Archive for: July, 2009

The Giant's Shoulders #13: A day at the fair!

Jul 16 2009 Published by under General science, History of science

Welcome to the 13th edition of The Giant's Shoulders, the history of science blog carnival!  This carnival marks the one year anniversary since its inception, so I thought I'd take us somewhere special and historical -- the fair! Not just a county fair, not just a state fair -- but a World's Fair! Specifically, the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition:


The Columbian Exposition holds a special place in my heart: it was the first World's Fair in Chicago,  and it was held on the very spot I spent my undergraduate years.  A number of other things made their first appearance at the Fair:  Nikola Tesla's alternating current electrical system was unveiled in its first large-scale demonstration to illuminate the fair, and the world's first Ferris Wheel was constructed there.

To celebrate the 1-year anniversary of the carnival, I've seized control of the various exhibit halls of the Columbian Exposition to present this month's carnival entries!

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15 responses so far

That's roughly a '2' with 16 zeros after it...

Jul 15 2009 Published by under ... the Hell?

Via Huffington Post, we get the following bit of banking absurdity:

A New Hampshire man says he swiped his debit card at a gas station to buy a pack of cigarettes and was charged over 23 quadrillion dollars.

Josh Muszynski (Moo-SIN'-ski) checked his account online a few hours later and saw the 17-digit number – a stunning $23,148,855,308,184,500 (twenty-three quadrillion, one hundred forty-eight trillion, eight hundred fifty-five billion, three hundred eight million, one hundred eighty-four thousand, five hundred dollars).

Muszynski says he spent two hours on the phone with Bank of America trying to sort out the string of numbers and the $15 overdraft fee.

Two immediate interpretations come to mind:

  1. Americans really have racked up a shocking amount of personal debt.
  2. The taxes on cigarettes have gone ridiculously high.

Feel free to suggest other interpretations in the comments.

I especially like the fact that he was on the phone with the bank for two hours about this.  I can just hear the service representative: "Sir, are you certain that you haven't written any 23 quadrillion dollar checks this week?"

(Unrelated news: Next Giant's Shoulders will be up tomorrow, right here!)

3 responses so far

900th skydive milestone!

Jul 12 2009 Published by under Personal, Sports

Just a short note: yesterday I made three skydives, the third of which was my 900th!

Up until the 1000th jump, skydivers tend to treat every 100th jump as a personal milestone.  Due to work, I've been jumping quite irregularly, and it's taken me two years to get from 800 to 900, but I finally made it!

There isn't usually any "formal" celebration associated with a 100 jump milestone.  Sometimes, the jumper is rewarded with an ambush of whipped cream pies to the face.  Fortunately, nobody thought to congratulate me in that manner (though I'm also simultaneously a little disappointed).

I didn't get video for the 900th: all the videographers I knew were busy doing tandem skydives.  I don't feel particularly sorry, though, because typically my 100 jump milestones have been "zoo" jumps where confusion reigned and nothing got done (except a lot of fun)!  I actually told everyone on the plane ride up: "Just relax and have fun, and don't worry about screwing up my 900th jump, because my 800th and 700th were disasters and I still enjoyed them."  And I wasn't wrong -- chaos reigned on the 900th, and it was still fun!

Now I get to work towards my 1000th jump.  I'll definitely get some sort of video for that occasion!

3 responses so far

Lord Rayleigh vs. the Aether! (1902)

Jul 09 2009 Published by under History of science, Optics, Relativity

(Note: This is an attempt to get myself rolling on my long-ignored series of posts explaining Einstein's theories of relativity.  It's also a really cool experiment in the history of science.)

One of the most fascinating aspects of 19th century physics is that many remarkable ideas and ingenious experiments were motivated by a physical hypothesis which we now know to be incorrect: namely, the aether.   When light was demonstrated to have wavelike properties in the early 1800s, it was natural to reason that, like other types of waves, light must result from the excitation of some medium:  after all, water waves arise from the oscillations of water, sound waves arise from the oscillation of air, and string vibrations are of course the oscillations of string.  The hypothetical medium which carries light vibrations was dubbed the "aether", due to its unknown, "aetherial" nature.

A lot of scientists speculated on the physical properties of the aether, and sometimes this speculation produced lasting results in other fields; for instance, Earnshaw's theorem was originally conceived to try and describe the forces involved in the aether's oscillation.

By the late 1800s, however, more and more research cast doubt on the very existence of the aether, notably the Michelson-Morley experiment (to be discussed below).  In response, theoreticians produced more and more "patches" to the aether theory, until at last Einstein published his special theory of relativity, which eliminated the need for an aether and in fact suggested that the idea of an aether was incompatible with the experimental evidence.

Before this happened, however, at least one brilliant researcher took up the challenge of testing one of the "patches" to the aether.  Lord Rayleigh (1842-1919), distinguished physicist and eventual Nobel Prize winner, conceived of and carried out a very clever optical experiment to see whether objects shrink in the direction of motion, a phenomenon known as length contraction.

As is often the case, even though the experiment was unsuccessful, we can still learn many useful lessons about the workings of science from it!

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6 responses so far

Fletcher Pratt's The Well of the Unicorn

Jul 07 2009 Published by under Fantasy fiction

Though I'm quite well read these days with respect to pulp fiction of the early 1900s, I'm much less familiar with those genres which followed, namely science fiction and fantasy.  Occasionally, however, my literary wanderings cross my path with something of the later genres, and I take a look.

Last month, I read The Well of the Unicorn (1948), by Fletcher Pratt (1897-1956).  A colorful image of the 3rd Ballantyne edition is pictured below, though I read a more recent edition:


The novel is definitely a groundbreaking work: Pratt developed an entire fictional fantasy world and history, and it appeared before Tolkien published The Lord of the Rings (1954-1955), though not before The Hobbit (1937).   But is it as memorable?

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3 responses so far

Hollywood: Now officially out of ideas

Jul 06 2009 Published by under ... the Hell?, Entertainment

Okay, now I think we can make this official:  Hollywood is completely out of novel ideas.  We started to suspect that this was the case when they started remaking very old classics such as King Kong, but at least there was an argument that those older films could use a high-tech facelift.  Then they started remaking classic films which were nearly perfect, such at The Haunting and The Day the Earth Stood Still, and completely botched them.   When Hollywood's favorite muse became the videogame industry, one might be forgiven for assuming they had run out of ideas then.

But no, July 2009, is the official month the movie industry ran out of ideas.  From IMDB:

Classic 1980s computer game Asteroids is crashing onto the big screen - the arcade hit is set for a Hollywood movie makeover.

Universal Pictures bosses have snapped up the rights to make a film out of Asteroids, and are said to have given G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra director Lorenzo Di Bonaventura the job of breathing life into the project.

If you'd like to see an image of the project they're "breathing life" into, look no further:

Asteroi1Yeesh... one hopes that this is some sort of surreal joke...

16 responses so far

Some musings on negative refraction

Jul 04 2009 Published by under Optics

For a part of this past week I was at a workshop in California, and a lot of excellent theoretical and experimental researchers of metamaterials were present.  One of the points stressed by many of them is the difference between the idea of 'negative refraction' and a 'negative refractive index'.  I had been vaguely aware of the issue, but it was really driven home by some of the discussion.  I thought I'd share my musings on the subject in a post.

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8 responses so far

12 days until The Giant's Shoulders #13!

Jul 03 2009 Published by under General science, Science news

This July 4th, if you're celebrating the history of the United States, why not celebrate some history of science as well?  There's 12 days left until the deadline for The Giant's Shoulders #13, which is the first anniversary edition of the carnival, to be hosted right here.  Let's make this one extra-special and get a lot of great entries submitted!

2 responses so far

"Depression" isn't just feeling bad

Jul 01 2009 Published by under Health

There's been a healthy amount of discussion on the science blogs over the past few days about clinical depression, spurred on in large part by questions from aspiring academics concerning the best way to address the impact of their illness on their job and, just as important, their advisor's perception of that job.  Dr. Isis seems to have started the current ball rolling with a question from a postdoc, PalMD posted another reader's experience as a grad student dealing with depression, and Mark Chu-Carroll updated an old post concerning his own struggles with depression.  (If you search through the comments on the original post, you can read one of my very first blog comments, long before I had a blog of my own.)

I feel I should throw my own personal experiences in here.  I've been on antidepressants myself since graduate school.  I make no secret of it to anyone anymore, though I haven't talked about it that much on the blog, except in one early post about the unjustified stigma that antidepressant drugs have. Continue Reading »

5 responses so far

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