

1. People from different cultures differ in what colors they perceive. As a simple example, english speakers deem pink as a different color than red. Russian speakers don’t, but they have a fundamentally different word for dark and light blue. In chinese, red and pink are red and pastel red, and likewise with blue.

2. Corrosion occurs preferentially where you can’t see it, such as under the head of a bolt or a foot or two under sea water. This is due to small concentration differences which cause a charge differential, which leads to corrosion. This is one reason trying to detect corrosion is very hard.

3. The biggest silicon wafers made are 45 cm or 17.7″, though they aren’t yet in production. The silicon is 99.9999999% pure, and monocrystaline.

4. Glass doesn’t have a set crystal structure; this is why it can cut so badly, because shards can be arbitrarily sharp. Auto glass is laminated with plastic to help hold it in place.

5. Many of the scenes in engineering in “Star Trek” and “Star Trek: Into Darkness” are filmed at the Anheuser-Busch brewery in Los Angeles. Look for the green labels reading “VF##”– these are vertical fermenters. In another part of the movie, Chekhov slides past some really shiny tanks on a red floor– these are horizontal fermenters. I used to work at an AB brewery, so I got really excited when I first noticed this.

6. A neutron star is so-called because all the electrons and protons are forced by immense gravitational pressure to combine. The whole star is nearly as dense as a nucleus, or 5.9×10^14 times denser than water. This is equivalent to the weight of a 747 in the space of a grain of sand.

7. Have you ever tried dividing by zero on a calculator? A black hole is remarkably similar to dividing by zero in space.

8. Near a black hole, forces called “tidal forces” (which are felt everywhere, but are crazy strong near a black hole) can be very strong over short distances, ripping anything apart. This is called “spaghettification” (no joke).

9.  After the death of Ivan the Terrible in Russia, three men claimed to be his lost son, Dimitri. They are collectively referred to as the false Dimitris. The first successfully became Czar for ten months, after which his was killed and cremated. His ashes were loaded into a cannon and shot towards Poland, as he was believed to be a Polish spy.

10. The word “defenestration” means “the act of being thrown from a window”. The need for such a word was precipitated by two such events in Prague.

11. The 1904 World’s Fair and Olympics were held in St. Louis. In the marathon, the man who finished first hitched a ride in a car, one favorite made himself sick eating apples, and another favorite was run off course by an angry dog.

12. Toasted ravioli, or breaded deep-fried ravioli, are a culinary delight in St. Louis. Also popular is provel, a cheese used almost exclusively in St. Louis (giving a hilarious Wikipedia by someone who seems unimpressed).

13. The Cahokia mounds are a set of artificial hills in Southern Illinois. They may look unimpressive, but they are about a thousand years old, built by a native culture which later abandoned them. An old nickname of nearby St. Louis is “mound city”, because similar mounds used to be found in the city.

14. Peter the Great of Russia was 6′ 7″. In his early adulthood, he traveled to Europe to learn about shipbuilding, a passion of his. He tried to pass off as a member of the company, but his great height continuously gave him away. The little shack where he lived in Holland still stands near Amsterdam.

15. Over 100,000 serfs died building St. Petersburg, Russia. Peter the Great commissioned the city because the only Russian port at the time, Archangel, was occluded by ice 6 months of the year.

16. 5 people died building the Empire State Building.

17.  The first electric light bulb and dynamo west of the Mississippi was on the campus of the University of Missouri at Academic Hall. The building caught fire and burned to the ground, leaving only the front columns of the building. They remain standing today.

18. Thomas Jefferson has two tombstones: one at his home of Monticello, and one at the University of Missouri. The University of the Missouri is the first land-grant university in the Louisiana Purchase, and many aspects of the university were modeled after Jefferson’s University of Virginia.

19. Cape Hatteras on the Outer Banks has had over 600 recorded shipwrecks. The most recent occurred during Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

20. In November 1956, the USSR invaded Hungary. The Hungarian water polo team fled the country after watching the invasion from nearby mountains. On December 4, the Russian and Hungarian teams met in the gold medal qualifying game of the 1956 Olympics. The game is called the “Blood in the Water” game, due to its violence. The story is told in a documentary called “Freedom’s Fury.”

21. The shortest player in the history of baseball was Eddie Gaedel, who batted for the St. Louis Browns on August 19, 1951. He stood 3’7″ tall, and wore the number”1/8″. Because he had such a small strike zone, he was walked. His contract was voided by baseball the next day.

22. Mercury is a toxic metal that used to be used in thermometers due to its consistent thermal expansion. The mad hatter concept owes to mercury poisoning in old hat makers. A researcher at Duke died in 1997 after a few drops of methyl mercury fell on her glove; organic mercury is incredibly toxic.

23. Humans now have 46 chromosomes in 23 pairs, but at some point in history, they had 48 chromosomes, the same as chimpanzees. Scientists theorize that the number changed when the human population dwindled at one point in history.

24. Splenda is chemically identical to sugar, but it is the mirror image “left-handed” sugar. The left-handed sugar tastes the same as sugar, but it can’t be digested, because the human body only handles right-handed molecules. However, brain scans of people eating sugar or splenda show that the brain registers more reward sensation with sugar. The body can be clever! (I tried to find this study; unfortunately, searching about splenda turns up a lot of nonsense to wade through.)

25. Cuttlefish can change the color of their skin for communication or for camouflage. They can make complex, varying patterns, or they can match a stationary one. Check out this video of a cuttlefish matching a chessboard.

26. Women generally have a better sense of smell than men. in particular, they are better at smelling something they’ve smelled before, where men show less improvement.

27. The Marianas Trench, the deepest ocean trench, is 6.8 miles deep at its deepest point. We still know very little about our deep oceans.

28. Giant squids have been written about since ancient times, but we took our first picture of one in 2004.

29. Only two elements are liquid at standard room temperature: mercury and bromine.

30. The world’s deepest hand dug well in is Greensburg, Kansas. Greensburg was decimated by an EF5 tornado in 2007. It has since started rebuilding, and aims to be the first LEEDS certified green city in the US.

31. Hurricane Camille came over land in Louisiana in 1969 as a category 5 hurricane. Of the 259 deaths caused, 123 were in the mountains of Virginia, in Nelson County (over 1% of the population). The storm dropped 27 inches of rain in a few hours. 133 bridges were washed out, and birds drowned in the trees.

32. Many of Thomas Jefferson’s inventions still reside at Monticello in Charlottesville, VA. There is a clock that tells the day of the week, a dumb-waiter, and a device for writing on two pieces of paper at once.

33. Blue eyes are caused by the presence of less pigment in the eye, resulting in a different light scattering pattern. Blue-eyed baseball players sometimes have much lower daytime hitting averages, because blue eyes filter out less glare.

34. Albinism is principally defined by eye defects caused by the lack of pigment during the formation of the eye. Without pigment in the iris, the eye doesn’t properly focus light, leading to numerous vision problems. It is possible to be albino while still having normally pigmented skin.

35. Catgut is prepared from animal intestine, and was used historically to make strings for instruments. Its name is probably a shortening from cattle gut, for those of us who like kitties.

36. Paper didn’t make its way to Europe until after the year 1000. It was made from old fabric and clothes. Old paper doesn’t yellow and age the same way as 1900’s paperbacks because it tended to be acid-free. Books can last centuries if the paper and ink are acid free.

37. Organisms around deep sea vents metabolize hydrogen sulfide from the vents to survive. 300 new species have been discovered around such vents; because exploration there is so hard, there are likely many more.

38. Hydrogen Fluoride is considered a weak acid, because hydrogen and fluoride bond strongly as resist dissociation. However, HF will go after just about anything including glass. HF is very dangerous to work with, because it does not hurt immediately. It seeps through the skin and begins to dissolve the bone.

39. Phosgene was used in chemical warfare in World War 1. The Japanese also used it extensively in World War 2. It smells like freshly cut grass.

40. The kite buggy was invented in China in the 1300s. It is a cart drawn by wind power. It seems hard.

41. Capillary action in trees helps fluid rise in trees. This is how tree several hundred feet tall supply water to the leaves.

42. The Negro Leagues baseball museum is in Kansas City, Missouri. Many of the negro leagues teams were fairly successful, and drew enthusiastic crowds. The exclusion of blacks from baseball was shameful, but they made something great in spite of it. You can learn about Satchel Paige or Buck O’Neal, as well as the various negro leagues teams.

43. The Eads bridge in St. Louis was the longest of its kind when it was built, over a mile wide. The supports are some of the deepest ever sunk, and 15 workers died due to decompression sickness.

44. The Anheuser-Busch brewery in St. Louis is the biggest brewery in the world. It outputs 25 million barrels per year. You can visit for free and get some complimentary beer.

45. The international rose test garden in is Portland, Oregon. It is free to visit and they have over 550 varieties.

47. The male paradise whydah grows out a foot-long feather during mating time to impress the female paradise whydah. The paradise whydah is a parasitic species that uses the nest of the melba finch.The male whydah imitates the melba finches song. In captivity, the whydah cannot reproduce without the melba finch also present.

48. The carrion flower is an enormous bloom that stinks of rotting flesh. It can be up to nine feet tall.

49. Blue is a rare color for organic molecules. This may be because the color is associated with alkaline conditions, which are relatively rare in organisms.

50. Monarch butterflies can sense the earth’s magnetic field. They use it to complete their 2000 mile migration.

Come back Thursday for 50 more interesting factoids! Happy 100 posts!

Blog changes and milestones

This post is my 99th blog post, so obviously the next one will give the big 100. I will be posting that on Monday, in the form of 100 things I find interesting. It should be fun.

I must switch to posting on this blog twice a week instead of three times a week. Work has suddenly sped up a lot, and I need to use my time (slightly) better. But I will still post a long post every Monday, and a shorter one every Wednesday or Thursday. As I approach 100 posts, I can hardly claim any kind of celebrity status, but I appreciate the people who come by and like or comment. Yesterday I reached 50,000 words on my novel draft (that just sounds crazy!). I can tell that forcing myself to sit three times a week and write about something I find interesting and trying to be clear has really improved my writing on demand. To me, it seems that this is a large component to writing a novel: shut up, stop reading writing help sites, and shackle yourself to that desk.

So I shall see you all on Monday, with 100 super awesome facts. I’ll end this post with the first fact of the next:

1. People from different cultures differ in what colors they perceive. As a simple example, english speakers deem pink as a different color than red. Russian speakers don’t, but they have a fundamentally different word for dark and light blue. In chinese, red and pink are red and pastel red, and likewise with blue. Perhaps by Monday I will find an additional example I had in mind, where 2 sets of colors are shown. In one set, Westerners can distinguish the different color 99% of the time; in the other, their success is much lower. Cultures in Africa exhibit the reverse ability to distinguish.

Udvar-Házy Air & Space Museum

Did you know there are actually two Smithsonian Air and Space museum locations? There is one on the National Mall in Washington, DC, and a second in Virginia near Dulles Airport, called the Udvar-Házy Center. The Udvar-Házy location is an enormous hangar filled with historically significant aircrafts, aircraft parts, and spaceflight artifacts, including such highlights as the Enola Gay, an SR-71 Blackbird, and a space shuttle. If you are ever stuck at Dulles Airport and have some time to kill, there is a very cheap ($0.50 each way per person) shuttle between the airport and the museum.

For those unfamiliar with American aircrafts (as I mostly am), the Enola Gay is the plane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. The SR-71 blackbird is the fastest plane ever built, even though it was built in the 70s. It flies so fast that at rest, its joints aren’t perfectly sealed, and it can leak fuel. This is because the metal expands significantly due to heat at high speeds. The museum also hold various antique aircrafts, aircraft oddities, engines and engine cross sections. Another area holds retired military planes, and a third area holds NASA artifacts. I went there a couple of years ago. My creative commons folder of images is here, and I include a few pictures below.

The SR-71 blackbird:

The Enola Gay:

 

 

Fun Science: Helium

Helium: filler of floating balloons, maker of high-pitched voices. But there are a lot of other interesting things about helium too!

First, helium makes our voices high because it is less dense than air, and thus the vocal chords vibrate more quickly. (Also fun: higher density gases, like sulfur hexafluoride, will correspondingly make the voice become very low. In this case, the practitioner must be upside-down, because right-side-up the gas will settle in the lungs, potentially causing asphyxiation.)

Helium is the second most common elements in the universe, but it’s pretty rare on earth. We get pretty much all of our helium during natural gas extraction, when it is trapped underground. Because it has such a low density, it basically escapes the atmosphere once it gets into the air. Helium is very common in the universe because it is formed by the fusion of hydrogen. Our sun and other stars are hydrogen to helium engines, pumping out tons os helium per second, though it doesn’t come to Earth. Most helium on earth comes from the radioactive decay of uranium, which emits helium.

Helium is a noble gas. This means that it naturally has the number of electrons to be stable without interactions with other atoms. Helium has the lowest boiling and melting points of any element, at 4K and 1K respectively. This is due to its stability. Liquids and solids are formed when atoms energetically interact with one another; helium has very little tendency toward this. Because of its stability, helium is used as a cryogenic gas. Helium is an essential part of an MRI machine, shown below. The helium is required to supercool the magnets, which increases the magnetic field and thus the resolution.

MRI for medical imaging.

The US is the largest supplier of hydrogen in the world. This is partially because congress signed an act to bleed down our helium reserve by 2015. However, some scientists have pointed out that helium is hard to come by, and we should conserve our helium. One source estimates that helium balloons should cost $100 dollars each, based upon the scarcity of helium. Another says they should be illegal.

So the next time you look at a blimp or a balloon, marvel at the substance that fills it. It’s really star stuff, and rare to boot!

More writing progress and uh… yellow flowers

I’ve been slogging away still at the novel draft. Today I crossed 40,000 words, which is definitely the farthest I’ve ever gotten in any attempt. So, big milestone.

But because news of word counts is decidedly dull, I’ll also append some photos of yellow flowers from over the years. It’s only appropriate because my office where I write is make-your-eyes-bleed bright yellow. I have even more yellow flower pics over in my flickr set (as always, fair-use). Have a bright day!

Book review: Dealing with Dragons (Patricia Wrede 1990)

There are no spoilers in this review beyond the first couple chapters.

Rating: 5/5

Dealing with Dragons is a humorous young adult fantasy book, the first in a four book series. I first read it when I was in middle school, and I just recently reread it. I enjoyed it greatly when I was younger and it was a fun little excursion now. I wanted to read something light that wouldn’t distract me too much from my own writing projects. This book was perfect for that.

The main character of the story is Cimorene, a smart and unconventional princess who is tired of the dullness of her life of embroidery and batting her eyelashes. To avoid a marriage to a dull prince, she leaves home to go live with dragons. In this universe, dragons keep princesses as helpers as a status symbol, and this is why princes are always saving princesses from dragons. Cimorene’s dragon sees the advantage to a sharper princess who can actually be a useful helper. Along the way, Cimorene learns about dragons, wizards, witches, and many magical things.

Many of the people Cimorene encounters are hung up on doing things the way they are expected to, often without any real additional reason. The story uses sly humorous references to familiar fairytales, such as sleeping beauty and St. George the dragon slayer, to explain why these various characters feel their obligations. Cimorene often succeeds because she thinks about the best course of action, she doesn’t just do what is expected.

For that reason, I think it would be a good book for kids, like it was for me. Kids get too hung up on how people will think of them, and not always with bad reason. Other kids can be eager to harshly deliver this message. In adulthood, what makes you different is usually valuable. Adults have to help kids resist the pressure to always conform. It’s also a good book for adults because it is a lovely and swift read. The whole book is only 212 pages long, and those are fast-moving pages. It would not be hard to finish this book in an evening.

Swimming at the Shore

Alas no, I am not swimming at the shore for some time. But I like to pretend that I might be soon, and so I wistfully mull through my photos. I love to swim, and anytime I visit non-lethal water, I want in. The next best option is photographing. The two mix poorly, but I try. Below are some lovely tropical beaches, and some gloomy beaches and some extremity-numbing fjord beaches.

As a point of pride, I did get in the fjord and swim to a dock about 30 feet out, but I was going numb. Because children are insane, several children also did and wondered why I minded. This summer I’m visiting the Outer Banks of NC, and hoping to try a little surfing.

Happy Friday!

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Playa del amor in Cabo San Lucas.

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Dungeness Spit on Olympic Peninsula in Washington State.

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Sunrise in the Outer Banks of North Carolina.

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The dunes of North Carolina at sunrise.

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Swimmin in fjord water in Solvorn, Norway.

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Shore birds of the gulf coast of Florida.

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Happy 50th Anniversary, Chaos

This month, the American Physics Society magazine, Physics Today, published an article about the 50th anniversary of the Lorenz model. At the link, you can read the entire article. In it, experts describe the history of chaos, Lorenz’s discovery of it, and some of the state of the field today, but with a great deal less technical jargon.

50 years ago, Edward Lorenz first captured the mathematical phenomena we now know as chaos, known popularly as the “butterfly effect“. Below is a picture from the Lorenz model exhibiting chaos. The idea of chaos boils down to highly structured behavior that cannot be predicted. No matter how precisely we measure, after some time we cannot know the state of the system. We can say that the system will stay in a certain region of weather; in the picture below, there are definitely places the trajectory does not visit. We observe this with weather models– the forecast is good for a couple of days, so-so for a couple of days after that, and completely inaccurate for any time farther in the future. Analogously, we can say that it will not be -100 C tomorrow. Appropriately, Lorenz’s discovery of chaos came about as he tried to develop a model for the weather. Chaos is all around us and can be observed in a number of systems.

the Lorenz system, which turned 50 this year

At this link, you can play with a fun Lorenz model java applet. The trick with the applet is choosing the right parameters. Try setting the “spread” to 0.1, the “variation” to 20, the “number of series” to 2, and the “refresh period” to 100. Then push the button “reset the parameters” and “restart”. This will start 2 trajectories in the Lorenz model that differ by only 0.1. You will quickly see the two paths diverge and become completely unrelated. If you reduce the “spread” to 0.01, the same thing will happen, though it will take longer. As long as the spread is more than 0, the two paths will eventually diverge.

This is why we cannot predict the state of a chaotic system, because our ability to measure the state of the system is inevitably flawed. If we could measure the state of the weather to 99.99999% accuracy, that 0.00001% inaccuracy would eventually lead to divergence. And you can imagine that getting 99.99999% accuracy is much harder and more expensive than 99.9% accuracy.

Did you know that Pluto’s orbit is chaotic? Or a double pendulum? Or the logistic model for population dynamics? So check out the Lorenz model, and happy chaos-ing.

Style: University of Virginia Lawn

There are three manmade UNESCO world heritage sites in the United States: The Liberty Bell, The Statue of Liberty, and The University of Virginia Lawn with Monticello. The UNESCO designation basically means there is something noteworthy of distinctive about the site. I happen to live near to the University of Virginia, so I get to take a lot of photos. (As of this post, I just discovered that all the modern photos on the lawn Wikipedia page are mine. I love to see where the creative commons take my works. Side note: check out my very large Flickr collection of mostly creative commons images.)

Many years ago, Benoit Mandelbrot, the creator of fractal geometry, visited the university to give a talk. He said it was like walking into the lion’s den of Euclidean geometry. I always liked this description; everything about the university is columns and arches and perspective points. Monticello and the University were laid out by Thomas Jefferson, who one gets the feeling never actually died living around here. He was the ambassador to France for a while, and greatly admired the architecture. He came back to the states with those architectural inspirations.

The UVA lawn, shown below, has the rotunda at one end (the second one… the first one burned down and blew up when a professor tried to save it with TNT) and is lined by ten pavilions. Between the pavilions are dorm rooms that distinguished fourth year students still live in. Each of the ten pavilions is architecturally different, and behind each is a garden in a different style which no doubt will be the topic of a future post. Pavilion 2 is pictured below. Professors still live in the pavilions. The pavilions were built in a strange order, to ensure that diminished funds would not diminish the scope of the project.

It’s very easy to find plenty of reading material on Jefferson and the University if you are interested, so I won’t try to write a tome here. However I’ll include a few of my pictures that may hopefully spark your interest.

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Monticello, i.e. the back of a nickel

 

Writing: engineer style!

As I’ve mentioned a few times, I am currently trying to write a novel. It’s a lot of writing, and I have something of a history of starting and stopping projects. So I’m happy to report that I am still on the path and plodding along. Today I reached 23,000 words. I found estimates that trade paperbacks have 200-250 words per page. So that means my progress would fill 93-115 pages of a paperback. That’s kind of fun.

I am a mad procrastinator, but one of the ways I try to motivate myself is to allow certain writing related side activities. And because I am an engineer and a grad student, that distraction right now is…. excel sheets. Yeah. Below is a chart of my day-to-day progress. The slope gives my average words per day, so it can be fun seeing that change. When I reach a hitch, I get to go put my chapter’s word count into the chart and see what my daily word count is and my overall rate. What’s more exciting than fitting data?

writing progress

 

There are some websites I like to use as well when progress fails to appear. Written kitten is super cute. You get a picture of a kitten as a reward every so often. Because I need lots of motivation, I set it to every 100 words. If you need punishment more than reward, writeordie is quite popular. This blog had a decent summary of both.

I suppose this stuff doesn’t make the most exciting reading, but I hear it’s good to post about this stuff. Something about peer pressure? Plus since I’m writing all the time, I have less time to go read nifty things to post about. So, Happy Friday!