Weird science facts, June 20-July 03

(by skullsinthestars) Sep 15 2010

The Twitter #weirdscifacts from June 20 – July 03 are below the fold!

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Vote for kitty Sasha!

(by skullsinthestars) Sep 14 2010

I can't resist doing a mini-bleg: vote for our kitty Sasha as cutest pet in the American Express Cutest Pet Photo Contest! The pic you're looking for is:

Voting runs to 10/1/2010, and you can vote every day for Sasha! We're way behind (I'm pretty sure folks are gaming the system), but the benefits of winning aren't trivial -- we could win a $2000 gift card.

The only catch is that they ask for an email on first voting. They aren't verifying emails, however, so you can put pretty much anything in to thwart future correspondence. You will lose out on a chance for a $375 gift card if you don't use your own email, though.

At this point, it's partly about pride for me -- Sasha is way cuter than some of those other animals, and deserves more votes!

(Okay, I'm done begging -- back to science blogging!)

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ResearchBlogging editor's selections: wee beer beasties, war mathematics, guillotines for snow, and nematode bomb sniffers

(by skullsinthestars) Sep 13 2010

skyskull "Dr. SkySkull" selects several notable posts each week from a miscellany of categories. He blogs at Skulls in the Stars.

  • Spontaneous fermentation: the role of microorganisms in beer. The brewing of beer by necessity employs the action of microorganisms, specifically yeast. In the past, however, when the concoctions were not prepared in a sterile environment, other wee beasties could infiltrate the mix, including antibiotic-forming bacteria! In a fascinating post, Katie Kline of EcoTone discusses early brewing processes and their contaminants, both good and bad.
  • The mathematics of war. War might seem like the last place for a mathematician, but Aimee of misc.ience discusses recent research done using "open source intelligence" -- and some counter-intuitive conclusions that are drawn from it!
  • Snow, water, digital imaging, metamorphism…and a guillotine! How does a geoscientist measure the dissolution/melting and precipitation/freezing of water in a thick layer of snow? By using a guillotine, of course! Anne Jefferson of Highly Allochtonous discusses this unusual-sounding technique.
  • Detecting explosives with nematodes. Nematodes -- which include the creatures that cause heartworm in dogs -- are just plain icky. As Michael Long of Phased explains, however, they may play a future role in bomb detection technology!

Check back next week for more miscellaneous suggestions!

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Kitty fostering success!

(by skullsinthestars) Sep 12 2010

Almost two weeks ago, I noted the arrival of two foster kitties in our home: Brewster and Breyer!  Well, I'm happy to say that we dropped them off at their new hopefully "forever home" this evening!

This was all done with the help of (and helping) Terry who runs F.U.R.R. — Feline Urgent Rescue and Rehabilitation.  We'll almost certainly be fostering some more cats in the near future, and I'll keep folks posted on events as they progress.

In the meantime, here are some final shots of Brewster and Breyer, so I can remember how sweet they are!

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Whittaker breaks the irony meter (1910/1953)

(by skullsinthestars) Sep 11 2010

I'm currently working my way through E.T. Whittaker's monumental A History of the Theories of Aether and Electricity (1910), among other things.  Whittaker's book is a very comprehensive study of electricity and aether that stretches back from the seventeenth century up to the beginning of the twentieth, and it really is excellent -- I've already learned a lot, and am only 20 pages into it!  (I loved a fascinating tidbit about the first experimental measurement of magnetic field lines, demonstrating the poles of the magnet -- I'll come back to this in a future post.)

However, as I've blogged about previously, there is one glaring weakness in Whittaker's treatment.  In his second volume of the 'History, released in 1953,  he almost completely discounted Einstein's contribution to the theory of special relativity!  While discussing the "relativity theory of Poincaré and Lorentz," his primary statement regarding Einstein's work is:

In the autumn of the same year, in the same volume of the Annalen der Physik as his paper on the Brownian motion, Einstein published a paper which set forth the relativity theory of Poincaré and Lorentz with some amplifications, and which attracted much attention.

Whittaker is much more generous towards Einstein's general theory of relativity, and gives him the credit, but his dismissal of Einstein's contribution to special relativity is puzzling.  I've speculated that Whittaker was perhaps a bit miffed that his life's work on the aether was made obsolete in 1905 by Einstein before it was even published; it may also be that Whittaker genuinely didn't completely grasp the philosophical implications of Einstein's contribution.

So what is the irony in this?

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R.W. Wood's lecture demonstrations (1897-1905)

(by skullsinthestars) Sep 10 2010

With all the concerted efforts into popularizing science that goes on these days, it is quite easy to forget that some of the best scientists throughout history put a lot of effort into making their knowledge accessible both to students of  the arts and laypeople alike.  Physicists in particular are often viewed as "keepers of secret knowledge" who study phenomena outside the ken of mortals and who are unwilling or unable to make this knowledge accessible to others.

A perfect counterexample to this perception is the great physicist Michael Faraday (1791-1867) , who over the course of many years presented the Christmas Lectures at the Royal Institution,  targeted at nonspecialists and young people.  Two of these lectures, "The Forces of Matter" and "The Chemical History of a Candle", have been reprinted and are still available today; I will be blogging about them in detail in the near future (hopefully). Faraday in fact put much effort and thought into his public presentations; long before he was a recognized scientist and had any opportunity to speak to an audience, he observed other lecturers and took elaborate notes on the "do's" and "don't's" of lecturing.

Another example of a distinguished scientist working very hard on presentation is Robert Williams Wood (1868-1955).  Wood is best known today for his work in optics, particularly in the study of infrared and ultraviolet light.  As we have seen previously on this blog, however, Wood was also active in popularizing science: he co-authored two science fiction novels, The Man Who Rocked the Earth (1915) and The Moon Maker (1916).  He also was quite skilled at setting up simple demonstrations of optical effects; I've previously discussed his 1902 illustration of a simple form of invisibility.   Between the years 1897 and 1905, Wood in fact published a number of short articles suggesting simple lecture hall demonstrations of a variety of physical phenomena; in this post, we'll take a short look at these demonstrations.

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5 days until The Giant's Shoulders #27!

(by skullsinthestars) Sep 10 2010

There’s only 11 days left before the deadline of the next edition of The Giant’s Shoulders history of science blog carnival!  It will be held at Entertaining Research, and the deadline for entries is September 15th.  Entries can be submitted through or directly to the host blog, as usual!

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Weird science facts, June 6-June 19

(by skullsinthestars) Sep 08 2010

The Twitter #weirdscifacts from June 06 – June 19 are below the fold!

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Making molecular motors (video)

(by skullsinthestars) Sep 07 2010

My friend and colleague, Dr. Charles Sykes of Tufts University, recently sent me a link to an  interesting video his research group has put together!  Dr. Sykes' group has been studying the behavior of complex molecules on surfaces at low temperatures.  They use scanning tunneling microscopy to image and interact with the molecules on the surface, with the ultimate goal of making nanoscale machines, i.e. machines consisting of a single molecule!

Their research video describes the techniques, science, and challenges in developing such molecular motors:

Let me know what you think of the video, or contact the Sykes group directly!

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ResearchBlogging editor's selections: age of the Earth, hacking quantum cryptography, American camels and free kick physics

(by skullsinthestars) Sep 06 2010

skyskull "Dr. SkySkull" selects several notable posts each week from a miscellany of categories. He blogs at Skulls in the Stars.

  • When a few million years don't mean much... Recent investigations have revised scientific estimates of the age of the Earth by several million years! Greg Fish at weird things explains the nature of the revision and reassures us that, although important, it doesn't indicate major problems in our understanding of Earth's history.
  • Hacking commercial quantum cryptography systems by illumination. "Quantum cryptography" has been much touted as a "near perfect" system for secure communications, using the laws of quantum mechanics to make any attempt to eavesdrop immediately detectable. However, recent research has shown that existing systems can be hacked by the judicious application of a bright, classical light source! Olexandr Isayev at explains the strategy, and how its discovery will actually help produce more secure cryptographic systems in the future.
  • Dirty browsers -- determining a menu for North America's fossil camels. Starting with the fascinating history of the U.S.'s attempt to use camels as military animals, Brian Switek of his eponymous blog segues into a look at the fossil remains of America's own native camel species.
  • Free kick physics, Roberto Carlos style. The 1997 winning free kick of Roberto Carlos in soccer is legendary, but nobody knew how it was actually possible! Michael Gutbrod of A Scientific Nature explains how such amazing curved shots have been shown experimentally to be a consequence of the Magnus effect.

Check back next week for more "miscellaneous" suggestions!

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