Anybody who believes that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach flunked geography.

—  Robert Byrne

Shift Happens

June 15, 2011


The topics in this post are all Science-related

An international team of astronomers claim to have found free-floating "planets" which do not seem to orbit a star.  They’ve found 10 Jupiter-sized objects which they could not connect to any solar system and believe, extrapolating from the number of such bodies in the area surveyed, that such objects could be as common as stars are throughout the Milky Way.  [This implies that each solar system has lost an average of one planet?]  According to astronomical convention, planets orbit a star or stellar remnant, so if these objects do not have a host star, then they are not technically planets, even if they formed in the same way.  Indeed, researchers hypothesise these objects were formed in a planetary disc, like the planets in our solar system, before gravitational forces ejected them.  Some scientists believe planets can form the same way that stars do, but fail to reach the critical point of thermonuclear ignition.  Astronomers have begun to realise that our well-behaved solar system isn’t necessarily typical.  Its eight planets orbit the sun in nearly circular orbits, all moving in the same direction as the sun’s rotation.  But plenty of alien worlds orbit their stars in eccentric, somewhat egg-shaped orbits, and surprising numbers move around their stars in highly tilted orbits as well.  (Nonplanet Pluto inscribes just such an inclined and elliptical path.)  Some planets even orbit backward.  That suggests that sometime in the past, close gravitational encounters with other planets flung them out of their previously conventional orbits.

Scientists have discovered that the temperature of a star determines its colour — and at different temperatures, life evolves in very different ways.  Photosynthesis — the process by which plants produce energy from sunlight — is altered when the light colour is changed.  Researchers carried out computer simulations to model Earth-like planets either orbiting two stars close together or one of two widely separated stars.  They found that plants with dim red dwarf suns — like the desert world of Tatooine — are likely to have black or grey plants.  The study is significant because around half of all red dwarfs, and a quarter of sun-like stars, exist in multiple systems.

This is an astronaut’s view of a sunrise, as seen through the cupola window of the International Space Station on 16 November 2010.

Final Launch of the Endeavour May 2011

Below the Clouds

Below the Clouds

Above the Clouds

Above the Clouds

And on into Space

And on into Space

The first photo was taken from the ground, the middle photo from a NASA shuttle training craft, and the third photo by an unemployed young woman on a nearly-empty passenger plane — who appears to have secured a job when her photo (and consequently her plight) went viral.

This very brief YouTube video doesn’t have anything to do with the shuttle — it’s a clip of a comet impacting the sun.  The reason I’ve watched it about 22 times is because of the apparent speed of reaction of the sun — ripples seem to spread and exit the other side of the sun almost instantly.  Scientists, however, can find no convincing physical connection and feel the almost simultaneous coronal mass ejection may have just been a coincidence.  It may have happened just BEFORE the comet strikes, rather than just after.  Since the point of impact of the comet is obscured, it’s impossible to conclude anything definitively.

Jupiter is seen by the Voyager 1 probe via a blue filter.  One image was captured every Jupiter day (approximately every 10 hours).  These pictures were taken from 6 January to 3 February 1979.  Voyager 1 flew from 58 million to 31 million kilometres from Jupiter during that time.  The small, round, dark spots appearing in some frames are the shadows cast by the moons passing between Jupiter and the sun, while the small white flashes around the planet are the moons themselves.

Möbius Transformations Revealed is a short video depicting the beauty of these transformations, showing how moving to a higher dimension reveals an essential unity.  It was one of the winners in the 2007 Science and Visualization Challenge and was featured in the 28 September 2007 issue of Science.  I found that it really helped me understand the mathematics behind warping.  The formula is f(z)=(az+b)/cz+d) in case you’re interested.

Ordinary glass shatters if it’s heated too quickly: pour boiling water into a common flintglass tumbler, and it’s likely to fall apart seconds later.  The glass on the inside expands when it gets hot, putting stress on the cold glass on the outside.  When the stress gets too great, it cracks.  Pyrex, which originally was always borosilicate glass, solved this problem by adding boron to the silica (quartz), the main ingredient in all glass.  Boron changes the atomic structure of glass so that it stays roughly the same size regardless of its temperature.  Little thermal expansion means little stress.  Thus borosilicate glass withstands heat — not because it’s stronger, but because it doesn’t need to be stronger.  When World Kitchen took over the Pyrex brand, it changed this.  It began making many products out of prestressed soda-lime glass instead of borosilicate.  With pre-stressed, or tempered, glass, the surface is under compression from forces inside the glass.  It is stronger than borosilicate glass, but when it’s heated, it still expands as much as ordinary glass does.  It doesn’t shatter immediately, but it does shatter — so don’t use it to make crack cocaine or you’ll regret it.  [I expect there have been quite a number of kitchen disasters due to this.]

Hot Rocks

Arkenstone sells fine minerals over the internet.  They have over 37,000 specimens and 1,000 species for you to check out.  [Trust me, it can take you all day.]  These rocks above are composed of, or contain, pyromorphite, a mineral species formed of lead chlorophosphate: Pb5(PO4)3Cl as it cools after heating.

  • What is this?  Moss on bark?  Grass on granite?  Jewellery?  Nope.  It’s a piece of pyromorphite with fluorite on barite (5.6 centimetres x 4.0 centimetres x 2.5 centimetres) from the Chaillac Mine, Chaillac, Indre, Centre, France.  It sold for a mere US$1,750 (dunno when).
  • Chocolate/strawberry/lime parfait?  This is tourmaline on quartz and clevelandite from Paprok, Laghman, Afghanistan.  14 centimetres tall from Dr Steve Smale.
  • Soda straws?  Rabbit ears?  No, tourmaline with quartz on cleavelandite from the Pederneira Mine, Minas Gerais, Brazil.  An elongated, gem-like, clear quartz crystal runs along the front horizon leading the eye up to the tourmalines.  Mined in 2004, it sold in 2007 for “under $100,000.”

  • Apricot pie?  A flaky pastry decorated with candied mandarins?  No, it’s arsenian pyromorphite from Bunker Hill Mine, Kellogg, Coeur d’Alene District, Shoshone County, Idaho, USA.  From John Schneider, these lustrous, pale orange, arsenian pyromorphite botryoids line up in a row on the matrix.
  • This looks like sweet potatoes or kumera to me.  One specimen on this site looks like french fries, another like broccoli, another like celery.  [Maybe I’m just hungry.]  Pyromorphite from Bunker Hill Mine, #9 level, Jersey Vein, Kellogg, Idaho, USA.  Collected by Norm Radford in 1981, from John Schneider.
  • I think this one looks like lettuce.  It’s more pyromorphite from Daoping (Tangping) Lead-Zinc Mine, Yangshao, Gongcheng City, Guilin Prefecture, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, China.  This shape is apparently quite rare.

  • Ice cream?  Rice pudding?  Mashed potatoes?  Whatever — it appears to come with a couple of embedded Tootsie Rolls.  Pyromorphite from Zvezdel Mine, East Rhodope Mountains, Bulgaria.  Two æsthetically placed, lustrous, doubly terminated, brown, barrel-shaped crystals of pyromorphite grow on terminated milky quartz.  From John Schneider.
  • Chili dog?  Sloppy joe?  This is pyromorphite from Les Farges Mine, Ussel, Corrèze, Limousin, France.  The matrix is barite.  From Dr Gary Hansen.
  • Deep dish pizza?  No.  Pyromorphite from the Huari-Huari Mine, Serranía Huarihuari, Cornelio Saavedra Province, Potosí Department, Bolivia.  At 10.3 centimetres long, this is one of the largest specimens Arkenstone has.


"Asperatus" is a new classification for clouds established in 1953.  The name comes from the Latin word meaning “to roughen or agitate.”  Virgil used the word in a poem to describe the surface of the sea whipped up by the north wind.  The photo at the left was taken in Hanmer Springs, South Island, New Zealand and on the right at Schiehallion in Perthshire, Scotland.

Puyehue-Cordon Caulle Volcano Puyehue-Cordon Caulle Volcano

The eruption of the Puyehue-Cordon Caulle volcano near Entrelagos in the Andes mountains of south-central Chile (about 575 miles or 920 kilometres south of the capital, Santiago) on 4 June sent a plume of ash 6 miles (10 kilometres) high across Argentina toward the Atlantic Ocean, shutting airports and stranding passengers along the way.  Lightning flashed around the ash plume above the volcano, which had been dormant for decades — and it quieted back down after only a couple of days of activity.  Winds fanned the ash toward neighbouring Argentina, and prompted the government to evacuate several thousand residents.  (Later, the ash swept acoss New Zealand, cancelling flights and stranding 7,000 passengers.)  This photo was taken by photographer Carlos Gutierrez for Reuters.  (Photo source: photo #22)  Roll over the photo for another photo taken a split second later by photographer Claudio Santana for AFP/Getty Images.  (Photo source: Photo #32)  They were apparently standing within a couple of feet of each other.

At the end of May, on the opposite side of the world, Iceland’s most active volcano, Grímsvötn, erupted for the first time since 2004, hurling a plume of steam and ash nearly 20 kilometres (12 miles) into the sky.  People living next to the glacier where the volcano burst into life were most severely affected, with ash blocking out daylight and smothering buildings and vehicles.  Iceland closed its main international airport and cancelled domestic flights.  The outburst is the volcano’s most powerful since 1873 — stronger than the Eyjafjallajokull volcano which caused trouble last year — but scientists say the type of ash being spewed out is less easily dispersed and winds have so far been more favourable than during last year’s blast, though it took less than an hour to reach an altitude of 11 kilometres (6.8 miles).

Ol Doinyo Lengai

Ol Doinyo Lava Ol Doinyo by Day Ol Doinyo by Night

Ol Doinyo Lengai is an active volcano located in the north of Tanzania and is part of the volcanic system of the Great Rift Valley in Eastern Africa.  Volcanic activity in the mountain caused daily earth tremors in Kenya and Tanzania beginning in 2007.  The volcano finally erupted March 2008 and by March 2009 it appears to have ceased.

  • Photo 1 — Whereas most lavas are rich in silicate minerals, the lava of Ol Doinyo Lengai is a carbonatite, rich in rare sodium and potassium carbonates nyerereite and gregoryite.  Due to this unusual composition, the lava erupts at relatively low temperatures (500-600ºC).
  • Photo 2 — Referred to as the strangest volcano on Earth, fluid lava produces a whimsical world of geologic fantasies that include extrusions frozen in flight.  These natrocarbonatite flows have a chemical composition akin to laundry soap, and exposed to the atmosphere, the lava quickly hardens and decays.  Unlike common basalt lavas, which are sticky with silica, Lengai’s lavas are mostly slick sodium carbonate with the viscosty of olive oil.  Volcanic froth rich in carbon dioxide can spew into the air as liquid lava and harden in midair.  Some of the big drops can form little parachutes, and look like silver flying through the air before hitting the ground with the sound of breaking glass.  Lengai’s Dr Seussian formations can crumble a day after they are born, and you can judge their age by their colour.  Even raindrops accelerate the decomposition.
  • Photo 3 — The temperature of the lava is so low that the molten lava appears black in sunlight, rather than glowing red, though the red glow can often be seen at night.

Sean Heavey takes spectacular photographs of many things, but especially the weather.  (The photo on the right won Honourable Mention in the 2010 National Geographic Photo Contest.)  Of course, he lives in Montana, where the weather has a wide spectrum.  These photos are of a super-cell storm near his home that was 5-10 miles in diameter with winds of around 85 miles per hour.

A huge tornado funnel cloud touches down in Orchard, Iowa on 10 June 2008 at 9:04pm.  The Globe Gazette and Mitchell County Press News reported that Lori Mehmen of Orchard, took the photo from outside her front door.  Mehmen said the funnel cloud came near the ground and then went back up into the clouds.  Besides tree and crop damage, no human injuries were reported.  It seems amazingly bright to be after 9pm.  Also, what I see in the photo seems to be a supercell rather than a tornado — but perhaps it’s outside the frame.  In any case, I expect that Lori will never forget this day.

Spearfish, South Dakota, holds a special place in the weather record books.  The town of 8,500 people in western South Dakota is the record holder for the fastest temperature rise.  On 22 January 1943, at about 7:30am local time, the temperature rose 49° Fahrenheit (27° Celsius) in two minutes.  The temperature in Spearfish rose from -4°F (-20°C) to 45°F (7°C).  The temperature continued to climb, and by 9:00am, it was up to 54°F (12°C).  Then the temperature dropped back down to -4°F in about 27 minutes.  The wild swing was blamed on a so-called foehn wind, a kind of wind that occurs downwind of a mountain range.  When humid air flows up a mountainside, the air expands and cools.  Humid air does lose temperature with elevation, but the temperature loss is slower than with dry air as heat transfers from the water to the air, keeping the humid air warmer.  (Water can hold more energy than air.)  As the humid air continues to move up, it continues to cool; eventually, the moisture precipitates out as rain or snow.  With all moisture rained out of the air, the flow is now cold and dry as it crests the mountaintop.  As the airflow descends the leeward side of the mountain, it is compressed by atmospheric pressure.  This compression heats the air.  Because the compressed air is now dry, the air’s temperature is hotter.  In addition to compression heat, the sun adds heat because the air flow on the leeward side is dry — so skies on that side are typically clear.

Stirring Things Up

Winds over the world’s oceans have been blowing harder and ocean waves have been reaching higher heights over the last few decades.  Satellite data from 1985 to 2008 show that the fastest ocean winds are now even faster.  They have increased over most of the globe by 10% over the past 20 years.  The world’s tallest waves are now taller, increasing by an average of 7% during the same period.  Off the southern coast of Australia, the highest 1% of waves have increased in height from approximately 16 feet (5 metres) to almost 20 feet (6 metres) during this time.  Locations with more average conditions are also seeing increases, and the findings could help guide the design of coastal buildings.  The wind speed and wave height increases could also affect the transfer of heat between the sea and the atmosphere, which could affect climate change.  This study was detailed in a recent edition of the journal Science.

Mauna Kea (in Hawai’i), measured from seafloor to peak, is the world’s highest mountain (except that mountains aren’t officially measured that way).  Kauai, 4th largest Hawai’ian island, is famous for its tropical beauty and lush mountains.  It’s one of the wettest spots on Earth with large parts ringed by clouds.  Global warming could disrupt its distinct “cloud forest” eco-system, pushing life-giving moisture to higher elevations.  Home to the hummingbird-like honeycreeper, a rare, endangered, and colourful animal that sips nectar from flowers, this cool zone is vital to Kauai’s verdant environment.  Deforestation and non-indigenous species like pigs and goats have also decimated the honeycreeper’s habitat in recent years and the bird is now in danger of going extinct.  Even small shifts in rainfall patterns could cause major local changes.

In political geography, an enclave is a territory whose geographical boundaries lie entirely within the boundaries of another territory.  An exclave, on the other hand, is a territory legally or politically attached to another territory with which it is not physically contiguous.  Lesotho is an enclave in South Africa.  Italy has two, the Vatican and San Marino.  Of these, San Marino is perhaps the most unusual.  The Republic of San Marino, also known as the Most Serene Republic of San Marino, is situated on the eastern side of the Apennine Mountains.  Its size is just over 61 square kilometres (24 square miles), with an estimated population of just over 30,000.  Its capital is the City of San Marino and this country has the smallest population of all the members of the Council of Europe.  It is the oldest surviving sovereign state and constitutional republic in the world, a monastic community founded on 3 September 301 by stonecutter Marinus of Arbe.  The constitution of San Marino, enacted in 1600, is the world’s oldest constitution still in effect.  The country’s economy mainly relies on finance, industry, services and tourism; San Marino’s culture remains Italian.  It is one of the wealthiest countries in the world in terms of GDP (per capita), with a figure comparable to some of the more developed Italian regions such as Lombardy and South Tyrol.  San Marino is considered to have a highly stable economy, with the lowest unemployment rate in Europe, no national debt and a budget surplus.  San Marino became a member of the United Nations in 1992.  It is not a member of the European Union.  It is the 3rd smallest country in Europe (only Vatican City and Monaco are smaller).  With no natural level ground, it is located entirely on and around hills.

Subnational exclaves: Sometimes, administrative divisions of a country, for historical or practical reasons, cause some areas to belong to one division while being attached to another.  For example, the Kentucky Bend in the eastern part of the US exists because of a meander of the Mississippi River.  In Mark Twain’s book Life on the Mississippi, he reports on the six-decade-long feud between the Darnell and Watson families and other elements of life in the Bend.  “In no part of the South has the vendetta flourished more briskly, or held out longer between warring families, than in this particular region,” he wrote.  Twain continues: “Both families belonged to the same church.  They lived each side of the line, and the church was at a landing called Compromise.  Half the church and half the aisle was in Kentucky, the other half in Tennessee.  Sundays, you’d see the families drive up, all in their Sunday clothes, men, women, and children, and file up the aisle and sit down, quiet and orderly, one lot on the Tennessee side of the church and the other on the Kentucky side.  The men and boys would lean their guns up against the wall, handy, and then all hands would join in with the prayer and praise — though they say the man next to the aisle didn’t kneel down along with the rest of the family; kind of stood guard.”  The Kentucky Bend covers a land area of 45 square kilometres (17.5 square miles).  Surveyors marking the boundary between Kentucky and Tennessee had only estimated where their line would meet the Mississippi; more detailed surveys later revealed the location of this line to pass through north-south bends in the river creating a division of the peninsula.  The western border of Kentucky is designated as the Mississippi River, as is the eastern border of Missouri — thus this created a “notch” for Kentucky, but not one for Tennessee.

Mexico/US Border: San Diego and Tijuana

Boundary: On the left is San Diego, located in the United States.  On the right is the densely populated border town of Tijuana, located in Mexico.  Construction is underway to extend a secondary fence over the top of this hill and eventually to the Pacific Ocean.  In 2008, authorities from both Mexico and the United States launched Project Smart Border 2010, in which among other things, it was expressed the intention for building an alternate US-Mexico terminal that would relieve the high congestion at San Diego International Airport.  The project consists of a terminal building built on US soil, immediate to the border, with parking, check-in counters, and customs offices that would be linked via a bridge crossing the border to the Tijuana airport.  Property on the US side of the border has already been secured for this project and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has provided approval, allowing it to move forward.  The project has an expected completion date as early as late 2012.

Pellagra is a disorder caused by niacin deficiency, usually owing to poverty and a diet relying heavily on corn (maize), which has a low level of niacin and its precursor tryptophan.  Cultures in the Americas that relied greatly on corn used alkali during its processing (for example, boiling corn in lime when making tortillas or soaking in lye when making hominy).  This enhanced the nutritional quality of the corn by increasing the bioavailability of both niacin and tryptophan, a practice that prevented pellagra.  The Europeans transported corn around the world but did not transport the traditional alkali-processing methods, thereby causing epidemics of pellagra in past centuries.  Breeding corn with a higher tryptophan content was shown in the 1980s to prevent pellagra; presumably, it also raises brain serotonin.  In a recent issue of Nature Biotechnology, it is argued that plant breeders should focus more on nutrition than on yield.  The article proposes that consumption of tryptophan-rich foods may play a role in reducing the prevalence of depression and aggression in society.  Cross-national studies have reported a positive association between corn consumption and homicide rates and a negative association between dietary tryptophan and suicide rates.  Although the idea behind such studies is interesting, any causal attribution must remain speculative, given the possible confounds.  Nonetheless, the possibility that the mental health of a population could be improved by increasing the dietary intake of tryptophan relative to the dietary intake of other amino acids remains an interesting idea to explore.

Martin Cooper is the inventor of the cellphone.  A former vice president at Motorola, Cooper led the team in the 1970s that invented the mobile phone, a giant brick-sized device that weighed 2.5 pounds.  He also, incidentally, made the first public phone call on a wireless phone in 1973, while standing on Sixth Avenue in New York.  He called Joel Engel, head of research at Bell Labs, as a demonstration for reporters.  Cooper cites Star Trek, and Captain Kirk’s use of his communicator, as his inspiration.  Live long and prosper!

AT&T is selling small, portable cellular antennas that will allow corporate and government customers to provide their own wireless coverage in remote or disaster-struck areas.  One of AT&T’s options is a unit that packs into a suitcase, with a satellite dish carried separately.  The unit requires outside power, such as a generator, to work.  The Remote Mobility Zone can handle 14 simultaneous calls and data at less-than-broadband speeds.  Coverage extends up to half a mile from the unit.  The “portable cell tower” can also be mounted in a car or truck.  The Remote Mobility Zone’s satellite dish makes it independent of broadband service.  AT&T also sells smartphones that can talk directly to satellites.  The Remote Mobility Zone would be able to be used with any AT&T phone — but before you get too excited, understand that the cost of the units will range from US$15,000 to $45,000, plus monthly fees.

Spomeniks (Monuments) of (the Former) Yugoslavia





Petrova Gora

Petrova Gora






Spomeniks are monuments commissioned by former Yugoslavian president Josip Broz Tito in the 1960s and 70s to commemorate sites where WWII battles took place or where concentration camps stood.  Many were erected adjacent to cemeteries for the war dead; they became a unifying marker of shared national loss and grief, irrespective of ethnic affiliations.  They were designed by different sculptors and architects.  Some convey powerful visual impact to show confidence and strength.  In the 1980s, these monuments attracted millions of visitors per year, especially young pioneers for their “patriotic education.”  After the Republic dissolved in the early 1990s, they were completely abandoned and their symbolic meanings lost.  Can these former monuments continue to exist as pure sculptures?  On one hand, their physical dilapidated condition and institutional neglect reflect a more general social historical fracturing.  On the other hand, some are beautiful even without symbolic significances — others not so much.

  • Podgarić.  There is no emotional context here — any more than there is in looking at a water tower or gas tank.
  • Nikšić.  Totally elusive to 21st century Americans is the complex web of emotions that surround the abandonment of these edifices and what they once symbolised.
  • Petrova Gora.  Some of the Spomeniks show clear evidence of neglect, with underbrush and trees taking root around them.  Others have already fallen into ruin.  They no longer symbolise triumph, but grief; not beauty, but still respect.
  • Kozara.  Some of these structures appear to be actual buildings, though devoid of viable internal living spaces.
  • Niš.  Several of the Spomeniks thrust themselves into the bald sky as though they were nothing more than outsized abstract sculptures.  Others seem to project hints of a socio-militaristic bent.
  • Korenica.  One thing that is so maddening about them is the total impersonality they present, a clear attempt to eschew any partisan/ethnic allegiance: thereby rendering them essentially meaningless to the caravans of school children bussed in to see them.

Rocket mail is the delivery of mail by rocket or missile.  The rocket landed by deploying an internal parachute upon arrival.  It has been attempted by various organisations in many different countries, with varying levels of success.  It has never become widely seen as being a viable option for delivering mail, due to the cost of the schemes and numerous failures.  Arthur Summerfield, US Postmaster General under President Dwight Eisenhower, made a prediction in 1959: “Before man reaches the moon,” he said, “your mail will be delivered within hours from New York to Australia by guided missiles.  We stand on the threshold of rocket mail.”  In the same year that Summerfield made his bold prediction, the US Post Office tested “Missile Mail” for the first (and last) time.  A Regulus cruise missile — its nuclear warhead having earlier been replaced by two Post Office Department mail containers — was launched from the submarine Barbero off the coast of Florida to the naval base in Mayport, Florida.  The entire trip lasted 22 minutes; the two mail containers it carried were delivered successfully.  The programme was never implemented because, notwithstanding the Postmaster General’s enthusiasm, in reality the Department of Defense saw the measure more as a demonstration of US missile capabilities — experts believed that the cost of using missile mail could never be justified.  (For one thing, the failure rate was unacceptably high.)  However, the development of fully reusable launch systems, particularly single-stage to orbit vehicles, could allow package delivery anywhere in the world in 30–45 minutes.  (But it will NOT be economical.)

The object in the sketch was found in 1898 in a tomb at Saqquara, Egypt, later dated as having been created around 200 BCE.  As airplanes were unknown in the days when it was found, it was thrown into a box marked “wooden bird model” and stored in the basement of the Cairo museum.  It was rediscovered by Dr Khalil Messiha, who studies models made by ancients.  The “discovery” was considered so important by the Egyptian government that a special committee of leading scientists was established to study it.  As a result of their findings, a special exhibit was set up in the centre hall of the Cairo museum, with the little model as its centerpiece.  It is even labelled as a model airplane.  This type of glider will stay in the air almost by itself — even a very small engine will keep it going at low speeds, as low as 45 to 65 miles per hour, while it can carry an enormous payload.  This ability is dependent on the curious shape of wings and their proportions.  The tipping of wings downward, a reverse dihedral wing as it is called, is the feature behind this capability.  A similar type of curved wing was implemented on the Concorde airplane, giving the plane maximum lift without detracting from its speed.  In that context, it seems rather incredible that someone more than 2,000 years ago (for any reason) devised a model of a flying device with such advanced features, requiring at least some knowledge of aerodynamics.

With only 20 aircraft built, the Concorde's development represented a substantial economic loss, in addition to which Air France and British Airways were subsidised by their governments to buy them.  As a result of the only crash Concorde ever sustained on 25 July 2000 (and other factors), its retirement flight was on 26 November 2003.  Concorde’s name reflects the development agreement between the UK and France.  In the UK, any or all of the type — unusual for an aircraft — are known simply as “Concorde”.  The aircraft is regarded by many as an aviation icon.  When any aircraft passes the critical mach of that particular airframe, the centre of pressure shifts rearwards, causing a pitch down force as the centre of mass remains where it was.  Engineers designed the wings in a specific manner to reduce this shift, though a 2-metre shift remained.  This could have been countered by the use of trim controls, but at such high speeds, it would cause a dramatic increase in drag.  Instead, the distribution of fuel along the aircraft was shifted during acceleration and deceleration to move the centre of mass, effectively acting as an auxiliary trim control.  Owing to heat generated by air compression as it travelled supersonically, the fuselage extended by as much as 300 millimetres (almost a foot), the most obvious manifestation being a gap that opened up on the flight deck between the flight engineer’s console and the bulkhead.  On all Concordes that had a supersonic retirement flight, the flight engineers placed their hats in this gap before it cooled, where the hats remain to this day.


  1. And what kind of aircraft might this be?  It is an owl in flight.  I had no idea they were so aerodynamically beautiful.
  2. On the other hand, pigeons, given the choice, prefer to walk in the sun.
  3. Picture of the day: 26 May 2011: Stop thief!  A sparrow catches the ankle of a winged intruder trying to steal its dinner.  Urs Schmidli photographed the birds squabbling in mid-air combat in his back garden in Switzerland.

The virus SMAM-1 caused the deaths of thousands of chickens in India in the early 1980s.  A veterinary researcher noticed that the chickens with the virus were 30-50% fatter than uninfected chickens, with big kidneys and fat around the abdomen, even though they all ate the same food.  Not only were these chickens fat, they also had lower cholesterol and triglycerides than did the “healthy” chickens.  Further research showed links between fat and virus in mice.  Subsequently, tests of obese humans showed that about 20% of them had antibodies for SMAM-1 and those people were statistically heavier than obese people without antibodies.  The researchers’ conclusion is that at least some obesity is a disease caused by a virus.  [See?  It isn’t your fault.]  But SMAM-1 is an adenovirus that affects birds, so other researchers focused on the 50 known human adenoviruses when beginning their research.  They started with AD-36, a human adenovirus found to be associated with obesity in other mammals.  In one study, 28 pairs of identical twins (56 people) with and without adenovirus antibodies were evaluated.  On average, the antibody-positive twins had a 1.4 point higher body mass index and 2.1% higher body fat percentage.  While these numbers are statistically significant in terms of confirming that a virus increases body weight, the results indicate that obesity viruses may play a relatively minor role in determining an infected individual’s weight.   And yet, another study determined that children with the virus averaged 52 pounds heavier than those with no signs of it and obese children with the virus averaged 35 pounds heavier than obese children with no trace of the virus.  More research seems to be needed.

A key hormone associated with the feeling of satiety responds far more dramatically when people think they are consuming an indulgent treat.  That’s the conclusion of newly published research from Yale University, which finds what we tell ourselves about the food we eat affects the point at which we start feeling full.  Labeling foods as healthy may be counterproductive, since doing so apparently produces an unwanted and unhelpful physical response.  During one of the two sessions, participants taste-tested a shake described as high fat and high calorie; the label featured the word “indulgence” and the slogan “decadence you deserve.”  During the other session, the shake was described as low fat and low calorie; the label boasted about “guilt-free satisfaction.”  Blood samples were drawn from each participant 20, 60 and 90 minutes into each session.  Via the blood samples, the researchers tested the participants’ level of ghrelin, a gut peptide that has been called “the hunger hormone.”  When participants drank the indulgent shake, they had a significantly steeper decline in ghrelin than when they drank the (physically identical) sensible shake.

Human gut systems fall into one of three distinct types.  There appears to be no link between what these so-called enterotypes and the ethnic background of the European, American and Japanese subjects studied.  Nor does there seem to be any connection to sex, weight, health or age.  One possibility is that the guts, or intestines, of infants are randomly colonised by different pioneering species of microbes.  The microbes alter the gut so that only certain species can follow them.  Each of the types makes a unique balance of enzymes.  Enterotype 1 produces more enzymes for making vitamin B7 (also known as biotin).  Enterotype 2 has more enzymes for vitamin B1 (thiamine).  The discovery of enterotypes could someday lead to medical applications — doctors might be able to tailor diets or drug prescriptions to suit people’s enterotypes or use enterotypes to find alternatives to antibiotics, which are becoming increasingly ineffective.  Instead of trying to wipe out disease-causing bacteria that have disrupted the ecological balance of the gut, they could try to provide reinforcements for the good bacteria.  Each person shelters about 100 trillion microbes (for comparison, the human body is made up of only around 10 trillion cells) with a diversity akin to a rain forest’s.  Different regions of the body are home to different combinations of species.

A Cup of Chocolate and Cake

Almost 15% of the physicians polled by a Florida newspaper say they have set weight limits for new patients.  Some of the doctors said the main reason was their exam tables or other equipment can’t handle people over a certain weight, but at least six said heavy women run a higher risk of complications.  “There’s more risk of something going wrong and more risk of getting sued.  Everything is more complicated with an obese patient in GYN surgeries and in [pregnancies],” one doctor said.  It is not illegal for doctors to refuse overweight patients, but it has medical ethicists worried.

The number of physicians in independent family practices is insufficient in the US, perhaps because long hours and uncertain pay make it unattractive.  This may be true given the extent to which the doctors’ lobbies have been able to limit the number of people licensed to practice medicine in the US.  However, there is a huge supply of people in the developing world who would be willing and able to train to US standards and work under existing conditions.  If the Obama administration and Congress were not so completely dominated by protectionists, they would be working to eliminate the barriers that are making it more expensive for people in the US to get health care.  In one of the comments, I read: “I don’t think it is just long hours and uncertain pay.  I find the 3-way relationship of patient / insurance company / physican a nightmare.  It is nearly impossible to reconcile provider bills and insurance statements.  I can’t imagine that a solo practitioner could negotiate this morass efficiently.  Given the situation, I am prejudiced against solos.  I assume they are either fools or too incompetent to get a position with a group practice.  The share of solo practices among members of the American Academy of Family Physicians fell to 18% by 2008 from 44% in 1986.  And census figures show that in 2007, just 28% of doctors described themselves as self-employed, compared with 58% in 1970.

Memories are susceptible to inaccuracies partly because the neural system responsible for remembering episodes from our past might not have evolved for memory alone.  Rather, the core function of the memory system could in fact be to imagine the future — to enable us to prepare for what has yet to come.  The system is not designed to perfectly replay past events, researchers claim.  It is designed to flexibly construct future scenarios in our minds.  As a result, memory also ends up being a reconstructive process, and occasionally, details are deleted and others inserted.  It is easy to see why cognitive time travel was naturally selected for over the course of evolution.  It allows us to plan ahead, to save food and resources for times of scarcity and to endure hard work in anticipation of a future reward.  It also lets us forecast how our current behaviour may influence future generations.  If we were not able to picture the world in a hundred years or more, would we be concerned with global warming?  Would we attempt to live healthily?  Would we have children?  Conscious foresight came to humans at an enormous price — the understanding that somewhere in the future, death awaits.  Knowledge of death had to emerge side by side with the persistent ability to picture a bright future.  People with mild depression are relatively accurate when predicting future events.  They see the world as it is.  In another study, researchers had bilingual participants describe an interesting or dramatic event from their personal lives.  Later, they were asked to discuss the same experience, in their alternate language.  The experimenters analysed their recall protocols in terms of numbers of ideas or idea units expressed and the organisational structure of the ideas that were recalled.  Across languages, differences were observed in the quantity (length of story and amount of details) and quality (of emotional load) of the idea units that were recalled.  Experiences appeared to be related more vividly and with more particulars when discussed in the language in which they had been experienced.

There are more than a billion Google searches, 60 million Facebook status updates, 50 million tweets and 250 billion emails sent each day.  The Internet consumes 2-3% of the world’s electricity.  If the Internet was a country, it would be the 5th-biggest consumer of power, ahead of India and Germany.  The Internet’s power needs rival those of the aviation industry and should double by 2020.  Most energy is used by a fast-growing network of “server farms” or data centres that form the backbone.  Say you do a Google search: your query kicks about 1,000 servers into action at various Google data centres, which scan billions of web pages already in Google’s archives and spit out an answer.  Total time elapsed: average .2 seconds.  Meanwhile, the centres are also constantly combing the Internet to update web page archives.  All those computers have a voracious appetite for energy, especially for cooling equipment.  Apple’s 46,000-square-metre iDataCenter is set to open in North Carolina which will use an estimated 100 megawatts of power.  Google has a 44,000-square-metre data centre in the state that eventually will consume an estimated 60-100 MW.  Facebook has a 28,000-square-metre facility under construction there that will eat up 40 MW.  North Carolina offers industrial customers one of the lowest electricity rates in the US — 5.8¢ per kilowatt hour, versus the US average of 6.7¢.  Infortunately, nearly 2/3 of the state’s electricity comes from coal.  Internet traffic worldwide will quadruple by 2015, driven by the explosion in connections, more video and faster broadband speeds, according to networking giant Cisco Systems.  Global Internet traffic will reach 966 exabytes per year by 2015, with projected growth between 2014 and 2015 alone being 200 exabytes — more than the total amount generated worldwide in 2010.  An exabyte equals 1 quintillion bytes, or 1018.  “We’re entering the zettabyte era,” director of marketing for Cisco ISP Doug Webster said.  A zettabyte is 1 sextillion bytes, or 1 trillion gigabytes.*

Slowing Real Time

Much modern interaction happens over email (not really real time) but the shift in telephone technology from landline to cellphone has provided a trade-off, making us more accessible in real time.  Geography now means little or nothing.  The biggest cost of the telephone shift, however, is that the connection lag is 6 times greater.  This meams the “wait” is about half a second instead of less than 1/10th of a second.  (The same is true of Skype calls.)  This may not seem like much, but it’s enough to disrupt subtle dynamics of timing, pauses and yielding the conversational baton to others.

In the 1970s, electrodes used to treat epilepsy spread a human prion disease from one patient to another even though the electrodes had undergone standard sterilization and sat for 18 months before reuse.  In a later test on monkeys, electrodes maintained their infectivity even after three bouts of sterilization.  In the late 1980s, the processing of cadaver tissue — specifically, a brain lining called the dura mater that is sometimes used as a patch in neurosurgery — failed to inactivate prions from infected donors, leading to the transmission of a fatal brain disease to healthy recipients.  In decontaminating an area that once harboured infected farm animals (such as sheep), US officials spray down hard surfaces with a caustic solution such as sodium hydroxide (better known as plumber’s lye), turn over several centimetres of soil to bury any prions on the surface and deem the land off-limits for years.  Such draconian measures are one reason why farmers dread the diagnosis.  But now, experiments with lichens (symbiotic collections of algae, fungus and bacteria that casual observers might mistake for moss) has shown that three common species exude an enzyme that breaks down the prion.  Via Tywkiwdbi.

Intelligence evolved as a way to deal with “evolutionary novelties” — to help humans respond to things in their environment to which they were, as a species, unaccustomed.  Thus, smart people are more likely to deal with new things and try them.  Those new things seem to include drugs.  The use of opium dates back to about 5,000 years ago, but other psychoactive drugs are pharmacological, requiring modern chemistry to manufacture.  Psychoactive drugs, therefore, are evolutionarily pretty new to humans, which means that smart people, according to theory, will be more likely to take them.  That’s true even if the drugs are bad for them: more intelligent individuals aren’t necessarily more likely to engage in healthy and beneficial behaviour, but rather evolutionarily novel behaviour.  Analysis of the National Child Development Study in the United Kingdom shows that more intelligent children grow up to consume more psychoactive drugs than less intelligent children.  “Very bright” individuals (with IQs above 125) are roughly 3/10ths of a standard deviation more likely to consume psychoactive drugs than “very dull” individuals (with IQs below 75).  In fact, more intelligent individuals are also more likely to consume alcohol and tobacco.

“What could define God [is a conception of divinity] as the embodiment of the laws of nature.  However, this is not what most people would think of as God,” Stephen Hawking told interviewer Diane Sawyer.  “They made a human-like being with whom one can have a personal relationship.  When you look at the vast size of the universe and how insignificant an accidental human life is in it, that seems most impossible.”  Hawking’s latest book, The Grand Design, challenges Isaac Newton’s theory that the solar system could not have been created without God.  “Because there is a law such as gravity, the Universe can and will create itself from nothing.  Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the Universe exists, why we exist.  It is not necessary to invoke God to set the Universe going,” he writes.  In another interview, Hawking stated, “I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail.  There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.”

A priest gives a sermon on the inevitability of death.  He intones, “Every member of this parish is going to die, some of you sooner rather than later.”
An old man quakes with laughter in the front pew.  The priest demands to know what’s so funny.  The old man says, “I’m not a member of this parish!”

If Your Daddy Likes Physics…

From The New Yorker via Tywkiwdbi.