One of my favorite blogs is There I Fixed It, a collection of kludges and impromptu fixes from the I Can Has Cheezburger family of websites. This was posted on it this afternoon:
I still can’t get over the fact that the pipes just wouldn’t work for this job, for several reasons. First, the air pressure in the bag (maybe 1.5 psi) is significantly less than that of a tire (20 psi or so). Air goes from high pressure to low, so if anything it would flow back into the bag. Second, too much air would be lost from the drones and the holes on the chanter that the air pressure at the bottom of the chanter is definitely not enough to inflate the tire.
People and their misconceptions drive me crazy.
I found a podcast this afternoon that is an offshoot of a podcast I listen to from time to time: Science from the Sporran from the Naked Scientists. Each episode appears to be a short video of something sciency, presented by someone in a kilt. Science and Scotland, combined!
I’ve posted before about how I support the idea of nuclear power and think it’s the best strategy to replace oil and coal power plants in the near future. I read this blog post today from Built on Facts, and I’m all excited about it again. Not that I haven’t been, but it’s the most realistic solution to a huge problem that presents itself with technology currently available today. I still contend that anyone who is truly educated about nuclear power couldn’t help but see the sense in it, and education is the best strategy we have for getting new power plants built here in the U.S.
A while back I posted about a Canadian gold medal-winning piper who was in the final stages application to Canada’s astronaut corps, and this post follows the theme.
As posted on pipes|drums, the Hamilton Police Pipe Band has recorded a tune to be transmitted and played as wake-up music specifically for the two Canadian astronauts currently aboard the International Space Station. Way cool! I’m always a fan of sending pipe music to new places, so I’m all for it.
The only problem I have is this statement in the article “the transmission will take several hours to reach the astronauts.” The science geek in me must stand up and point out a correction, but first let me adjust my pocket protector and push my glasses up the bridge of my nose.
Any communication from Earth to any artificial satellite would be made using radio waves, and radio waves travel at the speed of light. Now light goes very very very very very very fast: about 300,000 km (186,000 miles for the non-metrically inclined) per second. If we could isolate a single photon (light particle) and force it to follow the curvature of the Earth as it traveled, one second after we let it go it would be literally halfway around the world… having already made seven complete orbits. It’s fast. In fact nothing goes faster than light in a vacuum, except of course the Millennium Falcon or USS Enterprise.
Because light goes so incredibly fast, after traveling for a few hours it would have already left the ISS in its proverbial space dust. In fact it would be well away from the inner solar system as well. The light from the Sun takes about 4 hours to get to the planet Neptune. By contrast, light from the Sun takes just over 8 minutes to get to the Earth, and about 11 1/2 minutes to reach Mars. Gives you just a little idea of how big the solar system is, and most of it is nothing.
So how long would the recording take to get to the ISS? According to Heavens Above, the current height of the ISS is somewhat higher than 347 km above the surface of the Earth; doing a quick calculation shows that it will take about 0.0011 seconds for the radio waves to travel to that altitude. It’s slightly less than several hours.
Ok, I’ll take now put down my slide rule and go back to the glasses that aren’t held together with tape. I realize I picked on a very small point, but I am a science geek. But yeah, bagpipes are awesome. Play them on Earth, in space, on the Moon, I’m all for it.
Yesterday I posted about a friend of mine who had survived a plane crash. Pretty amazing that he was able to walk away from the plane, which was completely destroyed.
I have to admit an incorrect assumption; my last sentence indicated that I thought the pilot would agree with me that it was just one of those things that happens. I got an email from him yesterday afternoon in which gave the following quote:”My Guardian Angel apparently was with me – I walked away basically unscathed.” Note the capitalization too.
It doesn’t seem like his style, but surviving something like this could certainly make you think about such things. It could be one of things that people say; my mother always like to say “knock on wood,” but I don’t think she seriously believes in it. It could be the same with the lottery ticket comment that spawned the post in the first place, said by the DPS just to reiterate how amazing it was that the pilot survived.
Does he believe he was saved by a Guardian Angel? I don’t know. It doesn’t really matter though; I’ll eat my humble pie with a side of humility.
I’m departing from the bagpipe theme for this post to comment on an article that appeared in the Bangor Daily News on Tuesday: “Mail plane pilot unscathed after crashing on Islesboro.” Read it, then come back.
This article is interesting to me for two reasons: first, I like to hear of people surviving things that could very well kill them, and second, the pilot is a friend of mine. First and foremost, I’m glad that he’s ok. I haven’t spoken with him since this happened, but I did send him an email to say that I heard about his incident and that I’m glad he came out of it intact.
Before I started talking about the article, there’s something you need to know about me.
I don’t believe in luck. I’m not superstitious, and therefore I don’t believe in good luck, bad luck, lucky charms (except the cereal of course), unlucky charms, curses, jinxes, omens, guardian angels, blessings, or predestination. Call me a naysayer if you wish, but I prefer skeptic. That doesn’t mean that I doubt things, but rather that I apply some common sense before deciding to believe in them. While we’re on the subject, I do believe in coincidence, that things can happen and not mean anything, and that dreams are just an excursion of the subconscious and don’t reveal any truths or premonitions. I don’t believe that bad things (or celebrity deaths if you like) come in threes, and I don’t believe that there is an energy field created by all living things that permeates the universe and binds it together. This last one is why I’ll never be a Jedi Knight, which is too bad because it would be so cool.
So let’s get back to that article. There’s a quote I’d like to comment on, which comes from Fred Porter, the director of public safety in the town where the crash happened: “[The pilot] was a little shook up when I arrived on-scene. It’s one of those good stories. This is a good day for him to buy a lottery ticket.”
Now I were the pilot I’d be shook up too (maybe shaken up, but this is Maine and we don’t talk that way). The fact that I know the guy is a bit unsettling, so I can’t imagine what he’s been feeling. I also agree that it is “one of those good stories.” Like I said above, I like hearing about things like this. I also like stories of people overcoming tremendous adversity to achieve their dreams, so I’m a sucker for the human interest stories broadcast during the Olympics.
But the last sentence I don’t like, the one I highlighted in bold. Yes, the guy survived plane crash, and I’ll say he got lucky in regards to the circumstances of the crash (completely contradicting my earlier paragraph, I know), but I’ll attribute his survival to his training and experience as a pilot instead of the guardian angel looking over his shoulder.
What I like even less is that it implies that one lucky thing carries over for the rest of the day. If he had gone out and bought a lottery ticket, his chances of winning the jackpot would have been… the same as if he’d bought a ticket any other day of the year. Even if he had a certain amount of luck for the day, I’d say that he used up all of it in the crash and wouldn’t have any left over for the lottery. There’s also the fact that the drawing wouldn’t be on the same day as the crash, so I’m sure that would make things a bit more complicated. True there are daily drawings, but if it really is his lucky day why settle for the small jackpots?
I always think of this sort of thing when I’m watching sports. Athletes themselves tend to be very superstitious; tales abound of players wearing the same socks or not washing their undergarments when they’re playing well. Sometimes the fans are just as bad: I remember an NFL commercial a few years back where a guy in a bar was watching the and waved his pickle at the TV in disgust; the next played they scored. The pickle waving is now a tradition in the bar whenever the team needs to score. It happened once, so it must work, right? A bit closer to home: my dad has a football jersey of a certain player on his team, and he stopped wearing it while watching games because it seemed that every time he wore it the team lost. I explain it this way: think of the tens of thousands of people watching a game at the stadium, and the millions more watching at home. How do the actions of just one (or a small group) of those people affect what happens on the field? It doesn’t, of course.
So no, I don’t think my friend was having a lucky day when he survived the plane crash, I think it was just one of those things that happened, combined with his 20+ years of experience as a small plane pilot. Some of you might not agree with me, but I think the pilot would.
I’m watching The Time Machine on DVD at the moment, the 1960 version. I’m enjoying it so far, but it’s still early. The beginning of the movie opens with four gentlemen invited to dinner at the home of a mutual friend. The friend arrives late, dirty and disheveled, after returning from the distant future.
I’ll say that again: the man arrives late, just as the others are sitting down to dinner. Certainly, any man with a time machine has no excuse for arriving late for anything? If he returned promptly at 8:00 for dinner, couldn’t he have made it five minutes earlier? Or a whole hour, and give himself time to get cleaned up before his friends arrived?
Marty McFly made the same realization in Back to the Future; just made me wonder.
There’s a lot of talk in the media about going green, alternative energy, and reducing fossil fuel emissions. I’ve heard lots of people telling me to reduce the energy I use, but to be honest it’s hard to put that in perspective. Since I live in a dorm, I don’t pay an electric, gas, or heat bill (I’m enjoying it while it lasts), so it’s hard to see how much energy I use and how to reduce it. I came across this video this afternoon and it does a nice job of explaining energy consumption in terms of light bulbs.
His point is that it’s going to take a lot more than just unplugging idle appliances and using CFL bulbs to reduce our energy consumption. A 90% reduction is recommended by climatologists, and that’s a drastic change. Trying to get all 61 million people of the United Kingdom to change so drastically in a reasonable amount of time would be about as easy as slowing the rotation of the Earth, so the solution is to find some way to generate electricity from non-fossil fuel sources.
A lot of people try to tell me than wind energy is the way to go, and while it is viable in certain areas a single turbine doesn’t produce much energy in the grand scheme of things. To genererate enough power to satisfy the UK, half of Britain would have to be covered by windmills. Literally half, that’s not just a figure of speech.
There’s obviously a discrepancy between the number of nuclear and wind plants that exist and the number needed to power the UK, so what makes up the difference? Fossil fuels: power plants using coal and natural gas to produce electricity. These are cheap and plentiful, but they also are very polluting and generally not nice to be around because of what they do to the air.
I’m telling you, nuclear is the solution for the next 50 years, until wind and solar are able to produce enough power. It’s the only way to still meet the demand for electricity while still cutting carbon emissions. This quote I saw a while back is stunning, and it pretty much says it all.
“A 1,000-megawatt coal plant is fed by a 110-car coal train arriving every day. A nuclear reactor is replenished by a single tractor-trailer bringing new fuel rods once every 18 months. Over the course of a year, the coal plant will release 400,000 tons of sulfur and fly ash. Some of this ends up in landfills, but most escapes into the atmosphere where it kills 30,000 people annually, according to the E.P.A. Then there’s the carbon dioxide — seven millions tons annually from each plant — which is the principle cause of global warming.” William Tucker, author of Terrestrial Energy.
Note the first part of that: 110 cars of coal every day, or a single truck every 18 months. I can’t decide which is better!
In case you get bored this weekend while you’re waiting for me to post the results from my first competition of the season, I recommend you check out this site. It will make you laugh (hopefully), and it might make you cry. Will it change the way you think? Probably not. Will there be things that are over your head? Yes probably, but there’s also a lot of things that you will understand.
The website to which you have been directed is the official homepage of The Flat Earth Society. Yes, there are apparently still people out there who don’t believe the earth is round. I also recommend the Wikipedia article about the FES for some further reading.
Are there really people who believe we live on a flat planet and everyone has been deceived by an elaborate conspiracy? Can anyone really be that dumb? Does anyone take this seriously?
I don’t know. But I really, REALLY hope not.
I consider myself to fall into several categories of nerd: bagpipe nerd, computer nerd (sort of), science nerd. The last has also turned me into somewhat of a science fiction nerd. I will admit I haven’t read enough to consider myself a true buff, but I do recognize good sci-fi when I read it.
And yes, I prefer to read sci-fi than to watch it, either on TV or in a movie. The written word allows for a much more detailed and vivid description of the world inside the author’s mind than a film, and it just makes you feel smarter to read it. The world created by the author is what is really interesting to me, especially if there’s lot of detail and the science is good. I recognize that it is called science fiction for a reason, but there is a certain amount of reality required to make the suspension of disbelief easier. Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, and Orson Scott Card are among my favorite authors who have made extremely detailed and believable futuristic worlds.
The reason for this post is this article I found this evening: 10 Things Science Fiction Got Wrong. Things like this don’t really ruin a movie for me, but stories that get it right are just that much more believable.
This web comic came to my attention; it made me laugh.
And in case you’re wondering, oh yeah, I’m a geek.
A really big one.
I recently found a podcast called “Skeptoid,” in which skeptic and writer Brian Dunning picks a topic each week and then discusses it from a scientific standpoint in short episodes that run about 10 minutes or so. His topics range from alternative medicine to conspiracy theories to psychics, UFOs and ghost hunters, and from the title of the podcast you can probably guess the conclusions he draws. He also likes to take common misconceptions and lay the facts down; he’s kind of like the Bad Astronomer in that way. In general, my opinion of the podcast is A+, great stuff that a lot of people need to hear.
However, in the episode I listened to this morning about cell phones on airplanes, I found points where I disagree. Read the transcript or listen to the episode, then come back.
As Brian points out in the podcast, a cell phone operates on a completely different frequency than any of the navigation or communication equipment, and in no way provides any danger to the operation of the aircraft. I’m not disagreeing with him on this point, not at all. However he mentions “those of us who hope to get this groundless ban dropped,” and I’m not sure I’d like to see the ban disappear.
My reason has nothing to do with the science of the phones or anything, but sheer selfish human comfort. I don’t want to hear other people on the plane blabbing on their phones from Boston to San Diego. There’s a limit to the number of one-sided phone conversations you can hear without going crazy, and in the confined and inescapable space of a commercial aircraft that limit can be exceeded extremely quickly. It’s true they may not pose a danger to the aircraft itself, but there is a risk to the blithering idiots who feel that everyone around them should know what is important to them. Hang up the phone, read a book or magazine, listen to you iPod, and wait until you get on the ground to call your coworkers and loved ones.
Which brings up another interesting point: why are mp3 players, laptop computers, PDAs, CD and DVD players, and anything else with a battery not permitted below an altitude of 10,000 feet? If your phone doesn’t interfere with the operation of the plane, it’s pretty safe to say that the small battery of your iPod doesn’t either, especially since the device doesn’t actually transmit anything in the first place.
I have an opinion on this, and the reason is indeed derived from passenger safety. Mind you this is not verified by any sources but it makes sense to me. Think about a plane flight. The times in the flight with the greatest risk for an accident are takeoff and landing, when the plane is nearest the ground. Also, accidents here have a chance for a fatality rate of less than 100% (I mean face it; if the plane develops a fatal flaw and drops 35,000 feet the safety briefing won’t help anyone). So my theory is that in case something goes wrong the crew will need to give instructions, and they need everyone to be listening. I developed this theory while on a JetBlue flight; JetBlue has the nice feature of an individual TV and separate head phone jack for each seat. They make you turn off mp3 players for takeoff but if you’re watching TV they can override the audio with the intercom.
So while the gadget ban may not be rooted in science, it is rooted in common courtesy and dissemination of information. My thoughts.
So this came to my attention yesterday. If you’re too lazy to click on the link, here’s the basics.
A substitute teacher in Land O’ Lakes, Florida (seriously, it’s a real place, 20 miles north of Tampa) performed a brief “magic” trick for one of his classes, in which he made a toothpick disappear and reappear. He was later called in by his supervisor and told he wouldn’t be able to take any more substitute assignments because he was being accused of … wait for it … wizardry.
I’d like to know where (and when) are we? Is this Salem, MA in 1692, the middle of the witch trials? Madrid, Spain in the 16th century, the Spanish Inquisition (which nobody expected)? I was under the impression that it was 21st century United States, where reason and common sense prevail, or at least no one seriously believes in witchcraft anymore. Am I wrong? Apparently.
To quote my source of this story Phil Plait, “Teh stoopid! It hurts!”
I don’t give many extra credit assignments, but I do like to put a bonus question on a test, worth a few extra points added to the overall score. These are sometimes questions about physics or astronomy (“What star is closest to us besides the sun?”), the school (“What year did the science building open?”), or other random things (“At what point in his life did your teacher start playing the bagpipes?”). Little fun things that they either know or can make a reasonable guess.
I’m giving a test tomorrow in my Honors Physics classes, and I’m trying to think of a good question to use as a bonus. Any ideas?
P.S. – Alpha Centauri, 1995-1996 school year, college or age 18
Frequently when I tell people I was a physics major, or that I teach physics, or that I had to take quantum mechanics in college, they contort their faces into a look of disgust and say something to the effect of “What exactly is quantum mechanics anyway?” My response is “Quantum mechanics is the physics of itty bitty things. When you get down to objects that are small enough (like down to the size of an atom or so), they don’t behave the way we are used to things behaving.”
That’s not a bad introduction, and most people are satisfied with that. A few will push me further and ask for details. “Well,” I say, “imagine you have a box with a baseball in it. If the box is sealed, there’s no way that baseball is coming out, no matter what you do to the box. Now imagine a box with a single electron inside. If the walls are thin enough, there is a probability that the electron will appear on the outside of the box without damage to either the box or the electron. Now the electron doesn’t pass through the wall of the box, it just appears on the other side of it.” This is one of the bits of quantum theory that is pretty surprising to the average person (and rightly so), and it’s known as quantum mechanical tunneling.
There are other bits of the theory that are quite odd, and here are a few listed:
- In Newtonian physics (the stuff usually taught in high school that does a pretty good job of explaining our daily experiences), knowing the position and momentum (speed) of an object is essential to describing its motion at some time in the future. In quantum theory, it’s impossible to know the position of a particle at all. The best you can do is come up with a probability that a particle will be somewhere at a given time, so it’s really more accurate to say the particle is everywhere, but it’s not really anywhere either.
- The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle says that it’s impossible to know both the momentum and position of a particle. The more precisely you know its momentum, the less precisely you can know its position and vice versa.
- Making a measurement or observation of a system will cause it to settle into a certain state, where it will remain. In other words, once you make an observation, you throw the particle’s probability distribution straight out the window.
- Light travels in the form of particles (or quanta) known as photons. Newton said that light traveled as a wave, and indeed there have been many tests to demonstrate that it does travel as a wave. However there are an equal number of tests showing that it is also a particle. Whatever your experiment is set up to measure is how you will observe the light.
You might look at this brief list and say “I don’t buy it, it just can’t be true.” Hate to break it to you, but quantum mechanics is the most accurate scientific theory yet, and careful and repeatable experiments have proven beyond a doubt everything I’ve listed here, and much more.
So why do we need quantum theory at all? The answer is that Newtonian physics isn’t always true. Newton made some great contributions in science, so many that most of what is taught today in your average high school physics class was developed by Newton. But when you get outside of the realm of our everyday experiences, for example near a star where gravity behaves much differently than we’re used to here on Earth, Newtonian physics breaks down and no longer provides reasonable predictions. This gravitational snafu was addressed by Einstein in his theory of General Relativity, which has replaced Newton’s gravity as the foundations of astrophysics for the last century. But when you go in the other direction, down to the scale of very small things, the theories of both Newton and Einstein break down completely and provide nonsensical predictions. In other words there are certain realms, i.e., when dealing with very small things, that both Newton and Einstein were wrong. Enter quantum mechanical pioneers like Fermi, Planck, Schroedinger, Heisenberg, Bohr, Pauli, and others, who began to think about a few cases where experimental results didn’t agree with Newtonian predictions, and after a few decades quantum mechanics was born.
Quantum theory is unlike general relativity and classical Newtonian mechanics in one important regard: it doesn’t appear to break down outside of its comfort zone. In other words, where both classical physics and general relativity break down when you look at very small things, quantum is still just as accurate when you look at larger scale situations, and in those special cases it essentially reduces to the same results as classical mechanics.
The reason for this post was the video below that I found this evening. It’s a pretty good description of quantum mechanics. If it seems more philosophical than your usual science video it’s because the nature of quantum mechanics makes it unavoidable.
Today is the Vernal Equinox, which somewhat literally translated from Latin (I think) means “spring equal night.” In other words, it’s that one day in the spring where there is as much daylight as there is darkness. Since days are short during the winter and long during the summer, it stands to reason there’s some time in the spring where the day is just as long as the night. There’s one of those days in the fall too (September 22 in 2008), and it’s called, oddly enough, the Autumnal Equinox.
It’s also true that on the vernal equinox you can balance an egg on its end. Here’s the proof:
I did this during my free period today and snapped a quick picture. The egg is indeed standing on its fat end, and there are no tricks here (like salt or holes in the table). It didn’t take me more than a few minutes to get this guy balanced, and after a few tries you develop an “egg sense” that will tell you if it’s about ready to fall over.
So it is true that an egg can be balanced on its end on the vernal equinox. Actually it works on any day of the year by the way… stay tuned for more information.