friday fodder #12

FrazzledJen-Luc It's been a deadline-centric week so blogging has been light, with only the occasional foray into interesting things on the internet. For instance, Jen-Luc Piquant was tres desole to learn from the folks at Jezebel that caffeine-infused leggings won't make her ass get smaller; it's back to the Cyber-Elliptical for her! But we were thrilled to discover, via Isis the Scientist, that there is an entire blog devoted to a Jell-O Shots Test Kitchen. Also? Technology Review will be having an entire special issue devoted to science fiction stories — we can't wait! But there were also more substantive bloggy items as well; we offer a sampling below for your weekend perusal.

Don't Toss Out Your Cell Phone Yet! It's baaack! The specter of cancer-causing cell phones! Folks are freaking out again over WHO's latest public service announcement regarding evidence for a correlation between cell phone use and brain cancer. Bear in mind that WHO is not making the claim that cell phones cause cancer; it knows full well that correlation is different than causation, and the biological and epidemiological evidence just doesn't meet (yet) the standard of causation — unlike, say, smoking and cancer, where the link is very well established. Sadly, this distinction is being lost in much of the media coverage and public response. Orac lays it all out for you here and he's pretty fair as well as respectfully insolent; for a less personal take on the actual data, check out Ed Yong's piece at Cancer Research UK.

When Physics Gets Counter-Intuitive, Part I. Scientific American continues to pump out well-written, thought-provoking guest blog posts on fascinating topics, and this week they featured physicist Vlatko Vedral describing his latest research into a counterintuitive conundrum of quantum mechanics that appears to violate a principle (if not an actual law) of thermodynamics:

"Everyone who has ever worked with a computer knows that they get hotter the more we use them. Physicist Rolf Landauer argued that this needs to be so, elevating the observation to the level of a principle. The principle states that in order to erase one bit of information, we need to increase the entropy of the environment by at least as much. In other words we need to dissipate at least one bit of heat into the environment (which is just equal to the bit of entropy times the temperature of the environment)…. Our new paper argues that in quantum physics, you can, in fact, erase information and cool the environment at the same time. For many physicists, this is tantamount to saying that perpetual motion is possible! What makes it possible is entanglement…."

When Physics Gets Counter-Intuitive, Part II. Over at Skulls in the Stars, Dr. SkySkull regales us with two related posts on the weirdness of water and the "Mpemba effect": namely, that under just the right circumstances, hot water can freeze faster than cold water. Per the Good Doctor: "In 1963, a Tanzanian secondary school student named Erasto Mpemba noticed that hot ice cream mix froze faster than cold ice cream mix.  He pointed this out to a visiting physics lecturer, and the two published their experimental observations in 1969." It's weird, and it's not entirely understood, which makes for some fascinating reading.

Dexter3-blood-744449 The Physics of Blood Spatter. Via io9, we learned that physicists at Washington State University got all C.S.I. in the lab to investigate patterns that might indicate the exact height of the blood-spurting wound. And they did it with a couple of boards, some string, Ashanti chicken wing sauce and Ivory dish soap (the latter two ingredients were combined to get just the right consistency for the test droplets). Dexter would be so proud.

Truth is Stranger Than Webcomics. So, I'm assuming you all read Zach Weiner's Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal regularly, so you saw this comic about how George de Hevesy used "aqua regia" to melt down Max von Laue's Nobel Prize medal during World War II to protect the gold from the invading Nazi hordes. But did you know it was a true story? I didn't! Fortunately, The Stray World was on the case and gives you the backstory, along with a nifty demo video for good measure.

The Natural Science of E.B. White. So, my pal Michael Sims has a new book out, The Story of Charlotte's Web, exploring the biographical back story to this childhood classic. And he's also written a fascinating article in the Chronicle of Higher Education about White's attitude towards animals and nature, which was far more nuanced than many critics have assumed to date. Sure, he could make a young child weep over Charlotte's inevitable demise, as if one had lost a true friend; but he wasn't prone to cheap sentimentality either (hence the power of his famous novel). Michael makes a strong case, and also delves into White's realization that science and fiction/storytelling do, in fact, make excellent bedfellows:

In writing Charlotte's Web, White developed much of his fanciful, empathetic story from what might seem the least likely direction—natural science. After watching a real-life spider spin an egg sac above his barn doorway, he determined a likely species for her so that he might learn her characteristics. Turning to scientific sources, both recent and antique, he carefully researched the life cycle of spiders: how they spin orb webs and egg sacs, how they trap prey and lay eggs, how in the spring the spiderlings balloon and disperse on filaments of web. "I discovered, quite by accident," he wrote, "that reality and fantasy make good bedfellows."

From the first, his scientific research and his whimsical imagination encouraged each other. He envisioned Charlotte performing certain actions in her web, such as writing letters that showed up well enough for people to see, and immediately he turned to scientists to learn by what chemistry and acrobatics she might accomplish what he had in mind. He pounced on an unexpected tidbit of information in a source book, such as the detail that stream-side spiders have been known to catch small leaping fish in their webs, and soon Charlotte was retailing these facts as anecdotes about her extraordinary family.

Double the Fun With Rube Goldberg Devices. Some folks are trying to raise money via Kickstarter to take their Life-Sized Recreation (a kinetic sculpture) of the popular kid's game, Mouse Trap, on the road in all its Rube Goldberg-ery goodness:


And because you can never have too much of these contraptions, we bring you (via Popular Mechanics) a video of the winners of the 24th Annual National Rube Goldberg Machine Contest held at Purdue University, who built the most complicated such device yet. To wit: "It starts with the Big Bang, re-creates the extinction of the dinosaurs, holds a jousting competition, flips over an album, and simulates World War II, a shuttle launch, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and even the alleged apocalypse in 2012. In its precisely executed review of history, "The Time Machine," a Rube Goldberg contraption built by members of the Purdue Society of Professional Engineers and Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, incorporates a record-breaking 244 steps—all to water a single flower." It's Short Attention Span Science!

Journalism Train Wreck of the Week: Finally, John Rennie has a hilarious takedown of a "news story" — Jen-Luc added the scare quotes in a pique — at the Mail Online that he has dubbed "The Alpha Cavewoman Fiasco." Granted, the Mail is an easy target, but it's always a treat to watch John whip out the Scalpel of Sarcasm. His post also has the best lead of the week: "If a news story about human evolution mentions Raquel Welch or One Million Years B.C. in the lead paragraphs, you should lower your expectations for the rest because it is shallow and hackneyed. If it mentions The Flintstones, you should probably skip the rest because it is juvenile. But if it mentions both Raquel Welch and Wilma Flintstone twice in the first six paragraphs, you should sigh with relief: because you will never read anything more stupid in the rest of your life."

1 thought on “friday fodder #12”

  1. I have a problem with the post on io9 about the physics of blood that you referenced here. It implies that these physics students have uncovered some new insight into bloodstain pattern analysis (BPA) that has evaded actual bloodstain pattern analysts for over a century. That’s right, BPA pre-dates most of the modern forensic disciplines. And the idea that you can calculate the area of origin of an impact spatter (not splatter) pattern was first published in 1939 by Dr. Victor Balthazard. Don’t misunderstand me, I think it is fantastic for physicists to be showing an interest in forensics. But, these students should also be taught to do a literature search before they devise an experiment that has already been done. In fact, this technique is taught in any basic bloodstain pattern analysis course.
    I’m also curious how buffalo sauce and soap can approximate the characteristics of blood. Bloodstain pattern analysts use a different approach when they do experiments. They use blood. Yes, real blood. Sometimes animal blood, sometimes human blood, sometimes their own blood. But, they use blood, not soapy condiments.

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