Archive for: September, 2008

Physics, guitars and pitch harmonics

Sep 30 2008 Published by under Physics

One of the fun parts about being a scientist is running across "day-to-day" phenomena which can be understood much better using a little bit of one's knowledge.  One of these I've had bouncing around in my head for a while: the idea of 'pitch harmonics' on guitar.

I started playing the guitar about a year and a half ago on a whim.  Deciding that I spent too many evenings in front of the television doing nothing, I marched into the local music store and declared that I wanted to learn guitar, and needed the works: guitar, case, and lessons!  I have a really excellent instructor named Toby, and my knowledge of guitar has increased rapidly, if not my technique.

Anyway, what is a pitch harmonic?  Here's a short audio clip of me playing the first few notes from Pearl Jam's Jeremy (an .mp3 file):

If you can get past the quality of the guitar playing, you'll notice that the last two notes of the riff have a completely distinct sound from the first few.  Those are the pitch harmonics, which are played differently on the guitar from other notes.  We discuss the physics of them below the fold...

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John W. Campbell Jr.'s Who Goes There?

Sep 27 2008 Published by under Entertainment, Horror

I'll be getting back to some physics posts this week -- I promise!  In the meantime, I thought I'd step away from reading old, old classic horror of the 19th century for a bit and look to a different era: that of classic science-fiction/horror.  In the 1950s/1960s, a lot of horror movies with a science-fiction slant to them appeared in theaters.  Many people are aware of these classics -- The Thing From Another World, The Day of The Triffids, The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, for instance -- but not as many people may be aware that each of these is based on an original written story.

I recently finished reading the 70-page novella by John W. Campbell Jr., Who Goes There? (1938), and I thought I'd share my impressions about it, as well as its relationship to the two movies based upon it, below.

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Pictures of gas crisis in Soviet Carolinastan!

Sep 26 2008 Published by under ... the Hell?

Yesterday I complained about the gas shortage that's hitting parts of the southeast, including the western Carolinas, really hard.  The Colonial Pipeline which provides the area with fuel has been operating at severely reduced capacity, because the refineries which feed it were shut down by the double-whammy of Gustav and Ike, and have been taking a looooooong time to get restarted.  The result has been gas stations with no gas and lines which, according to a German colleague of mine, are reminiscent of Soviet East Germany.

Today a major emergency shipment came into the region from refineries in the Atlantic, but since most people were running almost on empty this has still resulted in long lines.  I finally ventured out today and got myself into a reasonably short gas line -- only 20 cars ahead of me -- and managed to fill up.  I took a couple of cellphone pictures to give a feel for the fun...

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'Fusion Man' tools across the Channel

Sep 26 2008 Published by under Sports

I've previously mentioned the exploits of Yves Rossy, aka "Fusion Man", a daredevil who had successfully built and tested a jet-powered wing.  Now, according to CNN, Rossy has taken a flight across the English Channel!  The 22-mile flight from Calais to Dover took less than 15 minutes to accomplish.  Information about Rossy and his wing can be found at his official website.

The National Geographic Channel will be airing a special on the flight tonight.

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Obama earns the crucial "Nobel Laureates in Science" demographic

Sep 25 2008 Published by under Science news

Via ERV, I learn that a collection of 61 American Nobel Laureates in Science have gotten together to wholeheartedly endorse Barack Obama.  Their "Open Letter to the American People" can be read here.

It's an impressive list.  It is noted at the link that this is group is larger than the groups which endorsed Kerry and Gore.  And, just to give you a taste of the accomplishments of the authors, from my physics perspective:

  • Charles H. Townes (Physics, 1964): "for fundamental work in the field of quantum electronics, which has led to the construction of oscillators and amplifiers based on the maser-laser principle"
  • Leon Neil Cooper (Physics, 1972): "for their jointly developed theory of superconductivity, usually called the BCS-theory"
  • Nicolaas Bloembergen (Physics, 1981): "for their contribution to the development of laser spectroscopy"
  • Robert Wilson (Physics, 1978): "for their discovery of cosmic microwave background radiation"

The Boston Globe mentions the endorsement here, which seems to have been otherwise lost in the hysterical reporting on McCain's disingenuous "break".

This unprecedented support is not surprising; as Tom at Swans on Tea noted, McCain has already apparently declared a desire to freeze research funding until the politicians can bring their infinite wisdom to bear on the worthiness of the research.

A little name-dropping: the two Nobel winners I've personally met (very briefly) are on the list: Leon Lederman and James Cronin.  I was not surprised at all to see Lederman on the list; he's generally awesome.

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Stations, stations everywhere, but not a drop of gas

Sep 25 2008 Published by under ... the Hell?

I've been a little distracted from blogging for the past week by the gas crisis that has settled slowly but inexorably over the region.  Parts of the southeast have been in the midst of a massive gas shortage since Hurricane Ike shut down the refineries which supply it more than a week ago.  Only a trickle of fuel is entering the region now, and it is being rationed amongst various stations.  A station which gets gas gets half-mile-long lines along with it, and a new supply can sell out within hours.  A report from Charlotte, NC on the situation can be read here.  The frightening thing is that nobody seems to know for sure when things will return to at least a semblance of normalcy: a day?  two days?  a week?

Fortunately, I only teach one day a week, so I've been working from home most days to conserve gas.  I also drive a hybrid Civic (purchased with some foresight on my part in 2004), and am able to get farther on a tank than most people.  Even that, though, is running low.  If this crisis continues for a few more days, I think cities in the region are going to start looking a bit like ghost towns.

I'm a little baffled by the fact that a smaller version of this event happened in 2005, when Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast.  One would think that officials would have seen the possibility of an even more severe disruption and taken steps to diversify the gas supply.

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James Malcolm Rymer's Varney the Vampire

Sep 24 2008 Published by under Horror

One of the reasons I enjoy writing this blog is that it gives me an excuse to hunt down and read obscure horror classics that were nonetheless highly influential on the genre.  Last night I finished reading such a classic that I've been eager to read for years, James Malcolm Rymer's Varney the Vampire (1845):

"Varney" is perhaps the greatest example of the 'Penny Dreadful' publications of 19th century Britain.  It was originally released as a weekly serial, and the complete version was later printed in one complete volume in 1847.  Until recently, the only way that a reader could enjoy Varney's exploits was through poor quality photoreproductions of the original volume.  In 2007, Zittaw Press released the first new, retypeset version of the story, edited and annotated by über-scholar Curt Herr of Kutztown University.  The new edition corrects typesetting and spelling errors (as much as is humanly possible), includes a detailed introduction, explanatory footnotes, reproductions of original illustrations, and additional analysis and examples of penny dreadfuls at the end of the volume.

I give a discussion of penny dreadfuls, and my thoughts on Varney and its influence on vampire lore, below the fold.

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Ebert writes a mean 'Poe'

Sep 23 2008 Published by under ... the Hell?

A few days ago, it was noted that Roger Ebert had posted an article titled, "Creationism: Your questions answered".  The article gives a straight-faced accounting of creationist beliefs, which was somewhat shocking to many fans who were familiar with Ebert's long agnosticism and support of evolution.  The curious article was noted in many places, including Pharyngula, sparked an intense debate: was Ebert writing satire?  had his website been hacked?  was he losing his mind?

Ebert himself has answered the question in a blog post: it was a satirical piece.  One of the clues, which I hadn't quite understood when I read it, was the retitling of his Adaptation review with, "Evolution is God's intelligent design."  The post was a demonstration of Poe's law in action.

What was the point?  If I understand Ebert correctly, it was a test/demonstration of the too-ready credulity of people these days.  I'm not sure it was quite the right test: people of all ages, even scientists, have been known to start believing crazy and weird things without much provocation.

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Meeting the Scibloggers...

Sep 20 2008 Published by under Personal

The fiancée and I just returned this afternoon from attending the NC Scienceblogs celebration in honor of the millionth scienceblogs comment!  We spent a nice afternoon at the Asheboro Zoo with a great collection of people, including Coturnix, Dave and Greta Munger, SciCurious, Kevin Zelnio, Sciencewoman and plenty of others!  It was nice meeting everyone in person for the first time, and hopefully I'll run into them again soon, possibly at ScienceOnline '09!

I was so happy to chat with everyone, I only got a few pictures!

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Edward Bulwer-Lytton's The Last Days of Pompeii

Sep 19 2008 Published by under Horror, Mystery/thriller

One of the fun things about blogging about both science and horror fiction is the unusual connections that one can find between them.  On of my favorite science topics outside of physics is vulcanology, which is why I read blogs like Magma Cum Laude.

Recently, I happened across a very nice book by J.Z. de Boer and D.T. Sanders, Volcanoes in Human History.  In short, it looks at the major volcanic eruptions with a focus on their impact on human events.  Perhaps the most famed of these events is the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 C.E., which resulted in the destruction of Pompeii.  What especially caught my eye, though, was the following comment,

Among the earliest books about the catastrophe of 79 C.E. is The Last Days of Pompeii, a novel published to popular acclaim in 1834 by the English writer Edward Bulwer-Lytton.  Though overly sentimental and melodramatic for modern tastes, it presents a fascinating glimpse of Pompeiian life in the first century and a vivid picutre of what it must have been like when the earth shook, walls tumbled, and ash and lapilli rained down upon the city, turning day into night.

Emphasis mine.  To a horror fiction fan, Bulwer-Lytton is known as the author of one of the greatest haunted house stories ever written, The Haunted and the Haunters: Or the House and the Brain.  Of Bulwer-Lytton, H.P.  Lovecraft had the following to say in his essay Supernatural Horror in Literature:

At this time a wave of interest in spiritualistic charlatanry, mediumism, Hindoo theosophy, and such matters, much like that of the present day, was flourishing; so that the number of weird tales with a "Psychic" or pseudo-scientific basis became very considerable. For a number of these the prolific and popular Edward Bulwer-Lytton was responsible; and despite the large doses of turgid rhetoric and empty romanticism in his products, his success in the weaving of a certain kind of bizarre charm cannot be denied.

The House and the Brain, which hints of Rosicrucianism and at a malign and deathless figure perhaps suggested by Louis XV's mysterious courtier St. Germain, yet survives as one of the best short haunted-house tales ever written.

In light of this, I thought I would take a look at the 'other side' of Bulwer-Lytton, and read his most famous romance, The Last Days of Pompeii (1834).

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