(non)focal points

Welcome to Cocktail Party Physics: The ADD Edition! It’s three days before the Big Day, you see, and while everything is in place and running smoothly, I’m finding it very difficult to focus on much of anything, including writing those pesky wedding vows which remain half-finished. It’s about to get even harder to concentrate as friends and family begin to arrive in droves to join in the nuptial festivities. (Jen-Luc Piquant is completely frazzled, having organized her own massive Cyber-Celebration in honor of her continued singlet state — which seems to involve subversive satirizing of traditional wedding conventions.) Needless to say, we will be on hiatus for the next 10 days — or rather, we’re resorting to reruns: I’ve scheduled a few of my earlier posts to appear (duly marked as such) next week, for those readers who might have missed them the first time around — or completely forgotten they’d ever read them in the first place.

In the meantime, it seemed like a great opportunity to do a bit of housekeeping in the form of emptying out the burgeoning blog fodder file: all those quirky little items I clipped for future reference that somehow never really made it into a bona fide post… until now! So, here are the things I would blog about, if only I had the time:

Gorey Gets Animated! I’m an unabashed fan of the late Edward Gorey, particularly The Gashleycrumb Tinies: his version of an ABCs alphabet book in which 26 children meet horrific fates. My personal favorite? "N is for Neville…" So imagine how thrilled I was when  my pal Lee Kottner (occasional guest blogger at the cocktail party) forwarded me a link to  Book Patrol’s post on an animated Gashleycrumb Tinies.  I’m sure I could find a science angle somewhere were I not so distracted these days.N

Why Cats Purr. Feline purring is quite possibly the world’ most pleasant sound, delivered via a warm, furry body, but it’s not necessarily just a sound of kitty contentment. Cats also purr while giving birth or when they’re seriously injured, and now Fauna Communications and a sensor manufacturing company called ENDEVCO have decided to resolve the matter once and for all with a novel study. They recorded the purrs of a domestic cat, a cheetah, a puma, a serval and an ocelot to determine whether the "vibrational stimulation" (their words) might have a therapeutic effect that assists cats in self-healing. (Interesting factoid: the record for a cat surviving a high-rise fall is a whopping 45 stories!)

The researchers hooked the animals up (via adhesion) to tiny accelerometers, weighing just 0.14 grams, gave the comfy blankets, and occasionally petted them to encourage purring (Jen-Luc would dearly love to pet a cheetah). And they found that all of them had purr frequencies that fell within the range of low frequencies associated with various therapeutic effects. I doubt this is the final word on the subject, but it’s certainly an intriguing theory — one that I have no time to investigate any further, alas.

What To Do About Those Filthy Frescoes. Way back on September 3, New Scientist ran a fascinating article on the use of nanomagnetic sponges to restore dirty (yet priceless) frescoes by a team of Italian scientists. Basically, they smear the surface with a polymer gel containing cobalt and iron oxide nanoparticles, the presence of which forms cavities that are filled with microemulsions to dissolve dirt on contact. Gel-based systems have been used in the past but they can be sticky and tough to remove — you don’t want to be using solvent-based paint thinners or scrape away at priceless antiquities, after all. That’s the beauty of the nanomagnetic sponge: you just wave a bar magnet over the surface after cleaning to remove the gel — no need to touch the artwork’s surface at all. This would be a great springboard for a broader post on the history and future of nanoparticles and their useful applications… but it is not to be.

Why Curly Hair is Better. Also earlier this month, Physics New Update described a paper in the August issue of the American Journal of Physics about a new study of the properties of various types of human hair. Now there’s a topic near and dear to my imperfectly coiffed head. The researchers "consulted with hairdressers and got them to count the tangles in people’s hair," then analyzed curly and straight varieties using a "geometrical model" that attempts to explain the results — curly hair has fewer tangles than straight hair — mathematically. It’s a fun topic with ties to our everyday experience, plus it could prove useful in designing better Velcro-like products. Alas, I have not world enough and time; fortunately, the folks at PhysicsBuzz and Peter Steinberg of Entropy Bound had just enough of both to produce short blog posts about it.

Missing the Whole Point of Bicycling. Via the Los Angeles Times comes word of a hot new electric bicycle, called the Pi, that its manufacturer, Electrobike, called "the world’s fastest hairdryer," even though its motor has about half the wattage of a hair dryer. (Translation: my hair dryer can beat it!) Technically, Pi is a hybrid: a traditional bike combined with a motor-driven capability for when you’re just to lazy to pump your way manually up a steep heel. Pansies.  Lance Armstrong would never stand for such a thing. That’s the whole point of bicycling: to get a bit of exercise, maybe even work up a bit of sweat. Your reward for chugging up a hill? Coasting down the other side of a steep hill and seeing just how fast you can go. It’s all the sweeter if you suffer a little first. Although we must admit: Pi sure is purty… Check out the video accompanying the article. The fact that the Pi is only available exclusively through Design Within Reach should only make it even more attractive to would-be hipsters who want the appearance of healthy exercise without all that unsightly sweat.32796356

Spelunking on Mars. On Monday, I received a press release from Arizona State University in Tempe, announcing that a heat-sensitive camera it designed for NASA’s Mars Odyssey orbiter has helped Martian geologists (geologists who study the planet, not those who are, themselves, Martians) find what appear to be cave skylights on the sides of a giant volcano called Arsia Mons. It’s the temperature data collected by the Thermal Emission Imaging System (THEMIS) that proved crucial to differentiating these seven small circular holes from the usual run-of-the mill craters ad volcanic vents that litter the Red Planet. The new holes are warm at night, but cool by day, indicating they may be skylights in the ceiling of underground caves. That’s the working theory, at least, and the researchers think the holes formed because faults created stresses, opening up spaces underground. Alien abductees would probably speculate that the holes are literally skylights, built as an energy-saving measure by underground Martian lifeforms.

Meteorite Madness. Meteorites occasionally do hit the Earth, with varying degrees of accompanying drama, but it’s always pf passing interest, because few such objects from outer space make it all the way to the Earth’s surface — they usually burn up in the atmosphere. In Peru, a meteor strike earlier this month led to a bit of melodrama: (a) several residents feared that the loud explosion was an indication that the Chileans — Peru’s chief rival — were attacking, and (b) even once they realized it was a meteor, many villagers in Carancas (the area where the meteorite landed) became convinced they were being poisoned by cosmic radiation, leading a widespread complaints of headaches and nausea. The health department chief in nearby Puno dismissed those claims as "a collective psychosis," but authorities took soil and water samples near the crater just to be on the safe side. One of these days I’ll get around to writing about meteors, meteorites (I still get them confused), comets, asteroids, and such, but today is not that day. (heavy sigh)

Imaginary Physicist. Sabine of Backreaction made my week with her clever series of photos musing on Max Tegmark’s latest out-there (and vaguely Po-Mo) theories about the universe as a mathematical structure. Check it out. Future Spouse had to explain the technical joke at the very end, but it’s quite funny even if you don’t quite grasp the punchline — just for Bee’s wonderfully expressive face. Bub5m

The Science of Foodstuffs. And Drinkstuffs. Shelley Batts of Retrospectacle is featuring a series of entertaining posts on the science behind Japanese delicacies such as fugu (the poisonous blowfish) and sake (staple of fine sushi restaurants everywhere). We love that sort of thing — check out the sidebar — and Shelley’s series reminded me that I’d meant to write something about mixology after reading this short item on the ABC (Australian broadcasting) Website on whether there’s a difference between a martini that’s been shaken, not stirred. The original paper is here.

It seems to be all about the antioxidants, in this case, but I think the physicists could weigh in at some point on the actual properties of the drink itself down at the molecular level. Any takers? Future Spouse volunteers as a taste tester — the martini is his drink of choice. Although he’d be appalled by this recipe for a green tea citrus martini. I liked it when I tasted one, although I vastly prefer a classic sidecar. To win me over to the more manly side of alcoholism, Future Spouse sent me this article in the San Francisco Chronicle arguing in favor of the Manhattan, similar to the sidecar but (he maintains) vastly superior. I remain unconvinced. I like me my fruity girly drinks.

The Power of the Katana. Hiro, my favorite character on Heroes, acquires an ancient Japanese sword in Season 1, which he uses to fulfill his destiny in the final showdown against Sylar. (Don’t watch the show? For shame!) You might think such a weapon would be well-nigh useless in the modern age of guns and such, but this video — courtesy of the Wired blog — shows just how powerful a katana can be against a high-speed bullet. If the only TV you deign to watch is PBS, be sure to check out the debut of Wired Science on Wednesday, October 3. We’ll be honeymooning in Los Cabos, and thus will most likely miss the first episode, but host Adam Rogers graciously sent me a preview DVD, and the show’s terrific. I’ll definitely be tuning in upon my return.

And finally, given the pending nuptials on Saturday, it seemed appropriate to head over to the Madlibs poem generator, where you can insert various words and the computer turns it into an actual, albeit nonsensical, poem. (Future Spouse nixed the idea of including one in the vows. Wise man.) The one below is actually a combination of two attempts, since, well, results may vary. Enjoy! And remember: the original two poems were far, far worse…

This night I shall dream of your bedazzling crimson hair and fox-eyes.
In my dreams, we fly on the exquisite winged arugula of cobaltness —
skimming vast continents of eyelashes and koalas.
Your skin glows like the mango,
blossoms mottled as the orchid in the purest hope of spring.
My heart follows your lute voice and leaps like a jaguar at the whisper of your name.
The evening floats in on a great sparrow wing.
I am comforted by your beret that I carry into the twilight of bicycle beams
and hold next to my ankle in the darkness.
I am filled with hope that I may dry your tears of wine.
In the quiet, I listen for the last purr of the day.
I wait in the moonlight for your secret bouquet,
in search of the magnificent purple and mystical flute of love.

The End.

6 thoughts on “(non)focal points”

  1. OMG! The katana clip was so cool. And I hate to say it, but I like the madlibs poem better than Smoove B. {wink} Well, maybe except for the winged arugula and the continents of eyelashes.

  2. meteroid — is in space (like asteroid)
    meteor — is in the atmosphere, looking pretty (that’s why it’s called a meteor shower)
    meteorite — already landed (like hematite, or any other mineral -ite)
    They Might Be Giants has a wonderful song to help you remember. 😉
    A shooting star is not a star
    It’s not a star at all
    A shooting star’s a meteor
    That’s heading for a fall
    A shooting star is not a star
    Why does it shine so bright?
    The friction as it falls through air
    Produces heat and light
    A shooting star, or meteor
    Whichever name you like
    The minute it comes down to Earth
    It’s called a meteorite

  3. Heh, the unwritten vows and the impending deadline. Ten years out, I *still* remember what was remarkably like the unprepared-final-exam nightmare of showing up for the ceremony and having to wing the vows. (For the record, our officiant *insisted* that we have them ready for the rehearsal the day before, so the nightmare didn’t become a reality.)
    Y’all will do great!
    (Also, ennui? Best cause of death EVER!)

  4. Haven’t seen the clip yet (stupid office computer doesn’t have a very current edition of Flash, and I don’t have admin privileges), but apart from it’s usefulness to him as a focus, there’s another reason why Hiro would want a sword instead of a gun: his power to move through time. He can move himself and anything he’s touching at superhuman speed by bending time, but would the explosives in a bullet work properly in his altered timeframe?
    Of course, I don’t want to even contemplate all the times they violate conservation of energy in that show. “Suspend disbelief, and move along.”

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